Thursday, 30 December 2010

Walt Whitman - One Hour to Madness and Joy

One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms?
What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging winds mean?)
O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!
O savage and tender achings! (I bequeath them to you my children,
I tell them to you, for reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)

O to be yielded to you whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me
in defiance of the world!
O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!
O to draw you to me, to plant on you for the first time the lips of
a determin'd man.

O the puzzle, the thrice-tied knot, the deep and dark pool, all
untied and illumin'd!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
To be absolv'd from previous ties and conventions, I from mine and
you from yours!
To find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of Nature!
To have the gag remov'd from one's mouth!
To have the feeling today or any day I am sufficient as I am.

O something unprov'd! something in a trance!
To escape utterly from others' anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts, with invitations!
To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate soul!
To be lost if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fullness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (The 'Death Bed' Edition), 1892.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Bite 26: Jusepe Ribera - St. Paul the Hermit, 1640

St. Paul the Hermit, 1640, oil on canvas, 143 x 143 cm
Paul of Thebes, the first Christian hermit, lived in a cave in the Egyptian desert for much of his life, almost 100 years. Here he is old, weary from a life lived in seclusion and frugality. 

He seems in conversation with a skull. He gestures towards himself - hand touching hand touching chest - contemplating mortality with a complex ardour. 

Muscles sagging and a deep furrowed brow, his bones tight against his skin, the saint has been painted with startling realism, using a chiaroscuro technique borrowed from Caravaggio, emphasising the hermits intensity, and hinting at the rich interior life the man surely lived.

The Art Book, Phaidon, 1994.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Bite 25: David Hockney - Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1971

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1971, acrylic on canvas, 214 x 305 cm
The California sun illuminates the swimming pool. An anonymous figure swims beneath the cool water. Peter Schlesinger, fully clothed, stares into the pool. 

A 19 year-old art student when Hockney met and fell for him, Schlesinger soon moved in with the artist and became his favourite model, appearing in many of his famous pool scenes. Seen as inherently homoerotic these works were created at a time when such themes were rarely presented in art and almost never so conspicuously. In this work even the detailed landscape behind the figures seems to suggest the phallic.

Shall we then take the swimmer to be Hockney himself? Regardless, the complexity of the at-first-glance 'sterile' work lies in the relationship between the two figures. There is something intense about Schlesinger's stare, hinting at the unsaid. A vast distance seems to exist between these men, even as their intimacy is suggested. 

For all the brightness and vibrancy of the L.A. sunshine something darker lurks just beneath the surface. But what a glorious surface it is.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Bite 24: David Hockney - Looking at Pictures on a Screen, 1977

Looking at Pictures on a Screen, 1977, oil on canvas, 188 x 188 cm
The act of spectatorship itself as the subject of an artwork is a major revolution of 20th century art and a primary tenant of Post-Modernism. In Hockney's Looking at Pictures on a Screen the artist's friend Henry Geldzahler stands in profile before photographic reproductions of paintings tacked to a screen. 

The flat surface of the picture plane is referenced (or even in this case: of the computer screen) as we watch Geldzahler regarding a picture. The viewer steps back and in a way watches themself looking.

This self-reflexivity opens the viewer up to a raft of conceptual angles as the space, social position, culture and overall context of the viewer is highlighted as relevant and highly influential to the art experience. Many of us today more often see art in books and online than we are able to in galleries. This cannot have no influence on how we view art today compared with previous generations. 

 It is only by being conscious of our own looking that we can fully embrace the art of seeing.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Bite 23: Unknown - Couple Holding Daguerreotype, c. 1850

Couple Holding Daguerreotype, c. 1850, daguerreotype
There are three subjects in this highly reflexive image: a man, a woman, and a photograph. From the couple's solemn expressions - one looking away, the other confidently apprehending the lens, fist clenched - it would appear the family in their precious daguerreotype (they clearly value this image, holding it tenderly on a pedestal; far more than today we would value a material image) it seems the people in the image must have past, or be physically distant from them, the couple grieving on time past just as it is 'present', in some frustrating form, with them here.

It being a work by an anonymous artist/photographer heightens the mystery and ambiguity already present in the image. We do not know these people or their names. This object - an object of an object - has been separated from its extended family, yet we are intensely interested in this couple and what they are feeling here. The interest lies also in that we are unsure what the very purpose of this image even is, the life it lived for these people.

Photographs, as icons of nostalgia, are objects which seem to grow in authenticity and interest as they age. It seems appropriate then, and even adds to the value of this object, when it is scratched, damaged or even smashed.

