Thursday 24 June 2010

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs at The British Library

The achievements of the Victorian age still appear prodigious from the distance of the 21st Century. This particular ambition still shapes our cities and national institutions. Much of what we know about the Victorians is found in the extraordinary visual documents we now classify as photography, a very particular Victorian legacy that continues to determine our experience of the world. In an extensive display of the British Library’s photographic holdings, the exhibition ‘Points of View’ illustrates that very distinct hunger for innovation and exploration.

Initially pioneered by a gentleman amateur William Henry Fox Talbot on his country estate, the medium became by the 1850s a booming industry feeding on the aspirations of a thriving middle class keen to record their growing families and status in photographic studios located in many of Britain’s large towns.

From the simplest of images derived from exposed plants on light sensitive paper to sophisticated panoramas, the exhibition carefully lays out the technical development of the medium.  It shows too how a fleeting moment could be suspended in time on paper. Many images are so articulate in their accumulation of detail that they feel very contemporary and yet the precise features of buildings, clothing and objects recorded here appear simultaneously strange and distant. These photographs become keystones of historic experience connecting us to a lived past. This enables proximity to such significant events as the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the Great Durbar of 1903.

On a more intimate level we may stare in wonder at the farmer carrying a hoe in the Norfolk Broads as if he were a character from a Victorian novel such is the weight of facts: his preoccupied expression, the shape of his hat, the simplicity of his clothes, in fact a whole way of life predicated on living off the land when manual labor was still required to feed the nation. And yet the poise struck by the young man is as knowing as that of a model today affecting to work on the land in order to sell fashion. What each shares is a consciousness of being watched and recorded, that the camera will seize every facet of their physical presence and demeanour.  This has become the photographic moment, a very modern consciousness of being watched in perpetuity.

Angela de la Cruz: After and Anna Maria Maiolino: Continuous at Camden Arts Centre

Instead of a rigid, taut surface, Angela de la Cruz’s canvases buckle and overlap as if the stretcher had been snapped in two over the knee. One of this year’s Turner Prize nominees, this Spanish artist based for the past twenty years in London subverts the notion of illusion built up in paint that constitutes the western tradition since the Renaissance. True, other artists since the second world war like Fontana have deliberately punctured the trompe l’oeil fantasy of painting while some artists, most notably Jackson Pollack, have emphatically asserted the material factness of paint applied to a supporting (canvas) surface. But De La Cruz radically deconstructs paintings to suggest their inherently premeditated nature.

‘Ashamed’ sits astride a corner of the gallery wall but is doubled up upon itself as one half partially covers a lower panel that together had formed one flat panel. This doubling effect through forceful manipulation of stretcher and canvas begins to form a crack or bodily cleavage as the light casts a shadow over the point where the two panels meet. An unnerving creamy crust is formed out of the painted surface. This small painting sitting unobtrusively in a far corner introduces ideas of rupture and collapse and which characterises several canvases that produce a sculptural rather than painterly presence in the gallery.

On a larger scale, a work titled ‘Homeless’, resembles a life size canopy that might function as a shelter on the street. Here the loose canvas is freed from tension and hangs limply from the stretcher uncannily resembling malnourished folds of skin that hang from a broken body. This conceit of the painting as corporeal proxy is employed again in ‘Deflated IV’ where the remaining horizontal arms of the stretcher slope downwards in a poise reminiscent of a crucifixion. As if to hit the point home, the red canvas folds released from their frame hang like a flayed body against the bleached gallery wall.

In the centre of the room, the legs of a collapsed chair splay outwards horizontally on the floor pulling the seat firmly to earth with a bump. Perhaps this structural surrender refers to the artist’s recent illness, which has confined her to a wheelchair. Material certainty is consistently questioned in these pieces and this essential fragility produces inevitable bathos.  The expectation of a painting functioning as a servant to artistic intention is subsumed by a physical autonomy that speaks of both exhaustion and defiance. What we encounter is a teasing exploration of painting’s symbolism and its intrinsically constructed nature.

Concurrently, Camden Arts Centre hosts a site-specific work, Continous, by the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino which demonstrates a dedication to the handmade and to group participation. Her work originates in the urgent struggle against military dicatorship and the call by Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark amongst others for a democratic art employing sensual engagement and for a sense of wonder in work made from humble materials.

Here Maiolino has built an entire environment of repeating clay forms that she has rolled and shaped by hand. Long coils rise, fall and turn like tangled piles of elongated sausages. Pieces resembling sliced swiss rolls or doughy buns are laid out on a long table as if they were merchandise in a bakery. Other more elemental processes are deliberately invoked and are reminiscent of ingestion and expulsion. This scatological allusion is subtle but unavoidable.

