Arles 2016 Dispatch #2: Looking Beyond the Edge and Nothing But Blue Skies.

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Reeve Schumacher, #1, from the Nothing but Blue Skies series, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. Yesterday I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Today I’m focusing on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and the group show Nothing but Blue Skies.

Looking Beyond the Edge curated by Tate’s Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian is a sizeable show of work by veteran war photographer Don McCullin, however what makes it a little different is the way that it studiously avoids the imagery of war, famine and disaster that he is best known for. Instead the exhibition brings together series made before and between the overseas assignments which made McCullin’s name. It opens with photographs taken in his native north London, a decayed and battered place when seen through the photographer’s viewfinder. Despite the similarity in time, place and subject to other photographers, say Roger Mayne, there is none of the same lightness. Indeed viewing these smoggy streets and lost looking people it’s immediately striking how McCullin’s photographs have a knack for making everything look like a war, and this is an idea which repeatedly emerges with almost every set of images in this show. The closest we get to actual conflict are photographs taken in 1961 as the Berlin Wall began to be constructed. In these images armed soldiers faced each other across this most unnatural of borders but the real focus is on the ordinary Berliners who look on with a mixture of quiet curiosity and mounting concern.

The majority of remaining photographs are from the United Kingdom. McCullin’s photographs of the north of England, covering cities like Bradford and regions like Northumberland, seem to depict a society which is in the process of tearing itself apart. In this sense they are strongly reminiscent of work by contemporaries like Chris Killip, indeed at times their subject matter perfectly converges, and one wonders if the two photographers ever passed one another on the same half abandoned street. Also on display are photographs of homeless Londoners taken in Whitechapel in the 1980’s, which call to mind Moyra Peralta’s photographs taken in the same period. One thing that’s immediately obvious though in this comparison is the distance in McCullin’s work, these are very much the photographs of a photojournalist, taken at a respectful range while Peralta’s photographs put you right up with the subjects, as if they were sitting alongside you. Because of this and more I find her photographs moving while McCullin’s often actually feel more uncomfortably distant, even when a face fills the frame. Lastly and maybe most out of place are McCullin’s landscape photographs, many taken in Somerset where he now lives. Lacking captions or titles, these images feel out of place next to the more issue based work, especially since like all his other works they have the foreboding tone of place where a war or similar cataclysm might have just passed by, or perhaps is just about to arrive. In all Looking Beyond the Edge is an interesting show, a different look at a familiar name and altogether a more convincing coherent use of this space by the two curators than the show of Japanese work which appeared here last year.

If Looking Beyond the Edge studiously avoids images of conflict, then Nothing but Blue Skies might be seen as a consideration of the opening salvo in an entirely new type of conflict, one where the role of photographers like Don McCullin remains hugely uncertain. Curated by Mélanie Bellue and festival director Sam Stourdzé, the exhibition draws together artists who have looked in very different ways at the impact of the attacks of September 11th 2001. The show opens with a room consisting of dozens of newspaper front pages collected by Hans-Peter Feldmann and spread across all four walls. This simple but powerful display underlines both the heterogeneity of media responses to the attack, ranging from the hyperbolic to the measured, and also hinting at the complex role that the media played in perpetuating the shock of these events through their reporting of them. Headlines scream of a ‘World under attack’, an ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘40,000 dead’. The media’s ambiguous role in this event is picked up in a short text by Jean Paul Curnier, one of several that sit in the space alongside the works and which each briefly examine pertinent issues around the visualization of the attacks. The prescience of these texts in the gallery seems to me like a tacit acknowledgment by the curators that to allow images like these to ‘speak for themselves’ is inherently fraught, and that even after mediation by artists they still require further context and explanation.

