Category Archives: contemplation

The death of romanticism

smoke over a field at dawn. Would have once filled me with intensely pleasurable emotion, that this is the sort of experience one should be having, rich, sharp, textured, every sense activated, primal, suggestive – plus regret that one hasn’t always had such experiences daily, plus frustration that this is not a daily experience now. Unhappiness that one’s life is not as one would want it, i.e. not optimal, not as full of peak experiences as it could be.

Now, it’s just smoke over a field at dawn. Senses highly stimulated, in part by unfamiliarities, in part by extremes of lighting, temperature, awareness of contingency of the moment. I can get the same thing from a mid-afternoon lamppost if I want.

Better Things

This film is about lives in which nothing happens.

Nothing happens because the characters live in small rural towns in which nothing happens and they have too little money or knowledge or confidence to make anything happen.

Several of them smoke or inject heroin. We see them doing this repeatedly.

Others are old. One is agoraphobic. Again, because of these factors nothing much happens. This does raise the possibility, however, of sitting in hospital and glimpsing a covered trolley, probably carrying a corpse, being wheeled around a corner.

When people have taken heroin they may slump back in the armchairs in their parents’ unappealing house and gaze with unseeing, half-closed eyes into the space above them. Two friends together will pass long periods like this without saying anything.

The parents, who must be doing something to keep the house going and put food in the cupboards, are away on holiday for the duration.

No one ever smiles. Not even nervously or compulsively.

The sun does not shine.

It rains.

Many people have bad skin. The one who had the best skin died of a heroin overdose.

None of this is funny.

The agoraphobic’s therapist has awful treble-clef earrings and a repressed manner to counter any expectation that she can possibly help the situation.

We enter events that have already begun, and leave them before they conclude. No one exits or enters the frame. Mostly, nothing changes between the beginning and ending of the scene.

Any decisive event that does occur happens off camera and between scenes, so not visibly and not in real time.

This could be an interesting reversal of normal film technique, which is to show decisive action and cut out the time in between. It could raise the question of which moments are really the most important in life.

But the film is as depressed as its characters. It wants us to feel its deadness. It performs its monotonous dance of death before us, but won’t take us by the arm to draw us onto the ballroom floor.

It could have been a promising short. But you need to do much more than this for a feature.

(Better Things, Duane Hopkins, ICA)

Tarkovsky and boredom

Tarkovsky during the filming of Stalker

I’ve met a few people who think that the films of Andrei Tarkovsky[1] are boring. I understand. These films are slow.[2] Most don’t have much of a story. There’s not much sex or violence or snappy dialogue. I was bored myself the first few times I watched Tarkovsky films. I loved the beautiful, enigmatic imagery, the evocation of dream logic, but it was an effort to pay attention. Then something happened. Continue reading Tarkovsky and boredom


On Friday, when Channel 4 News was over and there was nothing else to watch before we went to bed, as usual, early and sober, L decided to burn some incense, something she does more for entertainment than for smell or ambience. First she lit a disc of charcoal from the all-faith religious supplies shop opposite the Round Chapel (where she has also sourced Powerful Indian ‘Do As I Say’ Spiritual Bath & Floor Wash). These discs come in a silver-wrapped stack, and when you light one side a line of sparks marches excitingly across the surface; otherwise the charcoal remains as it was, a precisely formed matt black biscuit, but we believe that, within, it has started to burn.

She put a big lump of incense into the hollow on top of the disc, and I thought, as I always do, of M’s Italian grandmother collecting pine resin for the church, and how he found some resiny bark in Snowdonia that we burned.

Soon it was giving off smoke, and soon the smoke formed a thin, opaque, white column rising dead straight and fast from a turbulent shroud on the upper part of the resin. We gazed at it from close up, exclaiming in wonder at the elegance of this convection made visible. I said this showed how easy it would be to convince someone who didn’t know better that if you could make this happen, you could also talk to spirits, to the dead. L thought it was as if we had turned the flat into a club. She looked across the room and saw that its volume was evenly filled with haze. I got up and took the batteries out of the smoke alarm. Looking down the landing, through the backlit haze, I thought about possible associations of this underwater light: fire, clubs, a film set shot this way to create a feeling of danger, of mystery, of an underworld.

On Sunday morning we were in James Turrell’s Deer Shelter in Yorkshire Sculpture Park; S almost comprehensively defying a sign outside that had suggested that this was a place for quiet contemplation and requested, among other things, that people not eat, drink or light fires, and keep their children under control. It’s a square room with a doorless entrance and a concrete bench running around the walls, which are painted white. It’s reverberant. It’s like a faith-independent chapel or mosque. Eight metres up there is a square hole in the ceiling. The surround of the hole is evidently made of plate metal, as you can’t from any angle see the inner surface of the hole; all you can see is the slightly stained ceiling and then the sky. There’s no gap, no boundary zone; just the ceiling with a square of sky in it.