This image, a powerful statement on what photographs are and mean to us, has an entire new life of its own, fully divorced from the people it depicts and its intended purpose. Perhaps unintentionally Couple Holding Daguerreotype comments strongly on the simultaneous tangibility and ephemerality of photographs, and their subjects. This image is well deserving of long meditation.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Bite 22: Édouard Levé - Pornographie, 2002

Untitled, from the series 'Pornographie', 2002
A twisted family portrait or a bizarre, neutered porno? It appears an awkward couples dinner party gone haywire. Private fantasy as a perversion of social convention.

While employing the established language of filmed sex the scene evokes the absent, the subjects' faces hidden just as their sexual organs are. 

Explanation is withheld also. Clinically cold and bland, the environment is stifling to even regard, the characters appearing profoundly alienated even as they mock intimacy. Being a portrait (or rather non-portrait) without faces, encourages viewing the tableau as a dead-pan, geometric study in shape or even as a still-life. Reduced to the almost abstract, and lacking eroticism, the situation plays on the inherent absurdity of human sexual scenarios.

Frieze Magazine, Issue 134, October 2010.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bite 21: Steve Woodward - Step Touch Stone, 2009

Step Touch Stone, 2009, granite
A solid, dignified, upright sculpture, sitting among skyscrapers, suggesting momentum - simultaneously upward and downward - Step Touch Stone is an efficiently minimalist work alluding to a raft of complex ideas and paradoxes.

Consisting of twin inverted staircases standing in St. Patrick's Square next to the Catholic Cathedral the work is successfully spiritual in its associations while remaining open, interpretable under many cultures and belief systems, least of all being Buddhism.

The staircases combine in tension: Yin, yang. Light, dark. Hope, despair. The work remains both grounded and transcendent, solid and ephemeral.

It is a open reflexive object, encouraging silent meditation on the human condition.


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Bite 20: Duane Michals - The House I Once Called Home, 2003

The House I Once Called Home, 2003
The raw material of photography is light and time. Each photograph then, although appearing solid, contains the ephemeral. This is a fundamental paradox of the medium and the key reason for its inherent ambiguity.

Duane Michals in his series The House I Once Called Home combines an exploration of the ephemerality of photography with that of place, returning to his childhood home to recreate family photographs, eerily absent of people.

Here he stands in for an uncle. The courtyard has now overgrown; nature has reclaimed where people once lived. The middle image, a transition between the two states - then and now - is inhabited by ghosts of the past. For Michals they are still present in this space, as he pensively overlooks it. Any understanding of a sense of place, of location, then, is inseperable from an exploration of personal history, a meditation on time past. The photographic medium, by its very nature, is equipped to explore these concerns.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Bite 19: Don McCullin - Shell-shocked Marine, 1968

Shell-shocked U.S. Marine, Hue, 1968
This image depicts the unspeakable, presents the indescribable. In this man's eyes all pain is held. They are each an ocean of death. He stares into nothing yet sees too much. 

For us his portrait becomes a powerful stand in for brutalities which would be impossible to truly capture. Yet to see his reaction is perhaps more moving than seeing the reality.

A tragic non-portrait, this is an image of a man who is not really present. He is numb, trapped somewhere else in a place he may never escape from, his distant gaze unable to fully register what he has witnessed. Expressionless, saying all and nothing with his eyes alone, he holds on to his gun as if it were a crutch to rely on and a burden to be carried.

Through his eyes we see almost a glimpse of what he has seen. But we remain outside his gaze, unable to comprehend what he has seen, where he has been to.

For what this image speaks of more than anything else is that war cannot be imagined. That to experience it is to become the walking dead, to loss an innocence most of us take for granted, to gain a knowledge no person should ever have.

Don McCullin understands this deeply and has always aimed his camera with compassion and dignity. This image represents a mutual comprehension of war that the viewer is excluded from, for our own sake.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Bite 18: Arthur Tress - Bride and Groom, 1971

Bride and Groom, New York, New York, 1971
Gender is aligned with performance and displayed as a malleable element of identity in this complex Arthur Tress work. From the sequence Directors of Darkness in his series Theatre of the Mind, Bride and Groom presents the actor Stephan Brecht - one part husband, the other wife - in a derelict theatre, self-possessive before the camera, photographed straightforward, with space given to the context of the stage - as Diane Arbus may have presented him. 

Ceremony and ritual is referenced in his hand gestures. His 'male side' boldly takes an oath which his 'female side' graciously accepts. This is a parody of heterosexual marriage as we know it, yet his dignified expression, with upturned nose, indicates his seriousness and self-absorption - even as he appears to be marrying himself. Tress does not mean this to be read as ironic, or at least primarily so; but rather he is highlighting the intersubjectivity of identity, stressing an understanding of self - sexuality and gender - as fluid and contestable.

