Category Archives: tate

The painting of not-so modern life

There’s a look you sometimes see in the eyes of people painted around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s an enquiring, intelligent look, sometimes pompous, the look of a person self-consciously trying to be Modern. It’s also an unknowing look, one that can’t see the horrors of the century to come. The wars, the trenches, the camps, the gulags they may end their lives in: they can see none of it. Like Patrick Hamilton on the eve of the blitz, you want to cry ‘God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us’.

This look appears on the faces of people in the paintings in the Ballet Russes room in the Royal Academy’s From Russia exhibition. Like the Tate’s Modern Painters show about the Camden Town group, it’s an extraordinarily conservative portrait of an extraordinarily radical period. If Virginia Woolf was wrong about human character changing in December 1910, revolt and revolution were waiting to change forever the circumstances of human existence, and literature lacks visual art’s capacity to imply the utter transformation of the phenomenal world

But the response of the wealthy Russian collectors and their artists to French avant-garde technique was to merely reflect the aesthetic: the challenge to life itself was lost in translation. Just so, the facile exoticism of Gaugin is revealed as no more than cultivated taste: portraits of nude Pacific Islanders lined the walls of Shchukin and Morosov’s mansions, all the better to shock you with. Gaugin appears again referenced in a salon painting at the beginning of the Camden town story: a reminder that modernity means sophistication.

Like Gissing, the Camden Town painters show a London recognisable in form, and even in poverty, though not in colour. Also like Gissing, conscience stands in for revolt against circumstances. The ‘socialist’ Harold Gilman plays Jiminy Cricket to Sickert’s grim carnival of the flesh, with patronising pictures of his housekeeper, brought brought right up to date Tate-style in the teaching notes (‘How would you describe Mrs Mounter’s expression? If she could speak what would she say?’ they ask, perfectly defining the colonial crime of exercising your imagination on the territory of other people’s lives.)

Even Wyndham Lewis’s bogus avant-gardism is missing from the Modern Painters show, but From Russia bizarrely finishes with a scale model of Tatlin’s Tower. Not only aesthetically distant from almost everything else in the show, the unrealised monument to the Third International and headquarters for the comintern is a building of the revolution, the revolution that chased parasites like Shchukin and Morosov into exile. It’s impossible to tell whether putting the tower here is a crushing irony or monumental inanity.

If the Bolsheviks terminated the Russian collectors (but kept their paintings) the death-knell of the Camden painters was the First World War. They could only respond by painting pierrots and a ward full of jolly moustached Tommies recovering from the fighting under patterned bedspreads. No ‘guttering, choking, drowning‘ going on here.

Curatorially, neither show pretends it represents a cutting edge: in particular, the Tate is at pains to point out that Sickert’s mob are an evolutionary dead end, far from ‘authentic modernism’. But both shows share a frozen moment before the onslaught of the twentieth century, a hesitation and rejection of the implications of modernity. Too late. God help all of us.


Photos at an exhibition

A tiny Dan Leno, no bigger than your hand (and yet every detail of his face is distinct, from mugging eyebrows to dimpled chin) is dancing like a marionette and making incomprehensible jokes about a pile of planks of wood behind his house.

Not Medusa, but another woman photographed by Madame Yevonde holds her forearm up like Madonna, or Rosie the Riveter. Suddenly colourful, she is both a refugee from 1980s freak-fashion and the cousin of a woman painted by Tamara de Lempicka: something is machine-like about her curves, something is supreme.

There is no compassion: Martin Parr just makes everyone looks like a cunt.

What are you taking pictures for? An issue of Camerawork about the Battle of Lewisham. Behind a solid wall of police stand the limp union flags on poles of a small phalanx of National Front marchers. A full-on fight involving children and police horses is photographed from behind: fragile young bodies and the flanks of stumbling horses are dangerously close.

Model food in unappetising colours: a cold palette of cold meats.

A bi-racial couple from the cover of a compact disc, his arm on her shoulder, each beautiful but neither looking at the other, both looking out, at you.

A full-length LCD portrait of Cerith Wyn Evans skinny and seductive in a black waistcoat, hair dark and shaved on one side. His face is three-quarters on and the slightest hint of flash reflection, red-eye in his right eye, contains a whole quarter-century of sadness.

