89

I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see Fred Herzog‘s Vancouver Photographs, which are indeed a fascinating record of something like peripheral modernity in full colour 1950s and 1960s Kodachrome. At precisely the time that the city must have felt like a true Finis Terrae–long after it had lost its role as waystation of Empire, and before the invention of a “Pacific Rim”–it also boasted more neon lights than any other city in North America.

Granville and Robson,
But I was also very much taken by the exhibition “Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre”. The contention here is that the manifestly staged images of a Cindy Sherman or Vancouver’s own Jeff Wall, from its very inception photography has been intimately tied to performativity.

Against the notion of the photograph as snapshot, a moment frozen from an ongoing temporal flux, the exhibition argues that photography has equally often conjured up an event, a scene that would not exist but for the technology’s power of organization and arrangement. This is photography as literally composition: a marshalling of resources to produce a particular narrative or affective effect.

Yet the piece that most struck me was not a photograph, but a film, which plays precisely with the fine line between snap and event, around an investigation into one of the West’s most iconic painterly images. Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar imagines Velásquez’s Las Meninas as both composition and interruption.

In what is apparently one long take, a beautifully choreographed 360 degree steadicam pan, Sussman presents us with the figures who inhabit Las Meninas before and after they take up the pose portrayed in Velásquez’s painting.

On the one hand, we’re waiting for everything to fall in place, for the King and Queen to take up position, the Infanta to step forward, the courtiers to take up their positions, including the shadowy figure in the doorway at the back of the room. Slowly we see the various components arrange themselves, inexorably forming the famous image. On the other hand, the moment of the “snap!” in which briefly we have Las Meninas is shown in all its contingency, placed back into the flow of time full of many other potential narratives, many other instants that (had they too been frozen) would have implied other stories, other affects.

What’s presented is a process that comes to seem accidental and inevitable at the same time. Running in a continuous loop, it’s as though the complex flux of people and perspectives had endlessly to resolve into that one single moment, as though we were backstage of what is already perhaps the most famous of “backstage” images. (And the film respects that aspect of the painting… we never see the image that the artist himself is painting.) But we also are presented with other moments, and so other images. As a whole, the film is a mesmerizing and fascinating performance.

89 Seconds at Alcazar

bus

Stranded by Continental Airlines in Houston for 24 hours, I decided to take the bus downtown from the airport hotel in which they’d put me.

Given that buses were the spark and focus of so much of the civil rights movement, what’s striking now is that, yes, African Americans have won the right to sit at the front of the bus. But that’s because they are also sitting at the back and in the middle: essentially, whites have abandoned public transport altogether in a city such as Houston. And this despite, or rather because of, the fact that it’s astonishingly cheap ($2 for an all-day pass, though you need to top that up on express buses in the evening rush hour… see below).

So from an explicit divide drawn through the middle of the bus, we now have an implicit, and so invisible, line drawn between transport users and the suburban commuters in their trucks and SUVs.

Interestingly, however, there were no Latinos on the buses I took. And this despite the fact that in many ways Houston is a bicultural city: all signs and announcements are in Spanish as well as English, and on the street at least I heard Spanish probably more than English. Just about every service worker I encountered, from the check-in agents at the hotel to the guys leaf-blowing the streets, to the bus driver and the cleaners at the airport… they were almost all Latino.

But on the return journey to the airport, it was a white guy who gave me a dollar on seeing that my pass no longer worked. Perhaps an act of racial solidarity among the bus-borne minority.

Rothko ChapelMeanwhile, I went down to the Rothko Chapel, which I first saw almost two decades ago. I still feel rather underwhelmed, but it was good to return and to re-experience the underwhelment. I also stopped by the Jung Centre. Most of the other museums were closed, it being a Monday.

Even so, I should apologize to my friend Ivonne, Houston native and very much a booster of her home city. The place is far better than I remember it. The public transport works, or at least it worked for me. There’s plenty to do. I even managed to find a few decent bars. And it’s not its inhabitants fault that the place is so damn hot and humid.

Though perhaps my good feelings towards Houston are also because in the interim since my last visit I have seen cities such as Dallas, a better example of the disaster that American cities can become.

citizen

Looking for a link for my last post, I note that just now John Latta has a picture of Bobby Sands on his blog, pictured during the Maze “dirty protest”. (Though the BBC, featuring the same photograph, identifies the prisoners as Freddie Toal and Hugh Rooney.)

