Archive for the ‘ Culture ’ Category

Conservative Politics in the Ancient World

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The tropes of conservatism are well known: religion, family values, patriotism and a wider natural order of things. Politicians pose with their progeny, their wives, and have themselves seen in places of symbolic importance to their values. They evoke the rural, the family, the state as homeland and mother/fatherland in speech and symbology.

By its very nature, conservatism is not a political programme, it is instead in the realm of symbolic politics because it is rhetorical and demonstrative rather than programmatic and substantive.*

Conservatism is often a misnomer, since “the past”, “nature” and “the way things were and should remain” has very often been mobilised to convince people to accept the very opposite: sweeping changes, the destruction of nature, and the corrosion of the past. As a system of belief strays from its ideals, it often does so by fervently and paradoxically propounding those ideals.

The Ara Pacis, housed in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, is a template example of the way conservative tropes are ironically employed to cement a radical power shift.

To give it its full name, the Ara Pacis Augustae (The ‘Altar of Augustan Peace’) is an altar to Peace, a minor Roman goddess. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 B.C. to honour the return of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, to Rome after his three years commanding Roman legions in Hispania and Gaul.

Having completed those conquests, Augustus ushered in a period commonly known as Pax Augusta (Augustinian Peace) in which peace was maintained within the boundaries of the expanded empire by means of Roman military supremacy.

However, the real danger to Augustus’s power was not invading or rebelling barbarians, but the Roman people themselves, and the living memory of the Roman Republic which Augustus had officially abolished (Julius Caesar had done the groundwork by becoming dictator).

The Ara Pacis was therefore a centrepiece in the Augustinian programme of winning hearts and minds at home. While ostensibly an altar to Peace, it serves to visually encompass the mythic requisites for Augustinian reign and the new ideology of Julio-Claudian power (the dynasty that would rule until Nero’s death).

Ara Pacis - procession of nobles

Frieze showing the procession of nobles. Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, is shown with his toga drawn over his head. The depiction of children was very rare at the time, the child is probably Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’s grandson and favored heir.

Religion and piety is presented not only in the existence of the altar itself but also the frieze running around it. Augustus himself and several members of his family (of which many are realistically represented and identifiable) wear hoods (their togas drawn over their heads actually) which symbolise them acting in a religious capacity (Augustus appointed himself as high priest of Rome). Bulls are led to sacrifice by priests, and children are shown among the procession (children were unusual subject matter at the time).

Augustus then, is inscribing his reign into Roman religious life and even into Roman cosmology. Aeneas, Romulous, Remus and Mars are also depicted on the altar, and Augustus had already engineered the notion that he had descended from them, that he was in his rightful place in the pantheon of Roman religion.

The lower part of the internal wall imitates the type of rural wooden fence that would have enclosed a sacrificial altar. The upper part bears festoons that hang from ox skulls (bucrania, symbolic of sacrifice), with ritualistic shallow bowls in the intervals. The hanging festoons include ears of wheat, berries, and a variety of fruit and nuts, all underscoring the economic value of peace (and military domination). Between the “fence” boards and the festoons is a palmette border, a common motif.

Internal Wall - Ara Pacis

The internal walls of the altar are decorated with festoons and skulls, common agricultural and devotional symbols associated with rural life.

All this adds up to a symbology of power – of inscribing the new autocratic regime into the natural, the rural and the religious. It is ironic that these “timeless” and “unchanging” aspects of the Roman imagination were transformed by this symbolic intervention.

*While modern conservatism sees itself as broadly in favor of free markets and small government, history has shown conservatism to be pragmatic to the core. Look, for example, at agricultural subsidies, the British post-war consensus, the huge state borrowing and military expansion under Ronald Reagan.

Souzou 想像: Outsider Art from Japan

Koichi Fujino, Squid

Koichi Fujino, Squid

I wrote this review (of sorts) for on 11 April 2013.

You’ll find the world in the Wellcome’s Souzou exhibition of Japanese outsider art. It’s in one of the final rooms of this kaleidoscopic journey through the minds of forty-six untrained artists, all of whom happen to be attendees of Japanese welfare centres. Norimitsu Kokubo’s enormous patchwork cityscape, A Map of the World, depicts places and objects he has never visited, but has instead gleaned from the pages of newspapers and the internet. It’s a jam-packed fusion of landmarks and buildings enmeshed together on a groundless void.

