A series of public group readings of novels begins with Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark. One copy of the book, passed between as many as are willing to read, for as long as it takes to finish. Dress for warmth. Bring food and drink. Vegetarian soup will be served.
Piper Keys, Unit 2a, 10 Greatorex Street, London E1 5NF
Many in grime claim to be ‘going on legendary’, as if we’re to remember them among the annals of Sainthood. Not that, probably, that is what they mean. If, as Flirta D claims of DJ Trends is true, that ‘he’s legendary’, can you imagine a monument atop a plinth nearby Westminster? ‘DJ Trends: known for slaying dragons at 140 beats per minute.’ Unlikely. Today, the gravity of legendary deeds are lessened, as is the time span required for such deeds to mature and become the stuff of myth. Today, ‘legendary’ operates on folded time, diminished attention spans; a shorthand for deep time, often ill-afforded.1
Earlier this year, a dusky near-solstice evening, in the eager months before London summer really happens, smoke settling low from barbecues, drinking Žywiec on the stoop, streaming radio, I experienced that rare recognition of something legendary occurring. DJ Slimzee, co-founder of Rinse FM, founder-member of Pay As You Go Cartel, Dizzee Rascal’s former DJ, among other things, had given over his slot on NTS radio to a young grime instrumental crew called Boxed. Slimzee, ask any au fait grime or garage head, was legendary. But like all good old-fashioned legends he disappeared. From what I can deduce from Rollo Jackon’s recent documentary on Slimzee, around the time of grime’s second coming, ’06-07, he fell into exhaustion-induced depression, going low-key.
Slimzee had only recently started playing out again, taking residency at NTS radio with his monthly show, Slimzos Sessions, in April 2014. The previous year I’d seen him in Birthdays, Dalston playing mostly instrumentals from before ’05, tracks Dizzee once called ‘end of the world beats’. (Not recognising him, I asked him if he knew when Slimzee was on.) Following his hiatus, Slimzee fitted back into a genre that had changed, as it had seemingly not changed at all. Periodically, someone — who?— officiously announces grime’s death. Certainly vocal grime had been streamlined, simplified, had what Kano called its ‘fucked’ complexity disassembled. Slimzee’s End of the World Beats, indeed more widely that world he pioneered and represented, signposted what had been lost along the way. Dizzee’s ‘Strings Hoe’, Bigshot’s ‘Glitch’, DJ Virus’s ‘Rude Sting’ or DJ Marsta’s ‘Hollow’ sound today as alienating as they ever did. Wiley’s Eski beat just as haunting. (Each are important events in the Grand Narrative of instrumental electronic music, not mere marginalia.)
In 2013, Boxed took up residency in Birthdays, hosting monthly line-ups of variations around a core crew of five or six producers and DJs, including Mr Mitch, Slackk, Dark0, JT the Goon, Murlo, Logos and Oil Gang. Accompanying this, Boxed released regular free download mixes by associated producers. Boxed had captured and hybridised aspects of these earlier sounds, not just faltered in repetition. It follows that the young MC Novelist, who spits ‘let’s get back to the realness, back to the art… back to foundation, back to the start,’ has embraced Boxed’s beats. People were going to Boxed nights: grime enthusiasts, meow-meow’d students, ironic hipsters, hooded, one-gloved skengmen, Open University anthropologists, but also fellow producers, DJs and MCs. In the same week I saw Spyro play to a floor of three at Alibi, Boxed filled Birthdays. Something was happening. (I found this in my iPhone notebook, probably drunkenly written walking home: Boxd — usually come by myself. Not because I'm anti-social but to dance. Chatted to Big Narstie out on the street. Turns out his mate holidayed in Great Yarmouth, where I'm from. Dullah on stage throwing up gun fingers.)
Boxed’s collective organisation nurtures and sustains a network of influence, friendships and group identification. Among these producers is a web of connection and citation that provides logic for a grouping — appearing in one another’s mixes, collaborating on tracks, sampling, refixing and versioning one another’s tracks. These allegiances exist within a crew that, despite producing a generic sound, ‘grime’, produce music that is not easy to link formally. Within Boxed is a remarkable number of singular sounds.
First causes are notoriously contested. Last year, DJ Spooky (not the American one) marked grime’s tenth anniversary on his Dejavu radio show Grimey Mondays. Similarly, this summer Rinse FM’s 20th anniversary celebrations, at a pop-up shop in Shoreditch, acknowledged grime’s anniversary. Boxed has become a phenomenon approximately a decade after grime’s birth. The evening that something legendary occurred, when Slimzee went back to back with Boxed, he symbolically passed the mantle on, balancing a ten-year cycle of grime on an equinoctial peak. If you listen closely to the mix, between the commentary on England’s ignominious defeat against Uruguay at the Brazilian World Cup, you can hear Slimzee meeting Boxed crew members for the first time, chatting away. It’s legendary.
1. An older friend who skipped Germany in 1940 warned me once never to trust anyone who tells you they’re making history while in the act of whatever it is they are doing that is supposedly historical. She was talking of Nazi hubris, and the surprising effects of positive, powerful statements, which the music industry no doubt has learnt from. Few think on such universal scales these days. Relativists, we accept that things have their own orbits, their own temporalities, their own logics that warrant distinction. But that doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes know when something is important or, indeed, legendary. Maybe it’s a hunch. Always it comes from historical knowledge.