This is something of a coincidence in that recently, as well as turning to Stanley Spencer, I’ve been thinking about Richard Hamilton’s famous picture “The Citizen”, a diptych inspired by the Maze protests. Half abstract composition in shit, half altarpiece.

The Citizen
I also remember taking the bus home from school late one night in 1984, and discovering that the top deck of the number 264 had been taken over by Celtic fans, in town to see a recheduled European tie against Rapid Vienna.

A wry account of the match, and the journey to get to it, can be found at Sidenetting. From my perspective, a schoolkid in full uniform, heading back to the suburbs but surrounded by a crowd of loud if good-tempered Glaswegians, the experience was electrifying. They sang songs in praise of Bobby Sands. I found it rather shocking and rather scary. But without doubt also exciting.

Bobby Sands Street signMore recently, it seems that the British have been leaning on the Iranians to change the name of Tehran’s Bobby Sands Street. Which is a street round the corner from the British Embassy.

Diplomats at the embassy of the Republic of Ireland in Tehran admit the street is something of a tourist attraction for Irish nationals visiting the 25-year-old Islamic republic, saying it drew large crowds during an Ireland-Iran World Cup football qualifier in 2001.

judgement

Stanley Spencer self-portraitI was reminded the other day of the English artist Stanley Spencer. I doubt he’s well known outside of the UK: he was in some ways a very provincial figure.

He lived almost his whole life in the small village in which he was born, Cookham-on-Thames, just to the West of London. And very many of his most famous paintings are of Cookham and its inhabitants, as he translates religious edict and prophecy into the vernacular of rural England.

Here, for instance, is his depiction of the Day of Judgement, set in the Cookham parish churchyard of the 1920s. As the Tate Britain website notes, it shows “risen souls [. . .] transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed the Thames.”

The Resurrection, Cookham
Other subjects of Spencer’s paintings include “Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta” and a “Last Supper” set in the village malthouse.

There is something in Spencer of Orwell’s famous evocation of Englishness in terms of “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings.” Though in the same breath Orwell also wrote of “the lorries in the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges,” a fact rather overlooked by Tory Prime Minister John Major when he tried to yoke this text to his own nostalgic cause.

And likewise in Spencer, perhaps, the immanence and imminence of this quotidian divinity, in which a day of reckoning might take place around the corner from the village high street, is also on reflection not quite as homely or as comforting a thought as it might first appear. No longer are the provinces a sleepy backwater; they’re the site in which cosmic forces are unleashed.

Cross-posted to Long Sunday.

Bacon

There is much overlap between Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation and de Bolla’s Art Matters. What unites them is their interest in the affective. Deleuze argues that “there are no feelings in Bacon: there are nothing but affects: that is, ‘sensations’ and ‘instincts'” (39). And so “sensation” is an entry into the material, the immediately corporeal, against narrative: “sensation is that which is transmitted directly, and avoids the detour and boredom of conveying a story” (36).

Thus Deleuze, like de Bolla, stresses the physicality not only of the painting itself, which still retains the traces of the hand, but also in our viewing of paintings. Compare de Bolla’s observation “that closing one’s eyes the better to see is no bad thing” with Deleuze’s statement that “painting gives us eyes all over: in the ear, in the stomach, in the lungs” (52).

No wonder the LRB asked de Bolla to review Deleuze’s book [subscription required]. Here, de Bolla picks up particularly on Deleuze’s chapter “Body, Meat and Spirit” and his suggestion that the painter “goes to the butcher’s shop as if it were a church, with the meat as the crucified victim [. . .] Bacon is a religious painter only in butchers’ shops” (qtd. 20).

In some ways, this is only obvious. See the third of Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion

The theme is also discussed by Wieland Schmeid, quoted here. (And Schmeid notes this a crucifixion without transcendence: “there are no redeemers or saviours to be found.”)

But where de Bolla takes this expanded affectivity as also an expanded terrain of representation (“now I think I can see how Bacon’s paintings also smell of different things [. . .]. Perhaps this is on account of a deeply rooted mimetic affect” [20]), Deleuze insists on contrasting mimesis and affect. In his painting of sensation Bacon is waging a near-heroic war against the representational. The point is always to ensure that the Figure does not become mere figuration, and so inevitably cliché; that sensation does not become the sensational; that the visual field is not reduced to spectacle.