A Map of the World sums up this show pretty well since we have here a dense assortment of objects from the imaginations of vulnerable, but gifted people who use their fragmented life experience to form cohesive and powerful artworks. The sheer breadth of the exhibition is impressive, and it makes sense that the curator has categorised the works into broad themes such as ‘language’, ‘making’ and ‘possibility’.

Even within these zones there’s enormous variety – Shota Katsube’s two-hundred-strong army of tiny combat-poised warriors are made from twist-ties, the diverse and strangely animated array evoke a boyhood universe of endlessly-fighting cartoon robots. Then there’s the crowded, vibrant ceramics of Satoshi Nishikawa, who has sculpted an apple of rabbits. Yes: an apple formed of rabbits with a repetitive symmetry reminiscent of ancient eastern architecture.

The bold ink-washes of Koichi Fujino in shapes of animals, which brim to the edges of the paper have an abstract power in their simple, sumptuous forms. There’s also handmade pyjamas with painted motifs of fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies by Takahiro Shimoda. A special mention should also go to Marie Suzukie whose intricate bodyscapes brimming with sex organs, thighs and breasts dazzled us with textured kaleidoscopic patterns. Stare long enough into the waves and dots and you see eyes and faces emerge.

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-2012

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-10

It’s uplifting to walk among objects unfettered from professionalism or conformity to market norms. This is an overgrown garden of the imagination and all the more inspiring that it’s made by people at the margins of society. It’s also rather apt that when you leave the show you pass an Antony Gormley sculpture, as this professional piece of cod-spiritual solemnity looks insipid and lifeless in comparison. We need a museum of outsider art to challenge the pros.

Warhol’s Featureless Films

Vinyl 1965

Vinyl 1965

An edited version of this article was published on Art Wednesday, 10 April 2013.

Of the many Warholisms, the one that rings most true in his film output is “the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting”, since there’s never really any action to come. Warhol’s films simply happen, but they do so in a provocative and often menacing way.

Ever needing provocation, I headed to the ICA over the weekend to witness the UK cinema premieres of three newly-restored Warhol films.Sleep, the first of the typically Warholian mono-action epics, screens his lover, John Giorno, slumbering naked in Warhol’s apartment. Alongside its continual screening, the ICA scheduled the viewings of two ‘feature films’ co-directed with Paul Morrison, Chelsea Girls and Vinyl.

The former, the action of which takes place in the centre of New York City’s creative universe – Hotel Chelsea, follows the lives of a number of the young ‘superstars’ that clustered around the Factory scene. Over six hours of footage is divided by splitscreen, giving us a diptych binary of the ‘white’ and ‘black’ aspects of the life of the hotel’s residents. The action takes place in front of a rapidly panning and zooming lens, giving the film a cool and detached aesthetic. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is a challenge of patience that at moments (with emphasis on ‘moments’) explodes with vainglorious brilliance and sordid shock-tactic.

Vinyl is a barely-watchable pre-Kubrick interpretation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. In a starkly minimalist mise-en-scène, Factory superstars including Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Melanga shambolically play out the tale of ultra-violence and state control in the 70 minute film peppered with musical numbers by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas.

While sharing a similar aesthetic as the fixed-lens Factory ‘screen tests’, the ‘actors’ bodies are cooped into a tight frame and shallow space (presumably in some corner of the Factory) and the camera stares down on them cruelly at a steep angle. There’s something sadistic about the film above and beyond the erotically-charged torture of Malenga – the cold Warholian objectivity is palpable throughout and the crude acting is almost abject. With no dialogue or real part to play, Sedgwick mostly looks on smoking, and appears in the film simply to appear, intermittently dancing and sniffing (what appears to be) poppers along with the other actors.

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Both films have divided the critics since their release and will never be universally appreciated, I’ll admit I also found them hard to watch – they’re challenging to watch in their entirety for all but the most fanatical Factory scene devotees. The now late Roger Ebert observed that Chelsea Girls employed “perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the flavour of the meal.” Whatever you may think of each film, they’ve made their mark more as a cultural statement, an epochal happening that we can still see reflected in self-destructive celebrities and the intrusive lenses through which we view them.

Remote Control at the ICA

Those Who Don't Change Will Be Switched Off', by Simon Denny, 2012

Those Who Don't Change Will Be Switched Off, Simon Denny, 2012

I wrote this review for the Arts Desk 5 April 2012

Remote Control and its accompanying series of events, Television Delivers People, coincides with the analogue to digital switch-over, marking a shift in the history of a medium which will soon be eclipsed by on-demand content. While this may sound mundane on paper, the humble light-emitting box has been the elephant in the room for the last half-century, profoundly transforming living habits and shaping political discourse. What’s more, television at its worst has represented the kind of passive, habitual looking to which art-making is intrinsically opposed. The show itself is a survey of artistic meditations and interventions, looking to break open the social and political mechanics of programming.

