Friday 23 March 2018

Your Interest in Tom Cruise

I was recently somewhat relieved to discover that the great AI threat to humanity has been overstated. It can be fooled quite easily I realised, simply by adopting irregular and unpredictable online behaviour. Switching on my phone one morning this week I am faced with a notification for a news item tagged “your interest in Tom Cruise.” I would like to take this opportunity to categorically state that I have absolutely no interest in Tom Cruise (unless it is related in someway to the downfall of that rich white fallacy, The Church of Scientology), and it took me some time to work out how Google’s algorithms had come to the conclusion that I had any desire to know what the diminutive Hollywood prat had been up to. 

Eventually I remembered that one evening a few weeks ago, lost surfing a YouTube tangent, I had watched a video clip of Johnny Vegas being interviewed at some red carpet awards event. Now, I am willing to declare openly, here and now, that I do like Johnny Vegas. He has a brutal honesty and vulnerable openness to his comedy, and often says things that are so tragically truthful that I laugh out loud despite myself. But, standing in a line of celebrities being interviewed, who should Vegas be standing next to in the line, but pixie impossible Tom Cruise, and Vegas was saying to the woman interviewing him how she was only talking to him because she was waiting for Tom Cruise to be free. And also, I remember now, Tom Cruise was mentioned in the title of the clip.

We all know how everything we do online or on any connected device is recorded in someway and fed into an ever-growing store of knowledge with which the big internet companies make their money selling this knowledge of us to advertisers. But it is reassuring to know that they haven’t quite got it right yet. Why else would I get adverts for over 50s holidays, or endless adverts for the thing I just bought and have no need to buy another one of? It helps I guess that I am not on Facebook and have no desire to join (I’m still in the majority. Five billion of us are still not on Facebook). But I suppose it does worry me slightly that in the future our lives, when they end, may be judged by our online history. And if I continue to avoid letting Google and Facebook know who I really am, by refusing to continually feed them real knowledge of what I am really interested in, my Amazon sponsored funeral may well have a large poster of Tom Cruise hanging over the coffin. This is the nightmare future I envisage. You have been warned.

Monday 29 January 2018

A Minor Revelation

It is the evening after a day out in Manchester and I am sitting at home spending some time with the new objects I returned from my trip having purchased. I slowly turn the pages on the Callum Innes catalogue for his 2013 exhibition History held at the Whitworth Art Gallery, which the gallery were selling off cheap in a sale, whilst listening to my new Biosphere album Shenzhou, when I am struck by a minor revelation. Callum Innes is known primarily for large minimal oil paintings in a high modernist style, but this exhibition was of a series of watercolours, a medium for which Innes is not normally associated. The twenty watercolours follow the familiar style of Innes, being comprised solely of large blocks of colour, in this instance squares where two colours have been applied one on top of the other and scraped back to create a semi transparent plane. The two colours used are visible around the edges of each piece where they have not been scraped back. The series as a whole acts as an extended colour study, exploring the results of combining different pairs of colours. The title of each piece tells the colours used, for example Cobalt Blue Tone / Quinacridone Gold or Red Magenta / May Green. The Biosphere record is a 2017 vinyl reissue of a 2002 album, named after a Chinese spacecraft. Every one of the twelve tracks on Shinzhou takes as it’s starting point a small section of music by Debussey, which Geir Jenssen has removed from it’s context, looped, and put through various electronic filters and reverbs to create a series of minimal ambient sound pieces, which serve as a musician’s study of Debussey. The minor revelation was my realisation that these two art works, although made in completely different media, are the same.