Resemblance is painting’s great temptation. Indeed, the clichéd image is in a sense originary. At least, we find ourselves now more than ever among such images. Clichés are already there, “on the canvas, they fill it, they must fill it, before the painter’s work begins” (96). Painting is not a question of application, of adding an image to a blank canvas. The canvas is teeming from the start; the painter is part of it, immanent with it. The problem is “how to get out of it, thereby getting out of cliché” (96). And yet without reconstructing a new transcendence, a new distanciation between masterful gaze and inert object.

This is a matter of establishing rhythms and resonances rather than likenesses. Relations of affect rather than identity. It’s a question of drawing a diagram, which is “the operative set of traits and color patches, of lines and zones” (102). For it’s only through the diagram that a “haptic” space, of contact rather than contract, convivial rapport, can be affirmed.

refinery

Art Matters cover“It occurs to me,” Peter de Bolla writes in Art Matters, “that closing one’s eyes the better to see is no bad thing” (52). Later, de Bolla will suggest we “close our ears” the better to hear (81). Aesthetic appreciation cannot be reduced to a single sense: it must be affective; it must be tactile. Indeed, the aesthetic is here defined precisely as an affective response to a work of art. And art? Art is any object that provokes such affect, since “the quality of being ‘art’ lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits” (18).

Yet de Bolla’s book concentrates, too predictably, on “high” art and, what is more, on “difficult” art: Marc Quinn’s Self; Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis; a Glenn Gould performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; and William Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven.” De Bolla states that to have chosen otherwise would have been to pander to the “politically correct” or to fashionability (132). And these difficult works have been stepping stones in his “own ongoing aesthetic education” (21). Might it not, however, have been illuminating–not simply tokenism–to have asked what one learns, about “high” art as much as about “low,” from a rock concert or a sports game?

De Bolla makes the democratic gesture of admitting that the “simple, trivial, or roughly worked up” can provoke a “strong” or “deep” affective, and so aesthetic, response. But, as his chapter titles indicate, there are certain forms of strength, certain modes of depth, that de Bolla favours over others: “Serenity”; “Clarity”; “Equanimity”; and “Fragility.” A limited palette, no? He has, in short, other criteria for aesthetic evaluation that he is less keen to articulate. And though he avoids using the term, surely these criteria come under the rubric of “Refinement.”

For despite its absence from these pages, the concept of refinement is suggested immediately that the “simple” or “trivial” are equated with the “roughly worked up.” It is also present in the book’s emphasis on preparation: “How can one prepare for art?” (24). And it is, further, insistently indicated in the stress de Bolla puts on aesthetic appreciation as hard work, “hard won” (130). For is not refinement the work of preparation that transforms the rough hewn into a commodity fit for “civilized” use, be that commodity oil or sugar, art or aesthete.

And I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Sir Henry Tate’s transfer of capital from the sugar business to the art business was merely another refining process, another purification, a laundering of money still reeking of blood and slave labour in Caribbean plantations.

De Bolla, however, wants to excise all traces of the social from his account of aesthetics: it is not that history, ideology, and so on do not matter, he tells us; it is that they are not properly aesthetic aspects of the artwork. But such an excision is more easily said than done. And rather than continue to berate the book for its attempts to repress the social and historical, it is more worthwhile to focus on the points at which they return.

For though the book’s grand narrative ends up being “the slow but finally telling realization of the acceptance of solitude” (145), its most interesting and persuasive chapter tells a rather different story. This is de Bolla’s account of Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, a work that is (as de Bolla himself notes) inescapably public.

Vir Heroicus Sublimis
De Bolla argues that the size and scale of Newman’s painting, the fact that there can never be any one good position from which it can be viewed,

demands that the viewer resist a particular form of looking, traverse the reflective stare of looking at oneself looking in order to enter a shared space in which the nakedness of presentation asks one to face up to being here, in the visibility of a communally constructed presence. (40)

De Bolla goes on to term this “the hushed sublimity of a shared world” (40), but I’m at a loss to see why it should be hushed, and also believe that we can resist this “vir heroicus”‘s construction of sublimity.

