Sunday, 13 April 2014

On Camille Henrot for Cura magazine

On Camille Henrot's show 'The Pale Fox' at Chisenhale for Cura magazine here

Friday, 4 April 2014

On Absalon for Noon Magazine

Noon, a new art/fashion magazine, launched last week in Soho. Jasmine Raznahan, one half of London-based studio ARPA, is editor-in-chief; Hannah Barton provided editorial assistance. I was invited to write about the late Israeli-French artist Absalon. Below is my article, but I recommend you purchase a copy of the magazine for the excellent illustrations missing here, and the other contributions by, among others, Michael Wolf, Wolfgang Tilmans, Jon Rafman, Jason Hughes, Lena C. Emery and Dean Kissick. 

Absalon: A Life Unfinished 

‘The soul feels isolated, lost, if it is not surrounded by objects which seem to it like an extension of the bodily members.’ - Simone Weil, The Needs of the Soul, 1949.

Like the scion of modern architecture Le Corbusier, Absalon wasn’t born in his adopted city of Paris. Today, Le Corbusier’s name is synonymous with French cultural life, yet he was born in the Swiss region of La Chaux-de-fonds in 1887, and only later became a French citizen in 1930. Exactly a century after Le Corbusier’s birth, in 1987, at the age of 23, Meir Eshel arrived in Paris, an émigré from his native Israel. After studying at the École des Beaux-Arts under Christian Boltanksi, Eshel would become Absalon. 

Charles-Eduard Jeanneret became Le Corbusier — a bastardisation of Le Corbesier, a French maternal ancestral name — to differentiate between his work as a painter and his work as an architectural critic: anyone, he believed, could reinvent themselves (throughout his life Le Corbusier received many names; his black-rimmed glasses earned him the nickname ‘Corbu’, a variation on the word corbeau, or ‘raven’). Both Corbu and Absalon were predisposed to messianic impulses. One hailed from famously neutral territory, and the other famously contested territory. 

So why might Meir Eshel have wished to reinvent himself? Unlike Corbu, Eshel took only one name: Absalon. Absalom, from the Hebrew meaning father of peace, was the most beautiful son of David, King of Israel, who murdered his brother, planned a rebellion against his father, and died, ultimately, because his coiffured hair snagged in a tree. In Rabbinical literature the story of Absalon serves to warn against false ambition, vainglory and unfilial conduct. 

In 1993 Absalon died of AIDS — aged 28. Between finishing at Beaux-Arts and an untimely death, he produced an extraordinary volume of minimalist architectural-sculptural works, exhibiting at the Centre Georges Pompidou, and, a year before his death, at the prestigious, quadrennially-occurring Documenta in Kassel. Remarkable talents that die young are prone to mythification. At fourteen Meir Eshel was sent to military boarding school, from where he passed directly into four years military service. But with only a year remaining he went AWOL, retreating, a modern Jewish St Jerome, to a hut on the beach of his hometown of Ashod to study philosophy. He sold handmade jewelry, saved his money and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.

The six works Cellules (réalisation habitales) (1993) are singular cell-like structures, containing minimum furnishings for basic human needs — lodging, sleeping, washing, working and eating — scaled around Absalon’s bodily proportions. (Le Corbusier’s own Modulor system divided the human figure into two sections, which governs all other dimensions of the human body, and is, like the ‘Golden Section’, a universal law for architectural scale.) Their scale wavers between confinement, the propensity for claustrophobia, and refuge, with all the connotations of shelter and security. These white geometric volumes were designed to be sited in six cities, including Paris, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt and Zurich. Two were realised, in Paris and Zurich. These would serve as accommodation for Absalon on his travels around the globe. As sculpture their aesthetic evokes Sol LeWitt’s primary structures; their stripped functional interiors are as archetypal in form as Rietveld’s crate chair; their nomadic mobility evokes a dream of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin capsule tower, or Peter Cook’s Plug-in City. 

Cellules (1991) are self-contained sci-fi-Carthusian cells of wood, cardboard, white paint and neon. They are closed structures, larger than human scale, with sections unplugged to grant views inside. Inside their small interiors are suggestions of domestic functional details, which seem, as one critic has suggested, to have decayed back to the forms on which they were based. At KW Institute for Contemporary Art, which hosted an Absalon retrospective in 2011, various cells were exhibited alongside his video Proposition d’Habitation (1991). In this work a person dressed fully in white moves awkwardly about a small white room populated with objects that resemble furniture but lack any functionality.  

A hotel room, for Le Corbusier, should be a cell-like space for contemplation, meditation and recuperation. Discipline within its austere borders would, he believed, teach discipline in the larger society. The cell was humanizing, efficient and aesthetic. Le Corbusier’s commitment to a spartan environment reflected his commitment, not only to his Modulor system, but his early attraction to monasticism, asceticism, and a solitary existence. Several times in his book The Radiant City he writes, in a little frame, a formula for happiness: ‘the key = the cell = men = happiness’. 

For the French writer Gaston Bachelard, writing in The Oneiric House, the cell of the modern apartment block was a deadening, oppressive form: ‘I do not dream in Paris,’ he wrote, ‘in this geometric cube, in this cement cell, in this room with iron shutters so hostile to nocturnal subjects.’ Yet Absalon’s cells divert from the isolationism of Le Corbusier’s. ‘They are not meant to posit any solutions in terms of isolation,’ he once told an interviewer. ‘They have been made for living the social.’ It’s a terrible irony that a violent attack on the cells of Absalon’s immune system prevented him from becoming one of France’s greatest modern artists.  