At this year's Frieze art fair a programme of live works were presented for the first time. I was invited by the choreographer Adam Linder to collaborate with him and Justin Kennedy on a new work called 'Some Proximity' as part of Linder's ongoing Choreographic Service series.
Throughout Frieze I wrote on-the-fly art criticism and observation, which were were writ large on single sheets and returned to Silberkuppe's booth (Adam's gallery) where Adam and Justin danced in response, according to a number of modalities. To view a slideshow of photographs by Polly Braden click here. To read Charlotte Higgins on 'Some Proximity' in the Guardian click here. I'm currently writing a long contextual text on this work — watch this space.
An article I wrote on JMW Turner's influence on cinematographers, filmmakers and artists working with film features in Tate Etc. issue 32 to coincide with the exhibition 'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' at Tate Britain. To read the article on Tate's website click here.
Issue 2 of Noon magazine launched a couple of weeks ago at the ICA. It features contributions from Alasdair McLellan, Jason Evans, Charlie Engman, Gareth McConnell and Neil Beloufa, among others. I wrote an article, titled 'The Image Atlas in Motion', on Taryn Simon's 'Image Atlas', a web-based project Simon collaborated on with the programmer Aaron Swartz. I'll post the article in full next month.
My review of Stuart Brisley's select retrospective at Modern Art Oxford, 'State of Denmark', features in the back pages of Frieze issue 167. If you're lucky enough to own a subscription click here to read the review. I'll post it in full here next month.
Today I revisited this text that I wrote in 2011 for Ryan Gander’s Night School 6, 6th April 2011 at the ICA, London. It will be included in a project OUTPOST has been asked to participate in calledThe Naked, a project run by five independent Dutch galleries - 1664, TAG, Heden, Nest and Billytown, which looks at building a global view of contemporary art from a broad range of local perspectives. An idea of a centre and periphery underwrites the name of the contemporary art gallery ‘OUTPOST’. Geographically, it is an outpost located in the county of Norfolk, a county without motorways, close to the coast. It is at the edge, sure, but is also peripheral in relation to the metropolitan capital London. OUTPOST is a useful name because it enfolds these two central qualities of its identity as an organisation: separateness from the metropolitan art world and isolation in a predominantly rural county.
Norwich has effective transport links, communications, clean tap water... A linear contraposition between centre and periphery is a powerful idea that has historically shaped England’s social and economic identity. It is a legacy we are still very much with: an advanced centre that irradiates light and a periphery shadowed by backwardness; a plentiful centre and a lacking periphery; a dominant centre and a submissive periphery. Entangled among this are the powerful and enduring ideas of the periphery as ‘authentic’ (local, free from the pollutions of the global market) and the centre as global (fake, bent nonetheless on producing its own authenticities). If anybody has a neat encapsulation of ‘authenticity’ I would be interested to hear it. It is not possible, or indeed useful, to reduce the exchanges between centre and periphery in a linear fashion.
Yesterday I asked OUTPOST founder-member Kaavous Clayton if for him disinterest in London was part of the initial design of the gallery: ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘at first it was an aggressive stance. I didn’t want to get bogged down by the relationship between the gallery and London. As I saw it London drained the activity away from Norwich once students left the art school. It felt like domination. OUTPOST gave it a focus and a community. I was keen to ignore London.’ There were important examples and precedents elsewhere. Transmission Gallery in Glasgow, for example, provided an organisational model. If regional work were to be relevant and engaged in current critical debates it had to be seen amid a bigger context; for Kaavous this too could be provided by peripheral examples. I asked whether the anti-London position was an ideology shared across all of the committee. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘we realised it was possibly not a good approach, a realistic approach, to ignore London. It didn’t last very long’. OUTPOST was born out of a relationship of difference to London, through frustration and aggressive distancing.
Some years before in Norwich Phil Gardner ran a contemporary art space called ‘Frontier’ in his flat. Frontier, OUTPOST — for some reason the artist’s identity in Norwich seems couched in the language of attack, geo-political boundary, terms of colonial occupation. Put like that it makes OUTPOST sound like a settlement of metropolitan advanced art within the regions, an envoi from the Capital. Yet, an important characteristic of the settlement community is that despite maintaining ties to its homeland, it is not actually under the home state’s system of government. Does it represent the centre? Become native? Get attacked by locals? Literature and film of Western modernity is populated by eccentrics, egoists and demigods permitted to thrive in these geographical margins. Forgive me for emptying the following examples of their political meaning... Think of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Belgian ivory trader who uses his influence over African natives to prosper; or Fitzcarraldo, the visionary who drags a paddleboat over a mountain in Werner Herzog’s film of the same title. In the humanities liminal spaces have been celebrated for their state of potential; bell hooks, with a clear political agenda, valorises peripheries as places for hybrid forms to develop away from the centre. These are only a few examples they suggest that all kinds of fascinating hybridizations and maverick things happen at the peripheries. How and why might this relate to galleries operating in peripheries? Distance from London might afford the opportunity to develop independent ideas, to move beyond boundaries? Perhaps intense working groups form more easily in small regional towns and cities in ways that are harder in the capital? Their exoticism can be attractive.