By presenting the binary of gender in a confronting and direct way, amalgamated within one subject, Tress succeeds in refuting the gender binary, questioning its foundations and the assumptions stemming from it.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Bite 17: André Kertész - A Red Hussar Leaving, June 1919, Budapest

A Red Hussar Leaving, June 1919, Budapest
"A mother with her child is staring intently at a soldier. Perhaps they are speaking. We cannot hear their words. Perhaps they are saying nothing and everything is being said by the way they are looking at each other. Certainly a drama is being enacted between them.
 The woman has just walked out of their home and will shortly go back alone with the child. The drama of the moment is expressed in the difference between the clothes they are wearing. His for travelling, for sleeping out, for fighting; hers for staying at home.
Everything in [this image] is historical: the uniforms, the rifles, the corner by the Budapest railway station, the identity and biographies of all the people who are (or were) recognisable - even the size of the trees on the other side of the fence. And yet it also concerns a resistence to history: an opposition.
This opposition is not the consequence of the photographer having said Stop! It is not that the resultant static image is like a fixed post in a flowing river. We know that in a moment the soldier will turn his back and leave; we presume that he is the father of the child in the woman's arms. The significance of the instant photographed is already claiming minutes, weeks, years.
The opposition exists in the parting look between the man and woman. This look is not directed towards the viewer. We witness it as the older soldier with the mustache and the woman with the shawl (perhaps a sister) do. The exclusivity of this look is further emphasised by the boy in the mother's arms; he is watching his father, and yet he is excluded from their look.
This look, which crosses before our eyes, is holding in place what is, not specifically what is there around them outside the station, but what is their life, what are their lives. The woman and the soldier are looking at each other so that the image of what is now shall remain for them. In this look their being is opposed to their history, even as we assume that this history is one they accept or have chosen."
                                                                                 -  John Berger
John Berger, Another Way of Telling, Vintage, 1982, p.p. 102-103. 

Friday, 17 December 2010

Bite 16: John Everett Millais - Mariana, 1851

Mariana, 1851, oil on wood, 60 x 50 cm
Mariana leads a dreary and solitary life, accompanied here by only a mouse, yet Millais has painted this scene with striking luminosity, taking great care in painting the detail of the stained glass, garden and tapestry. This beautiful painting presents foremost a dark interior world, a psychological state, while representing a Victorian taste for Gothic decorative craftsmanship. Millais marries these two aims in a masterfully ambiguous and paradoxical work.

Robed in a remarkably deep blue gown Mariana rises languorously to stretch. The embroidery and fallen leaves suggest time brutally marching on, life passing her by. The lamp is dim just as her face is tired; she leans back wearily, filled with the deep melancholy of having lost all she ever cared for, faced with a future alone and with little apparent hope. The beauty of the world around her is no longer enough to sustain her.

Based on words from Tenneyson, it was originally exhibited along with lines from his poem of the same name: "I am aweary, aweary - I would that I were dead!"


Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bite 15: Gretchen Albrecht - Aotearoa - Cloud, 2002

Aotearoa - Cloud, 2002, acrylic and oil on canvas, 250 x 500 cm
Standing before this calm yet commanding canvas the viewer is drawn into its enfolding embrace. A wide, expanding universe, a shimmering hemisphere, an optical illusion, it is a work of abstraction, while remaining figurative, suggesting waves colliding. The sea, the land (with the earthy canvas), and the sky (a long white cloud - Aotearoa) are combined in this monumental painting, a world unto itself, changing as you approach it and move away.

The technique is typical of Albrecht, yet her rich array of effects evidences the virtuosity of her approaches within tight conceptual guidelines. She has a mastery of colour, its symbolism and its compositional and conceptual power. 

Here however she restricts the palatte, producing a work both grounded and active, clearly influenced by American abstract expressionism (Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko come to mind), while remaining quintessentially Aotearoa New Zealand.

Currently on view in the exhibition Call Waiting at New Gallery, Auckland until 30 May 2011.

Oliver Stead, Art Icons of New Zealand: Lines in the Sand, Bateman, 2008.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Bite 14: Ilse Bing - Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931

Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931
In this complex self-portrait the German photographer Ilse Bing stares down her camera, placed before a mirror, with another mirror to the side reflecting her profile. We view her action from two angles, both images within one, containing - duplicated - the photo-mechanical device used to create the picture itself.