Queen Victoria was very ugly indeed.

Homes that people were removed from, homes to be demolished, substandard and surplus homes. A boy in a alley so narrow that he can stand, feet wedged against both house and wall, five feet above the ground.

Future City Mumbai

Tate Modern prove themselves once more capable of putting on interesting and challenging film programmes, even in the middle of a dull summer blockbuster like Dali, with a day of Patrick Keiller films ending in a presentation by Keiller himself of an installation work he produced for Le Fresnoy in Lille based around the vast gothic Victoria Terminus railway station in Mumbai.

In the installation he reproduced the virtual space of the station interior with thirty large screens and HD projectors looping footage shot in the station itself. The films were complemented by a sound design in which the unsynchronised loops triggered sounds taken from the synchronised DAT recordings, dissociated and reassembled to create a three-dimensional soundtrack. Even from the basic documentation which Keiller shows, it looks like an immensely impressive affair, one now dismantled and unlikely ever to be repeated: this is the ‘problem of the panorama’

The Mumbai piece was a distraction from his ongoing City of the Future project in conjunction with the excellent Centre for British Film and Television Studies – currently this takes the form of a DVD in which the menuing system is used as a means of exploring archive maps and zeroing in on early film, mostly phantom rides, exploring urban space at the turn of the century. Though the research is ongoing and Keiller keeps adding new film works to it, it’s a shame it hasn’t yet become a commercially available product because the rudimentary interactiveness of DVDs is better-presented than the ‘interactive’ work of many with more powerful tools at their disposal.

A form of the work will also appear at the BFI Southbank’s gallery in November (if it stays open that long). A part of the project I’ve seen previously, which involved stitching together these early illustrative actualities with intertitles into a detective/thriller narrative seems to have been completed and shelved because he wasn’t happy with it.

As he presents his work, Keiller rambles splendidly – at first it seems as if he’s beginning to flail off-topic, but what you get is a stream-of-consciousness and almost free-association of the ideas that are going on in his head, the semi-distilled version of what might become a film or essay. He takes in the Telegraph Museum in Porthcurno, the homogenisation of time in historical film, his relationship to the London Film Co-Op, ‘long-shot’ cinema, Gothicism as an ideology, and why if capitalism is presented as nature, Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras must either be a vegetable or a dinosaur. If you read the same things he has you might come to the same conclusions, you might not. These are some of the works he mentions:

Adrian Rifkin, Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: whose London?
Roger Luckhurst, The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the “Spectral Turn”
Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Philip Pullman, His Subtle Knife
David B Clarke, The City of the Future revisited
Tom Gunning, The Cinema of Attractions
Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities
Paul Dave, Visions of England

He tells us he’s working on a new Robinson film. It will be about the possibility of living with displacement rather than belonging, and may involve Staffordshire, where Cheadle (but not Cheadle Hulme) is located. Dracula will not appear unless he can bring himself to go to either Whitby or Purfleet. It’s all good news, only slightly marred by the barely-surprising-any-more ignominy that it will be supported with money from research sources rather than film production funding.

Martin Creed vs Second Life

I’ve been thinking occasionally about art in Second Life recently, and it occurred to me that the philosophical proposition of Martin Creed’s Work #232: the whole world + the work = the whole world which is self-evidently true for the world we live in, is not true for art in Second Life: every work of art added to SL will literally increase the volume of SL as a fraction of the real world (server space, processor power) and culturally increase the weight of SL in people’s consciousnesses. Does this mean that art in Second Life has a philosophically, or even ontologically, different basis than art in Real Life? Discuss.

Pervasive visions

Mood Contrasts

It’s a weekend of codecs, torrents and strained eyeballs, which begins by diving headlong into the world of machinima. The first season of Red vs Blue clocks in at just over an hour of sub-Kevin Smith wisecracking from different-coloured suits of armour holding their weapons low. Almost all the narration and humour are carried by the dialogue: it’s amazing how few and rudimentary visual anchors are needed to tie you into plot and character. When I check in on the latest episode, some of the same jokes are still going strong. It gets slightly more bizarre with incompetent French pilots Bill et John in their clapped-out planes, and the stuff that comes out of Second Life is predictable, though technically very impressive (flying camera-avatars), but the stuff I really love is the ‘expanded machinima’ (I’m not sure it actually counts as machinima) movies shot on a Game Boy camera: Electrelane’s Film Music video by Stephanie Bolt and Eric Lesdema and The Pellucid World, with beautiful blocking, pixellation and contrast. They’re part of a continuum forming in my head of low-res moving image on which Japanese Freeware’s HTMovies and Jim Campbell’s LED movies currently showing at Kinetica have been lodging recently. Paradoxically, Film Music looks a lot better in a high-res quicktime clip than it does in YouTube’s muddy Flash player.