I recall reading a short sentence by the critic and chair of the New Contemporaries Sasha Craddock. ‘If you want to be an artist essentially,’ it went something like, ‘you must move to London.’ Probably it stayed with me because this essentialist statement came from a very visible agent of taste in the contemporary art world. I was a little taken back by its centralist attitude. Rather than paraphrase it, remember it through my own wonts and mores, and because by serendipity Craddock might be here tonight, I ran through search engines in order to be precise. Athens, e-flux, Frieze, Art Monthly... then I found it in my inbox, in an email from Standpoint Gallery in Hoxton via OUTPOST. It read: ‘Artists from say, Liverpool, Newcastle or the countryside, can be more cut off than artists from Europe; and years of decentralization has tended to hide the essential value of London to regional artists.’
This is a specious comment. It must be said that Liverpool and ‘the countryside’ — I’m guessing the British countryside (where thousands of Londoners go at the weekend to get away from the city — it could be anywhere as long as it is not London) — are part of Europe. Otherwise I do not dispute that London might be of importance to regional artists. Though to fix the echo of the imperialist logic of dominance and dependence I insist on swapping ‘London’ with ‘regional arts’ and ‘de-centralisation’ with ‘centralisation’, maybe editing it a little too. To rephrase: ‘centralisation has tended to hide the essential value of regional arts to London.’ The question is are these regional arts compatible with London?
Jonathan P Watts, East Norfolk / London, April 2011
I was into grime before I was into writing. I've wanted to write about grime since, well, I had the confidence to write. Grime's recent hybridisations—particularly those represented at Boxed grime nights in East London—have inspired me to start writing about it. When grafik magazine invited me to compile my 'top five' list it seemed a timely opportunity to begin. More writing on grime to come. To see my top five grime album/mix covers click here.
Ryan Gander's new book Culturefield launches Thursday 16th October on the Koenig books stand at Frieze, Regents Park. It features a text I wrote called 'Spastic Stuttering Pluriverse' that surveys the last ten years of Gander's work.
A conversation, in car and by foot, between the filmmaker William Raban and Jonathan P Watts. Proceeding from Bow, where he has lived for over forty years, Raban shares his Tower Hamlets, a borough of visionary social housing, gentrified docks, BNP pubs, Kray Twins nostalgia, and marijuana macaroons. To view the exhibition website, including the exhibition soundtrack, click here.
The artist is the medium of her medium; her part is limited to selecting aesthetically acceptable affects from the purely accidental behavior of her color. — Harold Rosenberg on Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Art and Words’ in The Re-Definition of Art, 1972.
Google search ‘Helen Frankenthaler’. To the right of the cascading results, Google’s ‘Knowledge Graph’ displays a thumbnail cluster of reproductions, a textured swatch, a compact if you will, of Frankenthaler paintings. Beneath is a cursory description (‘Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting), her achievements flattened into datasets:
Born: December 12, 1928
Spouse: Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., Robert Motherwell
Periods: Lyrical abstraction, Post-painterly abstraction, Color Field...
The datasets inconspicuously shorthand concrete histories: for instance, Frankenthaler is no longer merely the wife of Robert Motherwell but a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Google magnanimously wills us to ‘go deeper and broader’ with our researches: a click on the cluster of reproductions opens a richly dynamic mood board of colours and forms. What has risen to the top of this archive-in-motion are a series of photographs by Gordon Parks, shot in 1956 for LIFE magazine, of Frankenthaler kneeling — awkwardly, demurely — on her work.
‘Samara Scott’s work,’ a friend suggested at the weekend, ‘always puts me in mind of that photograph of Frankenthaler in her studio.’ I’d looked at the very image earlier that morning. It’s not as much about her pose as it is her palette: ripe blushes of pastels, pinks, and blues swirl into one another, bruising at the overlaps. Translucent washes express the loose fronds of canvas. These canvases cover the floor and, stretched on boards, vertically meet at right angles to produce space, physical and psychological. The quasi-functionally repurposed paintings, as architectural structure and interior décor, are stage set for Frankenthaler’s portrait, and an ambient image of mind and body. The sliver of a view onto the room to the edge of the frame is a glitch.
It was a relation half lodged at the edge of my consciousness. Besides obvious formal resemblances, many shared themes productively appear, however relayed, in Samara Scott’s work.1 Exhibitions such as Open Heart Surgery(2013) at The moving Museum, London or Cascading Style Sheets (2013) at the Palazzo Peckham, Venice, staged work to enable a spatialised ambient effect.2 The addition of a low coffee tablein Still Life (2013), The Sunday Painter’s solo presentation at London Art Fair 2013, ramped up the functional-decorative complex. Where the domestic appears as glitch at the edge of Parks’ frame, for Scott it enters fully into the frame. Sponges, toilet paper, and used blankets are grounds for visible and invisible stains, dyes, and bleeds of fragrance, pigment, and ink.
Scott’s writings are unruly attempts at organising thought on her own work without enervating its propensity for meaning. Abstract, unresolved, her associative prose agglomerations return again and again to ripe metaphors of pungent bodies, metabolic transformations, and synaesthethic confusions: she seeks ‘juicy effects and bruised saturation’; ‘olfactory and gustatory sensation’; and surroundings that ‘curdle’ and sculptures that ‘ooze’.
For E.C. Goossen, writing in Art International in 1961, Frankenthaler’s single contribution to the history of Western painting was to ‘add a new candidate for the dictionary of plastic forms: the stain’. ‘Frankenthaler’s painting,’ he writes:
is manifestly that of a woman... What she took from [Pollock] was masculine; the almost hard-edge, linear splashes of duco enamel. What she made with it was distinctly feminine, the broad, bleeding-edged stain on raw linen.
