Monthly Archives: June 2009

The thrill of recognition

The Chapman Family Collection. Photo: Stephen White

The Chapman Family Collection. Photo: Stephen White

I sometimes wonder why I find myself in art galleries so often when I find so much about contemporary art so irritating. With an article hardly finished, I’m jumping on the bus to Tate Britain to see Classified, just because they’ve got seven new rooms of recent acquisitions. Perhaps I should get a hobby, go for a walk. It’s a nice day.

Actually, to be honest it’s mostly just the writing that I find irritating. Take this, from an interpretative label:

“[Rebecca Warren's Come, Helga] questions our assumptions about sculptural tradition.”

This is a classic piece of nonsense, committing the twin crimes of a vague assertion about ‘us’ and mis-ascription of agency. Firstly you assume that you and I, Ms gallery label-writer, share a set of common assumptions about sculpture, which I doubt (I’m actually just not very interested in sculpture), and secondly that an inanimate lump of dried clay is capable of questioning those assumptions. It’s a jumped-up hyperbolic claim of importance for the work that gets in the way of understanding or even seeing it. It’s not even something that the Tate are universally guilty of: the Tate Collection’s own description is much better: it starts off with a physical description of the work, draws some parallels and finishes up with the question of the artist’s ‘concerns’. Comprehensible without being patronising.

Maybe I shouldn’t bother reading the labels and just look at the art. Maybe I should just be grateful that I don’t have to wade through the tedious sheaves of pretentious pseudo-theory that blighted Bourriaud’s Altermodern. At least this conceit is simple. ‘Classified’: artists, like everyone else, enjoy messing around with the taxonomic systems of organisation that characterise post-Enlightenment knowledge. Aggregation and differentiation; Comte; Linnaeus: Same same but different. Take Ceal Floyer’s Monochrome Till Receipt (White), a Morrison’s receipt for a trolleyful of shopping that’s all literally white: goats cheese, face cream, tampons, etc. It’s about classification, and it’s about process, because this is a new till receipt: the work has been re-created specially for this show.

But this show is actually less about classification than it is about recognition: the recognition of what has seeped into and out of popular culture from the hallowed white cube. It’s not the experience of ‘signature style’ you get wandering through MOMA (screenprint: Warhol, check; smudgy stencil work: Jasper Johns, check; bricks on the floor: Carl Andre, check); it’s more like hearing someone in a British New Wave film utter the words that should be coming out of Morrissey’s mouth.

The first two immediately recognisable works are Jeremy Deller’s The History of the World (a mind map linking brass bands and rave music) and Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear (a map of the tube in which station names have been replaced by those of historical figures), which belong on the wall above my sofa, and in the inlay tray of my Acid Brass CD respectively. It seems odd seeing them in a gallery: they’re both flat works made for reproduction, so there’s no extra aura to be felt or detail to be seen in the ‘original’ (the Patterson edition is a little larger than my copy). Deller’s taken a vernacular form, seen on flipcharts and in management meetings, and given it an unexpected social content. Patterson’s schtick of relabelling tube stations has become a popular genre in itself, enough to fire the ire of TfL, ‘owners’ of the original. Both works are so familiar in such a way that it feels like they don’t belong in an art gallery at all, that placing them on white walls imposes unnecessary restrictions on our contemplation and understanding.

Tacita Dean’s Michael Hamburger is a short film of the venerable poet and critic talking about the varieties of apples he grows in his Suffolk garden. According to the interpretation label this is a poignant substitute for talking about his childhood and escape from 1930s Germany (in fact Hamburger seems to have written a memoir about just this), but I notice that W.G. Sebald, whose translator Hamburger was, is mentioned: Sebald is unfinished business for so many people; and I wonder whether Suffolk, through Sebald and Hamburger is talking on the kind of mystic qualities that Iain Sinclair used to mine from the East End. In any case, I learn from Hamburger that russet apples became unpopular because of the rough texture of their skin.

Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy is recognisable from fashion magazines and general Hirstiana. The medicines also: scanning the shelves I recognise ones I’ve taken or applied, and wonder why the Zirtek is shelved on the opposite side of the room from the Clarityn. (Should one be tempted, at this stage, to have a Stuckist moment of derision for the persistent taint of Conceptualism, rest assured that the paintings are easily the worst things in the whole show. The best among them, Phillip Allen’s Beezerspline is a prettyish painting of something like rainbows, bludgeoned to death by its own description, explaining the concepts of both the Beezer (an old comic) and spline (a mathematical formula for drawing rainbow shapes).