The focus here is not so much Bing, but her tool, significantly a Leica - the camera of choice for photojournalists and documentary photographers for much of the 20th century. Sitting behind her camera she is a hunter ready to pounce, and her prey, in this instance, is her own emanation. 

The white space and curtain in the centre of the composition provides space between the reflections - one being a reflection of a reflection. Her large cuff operates as another kind of 'face', offsetting her  expression and profile. The result is that, even on prolonged viewing, one is unsure of where to look, the eye darting between the two reflections without necessarily wandering. 

"I didn't choose photography;" Bing wrote later in life, "It chose me." This can be seen in her portrait - the camera apprehending her and her image, and her letting it. It isn't so much that she isn't in control, as her being entranced and enraptured by the mystery and magic of the photographic process. The mirror here is a phenomenological object of a splitting or duplication of identity, questioning the very use of the camera in this function, while it is both utilised and depicted in the process.

Max Kosloff, The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Phaidon, 2007.
Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 2007.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bite 13: Francisco de Goya - Head of a Dog, 1820-24

Cabeza de un Perro (Head of a Dog), 1820-24, oil transfered to canvas from mural, 134 x 80 cm
"Goya is my favourite artist. His painting Cabeza de un Perro (Head of a Dog) found in the Black Paintings that decorated his house Quinto del Sordo, sums up my understanding of the meaning of art. This dog, struggling against all odds, looks to the right - to the furture - barely keeping his head above the sand, and thus symbolises a struggle for life, in spite of emptiness, humiliation, sadness and age. The image reduces the human condition to the solitude which is essentially ours, using light and an almost empty canvas"
                                                                                            - Marion Lambert
Veronica's Revenge: Contemporary Perspectives on Photography, LAC, 1998.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Bite 12: August Sander - The Foster Mother, c. 1930

The Foster Mother, c. 1930
There is something inherently haunting about photographs of the blind. 

Perhaps this comes from fear. Those of us who can see - particularly those of us who take seeing, seeing deeply, as an obligation, a self-designated occupation - surely value sight, and thus it must be a great fear, as it is with me, that one could lose that oft-taken-for-granted privilege.

Or perhaps it comes from paradox. A portrait of the blind is almost ironic. To be photographed is to put on a mask. And a portrait is a photograph not just of its subject, but of that subject becoming an object (as Barthes puts it).

When photographing the blind, as Sander is here, the balance of power is decidedly slanted, raising issues of photo-ethics and what it means to give informed consent to be photographed.

These children do not know how they are being viewed, or even what it means to be viewed - which makes our seeing them all the more voyeuristic. And their concept of the camera and its power is surely naive, as they lack an understanding what it is to see and be seen. We can see their faces, they never will (it is said that if the blind could see a photograph they wouldn't know how to decipher it, having never viewed  the two dimensional).

Yet they 'stare' out at us. In the way all photographs (and all objects) do really: mute, passive, inert. 

I am drawn to the child on the far left. Their face is hidden behind another child's. They would present their face as they would want to be viewed - without knowing what that means - and possibly without knowing that they cannot even be seen by the eye of the camera. Their face is hidden as all the children's faces would be to each other.

August Sander can be seen as the grandfather of art photography portraiture, and his unflinching vision of creating a sociological archive of all people and types - in the series boldly titled People of the Twentieth Century - has had a quiet but profound influence over generations of photographers.

They say 'you can always spot a Sander portrait', the extraordinary, resolute gaze of his subjects highly unique. This image, however, stands-out in his oeuvre. As Max Kosloff explains, "The gulf between them [the children] and the viewer opens up far more widely than any division marked by class, income or ethnicity, for it is established by disparity of condition - the fact that we can see and they do not."

The nun/foster-mother is the element in traditional Sander fashion. Direct and honest in her stance and gaze, yet somewhat stand-offish. A generalised type more than an individual. The children hold on to her, relying on her sight. She is all of their eyes, staring out at us. At the same she stands-in for the viewer, seeing while those who look upon her cannot.

Max Kosloff, The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Phaidon, 2007.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Bite 11: Xavier Comas - Tokyo: Up, Down, 2010

Waiting with strangers. They will share a short but intimate journey, in a liminal space, where close proximity does not equate to familiarity.

Xavier Comas tenderly captures the paradoxes and lonliness of city life in his series Tokyo: Up, Down, photographed in and around elevators in the twin districts of Nishi-Shinjuku and Kabukicho - one the main business district and the other the red light district. A cross-section of many classes and sub-cultures collide in the elevators of skyscrapers - each journey a banal moment of silence, suspended above the vast city.