Proceeding further into the show the works become more meditative and more about the aftermath and memory of the attacks. Cotton Under my Feet by Waalid Raad charts his fraught attempts to recall the colour of the sky on the day of the attacks. In order to do so the artist starts to collect images of the New York skyline which he then proceeds to digitally cut away at, removing everything in the image but the sky itself. The cuts are jagged, violent and the white patches left behind where areas have been removed are both resonant of absence, but also suggestive in their outlines, hinting in many cases at the shape of the World Trade Centre, in one case the outline of an airliner impossibly similar to the one which was immortalized by countless cameras as it curved gracefully into the second tower. The works in this show also rove far wider than photography. Save Manhattan 2 by Mounir Fatmi is a model cityscape roughly similar to Manhattan, but constructed out of VHS cassettes. The magnetic guts of these tapes spills out onto the floor around the sculpture like the cloud of dust which settled over the island after the collapse of the towers. Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski is the final piece of the show and in many respects the one which left the greatest impression. In it, video clips extracted from Hollywood movies are montaged together into a narrative reassembling the chronology of the attacks. The effect is strangely powerful, as disparate clips extracted from American Psycho, Wall Street, Die Hard, Independence Day, Marathon Man and many others combine with the viewer’s memory of that day to create an account which recalls documentary films like 102 Minutes That Changed America but hovers uncomfortably between fact and fiction. Lurking behind the work is a commentary on the United State’s dark fascination with images of it’s own destruction and the subtext that before the day which ‘changed everything’ these same images had already been rehearsed on the silver screen a thousand times.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Not All’s Fair: Photo London 2016

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Trotters Independent Trading co. van,
from Only Fools and Horses (Flickr)

At the risk of being outspoken (hah) it’s my belief that the only useful purpose that the commercial art trade has is as something which inadvertently creates spaces where normal people can look at artworks, effectively subsidised by those few who are rich enough to actually buy and own them. I have absolutely no problem with artists selling and living by their work, my problem rather lies with the speculation, inflation, obfuscation, hype, exclusivity and all those other things which invariably seem to come with the professionalisation of this activity. These are things which art doesn’t need, and which in some cases actively harm art, but which by dint of this trade have come to be seen by the majority of normal people as being at the core of it is about. Even so, while I might not like galleries, fairs and their ilk, I can tolerate them as long as they provide at least the shadow of a socially useful function. When on the other hand these places restrict the audiences who can view the work they tout, I completely run out of interest in them. Photo London which launched last night plays host to eighty photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit, and is sponsored by the Swiss private bank Pictet. But it also asks punters to cough up £27 for a day ticket, which as photographer Jim Mortram pointed out on Twitter is roughly half the weekly allowance for a carer like him.

Historically fairs were places where a relatively broad swathe of society mixed in the pursuit of trade, entertainment, and more. Matthew of Paris recounts that in 1248 Henry III banned all traffic in London ‘in order that by these means the Westminster fair might be more attended by people’. Such human heterogeneity seems unwelcome at the art fairs of today, where one imagines ticket price plays as much of an important function in defining and filtering the type of visitors who attend as it does actually fulfill any need to generate additional income. Whether this bothers you or not probably depends very much on your view of who art is actually for, and what purpose you believe it ought to serve. If you view it merely as chintz for the ultra-wealthy to pad out their obnoxious homes, then get yourself to Photo London and enjoy yourself. If it’s anything like last year you’ll see some enjoyable if usually rather predictable photography, often unfortunately handicapped by its display in forms better suited to sales than to contemplative viewing or contextualisation. You’ll also likely get to snap a selfie with the row of Bentleys parked up outside and if you’re feeling cruel then do ask some of gallerists to tell you the prices of the pieces they are showing, that question usually seems to make them a little nervous in a city where more than a quarter of the population live in poverty.

If on the other hand you see art as something which ought to be economically accessible to as wide an audience as possible then I suggest you give the main events at Somerset House a wide berth. There are some great fringe events going on over the next few days which are completely free. For example you might cross the river to Tate Modern (freshly liberated from its long corporate sponsorship by BP) for Offprint where you can see some of the best that photobook publishing has to offer. Could it be that the explosion in interest in the photo book has come partly from the realisation amongst so many young artists and photographers that the type of galleries participating in Photo London actually have very little to offer them? Nearby to Tate is Fix Photo with some great work including images from Ed Thompson’s The Unseen Project (in interests of critical transparency, Ed is a friend of mine) and Robert Clayton’s Estate series. Alternatively jump on a 171 bus from outside Somerset House and get yourself down to Peckham 24, where a range of interesting photographers including Ciaran og Arnold, Ryan Moule, and Tom Lovelace are showing work, along with three promising young Irish artists exhibiting as part of the Belfast Exposed Futures program. There will be a series of talks running on Saturday, including a panel chaired by Rodrigo Orranta with Jo Dennis and Carlos Alba and one by yours truly (advertorial alert). I’ll be in conversation with Mark Duffy and Peter Mann to discuss humour and appropriation in a world of images. It’s free and open to all, you can sample the delights of Peckham, and if watching too many episodes of Only Fools and Horses has left you worried about a visit down south then take it from someone who grew up nearby that the area isn’t what it used to be. For one weekend at least the wheelers and dealers will be in another part of town.