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Benedict Drew: Ground Feeder

Image courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery, London.
In the preface to Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch (1921) — a long, learned semi-autobiographical tract on evolutionism — playwright George Bernard Shaw cites the German Neo-Darwinist August Weismann, whose History of Evolution devotes a passage to the ideas of the early German biologist Lorenz Oken. Oken, writing in 1809, observed that the original substance from which all forms of life developed on earth was a primitive slime, or Urschleim. And this slime, he claimed, took the form of innumerable vesicles (Schleimpunkte) — fluid-filled bladders, sacs or blobs — from which the entire universe was built. 

Shaw thought Oken a visionary: his vesicles anticipated modern cell morphology, long before the microscope and scalpel extended the perception of secularised lab workers. Oken considered natural science to be the ‘the science of the everlasting transmutations of the Holy Ghost in the world’. Approaching the mysteries of the universe was, therefore, approaching Him. Those secularised Modern lab workers, Shaw explains, remove dogs’ glands or tie up ducts, depriving them of strange vital slimes, their aim to affirm a known-known, the primacy of neurology, while in the process causing unnecessary injury. In Oken Shaw recognised a religious thinker who thought very hard to find out what was happening to the Holy Ghost; the irony is that such thinkers effected a shift towards scientific disenchantment — increasingly, external forces appeared not to be the Will of God. As Oken approached, He receded. 

If slime constitutes the building blocks of life (Schleimpunkte), and slime we become should our dead bodies putrefy, encounters with any viscous substance could be more than a little unnerving. Slime is both ignoble and noble. A taboo existed in eighteenth-century Britain against eating creatures engendered of slime and putrefaction, ‘the excrements of the earth,’ as one doctor put it, ‘the slime and scum of the water, the superfluity of the woods and the putrefaction of the sea: to wit... frogs, snails, mushrooms and oysters’. The taste for such creatures among the French and Italians only fueled English prejudice. Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology John Tyler Bonner argues that without cellular slime molds life on Earth would not be possible. A cellular slime mold begins as a single-celled amoeba. Providing it has food, the amoebae divide and live as single-cell organisms; deprived of food, the amoebae aggregate to form a slug in response to a chemical signal from a group of cells or a single founder cell. These slime slugs sense light, thermal or gaseous gradients, and migrate to food. An accelerated image of this non-human collectivist intelligence — red scare? — seeped into the post-war American imagination with The Blob (1958).
Image courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery, London.
A precarious slime, ‘spasmodic sap’, is how the ethnographer Roger Caillois characterises the emergence of life in The Writing of Stones (1970): 

Life appears: a complex dampness, destined to an intricate future and charged with secret virtues, capable of challenge and creation. A kind of precarious slime, of surface mildew, in which a ferment is already working... Obscure distillations generate juices, salivas, yeasts. Like mists or dews, brief yet patient jellies come forth momentarily and with difficulty from a substance lately imperturbable: they are evanescent pharmacies, doomed victims of the elements, about to melt or dry up... It is the birth of all flesh irrigated by a liquid... like the semisolid in the chrysalis, halfway between larva and insect, a blurred gelatin which can only quiver until there awakens in it a wish for a definite form and an individual function. 

Ostensibly, Caillois is not discussing human life. The Writing of Stones, his second on the subject, gathers to display, with commentary, his personal collection of polished precious stones, those he ‘often looked at, handled, and caressed’: jasper and agate, chalcedony and onyx. The extraordinary marks imbued in the stones is a kind of Urwriting; they receive their secret inscriptions over geological durations, durations that dwarf the human. ‘There are impossible scribblings in nature, written neither by men nor by devils,’ Caillois writes. And in these scribbles a viewer might decipher proto-images of anything invented by human visual culture, so that ‘already present in the archives of geology, available for operations then inconceivable, was the mode of what would later be an alphabet’. There were moors, bishops, lobsters streams, faces, plants, dogs, fishes, tortoises, dragons, death’s heads, crucifixes — everything a mind bent on identification could fancy. These were not copies, only ciphers for things. And yet Caillois was discussing human life: stones, like humans, are at the intersection of countless unknown forces too unpredictable to be measured, that shape us. So the stones might be ciphers for humanity at large. ‘The tissue of the universe is continuous,’ Caillois wrote. ‘I can scarcely refrain, from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the center of things; a dim, almost lost memory, or perhaps a presentiment, pointless in so puny a being, of a universal syntax.’ But this was not to assert some anthropomorphic purchase on the world of things: he had long given up regarding man as external to nature. In The Writing of Stones man recedes among slime and minerals.   

Earlier, in 1929, Caillois’ colleague Michel Leiris, with whom he would co-found the College de Sociologie, fascinated over the damp slimy orifice just below the eyes — the mouth. Spit specifically, or ‘mouth water’ as he calls it, with its ‘lack of consistency, its indefinite contours, the relative imprecision of its colour, its wetness’, is an unverifiable substance, the very symbol of formlessness. It is a ‘soft and sticky stumbling block that, better than any sort of rock, trips up the steps of everyone who imagines a human being to be something: 

something other than an unmuscled, hairless animal, the spit of a delirious demiurge who roars with laughter at having expectorated this conceited larva, this comical tadpole who swells up into a demigod’s puffy meat.   

Spit is necessary for food to tumble down the organic ladder and eject through damp orifices below. In oral sex the mouth — the outward sign of intelligence — meets these most shameful organs, reducing man to the level of primitive animals for which a shared single orifice is the organ of both nutrition and excretion. We become frog, snail, mushroom or oyster. Oral sex represents diabolical retrogressive chaos, as if the noble and ignoble has not yet been disentangled. Spit, therefore, represented the height of sacrilege. When we think of this what value can we really give to philosophical oration, Leiris asks, if language and spit issues from one and the same organ? 
Image courtesy of the artist and Matt's Gallery, London.
French sound poet Henri Chopin’s renunciation of language in his article Why I am the Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry (1967) did not issue from a mythical-surrealist examination of organs, though he would have been aware of Leiris’s; rather, the word had been instrumentalised by bankers, politicians and leaders to create profit, to justify work and occupation. In short it had permitted life to lie. Chopin’s solution? A-significant human sounds, without alphabet, without reference to an explicative clarity. ‘The mimetic sound of man, the human sound,’ he writes, ‘does not explain. It transmits emotions, it suggests exchanges, affective communications; it does state precisely, it is precise.’ He continues: 

I’m fond of my noises and of my sounds, I admire the immense complex factory of a body. I’m fond of my glances that touch, of my ears that seem of my eyes that receive.