For many images Comas turns the camera on the people forced to share their vertical travel with a photographer, who records the subtle interactions in their cabin. In this image, however, (#2 in the series) he stands back, quietly observing their waiting as the dark, alive city sits beneath and beside them. 

The elevator is a non-space. Each subject here is really absent. They are all on their way somewhere; starting or finishing short or long journeys. They are thinking of something, someone, else.

Reflected in the glass their waiting becomes a metaphor for a very human, and I think democratic, consciousness - that of always looking for something else, hoping for something more, heading somewhere other than here, even if we don't know which floor.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Bite 10: Fiona Connor - Something Transparent (please go round the back), 2009

Something Transparent (please go round the back), 2009
glass, wood, metal fittings, glue, paint, vinyl (installation view)
The entire gallery itself, Michael Lett Gallery on K' Rd, Auckland, becomes the artwork, yet the space is physically inaccessible. Instead the gallery is constantly blocked from entrance - a pun perhaps on the perceived esotericism of the contemporary art world - by 14 replicas of the front facade of the buidling, each with vinyl transfers of the details of the 'show' stating "please go round the back." 

A witty combination of ouroborus and simulacra, the work is deceptively simple in concept,  was certainly difficult in execution, but is hugely rewarding in regard to viewer response and conceptual accessibility - ironic, considering the literal futility of the doors within it.

Nominated for the Walters Prize 2010 the idea was cleverly translated to the New Gallery at the Auckland Art Gallery. As a postmodern conceptual installation piece it is perfect, very much at an international standard. It is playful and intellectually open, refreshing and inspiring.

Eye Contact

Friday, 10 December 2010

Bite 9: Umberto Boccioni - Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, bronze, h: 114 cm
Made up of protruding and receding components, wing or flame like muscles and machine parts, this 'unique form' is really a kind of bionical man, with a cubist bent. Remarkably, it manages to appear both solid and dynamic, grounded, with feet on two plinths, and transcendent.

It is a manifestation of the Futurist ethos - which praised "the beauty of speed," the glory of progress and the "cowardice" of looking to the past. The Futurist movement may have existed in Italy along with Metaphysical Painting, but the two could not be more opposing in ideology. 

'Melancholy and mystery' is not presented here. Rather it is technology, discovery, the future; the bronze figure boldly striding forward unabated, the abstract forms suggesting speed, progress and, yes, continuity of purpose.

Boccioni, who previously worked only in paint, only began to work in sculpture in 1912, a year before completing Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. As a study of the human form in motion it is certainly unique, and well before its time, representing a passionate focus and a singular talent. 

30, 000 Years of Art Phaidon, 2007.
Art of the 20th Century, Taschen, 2005.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Bite 8: Giorgio de Chirico - Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914, oil on canvas, 88 x 72 cm
Here a desolate street has been captured bathed in that particular kind of afternoon sun in Autumn when all appears as if in limbo. It is not yet sunset, but it is clear the day will soon end. Long shadows accentuate every texture and movement. The ethereal light seems almost tangible, giving the world the appearance of a dream, and in the dark shadows night has already come.

In this eerie space something profound has or will take place, but we are not privy to that scene. This is an empty stage. We are shown the street soon after or just before an unseen dramatic event. The threatening shadow of a statue, out of sight, draws towards it a girl - also appearing as little more than an emanation. The box on wheels, with its shadowy interior, seems to indicate entrapment, further emphasising the sense of impending tragedy.

The imposing facade of a dark building dominates the foreground while an extended white wall on the left gives the illusion of depth, an exaggerated perspective foreshortening the vanishing point, creating an ominous sense of unreality, of sur-reality through spacial distortion. Each arch seems as if an eye, silently staring into the claustrophobic space. As De Chirico explains visiting Versailles, "Everything gazed at me with mysterious, questioning eyes. And then I realised that every corner of the palace, every column, every window possessed a spirit, an impenetrable soul."

In this unsettling, haunting work, Giorgio De Chirico, a founder of the Pittura Metafisica (Metaphysical Painting) style, a forerunner to Surrealism, presents the very concept of the street as it being dense in history and in possibility, in melancholy and in mystery. Any banal empty street, in this light, could be seen as sinister and yet disturbingly beautiful.

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, Thames & Hudson, 1991. 
30, 000 Years of Art Phaidon, 2007.
Art of the 20th Century, Taschen, 2005.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Bite 7: Paul Cézanne - Mt. St. Victoire, 1902-04

Mount Saint Victoire, 1902-04, oil on canvas, 70 x 90 cm
That Cézanne's approach to the landscape has come to appear somewhat 'staid' by today's standards is but a testament to the significant impact which his early 20th century work came to have on the story of art, paving the way for Fauvism and Cubism.