Liberating the Arts from Corporate Influence

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Exorcism of BP protest at Tate Modern
Photograph by Brennan Cavanaugh

I’m sometimes accused of being a naïve idealist for regularly criticising corporate sponsorship of the arts. In my view these relationship are not only antithetical to what the role of the arts in society should be but are also damaging for any sense of art as a democratic process in itself, where work is championed and celebrated for its artistic merit and social import, not because of the business priorities of those paying the heating bill. Alongside those (relatively few) people who see no problem with these relationships there are also a great many who feel that there is something wrong here, but can see no other way that the arts can survive and flourish than by entering into a Faustian pact with corporations, trading their cultural cache and public good will for the financial capital of large companies. The response I often hear is that corporate sponsorship is simply a necessity in a climate where arts budgets are constantly being cut, as if falling budgets for public projects have no relationship to the simultaneous institution of favourable tax regimes which see multinational corporations sometimes pay less tax on their revenues than an individual citizen pays on their own earnings (a tax liability which sometimes falls still further thanks to the tax wheeze of corporate cultural ‘philanthropy’). I consider it an ongoing project to change minds in both camps. Not only is separating the arts from corporate sponsorship very necessary, it’s also very possible.

The Liberate Tate campaign has been something of a test-bed in the UK for the question of whether and how the arts might be decoupled from corporate interests. The group have waged a long running campaign to reveal the terms of BP’s sponsorship of the Tate group of art galleries (which turned out to be for a rather paltry amount), and also to advocate for an end to that sponsorship. These actions have consisted of a number of highly visible protests, ranging from classic strategies of protest and disobedience like chucking oily black molasses on the steps of Tate Britain in 2010, to appropriating Tate Modern’s own rules about art donations in order to bring a 16 metre wind turbine blade into the galleries’ main space in 2012. Liberate Tate’s actions are invariably cadged in terms of art, for example described as ‘performances’ and designed to be highly visible, taking advantage of the audiences that flock particularly to Tate Modern, the same audiences of course that companies partly hope to influence through their sponsorship.

This week BP announced that it will end sponsorship of the Tate galleries in 2017, after nearly thirty years. Rather than directly credit Liberate Tate with helping to bring this about, BP blamed an ‘extremely challenging business environment’. This can I think be read as a form of coded acknowledgment of the success of the campaign, since the purpose of sponsorship is of course to do the opposite of this. As well often being an accounting wheeze, sponsorship is intended to encourage a positive public and political attitude towards a company, and to permit a favourable business climate where that companies activities will be more easily carried out, and where profit can be maximised. When these activities become the locus of protest they lose this function in spectacular style. What Liberate Tate has done so brilliantly is to both expose BP’s attempts to cynically green wash and art wash its activities by appropriating the same environmental and artistic strategies and besting the corporation at both, while at the same time as hijacking the very audience BP had hoped to sway through it’s sponsorship. If an institution like the Tate can be uncoupled from a corporate sponsor after nearly thirty years of involvement it signals the start of an open season on all such relationships.

Review – Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern

Toshio Fukada
Toshio Fukada
The Mushroom Cloud – Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (1) 1945
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo, Japan)

An unlikely approach to a troubling, yet familiar subject is often the most effective in resetting our way of viewing it. Kurt Vonnegut must have had a sense of this when he wrote Slaughterhouse 5, his remarkable anti-war novel in which time implodes and a traumatised veteran telescopes between his present, past and a future where he has been kidnapped by psychic aliens who resemble green drain plungers. Drawing inspiration from this novel and its spasmodic narrative is Tate Modern’s Conflict, Time, Photography, a major new show of war photographs. What makes this exhibition notably different from the many others that have been staged about conflict photography is the way that it abandons the typical curatorial rationales. Rather than dividing and arranging its constituent photographs by themes, eras or regions, Conflict, Time, Photography instead structures itself around the amount of time that elapsed between the conflict depicted in each photograph and the release of the actual camera shutter.