Both the watercolours and the music are, to first appearances, very plain. They both follow, and do not divert from, the application of one or two simple rules. Some may describe them as quite empty. They are flat. Pick any point and compare it to any other and it may well look or sound the same. Their tone does not change across each piece’s entirety. But, upon closer inspection, both the watercolours and the music share a deep and rich texture. The more time spent with the work, and the longer one looks, or the deeper one listens, the richer and more subtly diverse the texture becomes. This revelation of the similarities between these two art works led to another revelation about my own taste when it comes to art, music, books, film, culture generally, and even perhaps people. I don’t like work that shouts, or demands attention, which unfortunately is the majority. I like work that quietly goes about it’s business, seriously, attentively, with an open curiosity and pleasure in enquiry; work that does not immediately reveal it’s depths and richness, allowing the viewer/reader/listener the opportunity to peel back the layers slowly, over an extended period of time; art and music that gives more with every listen or view; art and music one can live with, that grows and develops with the viewer/listener’s ongoing interaction with it. I am not one for instant gratification. I find the greatest pleasures are to be found in quiet and continued contemplation. 

Thursday 25 January 2018

John Stezaker, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Words I associate with the work of John Stezaker as I walk round his current exhibition in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, include: cool (by which I mean contrary to hot, as opposed to fashionable, although some would say cool is fashionable), subtle, precise, calm, quiet (possibly silent), still, deeply-moving, considered, serious, wry, funny (especially the Marriage series). For those who don’t know his work, Stezaker creates collage in several growing series, and has been doing modestly for decades, usually by combining two images, sourced from promotional photographs of actors or scenes from old black and white films, postcards of landscapes and waterfalls, or simply cutting shapes or figures out of an image. Having the appearance of extreme simplicity, the work shows the artist’s hand and mind to be wholly present, although his physical intervention is minimal. The placement of one image over another is so precise it is clear that the vast majority of the work involved is in the looking for the right combination of images and the absolute correct placement, before very quickly sticking them down. There is an almost nostalgic visceral pleasure in the physicality of the work, the photographic prints, the postcards, the clear evidence of scissors and glue. Although you can understand Stezaker’s work from a digital reproduction, you get more from seeing the original physical work. 

In the Mask series, where postcards obscure the faces of film stars, the forms in the depicted landscapes and waterfalls subtly mirroring the forms in the obscured face, Stezaker reveals to us the hidden depths behind the masks we present to the world, the existential anguish lying just beneath the facade we project, the turmoil under the thin and fragile surface. In the Waterfall series, where a postcard of a waterfall separates a leading man from his leading lady, we witness the impenetrable distance which separates us all from each other, even lovers. Stezaker tells us we are all inherently unknowable, yet intimately connected, islands. In the Tabula Rasa series, where one character in a scene is obscured by a white rectangle cut out in perspective to show the direction of the obscured individual’s scrutiny, the attention of everyone else in the scene being on the white rectangle, Stezaker demenstrates we are each a blank screen onto which it is others who project their ideas of who it is we are, or who we appear to be in relation to them. Or, conversely, is it only I that can’t see the real me? Am I in fact revealed only through the gaze of others? I only exist because I am seen by others. Through John Stezaker’s work I feel I know him, I feel a connection to him, I feel I understand how he thinks and how he feels, but, of course, I don’t. I know only his work, which is his mask, his projection, his tabula rasa. 

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Darren Almond, To Leave a Light Impression, White Cube, Bermondsey, London

The Full Moon photographs of Darren Almond evoke a sense of passing time. They show time in it’s immensity. Like telescopes looking out into space Almond’s photographs capture old time. The nature of photography is the capturing of light, and once light has been caught, it is already the past. This may seem obvious, but we don’t always think about it when looking at a photograph. With the photography of Darren Almond this is made explicit.

All the photographs in this exhibition are of remote places, and almost always uninhabited. We don’t see any people. There is often running water, which due to the manner of production (extremely long exposures of up to an hour using only the light of a full moon) resembles cloud. Only the rock of the mountains is in focus, or the ice of the glacier, only the slowest moving things. The sky is usually grey as the clouds merge over time, yet more still than the water. Except in one photograph we see the arcs made by the movement of stars, evidence that we ourselves are moving through space.

There is occasional evidence of humanity: a railway track running straight up the middle of one image; a bridge in another; a sequence of photographs of standing stones. The photographs themselves are evidence of humanity and the existence of a technological culture. The photographs of standing stones span this entire history, the technology of one culture observing another. All these photographs are the human gaze at nature. Is it a dispassionate gaze? scientific? artistic? Are we looking at Arcadia? A utopian vision of a world without humans? A world before humans? A world after humans? 