The last room of the show is the Chapman Brothers’ Chapman Family Collection, an assortment of Papuan/Pacific-looking masks, figures and fetishes, supposedly an ethnographic assortment belonging to the Chapman family for some years (complete with pisstaking interpretation). There are even joss sticks burning to give the room the feel of a dusty authenticity, but these are of course the works of the Chapmans themselves. If the repetitive use of vaguely vaginal seashells didn’t give it away, it doesn’t take long to see that these figures, artfully burnt, distressed and adorned with grasses and animal hair, are in fact Ronald McDonald, and other figures from the McDonald’s advertising pantheon like Hamburglar. One chubby little pipe-mouthed fellow clutches a coke and fries; elsewhere a hamburger is being crucified. The Chapmans are basically the fine art Banksy: admirably bloody-minded creators of recognisable iconographies (cocks, brains and bottles; chimps and rats), with the same basic message: don’t take your pretensions too seriously because base humanity and mere commerce underlies all. It’s no bad thing, either, and though this doesn’t have the gobsmacking brilliance of Hell, it’s better than the Hitler stuff.

And so Classified comes across something like Now That’s What I Call Contemporary Art 2009. There’s the classics you’ll always love, a few properly duff ones doubtless included for contractual reasons, and some slow simmerers that you might be hearing more from.

A short and peaceful boat ride away, at the other Tate, there are more recognitions. In George Maciunas’ Fluxus newspapers I can see precursors of the Church of the Subgenius (“send those $ to Fluxus”); in Jeff Koons’ colour- mirrored animal faces I recognise the table from the ICA workshop. In Stutter in the second floor gallery, there’s Michael Riedel’s Filmed Film Trailer, a trailer for a film of super-fast compressed films. I briefly recognise both Anger‘s Eaux d’Artifice and Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema.

But best of all, Fischli and Weiss’s Untitled (Tate) has returned. Part of the Tate Modern’s original 2000 hang, it consists of a room apparently filled with left-over builders’ junk: pallets, wood, ashtrays, toys, cigarettes and other rubbish. What looks like a one-dimensional installation joke is in fact a work of painstaking craft: each object is made from polythene foam and painted in acrylic to look like a ‘real’ object. There’s an uncanny gap: get close enough and you can see the brush strokes on a carton of milk. Step back and it’s a real carton of milk again. Reconfigured for a smaller room, most of the same objects are still there, save for a Lucozade bottle which I remember clearly but can now see no trace of.

RIP Seething Wells

Seething Wells, Tough Tonka Toys for Boys/Tetley Bittermen

It wasn’t the music journalism, it wasn’t the dressing up as a woman on the Old Grey Whistle Test, it wasn’t the novel. It wasn’t even when I found out that he used to go out with my boss and she told me the story of how he puked bright pink pepto-bismol all over Dollywood. Well, it was some of that. But really, it was the poetry.

Sometime during the 1980s I walked into a ballroom bar in the Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Camp in Skegness just in time to hear a skinhead on stage declaiming ‘If I was a man I’d be at the bar, ‘cos only poofs read poems.’ It was hardly surprising: this was the SWP’s annual Easter getaway, and Seething Wells was part of the evening’s entertainment. But already dimly aware somewhere in my adolescent heart that writing poetry was indeed an effete and shameful activity, something struck home.

I’ve been taught to write better poetry than I used to, and I’ve read many poets I admire, but I think that, slight oeuvre though it may be, the ranting verse of Seething Wells forms the third point of an unholy trinity (alongside The Mersey Sound and Childish’s Hangman Press) that first made me really love poetry. Atilla the Stockbroker made a better career of it (even immortalising Swells himself in verse), but I always thought Wells was the better poet: there was something about the way the words came rolling straight out, their righteous hatred intact, no trace of technique, all sneer and attitude. Like the lyrics to a song you listened to every day, I can still do big chunks of Tetley Bittermen verbatim.

Until I gave up reading music mags, I’d read his stuff, and more recently the Philadelphia Weekly columns whenever Anna sent me a link. I particularly loved his all-out balls-out attack on hipsters. But none of it came close to the ranting verse, and I always missed it. Once, in the mid-nineties it came back, around the time that (the seriously good) Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty was published. I remember seeing him doing a reading in an arch under the seafront at Brighton alongside Stewart Home and Tony White. He did some of the poems too, and they were every bit as good as the first time I heard them. I remember him (perhaps not entirely reliably) contorting his body as he read, wrapping himself around the mic, twisting himself to wrangle out the fury that still underlay the words.

