Turner tosh

Read the small print, however, and you find that what you are in the presence of is something rather more significant. “Wilkes’s installations apprehend an end point in our understanding of things as they are – a point at which words become insufficient and the naming of objects is disconnected from our experience of them” (that is to say, “I can’t think of any way of describing this”). And that is not all. “These precisely placed constellations of ready mades, sculptures, found objects and manipulated images form an uncompromising questioning of the self, and a constant desire to move beyond what is known.”

That particular constant desire is also what takes you as swiftly as possible to the next room…

Thanks to sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy for pointing to Tim Adamscontribution to the war on art bollocks.

Curating Architecture

Bringing together [how? Are buildings being transported girder by girder and paintings DHLed to some crossdisciplinary ground zero in New Cross?] artistic and architectural projects by distinguished [the guarantee of quality, the answer to the question “Why should we be interested?” They are Distinguished. But what distinguishes them? And from what? How far are they from being undistinguished?] international [so they practice in different countries? Or do they live in different countries? And is this a good thing?] practitioners, Curating Architecture focuses on the relationship between architecture as an increasingly influential [c’mon, when has architecture not been a very influential aesthetic practice?] (and dominantly transdisciplinary [wow. Architecture crosses disciplines in a dominant manner. What is a dominant manner of crossing disciplines? And which disciplines are you talking about? And is that where we’re at now, still talking about learning and authority as things that are needed for admission to the categories of aesthetic practice? And there are too many adverbs here]) aesthetic practice [now I’m thinking of someone playing tennis in a particularly graceful way, probably with blond hair backlit by sunshine. I blame over-use of “practice” and its derivatives] and the complex claims [what are these claims and why are they complex] on public and institutional [now, again, which institutions are we talking about? State-funded groups of people working together for particular ends? Or any organised labour unit? Or simply a function that transcends what is done by individuals? Or the kind of institution that people used to say other people they thought had psychological problems should be in?] space [I’m not so naive as to think you’re just thinking about the primary meaning of this, the stuff that has three dimensions and can be measured by a ruler, although that’s what “public space” normally refers to – parks, for instance. The fact that your space can also be “institutional” makes me think you’re talking of some immaterial, conceptual space, such as a field of study. But then institutional, let alone public space becomes a little too big to be a useful idea – everything to do with an institution, everything to do with the public, in other words, everything to do with everyone. I wonder if “people and institutions” might have done just as well here, although what you are trying to say would remain obscure] made by [things are so much more difficult in the passive] artists, curators and architects [do all artists, curators and architects make these complex, though unspecified, claims? Or just some? Who are they? Are they all distinguished?] as they seek to articulate [to articulate as in “express” or “explain”, or as in “articulated lorry”?] new, often political and certainly critical [intriguing – why are they more certain to be critical than they are political? There’s something in there. Everything is political, of course, and I suspect everything is critical too, though I’d like to be sure just which meaning of that word you have in mind here. Probably not the most common if not literally correct one of “making a negative judgement”, probably closer to the idea of objective assessment, but if it is to be a “production of space” that is critical, it must embody that criticism somehow. How would it do that, I wonder? By some kind of inbuilt reference to other productions of space, or to production-of-space theory, or what? Would I recognise understand such inherent criticism if I saw it, I wonder?], productions of space [“space” again. I somehow doubt this is the same space as before. But this is something that can be done by artists, curators and architects. Are they working together or in collaboration? Architects certainly produce space, in a sense, although to be pedantic I’d have to say they put walls and roofs and floors around space that already exists. But they do create “a sense of space” and a different sort of space to what was there before. So do curators, sort of: after they’ve put up a show, the gallery feels different, and works differently as a place for experiencing art, to what it did before (I’m aware this is probably a rather naive view of what curators think their job is these days). How artists produce space is a bit harder for me to understand. They might create a new conceptual space, but that’s a game anyone can play. But before space, we have “production”. I’ve tried to read Deleuze and Guattari, and I know they wrote a lot about “production” in their discussions of psychology and emotions, where you might not expect to find such a mechanistic, material-sounding notion. Maybe there’s a vogue for using language that suggests that art and cultural studies are not about vapid flim-flam but are endeavours as grounded as car manufacturing or plumbing, as if lecturers have a pot of Swarfega in their offices for the end of the day. But as it’s not clear what kind of space you’re talking about, the literalist in me objects that no one can produce space. OK, the Big Bang produced space, the expansion of the universe is producing space, and according to the Horizon I saw last night time maybe the constant production of new quantum granules of, err, something. But I don’t think you’re talking about cosmology here, and for us on the surface of this planet we’re still in a pretty classical Newtonian space in which space is, importantly, available in strictly limited quantities.]