Frankenthaler did more than pour paint onto the canvas. She bled on the raw linen. She stained the sheets. Through slippages of language, Goossen codifies stained paint as menstruation, so now, before Parks’ camera, Frankenthaler kneels surrounded by fluids that signify residue of involuntary bodily function, ‘an index of a thwarted or ineffectual creative process... not creative inception or biological conception, but their refusal, the flushing of an empty womb’.3 Where Frankenthaler’s male peers actively, intentionally impregnated the canvas, she passively stained it with the seep and ooze of bodily fluids.
Today, bodily seeps, stains, and oozes are just as likely to appear in the work of male artists, such as Benedict Drew or Ed Atkins, as they are female artists, such as Lucy Clout, Kate Owens, or, indeed, Samara Scott. This is perhaps an effect of the post-human recognition of the inexorably embodied nature of experiences. And their biopolitical dimensions. Does this sameness of bodies elide biological-social difference, thus furthering the dismantling of gender inequality?4
Why are certain qualities in art aligned to or with the ‘feminine’ or the ‘masculine’? In the journal n.paradoxa’s 12 Step Guide to Feminist Art, Art History and Criticism (2010), feminist critic Katy Deepwell asks whether this is consequence of the artists being male or female or a critic’s evaluation or value judgement about a feminine sensibility in the work. In the case of Frankenthaler, for Lisa Saltzman it is resolutely the latter: her stains were linked to menstruation by male critics at a more or less identifiable moment. In the work of Samara Scott, along with other female contemporaries, these questions are rendered complex by their own complicit and duplicitous — (in)authentic — performance of femininity through culture at large. Particularly in Scott’s work, this includes aspects of feminist art history itself, such as the stereotypical historical domain of the decorative arts, the amateurism of craft, and, of course, the gendered stain.5
Despite the rhetoric of individuality and personal freedom, intuition and expression, attached to gestural abstract painting, Frankenthaler was dumbly tied to her biology. Today, these sensual freedoms are stock in trade imperatives of neoliberal capitalism. Scott lives these myths as female consumer, not as autonomous artist; and yet she is granted distinction by virtue of being embedded within an institutional apparatus that grants art its autonomy. To parrot Rosenberg: the artist is, indeed, the medium of her medium, selecting aesthetic affects from the forces that bare down on her embodied experiences.
Scott’s work to date is difficult to disentangle: individual works provide backdrops for others, they bleed over. Her work is an intimate and confused collision between her self, she became teen in the MTV-hyper-sexualised nineties — light even tones of DiCaprio’s barely pubescent face, Salt-N-Peppa’s midriffs, sweet-sticky lip gloss (I remember the taste of K.B.’s) — and the emotional resonances of contemporary consumerism. This collision achieves, Scott writes, ‘the tenor of burning teenage dreams while prodding the crass mass-marketing through which they are shaped in a plasticised urban spirituality’. It’s as if the latex web of the work Making Out, reminiscent of Faith Wilding’s crocheted environments, has returned from Scott’s past to display a trawl of universal ‘girly matter’ coloured by personal significance. ‘Everything,’ Scott told me, ‘begins with a sort of sentimental material investigation; a slow digestion of cosmetic, edible and chemical cultural debris which rise from a practice formed from an impatience, haptic greed and a patchy logic.’
Frankethaler’s stain, stripped of its thematic, is a material-technical choice. Applied to absorbent unprimed canvases wet oil blooms into translucent washes. Like watercolour, these oils necessitate precision and certainty in mark making. The economy lends a particular rhythmic expediency familiar to Scott’s work. Her absorbent felt, towel, and foam grounds draw-in moisture, unevenly depositing watercolour or eyeshadow pigments in blotches, softly — au naturel. In contrast, or apparently in contrast, glossy grounds, such as the Argos catalogue, and waxy, oily water-resistant materials make the material sweat. As real as walking down the street and going to the grocery store, installed at Rowing in 2013, is a gold-lined cavity, a picked scab, retaining a toxic cocktail of body products. The wall-mounted work Private, exhibited at Almanac Projects,is a foam camping mattress, shot through with incense sticks, fruit, breadsticks, and Argos pens.
For an earlier generation of women artists — Tracey Emin is exemplary — intimate biographical details and the presence of the body gave the impression that true subjectivity was on offer.6 Scott’s is an experimental body, a conduit for twenty-first century experience, succumbed to the synthetic, that is netted by product, expressing how she is sold, seduced and hypnotised by matter. ‘I’m discussing my vulnerability to this hyper-superficiality,’ she writes. ‘Why am I attracted? To get deeper with the superficiality.’
Femininity is not necessarily feminist. Maybe Scott does have a ‘conventional Pop practice’, as she put it to me in her studio, a studio stuffed with materials, colours, and textures. Pop was an experiment in mass-marketed surfaces — an extension of the Modernists’ moral imperative of flatness into advertising and taste. Pop music, Jon Savage memorably put it, ‘hits the head, the heart, the soul and the feet.’ Pop, he writes, stands by default:
at the intersection between two quite separate perceptions — the public world of news, current affairs and media chat, and the private word of life as it is lived. In this, pop’s perennial concentration on love is only the most obvious sign of its intention to make the private public. Hence also its flagrant concerns with sex and gender.7
It is difficult to penetrate something that spins, that wants to ‘get deeper with its superficiality’. Scott’s toxic-positive works hypertrophy postmodernism’s indiscriminate cultural appropriation to excess. By succumbing to what she calls ‘the overpowering pseudo-romance of 21st century commodification’ she is able to ‘spin out its absurdities’. She starts from no distance and accepts the imperative to remake herself into a thing.
