Saturday, 25 June 2011

Arthur Rimbaud - The Drunken Boat

As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers:
Gaudy Redskins had taken them for targets
Nailing them naked to coloured stakes.

I cared nothing for all my crews,
Carrying Flemish wheat or English cottons.
When, along with my haulers those uproars were done with
The Rivers let me sail downstream where I pleased.

Into the ferocious tide-rips
Last winter, more absorbed than the minds of children,
I ran! And the unmoored Peninsulas
Never endured more triumphant clamourings

The storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakenings.
Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves
Which men call eternal rollers of victims,
For ten nights, without once missing the foolish eye of the harbor lights!

Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples to children,
The green water penetrated my pinewood hull
And washed me clean of the bluish wine-stains and the splashes of vomit,
Carrying away both rudder and anchor.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Bite 129: Joseph Wright of Derby - An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, oil on canvas, 183 x 244 cm, National Gallery, London
Ten figures emerge from the inky shroud of blackness claustrophobically, comfortably, enveloping them. A single candle behind a skull in glass dimly illuminates the scene - in Wright's signature, highly-contrasting style - of a scientist performing an experiment in the formation of a vacuum. Dramatically, but perhaps unrealistically, a rare white cockatoo is used in the demonstration. It dies from lack of air. The old scientist, mouth slightly open, looks intensely out at the viewer. This is a human, not merely a scientific, drama.

Nine others witness the experiment. All of their faces tell a story, each representing a particular reaction when faced with the stark reality of death. 

A young boy looks on wearily, opening the window to reveal a bright moon. On the left some watch interested but nonchalant, others in wonder or even a hint of confusion. 

Two young girls seek consolation, a well-dressed older gentleman instead instructs them. The youngest of the girls, her face brightly lit, the focus of the composition, looks up at the dead bird with fear and deep concern. In devastation she mourns the small creature, confused and innocent both. Of all the reactions hers is perhaps the most open and honest when faced brutally with the fact of mortality.

But more intriguing still, perhaps, is the man slightly to the side, right; the only figure not regarding the experiment or those in the room. He sits reflectively, lost in melancholic thought. Standing in for us, he meditates on the fragility of human existence, lost time past, the seeming meaninglessness of it all.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bite 128: Marc Quinn - Self, 2006


Self, 2006, blood (artist's), liquid silicone, stainless steel, glass, perspex and refrigeration equipment, 205 x 65 x 65 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London

The hum of a refrigerator unit below a cold glass case. Within: a red decapitated head, eyes closed, as if in meditation.

Every five years, beginning in 1991, Marc Quinn creates a new sculpture - of his own head, out of his own blood, taken over a 5 month period. Formed from liquid - the liquid of life and the Eucharist - it only remains a sculpture through freezing.  A death mask of blood.

Quinn refers to it as a "frozen moment on life-support," maintaining the tension of an object wanting to destroy itself, reminding us of the fragility of the human state. Being a life-cast it operates like a three-dimensional photograph, brutal in its honesty while withholding easy meaning. As with all photographs, like a death mask, it heralds the subjects - and our own - mortality.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Bite 127: Sir George Hayter - The House of Commons, 1833-43

The House of Commons, 1833-43, oil on canvas, 300 x 500 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London
Painted to commemorate the passing of the first Parliamentary Reform Bill in England in 1832, Sir George Hayter took 10 years to complete the work, which depicts the opening session of the new House of Commons on 5 February, 1833.

Of the 658 in parliament at the time 375 are present in the portrait and 323 can be definitively identified, including a self-portrait of the artist himself, kneeling in the bottom right corner. Highly figurative, each representation has been given specific painstaking attention, with individual sittings taking place in most instances, of which many preparatory oils survive.

After completion, interest in the Reform Bill having waned, Hayter had great difficulty in finding a buyer for the monumental work. It was 15 years later that he succeeded in selling the work to the, ironically, then Tory government (who originally opposed the commemorated reforms) for ₤2,000. It was presented to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in London and was for many years hung in the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt following a fire in 1834 - a year after Hayter completed preparatory sketches of the space.

While the painting remains a record of a moment in the extension of democracy in Britain, it must be remembered that it was not until 1919 that the first woman joined the House and 1928 that women gained equal rights to vote. Looked at today the work is a stark reminder that power, global, has historically been held primarily by straight, well-off, white males.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Bite 126: J.M.W. Turner - Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, 1829

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, 1829, oil on canvas, 132 x 203 cm, National Gallery, London
Ulysses, aboard his ship, is triumphant in victory following escape from the lair of the cannibal cyclops, Polyphemus (seen in the mountains to the left), having blinded and deceived him. The sky before them is alive with golden early rays of light as Apollo's horses pull the Sun above the horizon. Similarly, transparent sea-nymphs appear to be dragging the ship toward the rising Sun.

The detailing of the vessel betrays Turner's figurative skill, while the landscape behind - with the mountains and sky blending together emphasising the mythology of the Romanticised scene - evidencing his move toward abstraction. The clouds are thick on the canvas, the grand sunrise appearing to glow, emanating light to the whole image and into the room.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bite 125: Bridget Riley - Cataract 3, 1967

Cataract 3, 1967, emulsion on canvas, 222 x 223 cm, British Council, London
Painstakingly applied emulsion in a strict mathematical pattern gives the optical illusion of movement and depth. The work, impossible to see for what it is ('merely' paint on canvas), tricks the brain into seeing its waves and colours as regressions, an alive surface.

'Representation' itself is called into question. Our eyes cannot be trusted.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bite 124: Barnett Newman - Midnight Blue, 1970

Midnight Blue, 1970, oil & acrylic on canvas, 193 x 239 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
A light blue rod grounds the painting. A section of white on the extreme left provides contrast. Between: a balanced ocean of dark, vibrant colour - midnight blue indeed.