This chronology means that on first entering the gallery you are confronted by a puff of smoke, a photograph by Luc Delahaye showing the moment after an American airstrike on an Afghan Taliban position in 2001. In the same room are four remarkable photographs by Toshio Fukada of the Nagasaki atomic bomb mushroom cloud, billowing above the city about twenty minutes after its total destruction in 1945. Again, because the emphasis is on the elapsed time between event and photograph, images of conflicts from very different regions and time frames come to inhabit similar spaces simply because they were made with similar speed or slowness. As well as the chronological relationship there is some thematic closeness between the works in many of the rooms, but you sometimes have to search quite hard to find it.

Moving through the gallery the duration between image and event becomes longer, growing into weeks, months, years and eventually decades. Half-way through the exhibition an entire room is dedicated to works about the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, all of them (like Kikuji Kawada’s landmark 1965 book The Map) made some twenty or thirty years after the end of the war. Coming to the end of the exhibition the time elapsed between event and image is now nearing a century. The final photographs on show are from Chloe Dewe Mathews series Shot at Dawn, which records locations where First World War soldiers accused of cowardice or desertion were executed.

In the second to last room a corridor leads off to a hidden chamber housing an assortment of fascinating objects drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in a display which takes an irreverent look at war and the selective memory and amnesia involved in its reporting and commemoration. From fragments of sunken battleships, to a cabinet of military horseshoes, the selection is bizarre and something of a relief from the sometimes rather worthy art photographs in the main show. However, great as the AMC display is, it’s inclusion here also seems rather strange because it doesn’t obviously fit with the theme of the main show and has more than enough interest to stand alone as an independent mini-exhibition.

The AMC room also highlights one of the main issues with Conflict, Time, Photography, which is one that afflicts many of the headline Tate Modern exhibitions. It’s just far too big, and the selection of work often feels flabby and indiscriminate, with multiple works from the same artists when one would have illustrated the same point perfectly. Two very similar pieces on bloodlines by Taryn Simon are a case in point, as is a huge wall of not particularly remarkable photographs of Ukrainian holocaust survivors by Stephen Shore. There is also often a sense that one is viewing works which are less concerned with commenting on the disaster that is war and which are more focused on vying to outdo the competition in aesthetic loveliness and conceptual complexity. To slightly misquote Vonnegut; ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’ and amongst so much self-consciously artistic photography it’s actually the very few truly raw images (like Don McCullin’s Shellshocked Marine) that really stand out and linger on in the mind.

The selection of events featured is a little strange as well, with some occurring excessively, like the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In contrast there is much less focus on other wars and regions. I only recall four works about the Middle East for example, though they were for most part very good and included Walid Raad’s brilliant and bizarre pseudo-documentary record of Lebanese car bombings, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s remarkable series Fait. This is a startling collection of photographs about the desert battlescapes of the First Gulf War, which beautifully and spookily anticipate the breakdown in scale and distance inherent in the drone and satellite tele-wars of today.

The chronological structure of the main show is very interesting and does quite an effective job of reminding you how long the traces of war last on the physical surface of places, and the bodies and minds of the people exposed to it. The downside of it is that as you progress through the gallery and find yourself drawn further and further away in time from the events depicted in the art works and it becomes harder to engage with and particularly care about the conflicts they deal with (something somewhat exacerbated by the sheer volume of photographs). Dogged by this sense of image fatigue, I found myself wondering if a reversed chronology might have been more powerful, with visitors entering the exhibition instead starting with photographs showing events that occurred a century ago, and then drawing closer and closer to the actual act of conflict as they moved on through the gallery. Finally, turning a corner into the last room, one would find oneself confronted by Fukada’s terrifying and accusatory quadtych of mushroom clouds.

Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern from 26 November 2014 until 15 March 2015.

Review – Open for Business at The Science Museum

UK. Derby. Bombardier. Train production. (From 'Open for Business') March 2013.
Bombardier. Derby. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Mark Power, Magnum Photos

I’ve always been a big advocate of photographers making work in their own backyards. Apart from in a few special cases the old model of the dashing photojournalist flying off to distant climes seems archaic and increasingly redundant. So it’s nice to see nine (mostly British) members of the Magnum collective taking a close look at the UK in their latest group project. Open For Business brings together images photographed across the country, highlighting British industry in the widest sense, from small family run firms to multi-national corporations, and from nano technology to the construction of super-carriers. The exhibition is now touring around the country and London’s Science Museum is the latest venue.