1 ‘Historical knowledge,’ writes George Kubler in The Shape of Things, ‘consists of transmissions which the sender, the signal, and the receiver are all variable elements affecting the stability of the message.’ He goes on: ‘Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission (e.g. the discoverer of a document usually is its editor), we may treat receivers and senders together under the heading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal.’ — George Kubler, (1962/2008) The Shape of Things: Remarks on the History of Things, Yale University Press, p.19.
2. Scented products, such as toothpaste, hair gel and shampoo, and particularly perfume, are other means by which Scott’s work becomes spatialised. As the critic Alice Hattrick recently argued: ‘Perfume speaks the body. Wearing perfume you can be more than yourself. You can exceed your limits.’ See/listen to CAR podcast All Over You (2014): https://soundcloud.com/car_rca/car-15-all-over-you.
3. Lisa Saltzman, ‘Reconsidering the Stain: On Gender and Body in Helen Frankenthaler’s Painting’ in Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, Eds. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (2005) Berkeley: University of California Press, p.376.
4. The curator Shama Khanna proposes ‘flatness’ as a general rubric for the dehierarchising of political and social life, ushered in by screens plus network culture.
5. In 2008 Annie Fletcher and others co-authored Cooling-Out: On The Paradox of Feminism, a book that addressed a perceived disinterest of young women toward the ideas and forms of Feminism, ‘resulting from a lack of palpable aims on the one hand and the acceptance of existing structures on the other’. I see less evidence of this today within my own East London artistic community. There are many feminist artist reading groups in East London (which I acknowledge is a very specific context), while feminism has a very visible presence in the mainstream media.
6. See ‘Abject Craft: Mike Kelley and Tracey Emin’ in Glenn Adamson (2007) Thinking Through Craft, Berg.
7. Jon Savage, ‘The simple things you see are all complicated’ in The Faber Book of Pop, Eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (1995) Faber & Faber, p. xxxii.
This text was commissioned for a publication that accompanies Holly Antrum's solo exhibition A Diffuse Citizen at Grand Union, Birmingham (7 June - 26 July 2014). The subject of this text is Antrum's recent film portrait of the artist Jennifer Pike, a work that features prominently at Grand Union. The publication, designed by An Endless Supply, also features contributions from Antrum herself and the critic George Vasey.
‘(I don’t often store images in my head.) they mostly just grow from different starting points...’ — jennypikcob, The Conglomerization of Wot.1
Where does inspiration come from? It’s one of those signal journalese questions that stumps the inspired, who, even if they know, usually recourse to lengthy processual anecdote, or immutable shorthand. What, the public want to know, does inspiration feel like? As if they’ve never felt it before. Wislawa Szymborska, the late Polish poet, translator and essayist, addressed this very question in her 1996 Nobel Lecture, delivered shortly after receiving the prize for poetry. ‘Whatever it is,’ she says, ‘it's born from a continuous "I don't know."’ But, to be sure, Szymborska continues, if one should wish to learn about inspiration-in-progress don’t look to films about poets.
Scientific laboratories, stocked with instruments and machinery, hold the viewer’s attention; films about painters can recreate every stage of a famous painting’s production; and affective music sounds the lives of composers. Poets, Szymborska writes, are not simply bad subjects for films, they are, in fact, ‘the worst’. ‘Their work,’ she continues, ‘is hopelessly unphotogenic.’
Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens... Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?2
If there are to be no bolts from the blue, at least in the labour of scientists, artists and musicians, there is something vaguely interesting to look at and listen to.
Szymborska’s point is rhetorical, ironical, even. Margaret Tait’s portrait of the language poet Hugh MacDiarmid is among the most transfixing pieces of film I know of, irrespective of its subject. MacDiarmid’s real labour takes place at the bar of his Edinburgh local: the drunken shuffling, gossiping, and slanging. In Peter Bell’s film portrait of Basil Bunting, the man is synonymous with the place — Briggflatts: his prosody springs from the landscape he’s cantered for years. Frank Wierke’s film portrait, An English Poet from Germany (2007), follows the poet and translator Michael Hamburger around his rambling rural home and garden: out there Hamburger claimed to find his poems in the trees.
Wierke told me that when making the film he had been respectful of ‘the usual, so important, everyday rhythms’ of the poet, particularly as, it would seem, the poems found Hamburger.
If these films teach us anything about poetic inspiration it is that it’s born of noise. It’s also born of movement: out of, as Michael Donaghy used to say, the shape of the dance. Tait, Bell, and Wierke all let the noise in. Because they know inspiration is in the quotidian they leave the camera rolling. Only Tait joins her partner for the dance, achieving a certain prosodic prowess of camera movement and cutting. Foremost, Catalogue is a record of Holly Antrum’s dance with Jennifer Pike to a soundtrack of ambient noise. Like Tait, she moves with her subject; so although Pike is on display, so too is Antrum.