A painting to get lost in.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bite 123: Henry Wallis - The Death of Chatterton, 1856

The Death of Chatterton, 1856, oil on canvas, 91 x 60 cm, Tate Britain, London
"Cold penury repress'd his noble rage,
And froze the genial current of his soul.
Now prompts the Muse poetic lays,
And high my bosom beats with love of Praise!
But, Chatterton! methinks I hear thy name,
For cold my Fancy grows, and dead each Hope of Fame."
               - Samuel Taylor Coleridge (from Monody on the Death of Chatterton, 1790)
Martyred to Art, Chatterton's pale corpse, reminiscent of the Pietà, lies in his bohemian quarters, a vial of poison on the floor, fallen from his hand; his hair of fire symbolising the deep passion which has led him to take his own life.

An overflowing chest contains the remnants of the unrecognised poetry of this earnest young artist, torn in despair at his failure. A candle has only just gone out; the window above, open, to allow his soul to depart. Beyond is the distant city, the world which ignored this tragic poet, leading him to a drastic - yet 'noble' - decision.

"Without Art I am nothing."

Friday, 10 June 2011

Bite 122: Mark Leckey - GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, 2010

GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, 2010, Samsung smart refrigerator, Samsung television, infinity green screen

An empty smart-fridge ready-made sits in the liminal space of an 'infinity' green-screen - used to superimpose the appliance into any given background. Nearby a screen plays a complex video of the object moving through space, showing its inner-workings and the sources of material that have brought it about. Throughout this collage (embedded above) the refrigerator speaks - as 'smart' ones do. But instead of detailing its gastronomical contents it speaks of its own processes, the chemicals living and reacting within its own shell. 

"My goal is to keep cold," it states, as if it were a person with a purpose and ambitions if its own. The artist himself, on a green stool with a green blanket draped over him, sits behind the large black object, completing the work. He speaks along with the appliance, becoming one with it, disappearing. "Becoming gas, becoming liquid, becoming vapour, becoming, becoming, becoming, becoming..."

The primordial, the Sun and the Moon, the past, the present, the future: all culminate in this futuristic object which sits in the kitchen, reliable and present - a member of the family.

"They ask and they answer. Above, below."

Currently on show at Serpentine Gallery, London, as part of Mark Leckey's exhibition See, We Assemble.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Bite 121: Dirk Skreber - Untitled (Crash 1), 2009

Untitled (Crash 1), 2009, Red Mitsubishi Eclipse Spider 2001, 292 x 323 x 236 cm, Saatchi Gallery, London
Moving objects around us everyday bristle with dangerous potential energy and power, often with the possibility of destruction. Suspended above the ground, frozen in the moment of releasing its raw power, a car (or what previously was one) is wrapped around a pole, created by carefully choreographing an accident in a controlled environment.

"If you pass an accident and see a car like this, it's occupied by tragic thoughts for the people that would be involved, and you might see blood," Skreber says. "This work gives you an opportunity to see the things like in a dream. It's clean and polished and abstract." Walking around it gives the surreal impression of a three-dimensional photograph, a collision stopped mid-motion.

Currently showing in the exhibition The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery in London.


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Bite 120: Kris Martin - Summit, 2009

Summit, 2009, found stone, paper crosses, ink, Saatchi Gallery, London
A simple paper cross, a symbol redolent in meaning, from religion and death to territorial domination and colonialism, transforms a large, found rock - earthy and primitive - into a great mountain with towering cliff-faces. 

Eight such pieces make up the work Summit, an experiment in perception and a testament to the futility of human ambitions. "The top is nice when you haven't reached it,” Martin has said. “But once you get [there], the potential is gone. Dreams are what keep people going.” 

Each monolith with its flimsy token to land conquered becomes a silent memorial to human dreams, forgotten and achieved; to the sublimity of nature, and the inevitability of death.

“For me, they're all very dangerous, mountains… They're filled with a dangerous power, especially for puny little human beings, like we are.”

Currently showing in the exhibition The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Images & Quotes:

Friday, 3 June 2011

Bite 119: Paul Gauguin - Nevermore, 1897

Nevermore, 1897, oil on canvas, 61 x 116 cm, Courtauld Gallery, London
"Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.' 
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore'."
                                                 - Edgar Allan Poe, from The Raven

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Bite 118: George Segal - The Restaurant Window, 1967

The Restaurant Window, 1967, mixed media, 244 x 351 x 175 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne
An Edward Hopper painting become sculpture, the lonely figures are re-imagined in white plaster. A passing moment in a desolate restaurant at night is crystallised; the chair, table and window represent themselves, while the white figures - cast directly from life - are pillars of salt, frozen in time. Standing nearby, their alien presence enters your own space. Memorials of a forgotten moment of silence between passing strangers. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Bite 117: Thomas Struth - Museo del Prado 7, Madrid, 2005

Museo del Prado 7, Madrid, 2005, C-Print, 178 x 219 cm
"I first started taking photographs of people in museums in the early 1990s. I went to the Prado in Madrid and was flabbergasted by one particular painting, Las Meninas by Velásquez. It was so close to my own interests. I thought: "Jesus Christ, why did nobody tell me about this?" And yet I never photographed it until 2005. I don't know why. 
"When I went back to it, it marked a moment of evolution for me. I decided that I had to try something different: I had to stand inside the groups of viewers, creating a greater intimacy between the people viewing the painting and those depicted in it. 
"I worked there for seven days, eight hours a day, and I noticed how the school groups stood very close to the picture, almost touching it with their elbows. I like the two guys [at the left] of this image, who look very sceptical about what the guide is saying about the painting. I find that funny. Evidently, they mistrust the situation. Perhaps they would rather have a beer."
                                                                         - Thomas Struth