Each photographer has a cluster of images on display from their selected region, a fraction I’m told of the total number made for the project (different sets of images will be on display at different touring locations). Each clusters typically focuses on several different companies in a related sector. Mark Power for example looked at the Nissan and Bombardier factories, which produce cars and trains respectively, but are visually pretty similar. Starting off with a visit to the archive of the National Railway Museum in York, Power drew inspiration from some of the epic photographs in the archive recording the height of British heavy industry. Rather than try to replicate this scale the photographs he produced do the opposite, focusing in on details within the cavernous spaces of the factories. They’re a little like Chris Killip’s wonderful earlier photographs of Pirelli tyre factory workers, but are generally less loaded with judgement.

For another example of a very consistent display, Jonas Bendiksen focused on the wool trade in Bradford, something which has become increasingly high tech in recent years. His photographs are well executed examples of the people at work genre, with little stand out moments, like a muscled arm reminded us quite how physically demanding many industries remain, despite advances in technology and automation. It’s easy to forget (until you have to do something like carry a pile of bricks a short distance) how much even the developed world still depends on manual labour. The best thing about Bendiksen’s display is the inclusion of video playing in three LCD monitors which look exactly like the black picture frames that house his stills. I’ve seen this done many times before but it works particularly well here, these small snatches of video are beautifully shot and integrate rather seamlessly into the larger display of photographs.

In other cases though the contrast between the companies a photographer has looked at is enormous. Martin Parr photographed Aardman Animation, best known for producing the Wallace and Gromit films (a very English topic which Parr would seem well suited to documenting). However next to these are photographs he took at multi-national arms firms like BAE Systems. This contrast has the potential to make some interesting comments about the direction of British industry, and could have raised the important question of the cost that profit sometimes comes at. It’s a baton which is more or less picked up by one or two of the photographers (for example I think it’s present in Peter Marlow’s photographs, which again hint at the physical demands of industry), but isn’t really taken up by the exhibition as a whole. Instead this variety in some of the displays becomes probably the only really notable weakness of the show, because it can feel inconsistent.

I have to say that if I’d wandered in to this exhibition without reading any of the information on the wall I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was a show by members of Magnum. That’s not to say the work on show is particularly innovative or difficult to grasp, but it is certainly more interesting than what I’m used to seeing from the collective. If you want evidence of that, Bruce Gilden’s photographs from the Tate and Lyle factory are, brace yourselves, actually in colour. Besides being a showcase of British industry then the show also serves to demonstrate Magnum’s members trying different things. This is good news for the cooperative, because although it might be have been a trailblazer of the now rather ubiquitous photography collective model, the organisation today has something of a fight on its hands to convince the current generation of young photographers that it remains a relevant voice.

Open for Business is at The Science Museum until 2 November 2014.

Ruin Nation: The Ruin in Art and Photography

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Paul Nash, Pillar and Moon 1932-42

‘One knew of places in ancient Greece, where the way led down to the underworld – A land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise’.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Assumptions about the past are rarely wise, but it seems safe to say that the ruin has been with man since he first learnt to craft structures to suit his needs. The aesthetic appreciation of these derelicts is however a comparatively, and perhaps inherently, modern preoccupation. Ruin Lust, a new show at Tate Britain co-curated by Brian Dillion, looks at the figure of the ruin in European art from the eighteenth century, when the intellectual revolution of the enlightenment imbued these sites with entirely new symbolic meaning. As a philosophical movement which very clearly compared itself to what had come before, the ruin was an important icon of past cultures, both their successes and failures.

Ruin admirers like Giovanni Piranesi and J.M.W. Turner helped to foreground these relics, moving them from aesthetic backdrops to a central and multi-faceted symbol in western art. This fascination with the ruin continued through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth with artists like Paul Nash and John Piper responding to the unprecedented material, human, and moral ruination the resulted from the Second World War. More recently the likes of Jon Savage and Rachel Whiteread have in turn examined the decay of the utopian architectural visions that emerged from Piper and Nash’s ruins, the cities in the sky of post-war housing estates, themselves in time brought to their own violent ends.