Addressing his readers directly, Chopin explains how it matters little whether they will like this synaesthetic disorganisation because in spite of themselves it will embrace them and circulate inside. Sound poetry must, he writes, ‘open our effectors to our own biological, physical and mental potentials beyond all intellect’. How slimy Chopin’s microphone must have been when he expelled it from his own body. 

To learn more about Benedict Drew's exhibition 'Zero Petrified Hour' in New Zealand click here. To learn more about his current exhibition at Matt's Gallery in London click here

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Inline images 2


OUTPOST Gallery, 10b Wensum Street, NR3 1 HR
2pm, Sunday 23rd March 2014
Catalogue film screening followed by 'Sound-Poetry Alphabets'
Gallery conversation with Holly Antrum, Jeremy Noel-Tod, and Jonathan P Watts

Catalogue (2012-14) is the outcome of a collaboration between Holly Antrum and Jennifer Pike Cobbing. Aimed at being a film ‘with’ rather than ‘about’, Antrum invited Jennifer Pike to present herself and her work. Filming took place in her former London home and at Camden Arts Centre. In an exchange between their two practices, speaking and filming enlist as performances, documentation, sound, improvisation, image distortion, and dance, revealing shared interests.

The film features sound from Bow Gamelan Ensemble and Jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill, peers of Pike-Cobbing. Funded by the Elephant Trust and Arts Council England.

Holly Antrum (born 1983, London), is an artist and filmmaker working primarily with 16mm as well as print. The personal connections in her films explore our expectation towards the ‘poetic’ schools of artist’s analogue filmmaking whilst working within conditions that are now predominantly digital and ‘public’.

Recent exhibitions include ABC in Sound, Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool, Flatness (Online, In the House of Mr and Mrs X, Temporary Gallery, Cologne, Moda WK , Vane, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (all 2013). She graduated from Printmaking at the Royal College of Art in 2011. Forthcoming includes her first solo exhibition, Grand Union in Birmingham, June 2014. She currently lives and works in London. 

Jennifer Pike worked across media until recent years; in addition to abstract imagery in painting, photographic and digital formats, it included performances using her body as a word-surface and obstruction, ranging from costumed dancing with simple props within readings, to raps and collage composed on her Applemac. She was the wife and oft- collaborator of Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) who was the major exponent of concrete, visual and sound poetry in Britain. After his death she took up the reigns in performing selections from his seminal work 'ABC in Sound' (1964), which forms a part of Catalogue. Jennifer is an active and extraordinary creative 93 year old, now living in Bristol, who still occasionally appears for performances.

She exhibited in The Materialisation of Language - Woman betwixt Word and Image, Venice Biennale, 1978, amongst numerous artist-initiated exhibitions in London and the UK from the 1960’s forwards. Two catalogues of her work were compiled ‘Scrunch’ and ‘The Conglomerization of Wot’, published by Veer Books in 2010.

Jeremy Noel-Tod is Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He co-edited The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (2013) and is the regular poetry reviewer at The Sunday Times. He is also the poetry editor of the Cambridge Literary Review and an associate editor of Eggbox Publishing in Norwich.

Jonathan P Watts is a writer and critic based in London. He is a regular contributor to Frieze magazine, and has written for Art Monthly and Cura. Recently he contributed to a monograph on Ryan Gander that accompanies his touring exhibition 'Culturefield'. Last year he coordinated the exhibition 'Inherent Vice' as part of Peckham Artists' Moving Image.


link to Facebook event

Recent screening event

The Table is a Measure of All Things: On David Osbaldeston

I wrote the following text, The Table is a Measure of All Things, to accompany British artist David Osbaldeston's current exhibition with Collective, Edinburgh at the City Dome. Osbaldeston's exhibition, titled 'The Measure of All Things', opened on 15 March and runs until 27 April 2014. My text is available in abridged form as a hand out, and in its unabridged form on the Collective website (and below). To learn more about the exhibition click here

Whether it’s spinning off its feet to become some kind of grotesque monster, or falling apart and spilling condiments, the table occupies a curious place in Marxist literature. The former example belongs to Marx’s famous definition of the commodity in volume 1 of Das Kapital (1867), the latter to a lesser-known argument for the mutualistic relation between theory and practice by the historian E.P. Thompson. 
Throughout the 1970s the French structural Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser repeatedly proclaimed historical writing and research scientifically and politically valueless. Written in a feverish few months, Thompson’s polemical book The Poverty of Theory (1978) represents a monumental attempt by the Old British Left to fend the barbarians from the gate. Althusser’s appeal, alarmingly on the ascent, was, according to Thompson, limited: mostly to students, the New Left and aspirant intellectuals wishing to perform their own ‘imaginary revolutionary psycho-dramas’. 

For Althusser history’s claim to knowledge rested upon that disreputable manifestation of bourgeois ideology, empiricism. Empiricism, dating back to the seventeenth-century, assumes human beings have no source of knowledge of something, of the concepts used about something, other than from that gained from sense experience. The attainment of historical knowledge was misbegotten from the start because ‘real’ history is unknowable and cannot be said to exist. 
Even if Thompson wished to defend the honour of his discipline, how, he asks, do we eliminate experience from knowledge without falling into theoretical solipsism? ‘Object and subject,’ he writes, paraphrasing the poet Christopher Caudwell, ‘as exhibited by the mind relation, come into being simultaneously’, and ‘knowing is a mutually determining relation between knowing and being.’ Thompson clambers for an example to illustrate his point: ‘aha! I see my table,’ he writes, somewhat wryly. 

