Archive for the ‘ Design ’ 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.

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.

Steve Jobs: Selling Aspiration

Apple stores marry temple-like sanctity with designer retail

Steve Jobs resigned today and there has been much written about the ‘visionary’ CEO as the shares of Apple have dived. Jobs was certainly a brilliant CEO after being reinstated as leader of the the company in the late 1990s (he was fired by the board some years earlier) he not only revived a dying computer company but engineered Apple’s leapfrog over the seemingly all-powerful Microsoft to become one of the biggest companies in the world. Apple now rules the consumer electronics industry but Jobs’ impact, I think, really owes much to an industry far older than consumer electronics: fashion.

Much has been written about Jobs’ impact on the technology world. When Jobs took over Apple for the second time he introduced the iMac to the world: a simple all-in-one computer with a futuristic bubble design in candy coloured perspex. This new approach to computing -thinking about industrial design as much as what’s inside the box- revolutionised the consumer electronics industry. But what is really intriguing about Apple under the leadership of Steve jobs is his central place in the aura of the company and its conflation of design and marketing.

Jobs’ sent Apple’s fortunes into the stratosphere by aping (consciously or unconsciously) the high fashion industry which thrives on two central principles: sell aspiration and never listen to customers. Apple products sell to people the person they want to be. It’s not insignificant that the iPad in the poster has a TED Talk video playing because Apple is selling a lifestyle: the owner is sophisticated but not obscure (geeky), just like the product, just like TED Talks. When you buy Gucci or Ralph Lauren, you buy into a fantasy and the same goes for Apple products. While Microsoft brought computing to the masses by cheaply licensing its OS to competing manufacturers, Apple remained a tight grip on all its products and systems, limiting its hard-and-software ecosystem: to use Apple, you must embrace Apple. Apple products have always remained expensive, but not prohibitively so.

Part and parcel of selling aspiration is the second principle: don’t listen to customers. Steve Jobs is notorious for dismissing customer requests and complaints and puts little faith in focus groups. This is because Apple and the fashion industry know that aspiration does not come from your needs, neither does it even come from your wishes, it comes from where you would like to be placed in the world and only someone else can provide that for you.

Update: Steve Jobs died yesterday (06 October 2011), genuinely sad news, especially given that he died young. But I can’t help thinking that he deluge of internet tributes to Jobs was a little disturbing, particularly those that credited him for “inventing” the Macintosh or the iPhone (others invented these products, Jobs sold them). While certainly charismatic, probably a nice guy, it’s a shame that a CEO of a multinational whose role was essentially that of a salesman is wept over and the subject of candle-lit vigils outside stores. I’m sure Jobs himself would find it rather silly.

Let’s Get Digital

The abundance of touchscreen devices these days means that digital can be “digital” and Microsoft are pioneering (would you believe it?) self-consciously digital design.

Movies and TV shows show nothing like the kind of computers we are used to. They often show large fonts and graphics on the display in vivid colours against black screens. Nothing like the point and click Windows and Mac systems we all use.

This is partly down to legibility – the movie makers want us to clearly see what’s on the screens. But it is also about raw signification, a parade of signs that loudly announce themselves to be “digital”.

What is great about Windows Phone 7 is this bold move into self-consciously digital design just like the movies. The phone’s emphasis on typography with its huge sans-serif fonts that run off the screen (the screen, this trick announces, is not the limit) and flat panes echo the movie signification of “digital” by actually being digital. The user interface shuns icons and traditional apps with Microsoft’s unique live ’tiles’ and ‘hubs’ which integrate related content into one place.

The trompe-l’oeil paradigm of the iPhone’s icons (aped by Android) seems tired and needlessly synthetic now in the face with Microsoft’s brave redesign of the mobile operating system. There is very little attempt at naturalism or illusion in WP7, depth is rendered through parallax scrolling. This is a welcome new direction in the design of interfaces. Why? Well, point and click is over, and the future is all about touchscreens. The illusionism of windows and icons seemed important to point and click to give the feel of tangibility and tactility. But now, with touchscreens, we have tangibility built in to the way we interface with devices. So now digital devices can be “digital”, and Microsoft are leading the way.