This, one of over 60 paintings of Mount Saint Victoire, represents an obsession. An obsession both with a place - in Provence, near his home - and with discovering a new understanding of the pictorial object. The result is nothing less than a revolution in seeing.

Nothing here exists in isolation, a technique mirroring his understanding of nature. Cézanne uses blocks of colour instead of line, building up the surface, allowing each dab of paint to contribute to the whole in its own way, the combination more than the sum of its parts.

Integral to this revolutionary way of seeing is the understanding of the viewer as complicit in the looking, and thus able to bring a cohesiveness to the scene, allowing the work to remain true to nature while relatively abstract. Cézanne expects us to do some of the work. He invites us into his creative process. We see his indecision. To view this painting is not to see the mountain in one place at one time, but rather to see the plethora of possibilities which Cézanne witnessed in conceiving the work, standing before his beloved mountain.

Walt Whitman - Sea-Drift: As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life

As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck'd,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd-up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.

O baffled, balk'd, bent to the very earth,
Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have
not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet
untouch'd, untold, altogether unreach'd,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.

I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single
object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon
me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (The 'Death Bed' Edition), 1892. 

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Bite 6: Rene Magritte - The Unexpected Answer, 1933

The Unexpected Answer, 1933
There is no answer here, unexpected or otherwise, but rather a pervasive mystery taunting the viewer. 

A deep shadow occupies the middle of the painting, coming through an ambiguous space cut through a door, somewhat resembling the silhouette of a (female?) figure, or perhaps a couple embracing. It is an uncanny shape, it reminds me of something - I'm sure I've seen it before - but its origin remains at the tip of my tongue, unanswered.

Typical of Magritte's unique brand of 'realist' surrealism, The Unexpected Answer provides even less to go on than his more famous works. The wood (or whatever material it is) is unrealistically thin, remaining selfconsciously a representation of a door, the frustratingly indefinite depth of the surface, through an impossibly clean cutout, adding to this paradox, emphasised also by the title.

Staring at the work its name and surface continually mock; the unexpected answer, the unexpected answer. As if by saying these words over something may appear, an answer may show itself. Yet the hole remains cavernous and dark, the space as ambiguous as ever, inviting me and denying me at the same time.

It is the deceptive simplicity of the work that makes it so captivating, stopping me in my tracks, never letting me alone. All words are bound to fail, any interpretation will slide off it - or be engulfed into its blackhole.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Bite 5: I Wayan Atjin Tisna - Loss of Innocence, 1976

Loss of Innocence, 1976, oil on canvas, 57 x 62 cm
Balinese artist I Wayan Atjin Tisna reimagines Füssli's The Nightmare (c. 1781), a nude dusky maiden reclining diagonally across the picture plane, the figures of her dreamings appearing around her.

While she may be dreaming of romance, the flames and fondling couple referencing her growing passions and burgeoning emotions (following her 'loss of innocence'), the dark pits of her eyes and the winged-lion (a royal symbol) suggest something more sinister. The horse, associated with the erotic in Hinduism, leaving the frame drawing a chariot, brings with it connotations of warfare and death.

Arms pulled back, the figure is presented available to the viewer, sleeping and vulnerable. Her right arm, however, becomes a wild blur at her hand, indicating something untamed within her, a force she has not yet come to terms with.

The combination of elements, however, remains mysterious, and although the idealised nude female comes from an, arguably chauvinistic, art historical traditional, it is the subject's thought-life which is the main theme here - one populated by strange creatures and unmentionable acts.

Suteja Neka & Garrett Kim, The Development of Painting in Bali, Neka Art Museum, 2000.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Bite 4: Zed Nelson - Love Me, 2010

Christopher, 22. Chest wax, J. Sister's Salon, New York, USA.
The fashion and beauty industries, in many ways, long ago successfully devoured the very concept of femininity and what it means to be a woman and accepted in modern culture. With this frontier thoroughly fought over it was then recognised that 50% of potential makeup and beauty sales were still left untapped: Men. Thus the contemporary man was born.

Exhibit A: Christopher, 22; a clearly image-conscious and well-preened young man (whether homosexual or merely metrosexual, we are not shown enough to know for sure). He peers intently into the mirror he holds up to himself, examining his chest after a beauty treatment, his right hand caressing his skin, still tender and red from waxing.

Have you ever seen someone with a more intense self-regard, his hard eyes staring down his own reflection? It could be seen as narcissism but perhaps self-criticism would be a more accurate word, even judgment. He is his own sculpture, an object of his own ongoing creation and reassessment.