The joiner appropriates the timber, and, in working it up into a table, is governed both by his skill (theoretical practice, itself arising from a history, or ‘experience’, of making tables, as well as a history of the evolution of appropriate tools) and by the qualities (size, grain seasoning, etc.) of the timber itself. The wood imposes its properties and its ‘logic’ upon the joiner as the joiner imposes his tools, skills and his ideal conception of tables upon the wood. The wood cannot determine what is made, nor whether it’s made well or badly, but it can certainly determine what can not be made, the limits (size, strength, etc.) of what is made, and the skills and tools appropriate to the making. ‘In such an equation,’ Thompson writes:

‘thought’ can only represent what is appropriate to the determined properties of its real object, and must operate within this determined field. If it breaks free, then it becomes engaged in freakish speculative botching, and the self-extrapolation of a ‘knowledge’ of tables out of pre-existent bigotry.

This knowledge, exempt from practice and feedback from the material world, would not correspond to the reality of the wood. The table would soon demonstrate its adequacy or inadequacy: attempting to sit at it we might find it collapses, ‘spilling its whole load of elaborate epistemological sauces to the floor’. 

It’s probably no coincidence that when Thompson sought an empirical object he found the table: the table supports the writing machine that enables the words to be written. Thompson, too, I expect, wished to evoke that most famous of tables in Marxist literature, the one used by Marx to explain that ‘very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’, the commodity. 

The commodity is a useful thing that satisfies wants or needs. But how or why do values attach to commodities independent to their use-value or labour? ‘It is as clear as day,’ Marx writes, ‘that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him.’ The form of wood, he continues: 

is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.

In The Measure of All Things David Osbaldeston has trimmed down the legs of Ikea ‘Lack’ tables. They support not epistemological sauces, but display boards and a number of modernist plinths upon which stands an imaginary device for image recognition. This trimming down, this lack, we could say is a kind of ‘table-turning’, a perversion and repurposing of the ubiquitous table with its exploded diagram — a post-industrial score for performing your own docked domestic Fordist assembly line. Commenting on the Lack table designer Theo Deutinger writes: 

Lack is the ultimate global compromise... If the United Nations had an assembly to decide what a world table – representing all the cultures and nations on earth – should look like, Lack would be the outcome. It’s square – avoiding the discussions of which culture invented the wheel; it’s average in height – right between the Asian and Western dimensions; it’s endlessly extendable – seating anywhere from one person to all the people in the world.

For Deutinger Lack is unavoidable; it’s neither good nor bad, neither ugly nor beautiful and most important of all, it’s cheap. It’s a commodity par exemple, the most empathetic encountered, ready to nestle into any hand and house. In The Measure of All Things it’s an altered readymade — the ultimate neo-liberal non-object — divested of use, deranged by its own grotesque ideas gleaned from the economy of art. It’s a memory of a certain empirical truism, that thought and being mutualistically inhabit a single space; It’s a symbol, too, for the dynamic transformations the commodity has undergone, and undergoes, in this shared space.

Artisans, to paraphrase the philosopher Vilém Flusser, are people who stuff material into forms. The artisan sees the form of the table and tries as well as he can to stuff it with wood. He does not completely succeed in this, however, writes Flusser, because ‘the material defends itself from being informed’. The artisan Flusser describes belongs to the Medieval period. Perhaps too, we might assume, does the carpenter Thompson had in mind. 

Nobody makes tables anymore. 

How does the Ikea Lack defend itself from being informed? Configured on Osbaldeston’s image recognition device are a number of 3D printed objects, designs for which were downloaded from open source user-created files for hardware available online. Does a printed object defend itself from being informed? The shift described here is one from soft to hard, from an engagement with resistant materials to distributed immaterial objects which, nevertheless, can be actuated theoretically anywhere. 

‘Technogenesis’ is what the philosopher N. Katharine Hayles calls the complex and unfolding changes in human attitudes, assumptions, and cognitive modes associated with digital media. Technogenesis accounts for new kinds of encounters with the commodity. For some time now economic change, knowledge and the nature of the commodity has been based on and in the continuous interactivity and co-creation with new forms of digital media and the image. Today the commodity is ‘intelligent’, anticipating, accommodating and speculating our every need, oh so benignly. 

At the centre of the The Measure of All Things Osbaldeston’s image recognition device is also an exploded view — a technogogic score for post-Snowden worlds. It’s only the most cutting-edge technology in an exhibition that nestles a range of obsolete imaging technologies into the present. These ‘enfoldings’ as Hayles calls them — past nestling inside the present, present carrying the embryo of the future — constitute the complex temporalities that inhabit technogenesis. And history for that matter. 

Recently the curator and author of Neo-Materialism (Sternberg, 2013) Joshua Simon claimed that ‘the commodity is only really true to itself as art, and thus the exhibition becomes a format that enables us to see the commodity as it is’. The Measure of All Things, true enough, might accede to this banal claim, but it goes further in exploring how and why the commodity is metaphysically subtler and theologically nicer than it’s ever been.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Poser Punks: Derek Jarman & Jordan Wolfson

Derek Jarman by Richard Hamilton, 1996-7

The weekend before last I attended a memorial service, hosted by Neil Barlett and Simon Watney, for the late filmmaker Derek Jarman at King's College chapel. That same weekend I attended the artist Jordan Wolfson's moving-image installation Raspberry Poser at the Chisenhale Gallery, London. From each event I took contrasting ideas about sexuality and identity. I felt compelled to write about it, as much as a way to work out my own thoughts. You can read the article on the Frieze blog.    