The exhibition is torn between two poles: on the one hand is the physicality of the equipment, and on the other how the medium is used for artistic ends. Indicative of the former are Matias Faldbakken’s rough-shod casts of flat-screen television sets presented with partial cardboard and wood casing. These stained and fractured ghosts are evocative of urban decay but textured with the moulded contours of consumer technology. Then there’s Simon Denny’s remnants of a huge, now obsolete analogue TV transmitter, which, with its defunct switches and levers, occupies a central place in the gallery. But beyond its impressive size, it’s not really adding much to the discourse.

Beside this mass of old technology are artists’ TV projects, each of which you can watch with a single pair of headphones and totalling up several hours of footage. Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, 1973, a bizarre addition to this sculptor’s oeuvre, is a polemic against the medium. White text floats up a blue screen while muzak plays, informing us that “You are the product of TV… You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer”. It attempts to do what Serra accuses corporations of doing (changing our behaviour), but with less success.

Serra’s sloganeering can’t match the nuances and complexity of the medium, and more compelling are the artistic deconstructions of televisual language. Stuart Marshall’s The Love Show, 1979, examines constructions of sexuality, as does Joan Braderman’s satire of Dynasty, whilst KRIWET takes on that seminal moment of communal television-watching: the 1969 moon landing. Surprisingly, Andy Warhol and Chris Burden, two major artists who notoriously ventured into the medium, are not present.

Works upstairs mostly synthesise the physicality of equipment and television images. Taryn Simon’s Alhurra TV Broadcast Studio, Springfield, Virginia, 2006-07, reveals TV’s place in the soft-power strategy of the war on terror. We see an Arab channel funded by the US congress and broadcasting from the heart of America. A female newsreader sits serenely in profile under the gaze of floating cameras while on a background screen a masked man holds an enormous rocket-propelled grenade up to a far remote camera. Richard Hamilton’s famous image of the TV-mediated Kent State massacre is here, as is Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, a beautifully shot film of an early test card machine.

In his 2007 book Feedback: Television Against Democracy, art historian David Joselit argued that in a world where democracy is conducted through images, art history has the capacity to become a political science. It’s a bold and true statement, but the problem with this show is that while it comes good on giving us a decent survey of artistic responses to TV, it doesn’t give them enough thematic context. It’s an ambitious show for the weakened ICA and credit is due, but a subject like this needs a major museum’s attention.

Review: New Jerwood Gallery and Rose Wylie’s painted memory

Rose Wylie Swimming with Cats, 2002

I wrote this review for The Arts Desk 30 March 2012.

The Jerwood Gallery on Stade beach in Hastings has so far had a fraught if very short history. Local opposition, largely from the neighbouring fishing community, have campaigned relentlessly against the gallery, fearing that it would ruin the Stade’s rustic charm and bring little or no benefit to most locals. There’s negative graffiti among the huts surrounding the Jerwood and a bright orange “NO to Jerwood” banner still hangs on one of the iconic black “net shop” towers beside the gallery, fully visible from the gallery’s foyer.

Social and economic concerns aside, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about when you consider the gallery architecturally. It has a modest silhouette from the street and it’s sensitively clad in glossy black ceramic tiles that pay some deference to the adjacent net shops and huts, as well as reflecting the huge seaside horizon and surrounding old town buildings and hills. The inside is kept simple with white walls, wooden slats and pale terrazzo all flooded with sunlight from generous windows and a glass-walled courtyard.

For the inaugural show we are treated to a retrospective of the work of Rose Wylie, the new septuagenarian star who has broken art-world convention by peaking so late in her career. As such, she has been the subject of as much feature-writing as criticism. Big Boys Sit in the Front caps a long association with the Jerwood and a slew of media coverage around her recent international successes.

It’s easy to assume Wylie is younger, as many people have done, because the paintings are executed on such an enormous scale. Getting Better with Water, 2011, comprising four large panels, is almost too big to fit between the ceiling and the floor. Running 16ft around the corner of the main room is a frieze-like combination of Swimming With Cats (Blue Twink), 2002, Green Twink and Ivy and Red Twink and Ivy, 2002 where raw, possibly un-primed canvas deadens much of the brushwork save for richly slathered patches of pea-green, blue and red, roughly delineated with syrupy daubs of black that register a quick but considered pace. The lines peter out and pick up where they left off with generous reapplication before fading again to translucence.