With these questions we return to the immensity of time. The moment of the photograph, this long moment, is but a blip. All is quiet but nothing is quite still. By capturing an hour in these beautiful images the artist shows us that the only constant is change. Even the mountains move.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Pandora’s Promise, a film by Robert Stone

Nuclear energy has suffered from bad press. Ask people what the word nuclear evokes and you’ll probably get words like fallout, radiation, meltdown, armageddon, and nuclear winter. The nuclear industry is linked in the public perception to public health concerns such as an increased cancer risk, and to environmental catastrophes such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The popular fiction surrounding nuclear is of a future where vast swathes of the planet have been made uninhabitable by nuclear disaster, either as the result of malignant forces, be they terrorists or a renegade military, or by our own stupidity and greed. Ironically perhaps the images used to promote nuclear energy when it was first introduced in the 1950’s and 1960’s have become the same images which are now the stuff of nuclear nightmares: large glowing giants marching through huge power hungry cities; strings of electricity pylons crossing the landscape emitting powerful invisible rays; faceless scientists in lab coats assuring us that everything is better with nuclear power. 

Robert Stone’s 2013 documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, sets about to debunk these myths. And it does this by interviewing at length environmentalists, scientists and commentators who in recent years have changed sides in the debate, from strongly opposed to strongly in favour. The interviewees include: founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, Stewart Brand; Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Rhodes; science writer, Gwyneth Cravens; and activists, Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger. From the very beginning the “fearlessly independent” film contrasts the calm, scientific opinions of it’s protagonists with footage of emotional anti-nuclear demonstrations, juxtaposing the science with ordinary people’s anger and passion. 

The structure of the film is simple. It outlines the arguments against one by one, being sure to present them as understandable concerns, and then carefully presents evidence to convince otherwise. It claims that people have been scared away from nuclear energy because of the very real dangers of nuclear weapons, and that people are guilty of confusing the two very different issues. It describes nuclear energy as a clean energy and a potentially unlimited source of electricity. 

Many of the arguments put forward in the film are compelling. It talks of our ever expanding demand for energy, saying that, as the developing world catches up with the developed world, energy consumption is set to double by 2050 and treble by 2100. It tells us of the often unseen energy costs of the latest technologies. For example, when you take into account the manufacturing process and the servers needed to maintain everything it is connected to, an iPhone consumes the same amount of energy as a fridge. 

The film makes the argument that the countries that consume the most electricity are the ones with the highest standard of living, which I can see makes sense as these are usually the richest countries who can afford better health care and have better access to water and food, but it then goes on to suggest that these countries have a higher standard of living because they consume more electricity, and that therefore it is a human right for developing countries to consume as much electricity as we in the developed world do. This argument strikes me not only as overly simplistic (there are many other factors involved with having a higher standard of living such as governments and companies controlling access to resources, a hangover from our Colonial past) but also as false logic. The sun is hot therefore everything hot is the sun. It doesn’t work. 

The film acknowledges climate change as a reality and says we need to seriously cut-down on use of fossil fuels, stating that three million people per year die as a result of air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels, primarily coal, but says that to expect renewables such as solar and wind to take up the shortfall is an impossibility. Their power generation capabilities are too sporadic (the wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine) and they usually rely on natural gas (a fossil fuel) as a back up. The film goes on to suggest that the fossil fuel industry, which it describes as being incredibly cynical, has at times helped bankroll the anti-nuclear lobby because it knows that renewables cannot possibly pose a threat to it’s continuing dominance. The film’s conclusion is that only nuclear power can produce enough electricity to satisfy the world’s growing needs.

Finally the film tackles perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the population’s acceptance of nuclear energy: safety. Again, Pandora’s Promise aims to allay these fears. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the result of nuclear weapons not nuclear energy. Background radiation is naturally occurring and, we learn, increases with altitude. The current levels of radiation at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are lower than those naturally occurring in the hills of New Hampshire, and much lower (up to ten times lower) than those passengers are exposed to on an air flight. Accidents which occurred at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island couldn’t possibly happen again as the technology has improved since then to make such accidents impossible. 