The mirror has long been a symbol of vanity and is seen throughout art history, particularly as a uniquely feminine, vice. The classical profile composition, with hints of classical architecture behind, enters into this tradition, reminding us of the historical notions of beauty, which have led us to the commodification present today.

Zed Nelson, a London-based photographer, focuses on a wide range of subjects in his series Love Me, of which this image is a part. His camera inconspicuously captures the profound effect which conforming, often commercially created, ideals of beauty have on all of us.

World Press Photo 10, Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Bite 3: Walter Schels & Beate Lakotta - Life Before Death

Walter Wegner
age: 81
born: 18th December 1923
first portrait taken: 1st December 2003
died: 13th March 2005

In November 2003 Walter Wegner moved into the hospice. He no longer wanted to be a burden to his lady friend at home. He has brought his electric organ with him, “but it’s hardly worth me practicing any Christmas carols: I’ll be dead by Christmas.” But things turn out differently. He’s still there on New Year’s Eve.

“I came here to die," he says morosely. “So why aren’t I dead yet?”

Wegner lives to see the spring, as well as the following autumn. His partner’s visits become increasingly rare. On Christmas Eve 2004 he plays “Silent Night“ for the others. On a Monday in March 2005 one of the nurses says to him: “You’ve been with us for over a year now. You’ve recovered so well, this is no longer the right place for you. We’re going to have to ask you to move out soon.“ Wegner flourished in the hospice, he is afraid of the residential care home. He asks his partner: “Can I come home?” She refuses.

Walter Wegner dies five days after the conversation with the nurse.

With photographs by Walter Schels and words by Beate Lakotta, the series Life Before Death: Portraits of the Dying (2002-2005) presents diptychs of hospice patients from across northern Germany - one image from before their death, the other soon after.

In a tender coupling of text and image the viewer is introduced to Walter Wegner. An up-close, intimate portrait with defining lighting, combined with a concise, revealing narrative brings Wegner's humanity to the fore.

But these images are not of the same man, surely not. On the left: a dignified, alert and alive man, while on the left, a sleeping face, drained of character and life. The left image is certainly a portrait, but the corpse? Is it not more accurate to see it as a still-life? Perhaps this is too severe, yet the work certainly explores the definition of the portrait, as well as how death is represented in our culture. A culture which often seems to ignore or suppress anything referencing a fate we all must face; "We all know we have to die, but we just can't believe it," Schels remarks.

With a German austerity seen in the work of the Bechers and August Sander, Schels and Lakotta, partners, combine this 'banal' approach with an overwhelming sensitivity, stating the brutal fact of mortality - which Susan Sontag points out is present in all portraits - while simultaneously allowing individual subjects to shine through the space between image and text, having their final say.

Foam Magazine, 'Portrait?', Winter 2008, #17.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Bite 2: Nadar - Pierrot Photographer, 1854-55

Nadar - Pierrot Photographer, 1854-55
Perhaps the most lasting image from Nadar's successful career, created soon after the birth of photography, Pierrot Photographer can be seen as unintentionally profound - a collaborative performance, a dialogue between photographer and subject, resulting in an artful, self-aware image.

Produced during a short-lived partnership with his brother Adrien Tournachon, they photographed a series of images, mainly for promotional purposes, of the celebrated French mime artist Jean-Charles Deureau as Pierrot.

Pierrot was seen not so much as a clown, in the contemporary sense, but rather as a sensitive 19th century romantic artist. Here he is the allegorical figure Photography itself, his delicate hand gestures - lifting the dark slide with two fingers from one hand and regarding the camera with the other - suggesting the magic ritual of the photographic process. He is a magician and the photograph, his magic act. This is perhaps the earliest work to so aptly intersubjectively explore the medium using the camera itself.

Light and shadow is strongly emphasised, the harsh lighting making Pierrot's white costume seem almost sculptural, aided by the stark grey background immediately behind him - a kind of canvas, and the simple composition. He is becoming object and standing by the camera, thoughtfully regarding the photographer - while playing that role himself - in chiasm, he appears very much aware of this.

James H. Rubin, Nadar 55, Phaidon, 2001.
Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History (2nd Ed.), Lawrence King, 2006.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Bite 1: Robert Mapplethorpe - Self Portrait, 1975

Robert Mapplethorpe - Self Portrait, 1975
"The camera looks at me, I look at the camera, and everybody else is peripheral," Robert Mapplethorpe explains. Both Narcissus and Christ he proudly displays his body, reaching out his arm. He is still a young man, sensual, alive and probably high. As if floating or falling he is given no fixed location, becoming his own context. Mouth slightly open he teases the viewer, experimenting with the possibilities of the camera and the boundaries of the medium - quite literally, touching the opposite side of the frame.