The sky yesterday morning was a luminous blue, which reminded me, as such skies always do, of the strangely luminous blue skies I saw in Greece; which reminded me of backlit frosted perspex, with unnaturally creamy, high-contrast clouds floating in front. The brightness of the sky was nicely balanced with the brightness of the ceiling: you could take them both in at the same time, so this couldn’t play at being Plato’s cave;
nature didn’t blind me, nor did an imagined “beyond”, the artificial world wasn’t gloomy. It made me think of trompe-l’oeil ceilings, of blue-painted domes, of the games you play with yourself to see how far you can go towards believing that they might be real. Could this square of blue be fake? If I had thought so I would have looked for scratches, for uneven lighting, for a surface discoloured by scorching, or dead insects, or dried scum from a leak, the things that tell you how old a streetlight is, or for fluorescent tubes whose colours don’t match or that flicker. But there was none of that to be seen. The sky is a top-class, self-repairing diffuser. Still, I thought that I might simply be looking at a clever illusion rather than gazing into infinity. But I wasn’t gazing into infinity anyway; just into a volume of scattered light a few miles thick.

There’s no escaping perception. Earlier in the week I had written to D, who is an art academic, in the hope that he would help me clarify what I think about art; in the email I debated with myself, as far as my poor understanding of such things allows, if there can be anything outside discourse. I’ve always been very fond of this picture:

What about the night? I’m sure it’s not too hard to get into the sculpture park after hours, the kind of thing a now somewhat exploded group of us used to enjoy doing, and look up through Turrell’s square into the depths of the universe. That made me think of Olbers’ paradox (not that I could remember its name, but put “paradox night sky stars full” into Google and, praise be to Wikipedia, there it is): if there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and hundreds of trillions of galaxies in the universe, why is a clear night sky mostly black? Shouldn’t it be a uniform blaze of starlight, with stars near and far crowding out any darkness? If there’s a convincing answer to this, it’s not one that I understand.

Atmospherics. Chapels. Contemplation. Science. Fakery. But no beyond. No prayer. And art? Is any of this art?

Public transport

Last night I dreamt that a bus route ran through my kitchen. It’s amazing what narrow spaces a double-decker can get through. Between the breakfast bar (it was a dream, remember) and the wall units without a scratch.

I have been back in London for three weeks.

On a bus travelling through the City I was struck by how perfectly the buildings abut each other, how perfectly the pavement abuts the buildings. How everything is clean and smooth and in good repair. Like being inside a shopping mall. The dirt and brokenness and bodge jobs exemplified by infinite thought are not here. Here are the kind of joints only possible with the help of computer design, the latest materials, surveyed, of course, by the total-control systems of our antiterrorist state. It strikes me because this isn’t a mall that is so scrupulously swept and polished and sealed and mapped, it’s the most ancient part of an ancient city. It’s under the sky. Rivers once ran here, and so on. I think that’s probably being sentimental. And sentimental value, I have decided, = no value.

Nothing more than feelings

Tom Lubbock says that Rothko’s paintings are like power ballads:

Rothko made a real discovery when he found that, by using a very restricted language, a few bars and panes and rectangular frames of strong colour, blurry-edged and set in simple arrangements, he could stir in the viewer a powerful empathetic and emotional response. I’m not denying his ability to move you.

No, and I don’t deny this ability to Mariah Carey or Harry Nilsson, either.

Like the songs, the paintings have a hook:

And the thing about hooks is that they have an almost neurological effect. … A Rothko work is all hook, it’s designed as a simple, strong visual catch; one riff, writ very large.

The trouble is that Lubbock confesses that he is susceptible to this simplistic stuff in songs – Lionel Richie is his most shocking example – and films – The Sound of Music and ET – just as he is to more complex material. He prefers the latter because there’s more to it than emotional manipulation. So his parallel doesn’t apply to those of us who are unmoved by the emotional porn he cites. And anyway, the power ballads and cheesy films are crafted to leave only one possible response – one positive response, anyway, as rage and misery are never far away when I hear Mariah Carey. Rothko may have succeeded in evoking big emotional responses, but the paintings don’t specify quite what they will be.

You could criticise him for being just an old Romantic, still peddling the sublime, and in those late paintings with their swirling murk and stormy blacks we do seem to be among the superhuman forces of nature. I wonder if Lubbock just has a problem, in a rather British way, with the emotion, with the talk of mysticism and religion, even if it is godless; as Adrian Searle

The dim lighting and contained feeling of the Rothko Room at the Tate has always given it, for some spectators, an air of immanence and mystery. I prefer paintings in plain sight, without the heavy breathing…

and Peter Campbell

… finding the depths in the pictures suggested by some of Rothko’s statements is now, and probably always was, an act of faith that requires a sort of self-hypnosis.

seem to.

It’s true that Rothko’s paintings are imposing and direct, painted henge monuments that use optical illusions and manipulation to hold and seduce the eye. They work because they are a wallowing in the world of sense. They are as familiar and intimate as the inside of your eyelids. I think that’s why we drop our defences before them. We have known images like these since we were too young to know anything else. Such was the first thing we ever saw, and such well might be the last. No wonder these paintings release such powerful and unpredictable emotions.