As the Dillion notes in the introduction to his edited volume Ruins, it is partly the paradox of these architectural remains which make them attractive. They are both the substance of a lost past, and at the same time they are necessarily here in the present, and in many cases will last on into the future long after the viewer has succumbed. With this in mind it’s interesting to note that while many artworks crystallise ruins at a single moment in time as if they were immortal and unchanging, in reality ruination is a dynamic process marked by erosion, growth, slow shifts, sudden collapse. Writing in 1911 Georg Simmel described ruination as an equilibrium between architecture and nature, a fleeting period where neither has the upper hand, before nature’s irresistible force inevitably prevails.

The camera seems particularly drawn to ruins, indeed tracing back into photography’s earliest history the ruin appears frequently. Even before the recognised moment of the invention of photography, artists like Simone Pomardi and Edward Dodwell were employing camera obscuras to draw the shattered remains of ancient Greece with near photographic accuracy. An often overlooked early pioneer of photography, the fantastically named Gaspard-Pierre-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, was the first to photograph the Athenian Parthenon in 1839, mere months after Daguerre’s first demonstration of his method to the French Academy of Sciences. A relatively early photographic inclusion in this exhibition are several beautiful photographs taken in the 1870’s by the idiosyncratic Society for Photographing Relics of Old London.

This choice of subject for early photographers was perhaps partly pragmatic. Ruins are static and outside, affording an ample supply of time and light, the two things desperately required by early photographic processes. Equally the established status of the ruin in fine art must have made it a viable commercial subject at the time of photography’s invention. At the same time I find myself wondering if some of these early photographers – so many of whom were after all artists or associated with the arts – also felt in some way that ruins were an appropriate subject by which this strange new medium might demonstrate it’s status. Not apart, but part of an existing artistic lineage.

Jumping from photography’s distant past to its very present, while ‘ruin lust’ is an approximate translation of a German word it also calls to mind the unpleasant internet-ism, ‘ruin porn’. Pejoratively applied to photographs of dereliction produced by curious amateurs (no porno pun intended) and hard-core urban explorers alike, ruin porn is often empty, both literally, visually and also morally, philisophically. The abandoned city of Pripiyat in the exclusion zone of Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, is a case in point. A place so often photographed that it has become a defacto site of pilgrimage for photographers, oblivious or indifferent to the basic cruelty of returning as a tourist to a place from which so many remain forcibly excluded.

Perhaps the camera’s magnetic attraction to these sites and sights of desolation reflects the fact that the photograph itself has something of the sense of a ruin about it. A temporal paradox of sorts, the photograph is always a trace of the past which lingers on into the present. The decay it faces is less clearly physical (particularly in the age of digital media) but rather is interpretive. When viewing certain photographs I am often overwhelmed by the sense that I am looking at an impossibly incomplete fragment of something, a remains or leaving which can never be completed or restored, and the understanding of which will only erode further as time passes, and more knowledge of the thing depicted is lost.

The ruin then is an artistically and intellectually rich seam. The Tate’s show covers much ground but unfortunately sheds less light than it might have. It is for example hobbled rather by museum’s remit, which makes this predominantly an exhibition of British artists drawn from the Tate’s collection. Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of the bunkers of the Atlantikwall for example are no substitute for Paul Virilio’s earlier, more nuanced visual and textual musings on what J.G Ballard described as the leavings of ‘a race of warrior scientists, obsessed with geometry and death’. There is relatively little of the interpretation that Dillion can be so good at, and a rather random approach to curation, with some artists reoccurring almost to excess, others dissipating after one or two small pieces. Tacita Dean, for example, is afforded an entire section of the exhibition in a way which rather implies her work is a form of ruin itself.

It seems fitting though, if a little ironic, to focus on this subject matter in a city like London. On returning to city after the Second World War the travel writer H.V Morton evocatively described a conurbation composed almost entirely of ruins, inhabited by children who had only ever known it as such. For a surprisingly long time these derelicts persisted, the sites of bomb destroyed buildings remaining empty amongst rows of houses sometimes even for so long as to come within my own short living memory. The city’s recent development boom has seen the disappearance of probably all of these, and even of those great ruins that were long considered too complex or costly to demolish or develop are in danger. The monumental shell of Battersea Power Station, a mere bend of the river away from Tate Britain, is a case in point. After decades of dereliction it will in a few years be converted into a luxury block of flats. The ruin itself is being ruined.