Pike is not primarily a poet. (And even so, the poetry she performs is at the further shores of ‘mainstream’ poetry.) So what sort of dance is this? It’s already one far more beguiling than Szymborska’s model, which emerges out of stasis. Beginning with her early interest in theatre in the 1940s, Pike’s work has moved freely across media, applied arts and fine arts, from painting to collage, photography to printmaking, ceramics to jewellery-making. As member of the experimental music groups Birdyak (with Bob Cobbing, Lol Coxhill, and Hugh Metcalfe) and Domestic Ambient Noise (with Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton) Pike was projectionist, dancer and designer of bespoke costumes and props. The transparent disc she plays with towards the end of Catalogue which fragments her face,was a favourite prop. In the last fifteen years computer software has been a method for animating screen-based object-texts known as the Computer Dances, and recording lyric fragments over synthetic beats.
Pike attended drama school in the 1940s, and later studied painting, drawing, and sculpture at Saint Martins, painting at the Central School of Art, textiles and ceramics at Camberwell, and ceramics and silversmithing in the Sir John Cass faculty of art. Pike recounts her biography, itself a visual poem, in the foreword of her book The Conglomerization of Wot:
Part-time jobs exploring Arts/Crafts DOING; TEACHING —
Pike and Cobbing met in 1963, both aged 43. After living in Maida Vale, the couple moved to Petherton Road in North London, where Bob’s studio occupied the front of the house and Jennifer’s the back. Here, Jennifer had a complete metal workshop and electric kiln in the outhouse. The bathroom doubled as a photographic darkroom. In addition to teaching, Jennifer sold jewellery on a store in Covent Garden. Although drawn in her own artistic photography to abstract urban environments — heavy ironwork in boat docks, post-industrial decay, and reflections in water — her photographs of London’s countercultural scene, for example, Better Books and the Auto-Destructive Art Symposium, remain important documents of the time.
Pike and Cobbing often collaborated. It is her screen-printed design that adorns the original cover of his seminal work ABC in Sound. (Pike screen printed for others too, including Dom Sylvester Houédard.) Together they produced the Processual: After a fashion series of publications, and co-edited others such as Bob Jubile: selected texts of Bob Cobbing 1944-1990, and, with Bill Griffiths, Verbi visi voco.Both shared a kind of driven myopic view on their creative lives. Cobbing’s oeuvre is voluminous and incomplete. His output across media was prodigious and often ad hoc. Many publications were produced in small editions, often without regard for longevity. Jennifer was no less prolific than Bob, only prolific differently: her work is more object-based, bound to the studio, a studio inseparable from the domestic setting, which was a hub for the Writer’s Forum, always receiving poets and artists. The house, in its last months in Antrum’s film, was a significant cultural venue.
‘Almost all of Jennifer’s activities,’ Adrian Clarke writes in the foreword of SCRUNCH, ‘have the character of work in progress, most of the stages of which hold as much interest as many efforts presented by others as finished.’4 In a comment on Cobbing’s growing inspiration among a younger generation, he goes on to claim that ‘If there is a School of Cobbing, the evidence here should remind us it has a sometimes neglected dimension.’ Back in 1978, when Mirella Bentivoglio curated the exhibition Materialization of Language at the Venice Biennale, an exhibition with an explicit feminist agenda to reconstruct the history of women and language, particularly across avant-garde poetry, Pike is ‘the wife of the poet Bob Cobbing’.5
Perhaps this is because Cobbing was a nurturing father figure to many younger poets? It might be because Pike’s use of materials was too ‘promiscuous’? Or that she never attempted to contextualise her work, as Cobbing did on many occasions? ‘If you would know Bob Cobbing,’ Lawrence Upton has written, ‘then you must take account of the importance of Jennifer’s benign influence, companionship and support through the decades. In my judgement, she is equally outstanding in her different artistic achievements.’6
It seems specious to dwell on the many reasons Pike is not as well known as Cobbing. Clearly he was central to her ambient noise. And yet, as with so many other women artists of her generation, Pike’s work is only now reaching wider audiences. Catalogue invites us to join in the dance. 1. jennpikcob, The Conglomerization of Wot, Veer Books, 2010, p.9. 2. Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1996: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1996/szymborska-lecture.html. 3. jennpikcob, The Conglomerization of Wot, Veer Books, 2010, p.9. 4. Jennifer Pike Cobbing, SCRUNCH (2nd edition), Veer Books, 2010, p.10. 5. Mirella Bentivoglio, catalogue to accompany the exhibition materializzazione del linguaggio, Venice Biennale, curated by Mirella Bentivoglio, Magazzini del Sale alle Zettere, 20 September - 15 October 1978, p.34. 6. Lawrence Upton, Commentaries on Bob Cobbing, Argotist Ebooks, p. 45: http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/COMMENTARIES%20ON%20BOB%20COBBING.pdf
As a means to explore the biography of an artist, cinema offers a range of techniques distinct from the written word. Among these, notably, is the mimetic ability to represent iconic artworks or dramatically re-stage their execution, and, significantly, through the use of cinematography, the evocation of the visual world of the subject. These devices have been exploited by directors of the greatest artist biopics, from Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch and Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah, to Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, and now Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
The centripetal force of Leigh’s biopic is the ambiguous space between the radical, revolutionary fervour of Turner’s paintings and the mortal, flawed individual behind them. ‘I wanted,’ Leigh explains in an interview for Tate Shots, ‘to make a film about Turner the personality, but that means nothing by itself.’ Leigh shows Timothy Spall as a mutton-chopped Turner jabbing and spitting at Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (exhibited 1842) and re-stages, for example, sketched scenes at Petworth House. Only once does the cinematography align with the scumbled whorls of Turner’s later works — the ‘primal flux which denies the separate identity of things’ as Lawrence Gowing described it — when the artist lashes himself to the mast of a storm ship in order to gain first-hand experience of the elements. This glance into the void reminds us of the revolutionary nature of Turner’s vision in the mid-nineteenth century: it fills the sight by force.
In Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the nineteenth century the art historian Jonathan Crary elevates Turner’s vision as the measure of fundamental epistemological shifts that occurred in early European modernity. Certainly Turner was familiar with optics and theoretical ideas of colour, particularly Goethe’s Theory of Colour, which are tested in Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge (1843). (According to Goethe, yellow red produces a shock, and seems literally to bore itself into the organ of sight.) John Ruskin intuited as much when, in 1843, he implored readers of Modern Painters to really look at the sky: it quivers in variety and fulness — in it you see or imagine short falling spots of deceiving light, dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour. This, he writes, is what Turner shows us: the instability of perception, rather than normal, stabilised vision. And Turner’s mature style is a radical challenge to the geometricized perspectival regime of vision, collapsing, as it does, ‘the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experience’ and situating perception itself as the object of vision. While few today find Turner’s paintings shocking, Leigh’s only-brief alignment with his vision suggests its disruptive power in the institution of mainstream narrative cinema.
Beyond Leigh’s biopic, the relations between Turner and film are rich. For example, beginning with the public announcement of photography’s invention in 1839, the film historian A.L. Rees traces a kind of Warburgian survival moving to Sir Charles Eastlake’s English translation of Goethe’s Theory of Colour, published in 1840, Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), andTurner’s and John Constable’s influence on Delacroix and Monet, which, he claims, is unconsciously present, ‘almost an Impressionist subject sprung to life’, in the Lumière brothers’ Feeding Baby.
Into the twentieth century, much of what we now call historic avant-garde film sought to critique the apparatus of mainstream cinema, including the very space in which films were presented. And in post-war Britain Turner’s radical renewal of perception became of particular interest to artist film-makers who sought, among other things, to activate a spectator believed to be pacified by commodity culture. For such filmmakers, frame, surface, grain, light, movement, print stock — normally ‘invisible’ aspects of film, provided the raw material for work. Even ‘mistakes’ such as flare, scratching, slippage, and double-exposure would be incorporated (one thinks here of Turner’s ‘mistakes’: spitting on the canvas, overpainting ‘finished’ works on varnishing day). Rather than select a subject, many looked to natural phenomena as agency beyond the subject. But in the latter half of the twentieth century this was not so much to evoke the Turnerian sublime, as a post-nature Gaian sensibility.
British avant-garde filmmakers, among them Chris Welsby, William Raban, and John Woodman, asserted the illusionism of cinema through the sensuality of landscape imagery, and simultaneously asserted the material nature of the representational process which sustained the illusionism. Raban’s work View (1970) alternated shooting speeds to introduce rhythm into the landscape. Colours of This Time (1972) used long exposures to alter the colour of sunlight (in MM (2002) the camera stares unblinkingly into the sun). River Yar (1971-2), made with Chris Welsby, presents, in time-lapse, two views of the river at set points around the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes and alludes to the passage of the moon around the earth — signalled by the change in tides — and the passage of the earth around the sun — the light at different times of year. ‘With both Constable and Turner,’ Raban has commented, ‘I was interested that their work preceded the French naturalists like Monet. Monet was of particular interest because of his serial paintings of the same place under different conditions of light.’ Chris Welsby’s own films have consciously avoided a stable, coherent point of view implicit in nineteenth-century landscape painting. Welsby achieves this is by employing multiple projectors, as with his six-screen film installation Shore Line 11 (1979), whichloops portrait format images of waves lapping at the foreshore. Lawrence Gowing, ever perceptive, suggested that the essence of Turner’s last works might be gathered from the compound infinite meanings that he gave to water. Welsby is sensitive to these nuances in his film Drift (1994), a study of winter light falling on the continually moving surface of water. A misty pall restricts the visibility of objects at sea. The dominant colour is grey — a grey that sparkles with hues of blues and greens.
These non-narrative films can be characterised by a near-total absence of the human figure, a fascination with temporal cycles, and the use of fixed-frame long take shots. Their use of predetermined, rationalised procedures and specific quantities of time, rather than simply optical effects, are what negates their Romanticism. These are qualities familiar to a younger generation of filmmakers, of whom Emily Richardson is exemplary. Richardson’s film Cobra Mist (2008) takes its name from a secret over-the-horizon surveillance radar of the same name off the coast of Suffolk. Using time-lapse and manipulated sound-recordings, Richardson figures the camera as, simultaneously, a radio mast and weather mast. Squally showers lour in from the North Sea, wetting, steaming, and tinting the lens. Richardson invites the viewer to consider vertical terrestrial space — its nebulousness — from the grounded horizontality of the physical landscape in which the camera is placed.
Since opening in Margate in 2011, Turner Contemporary has exhibited and commissioned a number of artists who have respond to its namesake’s legacy, including John Smith with his film work Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) (2012), and Rosa Barba with her exhibition Subject to Constant Change (2013). For three months, Smith filmed from the large ‘picture window’ of the gallery and around Margate, capturing dramatically changing weather conditions. Smith’s intention is to collapse the poles of distance and involvement, to create for the viewer a simultaneous sense of being outside and inside, as Turner’s late works achieve. To accompany her exhibition Subject to Constant Change Rosa Barba made a selection of drawings Turner used to illustrate his lectures on perspective as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. Barba, fascinated by their modern appearance, was fascinated by Turner’s depth of knowledge of points of view, colour, and reflection — all key interests in her own recent work.