In fact, I think his exploitation of the artefacts of visual perception make him more an abstract impressionist than expressionist. Or psychedelic without the primary-school colours that hippy ideology demands.

None of that makes them Celine Dion in paint.

This reminds me of The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF: a confusingly plausible method for constructing and selling the perfect pop single:

Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits from other songs. There is no lost chord. No changes untried. No extra notes to the scale or hidden beats in the bar. There is no point searching for originality.

So why don’t all songs sound the same? Why are some artists great, write dozens of classics that move you to tears, say it like it’s never been said before, make you laugh, dance, blow your mind, fall in love, take to the streets and riot? Well, it’s because although the chords, notes, harmonies, beats and words have all been used before, their own soul shines through; their personality demands attention.

So even if the paintings are just machines for inducing a certain emotional or meditative condition in a viewer, I don’t think that makes them bad or insubstantial or unimportant art. There’s more to art than an aid to meditation or emotional release, sure, but too much contemporary art – for instance, the pointless exercise currently on show in the Turbine Hall – is directed at the conscious intellect alone. I’ve always been attracted by the idea of making art that has the immediacy, cleverness and emotional hit of a good pop song.

Black, Lynch and Rothko

When I was at primary school a teacher told my class that there was no such thing as black paint or ink or dye: anything that was called black would, if you looked hard at it, turn out to be dark brown or blue or some other colour. Because black is not a colour, it is the absence of light, so it’s not something you can make. You can’t make an absence. If you say you can, you’re just playing with words or not expressing yourself properly.

When I used to do photographic colour printing – which you had to do in a totally dark darkroom, with no safelights, just a little glowing green light floating in space to tell you where the “expose” button on the enlarger timer was, and your memory of where you put the box of printing paper and the scissors and where the door handle was – I liked standing there with useless eyes. It wasn’t black, of course. I could watch the coloured dots and squiggles writhing about like tadpoles. When I read about photons popping in and out of existence in a vacuum, seething, as quantum physics says they do, I think about those coloured dots. None of the darkrooms was completely light-tight, though, so after a minute you’d begin to see cold white wedges where daylight was leaking in. A minute more and you’d see a bit of the wall lit up by the light. It would seem incredibly bright, but I knew that if the roof was suddenly taken off I’d be blinded. Then I’d think about how you can see a single candle flame at a distance of several miles on a very dark night, or so I had read. About how your eye can register a single photon of light.

I’d think about black velvet, the blackest thing anyone seemed able to think of. Or soot, the mattest thing I had ever seen. Or the black powder I used to make paint with.

Disappointingly, I had also found out that matt black isn’t as black as glossy black. But glossy black always exists alongside specular reflections, pretty much the brightest things you can look out without hurting your eyes.

A film editor once told me that to represent blackness in film, the frame had to have some light in it. She said there was a certain maximum ratio of dark to light. It was obvious, when I thought about it. You’re looking at a cinema screen, a highly reflective surface in a room with at least a couple of emergency exit lights on. If you film a coal cellar at night, you’ll get a negative as clear as it can be. If you make a print from it, you’ll get a print as opaque as it can be, which is not totally opaque. Run that print through a projector in a cinema and you’ll be allowing the minimum amount of light possible onto the screen – the projector light shining through nothing but film black plus the exit lights. But that’s still some light. Enough to see that the screen is a light-coloured rectangle, much brighter than than the curtains and walls around it. The same thing happens with video monitors. Turn them off and you see how unblack they are.

To represent blackness, you have to prevent the viewer’s brain from dwelling on the true lightness of the screen. You need to distract it with some kind of image, force it to accommodate a tonal range wide enough for it to see the darkest tone as black, give over enough of the screen to the lighter tones so that the brain doesn’t disregard them as simply a bright light, so that it looks for detail in them and adjusts its awareness of brightness levels accordingly.

Once I’d started to think about the problem of blackness in film, I began to notice how David Lynch’s films go much further than most in representing pure, unrelieved blackness. At moments of transition, we are led into a glimpse of total blackness, a vertiginous velvety blackness: when Fred Madison goes down an unnaturally dark corridor in his apartment in Lost Highway, or, in Mulholland Drive, when Betty turns the corner in her aunt’s apartment, and just before the dead Diane is found in her house, and as we fall into the inexplicable blue Alice-in-Wonderland box, and when the movie director Adam orders “Kill the lights” before kissing the notably and glossily brunette Camilla on set, or behind the diner after Diane has put the contract on her. Flirting with darkness.

A poem, or incantation, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks suggests that darkness allows a passage across otherwise unbridgeable gulfs:

Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me

The mystical. Which brings us to Mark Rothko. “Black-form painting” No.1, I think. A more glazed black next to a less glazed black. Which is the real black? Is either? Between them, as if by accident, a strip of a lower layer of still blacker, matter black is visible. To see that as anything other than real black, you would have to try quite hard not to look at the other, lesser blacks. The same trick that the cinematographer and print grader uses; while looking from one black to another, our gaze has to trip over that crack into what we cannot see as other than real black.