Ruin Lust is on at Tate Britain until May 18th 2014.

Review – Paul Klee at Tate Modern

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Paul Klee 1879-1940, Fire in the Evening 1929
MoMA, New York © 2013 Digital Image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York/ Scala. Florence

I’ve found that photographers are often disappointingly indifferent to other forms of visual art, particularly those that aren’t straightforwardly pictorial. As a result I tend to avoid reviewing art exhibitions that don’t have at least some element of photography about them. For once though I make no apologies in doing just that, and specifically reviewing the new retrospective of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, on now at Tate Modern.

The reason I feel able to so brashly ignore my usual reviewing remit is I think photographers have as much to learn from Klee as from any modern artist, perhaps more. If photographs are on a very simple and purely aesthetic level, a jumble of coloured forms, then Klee’s works are a beautiful insight into how these forms impart meaning and feeling to viewers even before these forms become obviously recognisable objects. More than that, Klee’s paintings are the work of the type of quiet genius which is notably absent from the contemporary art world, so often defined by a tendency to try to compensate for a lack of content with sheer visual volume.

Born in German speaking Switzerland in 1879 to musician parents, Klee looked likely to enter the same profession until teenage rebellion and disillusionment with contemporary music turned him towards fine art. After a fairly unimpressive start as an artist, during which time he supported himself by playing the violin and working as an illustrator, Klee fell in with Der Blaue Reiter group, among them Franz Marc and Wassilly Kandinsky. This circle of artists had a critical influence on him, cementing his interest in movements like cubism and expressionism. A trip to Tunisia in 1914 was the final, vital contribution, instilling Klee with a fascination with colour, something he had previously struggled with.

The work on show in this vast seventeen room Tate show is a year by year exploration of Klee’s artistic evolution from slightly before this point and on until his death in 1940. Start and end points are punctuated by darkness, like many artists of his generation Klee was evidently deeply affected by the First World War (Marc and August Macke, another friend of Klee’s, were both killed in the conflict). Oblique references to war seem almost to appear in a number of these early works, for example in Sunken Landscape (1918), and then increasingly overtly in works like Aerial Combat and Memorial to the Kaiser (both 1920). Towards the end of his life hints of the terminal illness he laboured again seem to appear in his paintings as a series of dark visual motifs.

It’s in the period between that Klee produced some of his most interesting work. A shy man working relatively apart from other artists, he was a constant innovator in both the practice and theory of his art. He developed new working techniques throughout this period, like the oil transfer process, a method of reproducing drawings with a resulting style that for many has become characteristic of Klee. These paintings are a strange mixture of stark, definite lines, and blurred edges that seem to imply a frenetic movement, making them for me amongst the most compelling of his works. Sadly the one I most hoped to see, the iconic Angelus Novus (1920), is not on display.

On the theoretical side, Klee developed important and original new ideas about colour use, and put them into practice. His ability to convey with simple cubes of colour is clear to see in works like Fire in the Evening (1929). Partly as a result of this ingenious blending of colour many of his paintings have an uncanny knack of appearing two dimensional at a distance, but seem to variously recede into the wall or lunge out at the viewer as he or she approaches. Similarly compelling are his attempts to transfer musical techniques like counterpoint into his use of colour, almost a logical reversal of the synaesthesia suffered by the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, which caused him to perceive sounds as different hues.

Excitingly undogmatic in his approach to art, Klee was reputedly popular with his students at the Dessau Bauhaus where he taught from 1921, often adapting his own painting methods into exercises for them. His open attitudes and his interest in naïve art also seem to somewhat pre-figure the later acceptance of outsider artists, to which Klee’s unconventional and yet precise and obsessive canvases often bear comparison, as in for example Structural II (1924). Outsider art was still a fringe interest however, it’s adherents and practitioners set to be decimated by the rise of the far right. For Klee too the early thirties were a difficult time, and in 1933 he was forced to resign his teaching post, fleeing soon after to his native Switzerland where he died.