To learn more about the current year-long celebration of Derek Jarman taking place in London click here.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Book Review: Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes

“In architecture,” Le Corbusier famously wrote, “there is no such thing as detail, everything is important.” Just as well for the Corbusier publishing syndicate, which of recent seems to be attempting to fulfill the logic of this statement by producing books on the Modern Scion and, well, just about everything
At least eight monographs have been published on Père Corbusier in the last eighteen months, four times the number of those published on Mies van der Rohe. In March and then April this year, two books addressed exactly the same subject — his churches — which must have been the cause of much chagrin for all involved. You’d probably get two nights board in Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation for less than the cost of buying half the books published on him in the last eighteen months. 
Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, edited by Jean-Louis Cohen, Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, follows hot on the heels (or spine) of his book Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory: From Painting to Architecture, published this Spring. So what make this publication so necessary? 

The book accompanies a major exhibition of the same title at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that addresses a lack: “If there is a blind spot in the astonishingly vast literature dedicated to Le Corbusier,” Cohen’s opening essay begins, “it is certainly his relationship to landscape”. This, despite at least two of his five points of architecture seeming to address the topic — the pilotis, reinforced concrete stilts that lifted housing blocks off the ground, thus freeing land surface beneath, and also providing private domestic roof gardens. To this we can add the horizontal window, which Beatriz Colomina has so convincingly argued rendered many of Le Corbusier’s houses not simply machines for living in, but also — with the unmitigated complexity of the former oft-quoted aphorism — machines for viewing landscape. 

However, Le Corbusier’s pilotis (as Martin Pawley once observed), lift housing blocks off the ground, thus destroying their relationship with the earth. And machine age urbanism and building was rolled out into environments irrespective of people’s needs or sensitivity to place. “The city,” he wrote “is man’s grip upon nature. It is a human operation directed against nature.” Architecture should stand in contrast to nature, rather than appear as an organic outgrowth. In the 30s Le Corbusier changed his mind about the inevitably beneficent workings of a machine-age civilization, moving towards what Kenneth Frampton calls a “monumental vernacular”, of which the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp is exemplary.    

“The relationship of building to landscape is manifest in some of his work,” Cohen assents, “but in a large portion of his production it is latent, not the central focus of the project.” One of the problems is the nebulousness of the term ‘landscape’. Cohen offers a working definition via philosopher Alain Roger who argues in Short treatise on landscape (1997) that it denotes both the physical and visible form of a specific outdoor space, and its graphic, pictorial or photographic representation. There is, according to Roger, an intimate relation between the two, which he calls artialisation. Physical and visible landscape and representation of landscapes are in mutualistic relation, they inform one another, constantly refashioning ideas of landscape. In fact, Roger argues that an idea of landscape as a physical and visible space was impossible without its representation. It wasn’t until the early sixteenth century, when views of land began to be valued in their own right, that landscape, as we call it today, began to gain traction as a an aesthetic category. 

Of course Le Corbusier was an avid painter, photographer and cinematographer. One problem with Roger’s working definition of landscape, however, is that it slips into ocularcentrism - it is dominated by vision - which is rendered all the more confusing when terms such as “nature”, “garden”, “plan” and “site” are used as synonyms of landscape. 

In light of this blindspot, the purpose of this book is to set a new agenda for the study of Le Corbusier. Cohen’s opening essay really does set an exciting agenda, however many of the other essays are simply encounters or miniature case studies on specific buildings. They take for granted working definitions of landscape, advocating relational, multi-sensory approaches that, arguably, are a corrective to Roger’s ocularcentic definition of landscape. 

An Atlas of Modern Landscapes opens directly into an exquisite photo essay by Richard Pare of Corbu’s buildings. (Late last year Pare’s photographs of neglected Constructivist architecture were central to the brilliant exhibition Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 at the Royal Academy, London.) Photographs spread across the centrefold and a double fold-out page show beguiling panoramas of Chandigarh and Ronchamp. After this, there are many fascinating smaller photographs by Pare and archival images courtesy of Foundation Le Corbusier, but none so big as those at the beginning. The following four hundred pages are text and footnote heavy, and the page margins are extraordinarily wide. I’m not a design philistine; my copy for this review was almost late because I could only manage ten minute reading stints in bed before going weak in the arms. Why commission top rate academic essays for such a great lump? Make it an exquisite photobook or a smaller, focussed collection of essays giving an historiography and contemporary takes on “landscape”, “nature”, “garden”, “plan” and “site” and Le Corbusier’s work, with a functioning index. Or maybe this is a book that is not supposed to be read? 

The latter would be fascinating because Corby had a contentious, often contradictory, relation to these things. An Atlas of Modern Landscapes is too keen to retroactively fit Le Corbusier to landscape. Whatever your preferred moniker for the architect, Saint Corbu doesn’t need any more hagiographies. And book sales are unlikely to be affected. 

This article was written on 16/07/13. It was published online by Grafik on 20/03/14. Click on the image object below to read it on their website. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sunday, 12 January 2014

On Judith Hopf for Cura magazine

On Judith Hopf's show 'Testing Time' at Studio Voltaire for Cura magazine here

Friday, 3 January 2014

Tombland Drift

Tombland Drift is a project in progress by the Norfolk-based photographer Glen Jamieson. The project will culminate as a book of the same title, which will be produced in collaboration with my editorial input and the good design sense of Traven T Croves. Tombland Drift is supported by Arts Council England. To learn more about the project click here. To view the project as intended for web click here

Monday, 9 December 2013

'ABC in Sound: Bob Cobbing' at the Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool

My review of 'ABC in Sound: Bob Cobbing' at the John Moores Exhibition Research Centre, Liverpool in the November issue of Art Monthly

‘Adventure, Aventure, Aventereure, Adventure’ – the iconic opening words of Bob Cobbing’s Sound Poem, 1965, otherwise known as ABC in Sound. Over the duration of 22 minutes, beginning with A and ending with Z, Cobbing recombines letters, words and sounds to effectively rewrite the linguistic institution of the English language. It is a mythic rebeginning – there are, I suppose, parallels with the Darmstadt School – a razing of language before the rebuilding. But often rebeginnings are not the clean breaks we imagine them to be: Cobbing had precedents in the continental Avant Garde of Guillaume Apollinaire, FT Marinetti and Kurt Schwitters; and was of a milieu that included, among many others, Henri Chopin, Eric Mottram, Dom Sylvester Houédard, John Latham, Jeff Nuttall and Ernst Jandl. The other myth associated with ABC in Sound is that it was written during a delirious bout of flu, a flu Cobbing met with a concoction of medication and generous slugs of whiskey. 