Wylie’s carelessness is thrilling in these details, and you get a vicarious buzz from her devil-may-care attitude as you trace the paint over the canvas. The bright smiles of swimmers with their dimples and eyelashes have a postcard feel to them, but also the fluid, confident touch of a gifted draughtswoman.

Not that these are lazy pictures. Splats of paint tell us that these canvases spent some time on the floor, and rethinking is much in evidence in the rough-hewn and peeling patches of canvas stuck to the surfaces. When it comes to placing Wylie’s work schematically, many late-20th-century painters spring to mind, particularly the Americans Phillip Guston and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But there’s a buoyancy in these pictures that those don’t have, leaving the impression that Wylie’s vision is singular.

The thread through all the pictures is recollection, be it of film scenes, newspaper stories or conversations. Wylie has said herself that she draws from memory and the drawing comes first. “Drawings look like how I see,” she says. “And the paintings look like the drawings.” There’s a lot of painted text, too. Getting Better with Water seems to recall an interview with swimmer Rebecca Adlington. The scrawled question, “What do you most dislike about yourself?” is answered “BIG SHOULDERS” in capitals that intersect the fussy figure of the swimmer who’s enveloped in a comic-like starburst.

Repetition in many of the paintings underscores the very work of recollection. InKill Bill (Film Notes), 2007, painted from the memory of a scene in the film, Wylie paints two versions side by side, with one showing Uma Thurman’s blonde crown as she overlooks a brutally vanquished body lying over an absurdly bright pool of blood. As well as echoing the celluloid’s gradual frame-shifts, the nixed duplication demonstrates that memory is something we work at and this labour of piecing things together finds many forms in the show, in the jigsaw motif, the continual patching and reconfigurations of elements. “What you see is as important as the food you eat,” she says in the video, and it’s sharing her delight in reconstructing lost moments that leaves a lasting impression.

Sticking it to The Man

In the wake of the North African revolutions the lurid stories of pop royalty dancing for the pleasure of petro-tyrants for big money got me thinking: since when have artists ever done just the opposite and refused to sell out, opting to stick it to the man instead? There are plenty of examples of great creatives who turned their back on their own commercial success to challenge both their audiences and accountants to reassert their artistic integrity. Here are just a few…

Talk Talk

A bankable bunch of synth-poppers, Talk Talk had commercial success in the early 80’s with a string of hits. EMI loved them so much they gave them a blank cheque to produce their fourth album. What they came back with was astonishing: the slow, pained and brooding expression of sadness that was 1988’s Spirit of Eden. It’s inflections of jazz, classical dynamics and ambient music is the perfect example of a band doing a U-turn and sticking their fingers up at the record company. Quite appropriately the opening lyrics of the first exquisite song read “Oh yeah, it’s the world turned upside down”.

It was the commercial flop that changed pop history forever: all record contracts since now stipulate that the record must be “commercially viable”.

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy had a major breakdown in later life as a result of depression. His novels had been hits and he was the pinnacle of the Russian literary world even with rivals like Chekov and Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy found solace in religion, freed his serfs, renounced his earthly wealth and turned his back on the novel form. Instead, Tolstoy grew a huge beard and wrote many, now acclaimed, parables and moralistic short stories. He became a sage-like figure and a huge political and philosophical influence on the twentieth century, inspiring non-violent rebels like Gandhi (who corresponded with Tolstoy) and had a profound influence on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who read his Gospel in Brief during the First World War.

Tolstoy’s pacifist and anarcho-Christian manifesto The Kingdom of God is Within You is still banned in Russia.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners

The jolly brummies revived the northern soul and gypsie genres for the slick 80s crowd and had the world at their feet with hits like Come on Eileen and Geno. (No wedding is complete without a jolly drunken unkle-shuffle to the former tune!) However, in 1985 lead singer Kevin Rowland sacked half the band and produced Don’t Stand Me Down which, while now seen as one of the great albums of the 80s, was a commercial disaster. The record is bitter in lyrics and sweet in music, with Rowland ranting against the trappings of fame while singing in his characteristic yodeling voice. Rowland refused to market the record and the band transformed their image with a Harvard-inspired preppy look (now very popular since Vampire Weekend liberated the bourgeois kids from pretending to be poor) which the press mocked, describing them as looking like double glazing salesmen. After fading from the public eye in the 90s, Rowland took to singing classic covers in drag. Dexy’s are now back again (2012) with a new album.