Only fifty six people, as reported by the World Health Organization, have died as a result of Chernobyl the film claims. The film compares this number to the “one million” dead as claimed by environmental groups. Far from being a barren empty wasteland Chernobyl has a thriving local environment and many communities have moved back in with no apparent detrimental effects. Having worked in the past with an organisation providing life affirming and life improving activities for children from Chernobyl suffering from Leukaemia I do question these facts. If fallout from such an accident wasn’t as bad as we thought why do such organisations exist? And what constitutes an acceptable level of risk anyway? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t think anyone has ever been killed by a wind turbine or solar panel.

No matter how ‘safe‘ nuclear energy production is, and I still have unanswered questions after watching this film, I still can’t get beyond the issue of waste. Pandora’s Promise attempts to ease fears regarding the waste issue also (although it doesn’t even mention it until two thirds of the way in): the next (fourth) generation of power stations produces very little waste, most of which can be recycled as fuel to produce yet more power, and the resulting unusable waste from this process is only dangerous for eight hundred years rather than the ten thousand years of the current (third) generation power stations. This waste, the film claims, can be, and currently is being, safely stored on site. But, even if we’re only talking hundreds rather than thousands of years, how can we predict what the world will be like in eight hundred years time? Just think for a moment what the world was like eight hundred years ago, and how alien the twenty-first century might look to someone from the thirteenth century. How can we possibly plan to keep waste safe for such an unknowable future? 

If we were certain of the stability of our future, as a planet and as a species, if we could count on an optimistic outlook for our science and culture, of the continuation of our ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ way of life, then maybe we could be certain of the safety of nuclear. But I am not convinced. I am not convinced of the stability of our present, that our ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ way of life even exists now, let alone being certain of an unforeseeable future hundreds of years hence. There are too many uncertainties to take the risk.

I think the main issue here is one of over-consumption. The idea of the whole planet consuming as much energy as we in the developed world do now terrifies me. We consume too much. Our systems are inefficient. We produce far too much waste. Most of our systems of energy use were developed at a time of apparent super-abundance. We had no idea how much population and demand was going to grow. Rather than bringing the rest of the world up to our level of consumption we need to seriously cut-back on our own. Without denying the developing world improvements in standards of living we need to find a sustainable middle ground.  

Even after watching this film I still believe that we need to develop renewables. The sun is always shining somewhere. The wind is always blowing somewhere. Geothermal and tidal energy are never ending sources of power. Maybe we need to rethink how we access and distribute our resources. But also we need to develop micro-generation technologies. We need a revolution in energy production similar to the one that has been building in recent years in food production - locally sourced and sustainable. Ironically perhaps the very processes we need to be developing, such as small scale, micro-generation, permaculture, and mobile technologies, are being trialled most effectively in the developing world, in places that don’t have the huge infrastructure of the developed world.  

This film is right in that we need a calm, reasoned debate on the issue of nuclear power,  especially now as our government plans for the next generation of power stations. We need to look very carefully at the facts and not be overwhelmed by our often irrational emotions, and Pandora’s Promise certainly adds to this very important debate. But I do question some of it’s conclusions and it’s “fearless independence”. And many of the questions around nuclear power still, unfortunately, remain unanswered.