Then it’s off to Hoxton to be peppered like a swiss cheese by Christian Marclay’s Crossfire at the White Cube. Walking into a black cube with floor-to-ceiling screens on all four walls, out of darkness come the first flashes of packing heat: cartridges slotted in, bullets thumbed into chambers, a row of rifles picked up one by one. Then come the first shots, growing into a sustained volley, all shots aimed directly at the camera and into the centre of the room. There’s a pause to reload: casings shucked, new magazines notched, and then four minutes or so of sustained hellish gunfire. Some faces are recognisable: a glimpse of Arnie, Takeshi’s laconic shots downwards. Most are cops or robbers, few are soldiers. Several people roll sideways across a room and pop up as the same woman, firing vengefully. A woman walks from screen right to screen left and anti-clockwise from screen to screen around the room, slowly and deliberately circling us (someone’s brought their child into the gallery in a pushchair). All are the same: the flash, the fire, the amplified boom of movie gunfire, aimed directly at the camera. Rhythms of sound and vision develop: syncopation, beats, until the fire starts to fade. A few last desperate shots echo out, and it’s dark again.

Last stop is Tate Modern for the first Pervasive Animation screening attached to the weekend conference, one of those lovely century-spanning genre-bending programmes that the Tate ever-so-occasionally do very well indeed. Paul Sharits’ Word Movie is ear- and eye-warping word-origami: a male voice and a female voice recite in a monotone texts about neuro-chemical responses and poetic qualities respectively as each frame flashes a different word: blinking quickly brings the words out, and one letter on the screen remains constant for up to a second at a time, spelling out further words through the middle of the film. There’s a welcome Mary Ellen Bute, Mood Contrasts (pic), which starts off with smoky ink in water and playfully develops using patterns created by an oscilloscope, but the Themersons’ The Eye and The Ear remains as tedious, didactic and obvious as the last time I saw it. The programme finishes up with Tim MacMillan’s Ferment, five minutes of original timeslice moviemaking as far from the Matrix‘s ‘bullet time’ as you can imagine: scenes of everday life from death to birth, people frozen in kitchens, cafes and lounges with the occasional spectacular burst of spilt water or firebreathing: genuinely experimental filmmaking.

Home in time for the lunar eclipse, a dusky brick blob floating through the trees behind the house and up on Sunday for documentaries: the repetitive insinuations Loose Change doesn’t need to be watched as much as listened to in the background, and We seems to be coming out somewhere between Koyanasqaatsi and a music video.

Back to the Tate for more animation, and a more adventurous second programme. Takashi Ito’s Spacy and George Griffin’s Step Print both build up from simple patterns towards complexity: explaining to the eye what to see before reiterating and and elaborating. Spacy zooms from a wide-shot of a school gymnasium to the same wide-shot mounted on a podium, then again, to different podia, the floor and then out, culminating in a hysterical strobing vortex. Step Print documents its own setup, animator and overhead camera, before overlapping sheets create a multiplicity of fascinating colours and shapes. Cathy Joritz’s hilarious Negative Man takes a reversed out instructional film of a social worker explaining how to deal with a ‘difficult’ client and lambasts him with scratched-on animation, like defacing a waiting-room magazine at twenty-four frames a second. Bob Sabiston’s Snack and Drink uses rotoscoping to the same effect as in Waking Life: freewheeling and hallucinogenic graphic interpretations of a short piece of documentary footage about an autistic boy’s journey to the store. Lillian Schwartz’s Googolplex is reminiscent of (and predates the final version of) Len Lye’s Free Radicals in its stark black and white and use of tribal drumming, but is much more complex and regular: massively complex overlaid binary patterns that look and feel like an overwhelmingly incomprehensible flood of data.