It is entirely apt, therefore, that William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper, curators of the most thorough exhibition of Bob Cobbing’s life and work to date, should call it ‘Bob Cobbing: ABC in Sound’. The 1965 recording sounds out across the pan-media assemblage of printed matter, paintings, documents, films, sound works, objects and artefacts at the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool. The show’s title announces the curators’ authoritative intention to begin again; but, as we know, there is no beginning again. After all, it was only a couple of years ago that Lawrence Upton curated ‘Some Variations of a Theme on Bob’ at Space, London and, shortly after that,‘Bob Cobbing and the Book’ at the University of West England. In 2005 David Toop assembled Cobbing’s recorded work as part of Text Festival at Bury Art Gallery. So why do we need another exhibition? 

Cobbing’s ouevre 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. There has also been a tendency to disentangle the various aspects of his practice, which seems best described, paradoxically, as a kind of fracturous Gesamtwerk. The British Library’s part in this – it mainly has tape works, but curiously enough also Cobbing’s divorce papers – seems like a value judgement where Cobbing himself didn’t pronounce one. There is no singularly exhaustive cataloguing and holding of Cobbing’s work.

William Cobbing is the poet’s grandson. Indeed, most of the works come from the Cobbing family’s personal archive, with additional material borrowed from Jennifer Pike (Cobbing’s spouse), Jasia Reichardt (guardian of Gaberbocchus Press, a publishing house founded in 1948 by filmmakers Stefan and Franciszka Themerson to make the likes of Alfred Jarry and Kurt Schwitters available to English-speaking audiences), and Marvin and Ruth Sackner (owners of the most comprehensive archive of sound and concrete poetry in Florida). ‘ABC in Sound’ initiates what the curators call Bob Jubilé, a year-long series of events and exhibitions devoted to his legacy, which will culminate in a book published by Occasional Papers. 

‘ABC in Sound’ tacitly acknowledges the myth of Cobbing’s delirium in composing the eponymous poem. Indeed, there is a delirium in all of Cobbing’s work which is reflected in the sheer quantity of information in this exhibition. The complex floorplan is encyclopedic, but has mercifully been separated into artefacts and reproductions of poems. The curators worked with graphic designer Sara de Bondt in the exhibition and publication design. The relationship between them is intriguing, not least because it graciously – refreshingly – concedes limitations to the curators’ competencies. What separates curating from designing? If a sensibility analogous to the disposition of text at the heart of Cobbing’s visual poems is desired, what does it mean to outsource this to a professional and thus divorce it from poetry practice? 

Behind a beguiling arrangement of poetry-gig posters, black vinyl lettering, upper and lowercase, elongated, lopped, inverted and overlapped, scatter the wall. These words and non-words in motion, transposed from the page, defy architecture, travel round corners and tattoo the gallery window, invading everyday life. Cobbing would have welcomed impromptu performances of any material on display here, but the words writ large, ‘song signals’, are an invitation to incantation. What they also convey are principles of freedom and public space that ledger Cobbing’s entire body of work. As he explains in a filmed interview with Judy Merryman, shot at the Sackner’s home in 1982 and on display here, concrete poetry doesn’t lay down laws; it is concerned with freedom, and the signals on the page are just indications of possibilities for performance. And, we learn in a number of documents on display, poetry must be heard to exist: ‘The poem exists when it is spoken or performed,’ he writes in What the tape-recorder teaches the poet, 1985. ‘Performances may vary widely according to the environment, the audience, the performer’s perception of these, and the performer’s response to these perceptions. A poem must be heard.’ Elsewhere, in a document titled Poetry for a new age, 1969 – this personal copy sheathed in biro-scribbled editorial notes and typewriter overwritten – Cobbing writes of the movements and spatial rhythms that activate sound and visual poetry as ‘steps to the arena’. The arena, it seems, is a communitarian space, provisional, in-process, evolving over time.

One of the great pleasures of ‘ABC in Sound’ are the many-layered micro-histories it contains. For example, Cobbing’s publications span a 60-year range of printing techniques, including letraset, photocopying, ink duplication, lithe and desktop inkjet. There is also a micro-history of exhibition display. Head-height grid frames constructed of light pine are configured to hold white panels printed with visual scores and poems. The design is a copy of structures used for the 1971 exhibition ‘konkrete poëzie’ at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam – to date the single most comprehensive exhibition of concrete poetry. But these elegant ‘frame structures’ don’t simply display configurations of poems, they allow the curators to neatly differentiate this matter from other diverse media on display – not a false typological distinction, anathema to Cobbing’s output, but just to help the audience catch its breath. The frame structures’ effects are also spatial: they balance the gallery space and provide framed vistas onto works. The exhibition’s flirtation with fuggy 1970s-style county council pinboard display – showing a chronological timeline of Cobbing’s life – is justified when we learn it is the same set-up the poet used in his studio. Cobbing was keen on revisiting and recycling aspects of his work, which would seem to defy this chronological sequencing. But where the rest of the exhibition swirls, the chronology runs in wonderful tension like a spine along the length of one of the walls. From previously unseen documents and correspondence we learn of Cobbing’s catalytic involvement in activities ranging from the establishment of the Hendon Experimental Arts Club in 1950, to the initiation of an illustrated literary magazine for the boys of Ashmole School, where he taught in the early 1960s, to his meeting with Stephen Dwoskin and the formation of the London Film-makers’ Co-op in 1966. There are press clippings and personal correspondence on, for example, the infamous Destruction in Art Symposium and Betters Books. And never-before-seen architectural plans and details for a bookshop, which would have housed the LFMC, that Cobbing and two colleagues fundraised for but which was denied planning permission when one of these colleagues hosted a drunken party in the existing site building.       