Why not the noisy immanence of a shared world?

It’s true that New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in which this canvas is hung (and in which it has to be hung, in that it’s clearly unsuitable for private possession), is a secular temple to the aesthetic. But it’s also one of the most-visited museums in the world, a bustling frenzy of school parties, tourists, and day trippers. If this painting incites “the presentation of the body to vision–and not just my body, but the somatic in general, the social body constructed in the practice of viewing in public” (41), why should we accede to what de Bolla himself terms the “virtual effect of transcendence” (28)?

To put this another way: the affective (for de Bolla, therefore, aesthetic) experience that this painting evokes is necessarily social. It is, in this sense, indeed dehumanizing, both in that it undoes the subjective mastery of the humanist individual, and in that what de Bolla rightly notes as its timeliness, its sense “of being in the moment, of being now” (45), makes a mockery of those overdetermined narratives invoking some Western “shared culture [. . .] shared humanity” (28). Before this painting, in this museum, we are bodies in motion: our relation to each other is affective rather than simply cognitive; in fact, our sense of our distinctiveness is dissolved, if only slightly, in the wonderment and distraction, attentive inattention, that de Bolla (again, convincingly) argues is the domain of the aesthetic.

Here art is a catalyst for unrefinement: mixing up what had previously been separated out; accepting, indeed welcoming, impurity.

Cannot the aesthetic then be considered, not merely as a mode of bondage in the machine age, but also as an experience of rapport suitable for an age still to come? This is where a trip to a concert or the football might have been instructive.

In the meantime, we should note that sublimity and sovereignty are not merely virtual effects. They’re secured by the guard lurking around the corner…

portrait

Rolf Harris portraitIt’s a serious business painting the sovereign. And it remains so even when, as in the most recent instance with Rolf Harris’s commission, entrusted to a comedian.

Rolf is one of those Australians probably better known in the UK than in his homeland, in that he has taken it upon himself to represent the Antipodes to the (former) motherland. This he has done through a musical oeuvre that began with “The Wild Colonial Boy” (Rolf Harris Thursday Night at the Down Under Club London [1957]) and notably includes “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” (Relax with Rolf [1960], but much reprised since).

Rolf crosses genres with gusto: he has inducted the Brits into the sound of the digeridoo, and has also spent much screen time demystifying the world of high art, with his mid-composition catchphrase of “Can you see what it is yet?” (One must imagine Michelangelo shouting down the same question from his scaffold while halfway through the Sistine Chapel ceiling.)

And as Rolf’s trademark goatee has slowly turned white with age, British television viewers have come to see him less as an over-chirpy annoyance and more as the object of some affection. He is, after all, in many ways our creation, a fixture in the media landscape since time immemorial and for reasons long since forgotten.

The same is, mutatis mutandis, true of Queen Elizabeth II, of course. Like Rolf, the queen is a hangover from a previous age: born into Empire, and still intangibly associated with that curious and much misunderstood international organization, the Commonwealth; her contours gradually softening in old age; for most of us, she has simply always been there, consistently if periodically mentioned in the media, with a glitzy special on the telly at Christmas. So it makes a certain sense that Rolf should be her latest portraitist.

(Hitherto, Rolf’s closest brush with the political came with Margaret Thatcher’s unexpected and emotional revelation on Desert Island Discs that his version of “Two Little Boys” was her favourite song of all time.)

The Queen, detailRolf declared that his aim was to represent the queen as “one of us.” To put a smile on her lips, and so also on ours. Queenie would be everybody’s granny: a little rumpled, a little out of it, sitting in the corner, mostly ignored as the conversation goes on around her.

Close up, however, Rolf also manages to give the Queen’s eyes a maniacal glint. Does this pensioner’s harmless façade harbour untold dreams of power?

For Rolf reveals the real predicament of representing royalty: how to give a sense of the monarch’s two bodies, the mortal and the juridical. With Rolf’s portrait, it is in the eyes, but also the rather awkwardly rendered hands, which reveal not only our artist’s struggles with draughtsmanship, but a definite tension, too. The queen is sitting under some kind of duress: she’d rather be with the corgis. But here she is, paraded again for our inspection, the face (and head) of state.