Maiolino has reduced the making of art to its bare bones ­– kneading, rolling, coiling and cutting – she suggests the myriad ways hands construct and express basic forms. Assembled together these odd, but repeating shapes made of earth without decoration connect us to the arc of a material journey.  But unlike de la Cruz’s hybrid painting/sculptures, Maiolino’s installation of precise but simple shapes articulate the human impulse to craft work out of formless, organic material and returns us to primal urges in prehistory and childhood..

If there’s any doubt about the piece, it lies in its incompletion, as if these blobs of shaped earth require some kind of resolution. Laid out en masse they impress with symbolic possibility but the project is rather anti-climactic, echoed by the wire mesh that runs along the wall into which some plugs of clay have been randomly inserted. Large areas of fence remain unfilled – did the artist run out of time or is this a deliberate nod to every artist’s unceasing quest?

Thursday 3 June 2010

Venice of the North

Amsterdam with the possible exception of Venice, is probably the best preserved city in Europe where it’s still possible to imagine a world before the car. History is constantly evoked in the details of houses that defy the Netherlands’ waterlogged geography. Walking in the canal belt leads one back 350 years to the Golden Age following the Dutch Republic’s final defeat of Spain. That 80-year struggle produced a self-sufficient society keen to explore and trade with the rest of the world.

As you pass the tall, narrow houses that buckle on soft, soggy ground, you appreciate how a mercantile society spent its newfound affluence on domestic dwellings,  which continue today to convey elegant order and precision. If you look up above the eyeline, you’ll see how each house has subtly different gables. Some are stepped like the crenellations of a medieval castle and some employ curly plaster  in the  Baroque fashion of the 18th century hiding the steeply pitched roofs behind. These gables function as the decorative icing on a cake, hiding the more banal details of structural construction though cccasionally it’s possible to see how the attics that extend behind meet the fa├žade at a sharp angle. These grand frontages disguise functional loft spaces of which the only visible clue is the ubiquitous pulley hooks used to hoist up food, furniture and fuel into the houses because the staircases were built so steeply.

On a winter visit it’s possible to wander across canals leeched of colour by Jack Frost, but the city is largely quiet as the residents dash through the cold that seeps into the skin like a contamination. On a previous visit at Christmas we were so chilly that in order to stick to our sightseeing we found some long underwear to avert frosbite-induced amputation. But at Easter the famed Dutch skill at gardening becomes evident. Canal boats become impromptu roof gardens and almost every house proudly supports window boxes or pots that spill down the steps and onto the street.

Nowhere else in the world encourages cycling as much as Amsterdam. The quays become flashpoints for tourists on foot encountering sanguine cyclists who duck and weave around the dozy visitors taking their eyes off the road to read their maps. But this dodging game becomes an admirable alternative to the familiar process of avoiding trucks and cars in other cities.

What I’ll remember from the recent trip is the enjoyment of wandering late at night away from the main tourist arteries and looking into the homes of local residents as they came home from work to cook, socialize and put their feet up. In Amsterdam, life has a communal quality that quietly discourages the drawing of blinds or curtains. On the contrary, the cosy interiors are illuminated and left open to view. For a nosy flaneur, this affords an unprecedented sense of access to the lives of random strangers at home even to the point of seeing a naked Amsterdammer sitting nonchalantly at a desk, in all probability doing the weekly shop online. Residents of this city are somehow closer to nature, perched as they are above the briny deep that washes all around them.

Legal Highs

The overriding memory of a recent trip to Amsterdam involves the pungent, sweet smell of grass lingering on the streets of this remarkable city built on water. The coffeeshops sitting on almost every commercial street lure tourists in for an experience legally denied at home. It’s peculiar  to see and smell grass being openly smoked in public but, on balance, an indication of Dutch maturity in their approach to the inhalation of what is essentially the smoke from a plant. Politicians elsewhere are so muddled in their attitudes that clear paradoxes are set up. Is Marijuana intrinsically any worse than alcohol? I certainly didn’t see weed fuelled aggression on the streets. I’d rather sit with a crowd of stoned people than drunks any day.

The problem arises with the way in which the plant is quite removed from what you might have smoked in the 1960s. Cultivation now takes place on an industrial scale and to meet demand unscrupulous growers seem intent on producing ever stronger highs so that it is reputedly becoming more dangerous particularly for the young and those susceptible to mental illness. A gentle trip to the moon that my parents might have enjoyed 40 years ago has been replaced by the effect of being shot into space on a rocket, which is not a pleasurable experience. One British resident of the Netherlands also told me that it was difficult to warn his children of the dangers since they were surrounded by coffeeshops selling freely available grass. It’s a fair point, but frankly having seen the Dutch solution in action, I suggest it’s still preferable to the absurd criminalisation and hypocrisy we see elsewhere in the world.

Don’t many of us simply share a common desire for honesty where we can discuss the merits and dangers freely without feeling condemned or complicit in something that’s been considered wrong because it’s labelled a ‘drug’? What’s not desirable is the almost global current state of affairs where politicians and police treat alcohol as a tolerable anomaly but bully and criminalise anyone wanting to puff a joint at home.