‘ABC in Sound’ plays a vital role in gathering and making available a life and body of work that for various reasons can feel difficult to grasp. Where, for example, John Latham’s Flat Time House in South London has enabled a new generation of artists and producers to respond to his work, the absence even of a coherent collection of Cobbing’s work has limited his important legacy. Cobbing’s varied output and collaboration means that ‘ABC in Sound’ will interest not only poets but sound designers, ethnomusicologists, visual artists, graphic designers, filmmakers and children of the UK counter-culture, among others. Hopefully this year-long series of events will remind and teach of Cobbing’s inspired ethics and output. London-based artist Holly Antrum’s newly commissioned 16mm film, Catalogue, featuring Jennifer Pike, on display at ‘ABC in Sound’ is an important start. Historically, wives of poets have been overshadowed and Antrum’s film is a reassertion of Pike in the creative marriage.   

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Who is this who comes? Interview with Benjamin Brett

Floorswamp (2013)
Animate Disney cups dance with trilobites on the roiling planes of London-based painter Benjamin Brett’s work Floorswamp (2013). There are irreconcilable Manet-ish combinations of light sources: shadows pitch this way and that, some fall in spite of absent objects. At the edges faux-naive twigs zone off doodles and squiggles from the outside world. These twigs, I think, are brisées. In the vocabulary of venery - an archaic word for the art of hunting, the pursuit of sexual pleasure, or the thrill of the chase - broken branches or snapped twigs in the forest indicate the presence of game. For the forester, brisées signify boundary markers - branches or stakes planted in the ground to define an area of timber ready for logging. If a function for Brett’s twigs at the edges of the canvas might be as limit device, marking inside from outside, Floorswamp sets them ablaze in the scabrous heat of calor-blue flames.

Dancer (2013)
Motifs flee capture, persisting in disfigured forms elsewhere, as specters of something once whole. A line and two circles (a whimsical cartoon mosquito face), doughy mitts, the dancer’s body from The Dancer (2013) find asylum on the diamond gridded ground of Untitled (2013). The diamond grid is a recurring motif in Brett’s paintings, lifted from frescoes of ancestral churches in his native county Norfolk. If, from late Enlightenment onwards, the rectangular grid was the technological means to achieve perspective, and therefore naturalism, it later became the object of obsession for modernist abstract painters concerned with purging painting of the external world. Brett skews rectangular perspective grids - like concertina’d garden trellises - into diamonds, reaching into a medieval image repertoire, putting the squeeze on overbearing modernity. In Untitled (Joust) (2013) the diamond grid hangs like a beaded curtain, figuring a multi-stable space that swings over the threshold between back, middle and fore- ground.

Paintings such as Between All of This (2012), Seer (2013) and Collar (2013) testify to Brett’s abiding fascination with the problem of the bodily figure, specifically its minimum requirements for recognition. Talking recently about his paintings he evoked the great ghost story Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by MR James. In Jonathan Millar’s remake for BBC television an academic disinters a bone whistle from a Norfolk graveyard. As he walks along the beach a dark figure follows in the distance. Later, when this thing comes to his hotel room, it makes itself known by delineating form through a sculptural mass of bed linen and clothing strewn on the floor. Is what he sees through a fug of feverish night terrors and ancient, archetypal anxieties a ghost? As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once said: If you want to see a ghost, you’ll see one.

Untitled (Joust) (2013)
Since graduating from the Royal College of Art painting department this summer Ben has exhibited at Ana Christea Gallery, New York and was recently shortlisted for the 100 Painters of Tomorrow prize. When I met with Ben I began by asking about this experience at the RCA.

Benjamin Brett: The Royal College to me is a bit like a pressure cooker. You have two years in which to experiment and dismantle your practice in the first year and then pull back together what is of value in the second. I made a lot of work there. It’s such an intense environment that it is difficult to really understand or reflect on the quality of what you’re making. Inevitably you make a lot of bad work, which is part of it and then hopefully things make a bit more sense towards the end. I think people’s experience at the RCA really varies depending on the year; a good peer- group makes a lot of difference.

Jonathan P Watts: For your show at OUTPOST Gallery, Norwich, Liminal, with Steve Draycott, you displayed collage alongside Draycott’s objects. I know in the past you’ve made your own objects to accompany paintings. What’s their relationship?

BB: Occasionally I’ve used objects alongside painting. I think at the time I was questioning the idea of a canvas as a window into an illusionary space and the sculptural aspect provided a way of calling into question the canvas as object. I think these contradictory states are still what interest me in making work although most of it occurrs inside the frame now, whether something is foreground or background or has depth or is flat.

JPW: Your paintings move through a range of visual registers: cartoon imagery, medieval figures, and pattern. There are also recurring motifs - signatures, if you like: gloved hands, legs, diamond grids. Where do these come from?