The nexus of these, and many more, diverse works influenced by Turner would be a fascinating way to furnish a biography by other means. What would emerge? A forceful sense of the extent to which Turner’s revolutionary renewal of perception has, and continues to, influence painting and cinema alike.
By coincidence, London last hosted an outdoor Per Kirkeby brick work 28 years ago in the spot occupied by Martin Creed’s brick wall these last five months, on the Hayward gallery’s sculpture terrace, overlooking the Thames. Creed’s sheer 3.5 meter tall wall is of ‘facing’ coloured brick bands — yellow, blue, red, and brown; the patternation runs through its structure. Creed enjoys its seriality, while amusing at the gesture of screening out the view beyond.
Kirkeby’s work, exhibited in the 1986 Hayward Annual titled Falls the Shadow, was of a different seismic order. Uniformly red brick, four shallow arches span outwards from the centre of a low, broad cross-shaped base, joining four squat split-columns at its ends. The arches divide the cross along its two axis to create four apportioned quarters. It appears artless, a Barrett homes bricky’s accomplished take on ornamental seating, and might have been easily overlooked. In both, there is something incontrovertible about the mortar bond that cements structural form to architecture — as if these things obdurately will remain. But the presence of Creed’s brick wall disproves this, and it too has already disappeared.
Today Kirkeby is primarily known for his ‘lyrical expressionist’ paintings. A trained geologist who writes extensively on his art, he began using brick in 1965, exhibiting a mortarless block, ten bricks high and one and a half wide. A year later, in 1966, Carl Andre began exhibiting his Equivalents series. Equivalent VIII (acquired by Tate in 1972, only becoming contentious in 1976) consists of 120 fire bricks stacked evenly in two layers. The astringency of these works, devoid of artistic dexterity or graphic quality, are an attempt to strip narrative. Bodily connotations are rendered inappropriate to emphasise the act of pure visual perception.
Although aware of Minimalism, Kirkeby did not identify with its aspiration to pure form or pure materiality. The brick had too much history. From its use to build dwellings along the prehistoric Nile delta, to the first towns of the Euphrates and Indus, the brick is a perfectly formed geometric unit that, when placed end to end, synthesizes into something greater than the sum of its parts. Arrangement introduces rhythm and texture, organises space, produces culture. Since its technological discovery in the 14th millennium BC — an elemental combination of earth, water, fire, and air — the brick has deviated little from its anthropomorphic proportions. Its ‘handiness’ is an expression of transversal human history. (Kirkeby also arrived at elementary forms through Kazimir Malevich’s ‘absolute zero’ of form, and its application to architecture, which he called ‘Archi-tectonics’.)
By the early 1970s Kirkeby had begun mortaring the brick seams, initially realising an architectural sculpture of a house in miniature, followed by a functional sculpture for smoking fish. Both were sited outside: the former in a Danish housing development, and the latter in a coastal garden. Into the ‘80s and ‘90s the brick works developed alongside Kirkeby’s painting and drawing practice, varying in siting (in the gallery, but mostly outside), scale, form, and function, while maintaining a resolutely conceptual logic. Many of his larger, later public commissions — throughout urban and rural Europe — share a monumental uncanny sense of incomplete architecture. Yet they shrug off any conventional language of architecture: windowless windows look into inaccessible spaces; ‘shadow joints’ create pockets of blackened air; interior space is irreconcilable with exterior volume.
In an age of Pop, an experiment in mass-marketed surfaces — an extension of the Modernists’ moral imperative of flatness into advertising and taste, Kirkeby found material history. But his influences also belonged to more recent personal history. Writing in 1984, two years prior to the Hayward Annual, on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, Kirkeby wrote of his childhood memories of the Grundtvigs Church in the Bispebjerg district of Copenhagen. Designed by P.V. Jensen-Klint and constructed of Danish red brick between 1921 and 1940, the Grundtvigs is an extraordinary Neo-Gothic wedge of brooding solidity. For Kirkeby the Grundtvigs transcends architecture. ‘Later,’ he writes:
I saw the clear, modern brick ornamentation... The church’s monolithic and dismissive shapes are more difficult to fit into history. Here, I think I have had inculcated in me some structures which are to be found in all my pictures. Both the paintings and the sculptures. Perhaps that it is my own fiction. But it is at least obvious that in its dimensions and proportions the church frees itself entirely from historical illustration material.
Piper Keys, Whitechapel, is a productively anxious siting for Kirkeby’s never-before constructed work, Stenalt (2012). It was originally designed by Kirkeby to partially wrap a mature tree in the garden of his friend and former assistant Arne Fremmich. Fremmich has been present throughout the build of Stenalt, initially rescaling the work to find commensurability with its new setting. Kirkeby and Fremmich have given permission for Stenalt to remain in place, occupying the gallery’s communal space until the building is vacated. As such it might achieve a certain freedom from historical illustration material.
Parallel exhibitions of Per Kirkeby's Stenalt and Robert Filby open Saturday 7 June 2014 at Piper Keys gallery, Whitechapel. For further information click here.