Monday 25 February 2013

Alex Hamlin Reclaims Contemporary Art for the Common Man

A man sits on a chair in an exhibition space in an art gallery. There is nothing remarkable about the man - he is tall, Caucasian, mid-to-late 20s. There is nothing special about the chair - it is the same as the chair on which the gallery invigilator sits at the entrance to the exhibition space. There is a white circle with a three metre radius marked with duct tape on the floor around the unremarkable man sitting on the ordinary chair. This circle denotes the limit of the audience’s physical relationship to the man. The invigilator ensures this boundary is not crossed. The man sits there for six hours in two three hour sessions, from 10 to 1 and 2 to 5, with a one hour break in the middle for lunch, where he is whisked off to an undisclosed location to keep him away from the influence of his audience. Every so often the man picks up a piece of paper from a small pile by his feet, looks at his watch and scribbles something on the paper, the invigilator then walks over to take the piece of paper from him, at which point a second invigilator enters the exhibition space to take the piece of paper from the first invigilator. The first time I witness this I follow the second invigilator to inquire about the paper. I am told it is a Certificate of Authenticity signed and with a note of the time by Alex Hamlin, the man sat in the chair, to prove that he was thinking about art. I ask how Alex decides when to sign them and am told they are signed when Alex has a particularly inspirational thought about art. I am then told the Certificates are for sale for £10 each. I buy the one I have just witnessed Alex signing - it has a number one written on it in the same handwriting as the note of the time. After the event I discover Alex has signed a total of twenty one Certificates at an average of one every seventeen minutes or so, although he signs more in the first half of the day than the second, which suggests he is maybe tiring towards the end. All twenty one Certificates are sold, the money raised going towards the costs of promotion for the event and the subsequent production of the catalogue, of which this review is to be a part. Over the course of the day I would estimate approximately two hundred people witness Alex Hamlin thinking about art.
Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art is a complex work, there is much more to it than initially meets the eye. It is terribly important to the piece to stress that Alex Hamlin is not an artist. He doesn’t like art, or, rather, he doesn’t really ‘get’ it. It frustrates him. He is a layman struggling to make sense of an, in his view, elitist and exclusive preoccupation. He finds it confusing, purposefully obfuscating, and, to be honest, largely irrelevant. The remarkable thing about Alex Hamlin is that, after several conversations with his friend, the artist Christopher Robinson, who is the curator of this work, Alex agreed to expose his struggles to the public in a cathedral to the very institution he felt challenged by. By performing this courageous act Alex Hamlin has reclaimed art and the art gallery for the common man.
Alex Hamlin will be, I imagine, unaware of the pedigree of his action. As the First World War raged nearly a hundred years ago dada declared that art was to be for all and by all, an unrealised ambition which has lasted throughout the history of the twentieth century avant-garde. Alex Hamlin is only the most recent in a long tradition desiring to wipe the slate clean in order to begin afresh. His innocence is certainly refreshing as is his authentic curiosity and desire to understand.
Alex may well be right in his honest critique of contemporary art - too much of it is needlessly obscure - too much of it has its metaphorical head up its metaphorical backside (less art for arts’ sake more arse for arse’s sake), and with Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art Alex uses the favourite weapon in contemporary arts’ arsenal, irony, and reflects it devastatingly back on itself.
How do we know Alex Hamlin is thinking about art? He could be thinking about that cute girl who just walked into the gallery. At some point we, as viewers, must abandon our disbelief and willingly enter into the game of the piece, and if we do we find more layers and more depth. But did the work create that depth or have we invented it in our own minds? What does inspiration look like? Is it as banal as a man sitting in a chair? What makes a work of art? What, for that matter, makes an artist? These are huge questions and Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art forces us to ask them again.
Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art complicates the understood relationship between artwork, artist, viewer and the institution delivering the artwork to the viewer (the gallery). If Alex is the artwork, it asks, who is the artist? Is there an artist? Does Alex become the artist through his performance of the piece? At what point? Before? During? After? But if Alex becomes the artist doesn’t that undermine the whole premise of a non-artist reclaiming the gallery space for the common man?
Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art forces us to conclude that as soon as we think we have it nailed, a definition of art or the purpose and meaning of art, someone, usually an artist but in this instance unusually and refreshingly a non-artist, comes along and does something to throw it all up in the air again. The word ‘art’ it would seem (and the thing it signifies) is permanently malleable, forever in flux, and will always remain so. To think about art is to think about our relationship with the world and our understanding of reality and to consider what it is to be a conscious being who thinks. For a human being these are the biggest questions one can ask. As is: “I wonder if that cute girl wants to go for a drink when I’m through here thinking about art?” 