Collar (2013)
BB: In earlier work I used photographs as a source, particularly ambiguous images with a potential to be read in a number of different ways depending on decisions made in the execution of the painting. In an old work titled Collar two white-gloved hands drink from a cup, however the addition of a crescent shape at the bottom of the canvas poses either as a loose figurative representation of the subject’s collar or a rather crude abstraction of a mouth, suggesting a grinning cartoon face. I like this slippage between reality and cartoon, figurative and abstract. Cartoon or caricature imagery draws on archetypes that relate closely to the unconscious, imaginary realm. I felt this could be used as a device to explore questions relating to abstraction in painting, maintaining a flatness of surface while also alluding to depth. I think these things happen differently now in my work, but an image bank was formed and certain motifs reoccurred. I think they now function as visual registers offering a suggested reading for the canvas, whether something is an illusion of space or a real space if that makes sense?

JPW: Yes. To what extent is this imagery in conversation with paintings of other artists? I think I can see Philip Guston and Martin Kippenberger. Is this a means to acknowledge influences?

BB: Guston and Kippenberger still have a great influence on contemporary painting. I think a lot of artists, one way or another, acknowledge their influences in their work, whether consciously or unconsciously. Guston’s and Kippenberg’s work is synonymous with cartoon imagery so I guess there is an immediate reference in terms of the pictorial language that is deployed. Occasionally a chosen motif might have an explicit reference to artists working within this territory - a kind pointer that is intended to bring the work into a conversation and help to locate it.

JPW: Your painting Floorswamp is populated by discrete image events with their own orbit. We don’t view the painting synchronically - all at once as in all-over painting. Could you comment on this?

BB: Things often happen simultaneously in my pictures. I attempt to create individual environments whereby these things can be played out and question conventional notions of depth and perspective in painting. I suppose cartoon motifs are important because they naturally defy this logic. There’s no particular hierarchy or individual location. The suggested meaning in the symbolism can be significant or arbitrary or purely compositional. I admire the painter Antoni Tàpies; his paintings are simultaneously of something recognisable but also of nothing recognisable, cyphers and limbs float and emerge from smudges and marks as if to be read as signs or clues, but then not at all.

JPW: Do you ever begin a painting with an existing compositional structure in mind? To what extent are they planned?

BB: This is an interesting question. I often think about what makes a good painting and what role the question of form and content play in this. A good compositional structure, however abstract, is often dependent on a verb - what is the painting doing? I think it helps to ask this in relation to making decisions concerning composition, as in something needs a reason for being there. This is a kind of internal logic in the painting. I like to play around with recurring motifs and different arrangements of imagery to see how one thing relates next to something else. There is always a starting point and I usually do a lot of drawings and collage to get an overall idea of a painting’s structure although this is always subject to change.

Wodwo (2012)
JPW: Is the historical imagery intended as narrative to be unpacked, or are they iconographic only?

BB: I’m interested in the way imagery in history painting is often used to provide narrative meaning. There’s a sense of allegory, to decipher a meaning beyond its visual symbol. I find this an exciting territory whereby contradictions in meaning can be exploited, sometimes emphasizing certain visual motifs that, placed beside something else, allude to narrative or overall meaning but don’t necessarily add up. A bit like a rebus, a pictorial device that questions the independent and collective meaning of component parts. I really like Guston’s painting Flatlands for the way it functions as a sort of dumping ground for his personal iconography, and how they function in the conventional reading of a painting. There is a sense of non- hierarchical. How important are these pointers in the overall reading and appreciation of a painting?

JPW: Your painting Untitled (Joust) is over 2 x 1 meters - it’s fairly large. How long does a large-scale painting such as this take you?

BB: It’s hard to say because a painting such as Untitled (Joust) underwent numerous transformations before it arrived at a stage where the structure for the final image was apparent and the ideas gained clarity. This is typical of the way the large paintings come into being: they start with an idea in mind that inevitably becomes problematic as the painting doesn’t go they way I want it to go. This isn’t necessarily failure but part of the process in getting to the stage where a painting starts to communicate itself. This can create new directions and gives you something to work against as you are responding to what is already there. This transformation is typical of the way I paint and often the mistakes contribute to the subsequent layers. It’s a medium in which you can embrace imperfection and use it to achieve something that wasn’t expected to begin with. I think you have to be susceptible and receptive when something doesn’t go the way you want it to but starts to inform something else. It’s important to continually be surprised and be excited by it. Not knowing where something is going to come from is simultaneously daunting and exciting, I don’t necessarily know what the next painting will be but it has to have a starting point. I think Joust went through a few different paintings but some of the underlayers are still visible in the final painting. I guess the coming together of a painting happens quite quick it is just the building up to that that takes time regardless of scale.

JPW: How often do you paint?

BB: I try to paint most days but this isn’t always possible. I would if I could.

JPW: In your paintings Between all of This and Seer do we see faces? Are they portraits?

BB: Most of my work is concerned with processes of representation so I like the idea they might be one thing or another but the visual language I use serves to encourage the reading as something anthropomorphic.

JPW: Diamond patterns in Untitled and Untitled (Joust) seem not just to be aesthetic; they throw into question the relationship between background and foreground. How do they function for you?

BB: Exactly in this way. I think of them as a surface rather than a pattern, like a grubbied giant tea towel where the stains are an aesthetic contribution but also a believable space whereas other elements simply float on top. As I mentioned before the painting underneath is a significant part between background and foreground.

JPW: In the media it’s often said that painting is either dead, or, on the contrary, about to face a renaissance. This is not quite the same for other media. How do you view the state of contemporary British painting?

BB: That is a popular question and, when broached by the media, broadly speaking relates to fashion and whether it is in or out of it. Painting is increasingly difficult because it is often subservient to the weight of its own history but there are times when, in a wider remit, it will be more pertinent than at other times but I’m sure people will always do it. With younger artists it is still an incredibly popular and important language that can teach a sensibility towards art and a way of looking that is invaluable whether that artist becomes a painter or not.

This text was published on A Modern Matter's website, November 2013. Click here to view it on their website.