Robert Mapplethorpe produced many self portraits throughout his life. With each, biographer Patricia Morrisroe explains, they "served to dramatize each distinct phase of his life." While he was later to die at age 42 as a result AIDS - one of his best works is a late self portrait, surrounded in black holding a walking stick topped with a skull - here is still in his twenties, highly sexual, a glittering career burgeoning before him. This is expertly captured in a private image of autoeroticism.

For all his obsession with S&M this image speaking solely of freedom. It is a simple yet life affirming photograph, direct and poignant.

In explaining his term punctum Roland Barthes, in his seminal and brilliant text Camera Lucida, is deeply captivated by the image:
"This boy with his arm outstretched, his radiant smile, though his beauty is in no way classical or academic, and though he is half out of the photograph, shifted to the extreme ... of the frame, incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the 'heavy' desire of pornography from the 'light' (good) desire of eroticism; after all, perhaps this is a question of 'luck': the photographer has caught the boy's hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimetres more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire."
 Many images in Mapplethorpe's oeuvre are blatantly pornographic - he is widely and controversially credited with bringing art and the pornographic together. This generous image, however, offers so much by withholding - it asks questions instead of giving pat answers, it reeks of mystery even in its directness. Barthes is right, and states it much better than I could: it is an image of perfection, "just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment."

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, 1980.
Patricia Morrisroe, Robert Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Macmillan, 1995.

A Bite a Day...

I just had an idea for a possible somewhat structured format for this space: I will discuss one work everyday. Just one. Everyday.

There are many traditional photo blogs which present a photo from the blogger's life everyday. Instead I will present an image from my thought life; often a photograph, often by a well known artist. Other mediums will be included also, and from little known artists or collections (including vernacular). Whatever is on my mind.

I may only write a few words, a caption, or a question, while other times I will likely get a bit carries away, and ramble. I apologise in advance.

When I see an exhibition on my travels I will try to include a work from it (unless none happens to 'jump' out at me).

An image itself is a kind of 'reality bite'.

I will (hopefully) present a bite a day.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Reality: Bites

Today is December 1st and this blog is a one month early New Years Resolution.

I have been on holiday from university for two weeks so far and, as I'm sure is typical, I have done little of the new endeavors I had planned on undertaking now that I am free from the deadlines and constraints of university life.

I now see those 'binds' as having been a somewhat positive motivator: At least you get something done!

I have been studying Art History, having previously studied Art and Photography. I want to keep thinking about art - thinking with purpose. A journal is great way to do this - I have tried but I find it tedious, somewhat insular and rather old-fashioned.

Thus, this blog will act as my journal - a journal with direction. It will force me to articulate myself and my thoughts properly. (I hope) it will be read by some (if you are please comment or email. It's would be nice to know if this is more than only a shot in the dark as many cyber communications seem to be). But if not, if no one ever reads this but me, I refuse to see it as a waste. This blog, for now, is only for me. Hey: If something forces you to think it must be useful, right?

Ironically I hope this outlet will get me off the computer somewhat, to look harder and deeper, to respond creatively to what I see, read and experience.

A note on the title: I mean for it to be read several ways simultaneously:

  • Reality: Bites - Yes, it does sometimes.
  • Reality Bites Back - Everything we see and experience is reaching out to us in some way whether we are conscious of it or not.
  • Reality Bites - This blog will contain brief missives on art and reality - and non-reality - thrown out into cyberspace.
A byte is also of course a unit of digital - virtual - information. 'Reality bytes' then is a paradox  - somewhat fitting I think.

By referencing reality in the title my aim is to approach art as an exploration of the nature of reality and how we define it; seeing art as able to go beyond representation, questioning representation and reality in the process.

It is my belief that the photographic medium is uniquely placed to do this. It is an exciting, changing medium, redolent in potentialities, that is still often overlooked and underestimated. It is still in its adolescence as an art form and this blog will enter into this dialogue, approaching photography from a number of theoretical and critical angles. 

Ultimately, however, for now I want the aims of this space to remain open. I cannot yet say which direction this blog will go in, or even if it will survive its first postings (many blogs don't and Blogger begins to look like a graveyard of forgotten cyber-ambitions). None-the-less I choose to see these points positively: I have an open, indefinite, intangible place from which to muse. It's kind of like buying a Lotto ticket: You know it will almost certainly amount to nothing - but still, you gotta' be in it to win it.