I’m not a fan of massive shows, I’d much prefer a handful of carefully selected works, but given Klee’s massive output and constantly evolving approach to art it for once feels justifiable to dedicate such a huge space to a single person. He rigorously documented his production process and order, and this has formed the basis for many of the curatorial decisions behind the exhibition. Klee also established what he called his Sonderklasse or ‘special class’ which eventually numbered over three hundred paintings he considered too important to sell. However apart from a brief mention in the exhibition there is no demonstration of what this group consisted of, perhaps a slightly missed opportunity.

Returning to my original point about Klee and photography, a number of critics have pointed out the similarities between his artwork and the microscopic photography which was becoming increasingly common in the inter-war period. For Klee however the role of art wasn’t to ‘reproduce the visible, but make it visible’. This ambition has increasing relevancy to photographers in a time when (as I noted in a post earlier this week) it increasingly appears as if all that can be photographed has been. Throughout his career his art work was concerned with evoking and expressing feelings and states of being that eluded easy expression. In 1925 he wrote brilliantly that ‘The visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe…there are many more, other latent realities’. Paul Klee: Making Visible is on at Tate Modern until 9th March 2014.

Sebastião Salgado and Cultural Capital

Vale_Sohar_in_Nantong

Vale Sohar, one of the ‘Valemax’ carriers used by the company to ship ore around the world.

A hypothetical conversation I’ve often had with photographer friends goes a bit like this: ‘what would you do if a company you disagreed with on a fundamental ethical level offered to sponsor your work?’ With this question in mind I was a little surprised to see that Sebastião Salgado’s current exhibition Genesis, a visual extravaganza of unspoiled natural spaces, rare species and indigenous people, is sponsored by Vale. Vale is a Brazilian mining corporation that in 2012 was voted the worst company for human rights and environmental credentials in an annual competition held by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration and sometimes dubbed ‘the Nobel prize of shame’. Japan’s Tepco, operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, came second.

Besides numerous mining interests in South America and Africa, Vale also owns a 9% stake in the Belo Monte Dam, a much criticised project instigated in the 1980s by Brazil’s then military government. According to Amazon Watch the dam will displace twenty to forty thousand people and potentially threatens one and a half thousand square kilometers of bio-diverse jungle. All this seems at odds with Salgado’s exhibition with its consistent themes of environmentalism and conservation.

Of course accepting sponsorship from a company that you might disagree with could be a way to try and enact some sort of change. A way to draw it into debate over the issues you feel are important, and hopefully lead that company to more responsible behaviour in the future. But on the other hand accepting this sort of sponsorship runs the risk that it will turn your work into little more than a cheap public relations exercise, lending credibility to corporations which ought, at every opportunity, to be exposed and held publicly accountable.

Hans Haacke, who’s art and writing have long critiqued the relationship between cultural institutions and large corporations, argues that sponsorship is rarely about altruism and always about exchange. It is ‘an exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored.’ According to Haacke, symbolic capital represents or results in public good will, corporate recognition, and a favourable political atmosphere for the activities of the sponsor. He also notes that the tax deductible nature of cultural donations means that paying museum visitors are often in effect subsidising tax breaks for the corporations who donate.

Museum sponsorship has been a relatively hot topic in recent years, with institutions including Tate Modern and the National Gallery coming under fire for their corporate relationships. I contacted London’s Natural History Museum, who are hosting the show, to see if they had a take on it and whether they have a formal policy on what companies they accept sponsorship from, given it’s a museum with a much touted history of environmental conservation.

The museum’s stance was rather predictably non-specific, I won’t reprint everything as it’s quite lengthy, but I’m happy to forward the e-mails in full to anyone interested. The gist was that ‘In accepting the sponsorship, the Museum acknowledges both Vale’s positive commitment to sustainability initiatives through the Vale Fund for Sustainable Development and as well as negative publicity surrounding their work.’. In other words, they’re aware of Vale’s record. I also tried to get in touch with Salgado himself but without success.*

In the end the question of accepting sponsorship comes down to what an individual photographer considers compatible with their work, but that decision is one that they will inevitably be judged on. I’ve only ever found one answer to my opening question that I’ve felt particularly comfortable with. That if a company I disagreed with offered me money I would only accept it if I could think of a way to spend every penny making work that would expose exactly what I disliked about them. That as far as possible I would make sure they were investing in their own unmasking.