I didn’t even know he was dying, hadn’t read the cancer stuff, wasn’t prepared for the news I read today. And because I wanted to hear the words again, because I couldn’t find them anywhere else, I dug out the tape I made more than twenty years ago from my old man’s Rising Son of Ranting Verse EP (a double header with Little Brother, not the Attila one), and made this rather scratchy MP3

There were four of us, and five of them
But they were poofs, and we were men
TETLEY TETLEY TETLEY Bittermen

Update: I’ve since discovered the whole EP: here’s the full first side from Seething Wells:

and for good measure, here’s the other side, from Little Brother

Update 2

Here’s another seven inches of Swells, from the Radical Wallpaper EP Live at Wandsworth, featuring Godzilla Vs The Tetley Bittermen

and the other side, this time from Atilla The Stockbroker

Babylon is burning

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy, 1980

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy 1980

Sometimes it feels like independent cinema is a charity case itself, so it’s pleasantly surprising to find a new independent cinema just around the corner that sustains a South African community project on its proceeds, even if Sunday matinee tickets are a tenner each. The Lexi Cinema, ensconced since last October n the Pinkham Lighthouse, a refurbished Edwardian theatre in Kensal Rise, is the first ‘social enterprise’  digital cinema in London. Set up by entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Sally Wilton, it’s located right in the corner of North West London that suffered a freak tornado three years ago, ripping a handful of streets to pieces. It’s a strange kind of tribute to community on a heading-to-dull suburban road.

The cinema itself is a comfortable 80-seater; and the projection kit’s not bad at all: it’s set up to take the industry’s encrypted hard drives for recent releases like Telstar, but it also projects from disc, and I can finally see the point of Blu-Ray: in a small screening setting like this, the HD really makes a difference to the sharpness and clarity of the picture; unfortunately, this particular screening jerks every second or so, just enough to be noticeable on a fast-moving pan (I have a geeky conversation with the projectionist, or at least the bloke who pushes the buttons on the players, about this afterwards: he’s apologetic & thinks it’s about the aspect ratio; on reflection I reckon it’s a frame rate conversion problem; Blu-Ray discs can hold a multiplicity of different formats, codecs and broadcast standards).

But what’s on screen is far more interesting than the jerks: winding up the London on Film Festival, this is a chance to see Franco Rosso‘s Babylon, a reggae film from 1980, starring Aswad’s Brinsley Forde, and soundtracked by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s musical collaborator Dennis Bovell. The story has echoes of The Harder They Come: Forde’s Blue, an aspiring toaster with the Ital Lion soundsystem, booked for a clash with Jah Shaka, has to negotiate his way through the urban jungle and a long dark night of the soul on his way there.

The film isn’t an overt story of politicisation like Pressure or Burning an Illusion, but it presents a credible and depressing picture of a pervasively racist Britain at the end of the seventies: National Front slogans daubed across council estates, routine police brutality, and casual prejudice at work: Blue’s boss, played by Mel Smith, calls Blue a ‘coon’ and sacks him when he gets lippy. In the end Blue triumphs with a storming toast at the clash just as a police raid breaks through the doors and the credits roll, but there are no false victories: Babylon is all around. When a white woman interrupts the Ital Lion crew to tell them to get ‘”fuck off back to your own country”, Beefy yells back at her “This is my fucking country, lady! And it’s never been fucking lovely!”

Testament to South London’s unloveliness are the bits of scenery caught in the location shots: derelict Victorian terraces, waste ground and grim acres of council housing. Nobody would let nineteenth century housing like that rot today. On my way to Brixton a day earlier, I stumble across Niall O’Sullivan‘s You’re Not Singing Anymore, a book of poetry about half of which concerns Brixton. In Between Worlds, we get a bird’s eye view of the liminal zone between grit and suburb:

We’re just a few reels away from the cracking of skulls,
unshaven faces denting car bonnets,
flecks of blood, slivers of tooth, wasted beer…
But the bus that you’re watching from
turns the corner and now it’s Victorian terraces
flowering Forsythia, budding plane trees,
Audis and Volvos snoozing uncomfortably.

Then walking to the Ritzy via Suzie’s place, by the Somerleyton Estate’s barrier block (its hideous arse-backwards frontage aligned to protect the estate from a 1970s motorway that never was), the police have a family car pulled over to the side of the road and are going through the boot’s contents. Plus ça change: Brixton still hasn’t quite managed to commodify its edge in the way parts of East London have.

At the end of the 1980s, in 1991 New Departures published Grandchildren of Albion, Michael Horovitz’s sequel to his groundbreaking sixties anthology Children of Albion. Between its covers you’ll find recently-annointed laureate Carol Ann Duffy alongside John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker. Not only is there a cultural baton passed from Babylon to Albion in the form of dub poetry, but the whole collection coruscates with the energy of resistance to injustice on all fronts. If Albion’s children took a poetic engagement with politics to be a kind of provocation against an age of plenty at home and war abroad, its grandchildren found the war on their own doorsteps in the form of racism, sexism and mass unemployment. Poetry like this, and films like Babylon can induce nostalgia not only for the mind-blowing dub sounds of 1980, but for a decade in which poetry, music and struggle all seemed to matter together.