Reading stuff like this is a bit like playing charades. The deal is that the person performing the charade is basing their performance on something you probably know about: only a very bad sport would choose a German TV miniseries. So they gesture towards something, you get it and everyone’s happy. That’s how all language works, true, but when you are wielding such specialised meanings of words there seems very little space (there, I can use it too) for anything to be actually said.

You might say that this was only meant for academics to read, and that they would understand what you were trying to say. But The Showroom, which sent me the email in which I read this, is, or was, a public gallery funded by state money. So this is a way of saying, everyone can come, but not everyone is welcome.

From Davies to Dracula

To begin with, the tale of Our Lady of the Flowers lulls present time, for the very words the murderer uses are the magic words that equally handsome hoodlums spat out like so many stars, like those extraordinary hoodlums who pronounce the word “dollar” with the right accent. But what is to be said of one of the strangest of poetic phenomena: that the whole world – and the most terribly dismal part of it, the blackest, most charred, dry to the point of Jansenism, the severe, naked world of factory workers – is entwined with marvels, the popular songs lost in the wind, by profoundly rich voices, gilded and set with diamonds, spangled or silky; and these songs have phrases which I cannot think of without shame if I know they are sung by the grave mouths of workers which utter such words as: succumb … tenderness … ravishing … garden of roses … cottage … marble steps … sweethearts … dear … love … jewels … crown … oh my queen … dear stranger … gilded room … lovely lady … flowered basket … treasure of flesh … golden waning … my heart adores you … laden with flowers … colour of the evening … exquisite and pink … in short, those fiercely luxurious words, words which must slash their flesh like a ruby-crested dagger.


There is no point in going into the details of her arrest. A simple policeman was enough to throw her into a state of terror worthy of a condemned man, the kind of terror every man has been through, just as every man has also known in his life the exaltation of a royal coronation.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Panther, 1966, pages 192–194.

Popular songs, operatic intensity of emotion and aesthetics, veneration of the common man and ignoble lives, but this time it’s not Terence Davies but Jean Genet‘s first novel, first published in 1943, two years before Davies was born. You could say Genet was patronising the working class unforgiveably, if he hadn’t been a delinquent orphan queer petty criminal writing in prison.

You could say, that would be a good first paragraph. Seduce the reader with poetry. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the story soon. But the memory of this indulgence will be like MSG for the rest of the text. Instead, he gives us this:

Weidmann appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded pilot fallen into the rye one September day like the day when the world came to know the name of Our Lady of the Flowers. His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers, cunningly elevated to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stairway that has abetted them by not creaking. Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: murder one, murder two, murder three, up to six, bespeaking his secret glory and preparing his future glory.

A little earlier, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mistress.

A little later, the soldier Maurice Pilorge killed his lover, Escudero, to rob him of something under a thousand francs, then, for his twentieth birthday, they cut off his head while, you will recall, he thumbed his nose at the enraged executioner.

Finally, a young ensign, still a child, committed treason for treason’s sake: he was shot. And it is in honour of their crimes that I am writing my book.

But what about the victims, Jean? What about their families? What about the children? Aren’t you glorifying crime? Do you really think you should? Yes, this is not going to be a nice book.

By the way, Weidmann was the last person to be publicly executed in France. It was in 1939, and was watched by Christopher Lee, who was 17.

Of Time and the City

Went to see Of Time and the City by Terence Davies on Sunday. I never know quite what to make of his films. The first one I saw, Distant Voices, Still Lives, in 1988, I reviewed for the university newspaper. “This is how to make films,” I wrote. “Cinematic concentrate. It’s an autobiographical picture of the lives of a Liverpool family in the forties and fifties; as remembered at the funeral of the violent and tyrannical father, then as the family ages and the children get married. If this sounds unpromising matter for a yarn, then you have in fact struck on the film’s weak spot. Its considerable strength, on the other hand, comes from Davies’ direction; the scenes succeed in the chronological disorder of memory; user-friendly features such as introductory and explanatory bits and references to other scenes are scornfully eschewed. The effect is exposure to the dramatic, emotional and aesthetic content of each scene in undiluted essence. The brew is not so strong and bitter as in Davies’ previous black-and-white Trilogy; but what does it profit him to distil it to such a purity if he will not add a tinge of soul?”

I think I have become less pompous in the past two decades. Not much, though. Continue reading Of Time and the City

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.

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