Philip Guston

An abstract painter in the 50s and 60s, Guston was lauded by the New York art world and became a poster-boy for the CIA-sponsored American Modernist movement. In the late 60s he bizarrely began to paint enormous cartoons of KKK-like “hoods” roaming naively daubed city streets and anxiously smoking cigarettes. Head hauncho Modernist Clement Greenberg went nuts, everyone else scratched their heads. But history has been kind to Guston’s turn away from the mainstream, his cartoon works have now taken critical precedence over his earlier abstract paintings.

Monuments to Nothing in Particular

Lenin Statue

A statue of Lenin in post-communist Lithuania

The biggest enterprise of public arts cuts in modern times occured during the 90s and 00s in the former Eastern Bloc as the last granite, steel and concrete vestiges of the communist regimes were torn down. These sometimes enormous statues were demolished, often in the middle of the night, between mobs of people supporting or opposing their demolition. People waved banners and jeered or cheered as the remnants of the old regime crumbled in front of them. In public art played out the symbolic politics of reforming national identities.

Kapoor's public sculpture

The creators of ‘Arcelor Mittal Orbit’, including two politicians, pose for the press

Now look at the profusion of public art works in the UK and you can only really shrug and scratch your head as you crane your neck back to view the gigantic monuments to nothing in particular. Take, as an example, the olympic tower to be called the Arcelor Mittal Orbit, designed by Anish Kapoor.* A giant viewing platform constructed from swirling steel girders (the billionaire funder it is named after, Lakshmi Mittal, is a steel magnate) has been described, quite embarrasingly, by the London mayor as a rival to the Eiffel Tower. It’s certainly overblown and gigantic, in line with similar conceits Kapoor has publicly realised. But it even lacks the cod-minimalist aesthetic of his usual work which ham-fistedly tackles the aesthetic puzzles the minimalists conquered with such grace, precision and economy a whole generation before him. It’s even worse than his already bad work.

The same goes for Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. The fact that this faux-spiritual blown-up riff of his man-sized work is built for the eyes of people in passing cars says it all. What does this white, expensively-educated Buddhist have to say about the north of England and its historical trials and tribulations? Not much really, just a giant version of a previous work. (I’m an iconoclast at heart, I deeply loathe spiritual pretentions in art).

I’ve always been ambivalent about public funding for the arts, while I think that public culture is important, I’m anxious that besuited bureaucrats and politicians (like the Mayor of London) don’t have a say. Politicians never have the public interest at heart, only the public do.

Is there any good public art? Well, yes, in many ways there is, but the best public art is always ephemeral. While I don’t think much of Banksy as an artist, I know that his public work has captured the imagination of the public and turned them on to the possiblities of the visual arts in public space in ways that are witty, poignant or satirical. For the most part, the public like him and if they don’t (I don’t much) then at least we get some kind of response out of them. For entertaining and enthralling (and sometimes enraging) the nation, Banksy has received not a penny of direct public money. In fact, his work breaks the law.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt

The NAMES Project or AIDS Memorial Quilt

The AIDS Memorial quilt, the largest public work of art in the world and still growing, was a spontaneous act of creation from grief as thousands began to make quilts memorialising their loved ones, adding and combining them for public display. The first showings of the enormous Quilt covered the Washington Mall. It was at once an expression of grief, a memorialisation and protest. Public antipathy against people with AIDS withered as news helicopters captured the sheer devastation that HIV had caused in the US, displayed right in the seat of power of the western world.

Even Bill Clinton, then President of the USA, visited the quilt; an astonishing feat for a work representing such a demonised section of the public. Again, the Quilt project, at least in its early days received no direct funding from the taxpayer. (If you’re interested, I wrote a scholarly paper about it here).

Now, I don’t like soviet public art, but the point is that it became a lightning rod for symbolic politics, just like Banksy’s work and just like the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The anodyne structures by the likes of Kapoor that are increasingly impinging on public consciousness truly please no one because they try to please everyone. They are monuments to nothing in particular. But lets hope that they do, like the soviet monuments, become sites of contestation, because these monuments, as boring as they are, ought to be scrutinised a great deal more.

I hate to complain, I think it’s always best to concentrate on good things and ignore the bad. But when the bad is so high in the skyline, you can’t ignore it.

*OK, strictly speaking, Kapoor’s Orbital is not “state funded”, but it is a state sanctioned on state-owned land through a public competition. This set up – a privately-funded monument named after the funder as a state monument – is even worse than state public art in my view. It reeks of corporatism.