Friday 2 November 2012

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works – National Gallery, London

To enter the world of Richard Hamilton’s late works is to enter a self-contained closed world of reflections and mirrored fragments. Endlessly self-referential, works reappear in other works, which themselves refer back to yet other works. To view them is to participate in a post-modern game through art history. And it is a thoroughly enjoyable game to play.

The first works we see are paintings where the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing has been transformed into a vast cathedral, sparsely populated by female nudes and tiny reproductions of earlier Hamilton works. These two paintings (The Saensbury Wing (1999-2000) and Charity), like many in the exhibition, reference a painting in the National’s collection, Pieter Saenredam’s The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem (1636-37). And with these paintings we are introduced to all of the main themes of the exhibition: interiors, paintings in the National Gallery, the female nude and other works of Richard Hamilton.

In Lobby (1985-87) a hotel lobby is painted with unwavering verisimilitude, the planes within fragmented by carefully rendered mirrored surfaces. It is a meticulously measured photo-realistic painting. The only ‘painterly’ marks are to be found on the flowers in the foreground and the painted paintings reflected in the two large mirrored columns. Lobby reappears in a later work, Hotel du Rhone (2005), where it hangs prominently on a wall in a digitally rendered collage of a hotel room being hoovered by a naked chambermaid. The contents and layout of the room bring to mind Hamilton’s most celebrated image, probably the most famous collage in art history, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956).

Other than Lobby and The Saensbury Wing not many of these works could be described simply as paintings, although Hamilton did refer to them as such. They are mostly digital mash-ups incorporating elements of painting, collage and photography and finally printed onto canvas.

Hamilton’s nudes are always beautiful young women and it is in two more of these nudes that we find the final preoccupation of this exhibition, and a major preoccupation of Hamilton’s career. Descending Nude (2006) shows the same woman four times, three times reflected in a mirror walking down a flight of stairs, and the fourth facing the mirror. In The Passage of the Bride (1998-99) the female nude is reflected in the glass of a section of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23), otherwise known as The Large Glass, which is seen hanging on the wall of another domestic interior. In the nineteen sixties Hamilton played an important role in the rehabilitation of Duchamp’s reputation in the art world, not least by remaking many of Duchamp’s works and bringing them to a new and wider audience. Duchamp blessed this project, even going so far, in typically Duchampian manner, as to sign Hamilton’s versions of his work. Another Duchampian aspect to Hamilton’s work is the delight he takes in replicating his own work on a smaller scale, as in Duchamp’s Box in a Valise (1935-41).

The clumsiest aspect of Hamilton’s work on show here are the titles, bad puns and unsubtle allusions, as if he hasn’t got the confidence in his audiences ability to ‘get’ the references. And one or two of the works are considerably weaker than others. I wasn’t entirely convinced by The passage of the angel to the virgin (2007), Hamilton’s updating of a Renaissance favourite, the Annunciation, for example. But these are minor quibbles. The exhibition is worth a visit alone for the opportunity to view Hamilton’s last work, Le Chef – d’oeuvre inconnu – a painting in three parts (2011 – printed 2012), which will probably pass into Hamilton legend as his last, great, unfinished, masterpiece.

Hamilton was working on Le Chef… for the final eighteen months of his life and he described it, according to this exhibitions catalogue, as his Etant Donnes. This is a slight exaggeration. Duchamp worked on his final piece in secret for twenty years when everyone thought he had given up art, releasing it only after his death as a way of upsetting Duchampian scholars from being able to sum up his life’s work into a neat little Duchampian shaped compartment. Hamilton’s final work doesn’t really deviate from the well-trodden Hamilton path. It is a nude, a particularly beautiful one. It references, and indeed collages, a number of old masters. And it is a digital mash-up of photography, painting, and collage. Based on a short story by Balzac, Le Chef… tells of a young painter trying to paint the perfect nude, produce the epitome of beauty and desire, but when he shows his work to a couple of other painter friends all they see is a mess of paint except for one beautifully rendered foot.