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A bald brant is a blue goose

This essay on William H. Gass’s On Being Blue appeared in the Guardian.

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William H Gass is a lover of lists. So playful, odd and long are these litanies that in his essays and fiction Gass rivals the great inventory-mongers – Rabelais, Joyce, Perec – for sheer pleasure taken in setting one damn thing down after another. In an essay from 2002 entitled “I’ve Got a Little List”, he describes the meaning and methods behind his own and others’ paratactic urge; the list, Gass tells us, is a basic literary gambit: “It occurs constantly, and only occasionally draws attention to itself.” It is an essentially democratic mode, levelling its elements however disparate to a single plane or stratum, and laconically implying some absent linking verb: buy, invite, remember. Pursued at length, however, such modesty flips or flowers into syntactic extravagance – “The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess.” In sum, lists tend to get out of hand.

The strangest and finest expression of Gass’s listomania comes at the start of his book-length essay On Being Blue, first published in 1976 and recently reissued. I would love to quote it whole but it’s far too long, and in truth it is hard to know where the list ends: the entire book is a catalogue of sorts containing blue things, desires, concepts and usages. Here is a taste from its infinite menu: “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium …” And so drunkenly on, over a page and a half – this by way of introduction, mind. Readers arriving cold to Gass’s svelte little study and wondering what they’ve got themselves into – a book about blue? a book about the blues? – may be forgiven for thumbing forward, flummoxed.

In fact, On Being Blue is richly stocked with information regarding the colour in its title. (There is a subtitle – A Philosophical Inquiry – but more of that below.) We learn a great deal about etymology, derivation, metaphorical deployment. “Blue” is from blavus, has affinities with “bael”, which means a fire or pyre, and with “bold” and “bald” alike: “a bald brant is a blue goose”. Gass piles up mundane and eccentric uses of the word, trawling the dictionary for entries that are “obs.”, “rare” and “colloq.”. He uncovers blue skies, blue jeans, blue boys and Oxbridge blues, but also blue backs (Confederate bills), blue john (skimmed milk) and a mercurial ointment called blue butter. At the same time the book can be read as a general reflection on this most suggestive and mysterious of colours: its signalling of cosmic or private depths, the blue remembered hills of childhood, the bruising or delicate insistence of certain hues in writers from Beckett (“A very blue man,” says Gass) to Katherine Mansfield (“Very beautiful, O God! is a blue tea-pot with two white cups attending.”)

Before long, though, one has the sense that the colour, for all its preciousness, is a kind of pretext – but for what? The blueness of language for one thing. Gass is interested in the figurative elisions found in swearing: “When I enjoin a small offensive fellow to ‘fuck a duck’, I don’t mean he should.” He turns in a deft precis of JL Austin’s concept of “performative” language – outlined in How to Do Things With Words in 1955 – without once mentioning the philosopher, and with notably fruitier examples: “Fuck‑yous are in fact the principal item of macho exchange.” And closing in on his book’s proper philosophical import, he marvels at the poverty of language when it comes to describing sex: “We have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses. We have a name for the Second Coming but none for a second coming.”

Neither his vagrant attitude to the structure of an essay nor his detailing the limits and ambitions of ordinary language will exactly surprise readers of Gass’s novels and short stories or his collections of playful and occasionally fractious critical writings. From the early mock-Faulknerian ventriloquism of Omensetter’s Luck in 1966, through the stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country to his most recent and possibly last novel Middle C – published in 2013, when he was 88 – the fiction has been speculative, digressive, baggily plotted and texturally gorgeous.

Gass is usually, and not entirely accurately, aligned by critics with American postmodernism in its imperial phase: with writers, that is, such as Donald Barthelme, John Barth and Robert Coover. There is some truth in this judgment, and, in fact, On Being Blue contains admiring passages on a few of his metafictional contemporaries. But one difference is that much, or most, of Gass’s self-conscious experiment is going on at the level of the sentence, its style and especially its sound, rather than look-at-me games with plot or character. This is partly a matter of poetic influence – Stevens and Rilke have been constant references – but the presiding example is probably Gertrude Stein, about whom he has written several essays. Stein is nowhere to be seen in On Being Blue, but the book is surely in thrall to her Tender Buttons and its incantatory way with the rhythms and phonics of everyday American speech.

In a later essay, “The Music of Prose”, Gass defends his immoderately euphonic style as a deliberate affront to readers hung up on content: “lead-eared moralists and message-gatherers”. On Being Blue is the book where he broached this fully for the first time, and it is possible to read his reflection on colour, coition and communication as a prose poem scored mainly for the ear. For a start – and this likely repels as many readers as it allures – he may well be the most shameless alliterator this side ofNabokov. Here he is on painterly blues: “Seldom was blue for blue’s sake present till Pollock hurled pigment at his canvas like pies.” And adding a little assonance, on the colour of corpses: “So it’s true: Being without Being is blue.” There is much more in this “rinky-dink” (his own term) line, but the cheapness of the effect conceals a serious intent: Gass wants us to think hard about how we get snagged by the sound of prose.

In particular, he wants us to consider the ways words and bodies connect and come apart. A good deal of On Being Blue is given over to the failure of other writers to recount without bathos the moments when we lose ourselves in lust and languor. Sex resists the most painstaking style, “even the best are betrayed”, and a novelist as sensitive, as exacting of his own sentences as Henry James can end up referring to a character’s “hard manhood” when that is not what he meant at all. Nor is straight pornography much good at the task: “I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing.” Gass has a lot of fun with this stuff, but not only in the mode of the Bad Sex award. He knows, of course, that lurid metaphor – stand up, Henry Miller– is just as treacherous as frankness, and he seems to want instead a type of writing driven to extremes of indirection, where things “become concepts, light as angels”.

Gass finds something of what he is after in passages from FlaubertWoolfand Colette. But this strand of On Being Blue is the place where it reveals itself to be, as many readers no doubt come to it expecting, a book about melancholia. Because what is left for us to say or to write if in the end the most intense bodily adventures will escape our sentences? You could read Gass’s endless list-making as a sort of depressive rosary, or an addiction long detached from its instigating trauma. (He’s very good on the recursive stone-sucking sequence in Beckett‘s Watt.) This is a short volume – less than 100 pages in my old edition – whose unlikely but direct ancestor is Robert Burton‘s vast and swelling The Anatomy of Melancholy, a book of which Gass once wrote: “[its lists] subside only to resume in no time at all with words even more exotic, redolent, or chewy”. Like Burton, Gass can’t help being led by his appetite for language, even if it proves unsatisfying. “Chewy” seems the right word, too, for On Being Blue – it is a talismanic, self-contained kind of book that seems more giving, more delicious each time one returns.

On the Road with HUO

This review appeared recently in the Literary Review.

Ways of Curating
By Hans Ulrich Obrist (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 200pp £16.99)

On first meeting Sergei Diaghilev in 1916, King Alfonso of Spain is said to have inquired of the impresario, ‘What is it that you do in this troupe? You don’t dance. You don’t direct. You don’t play the piano. What is it you do?’ Diaghilev replied, ‘Your Majesty, I am like you. I don’t work, I don’t do anything, but I am indispensable.’

When Hans Ulrich Obrist rehearses this story in Ways of Curating – a brisk, eclectic and at times maddening account of his career as an exhibition maker – it is partly to reassure us that of course he does everything, or near enough. Like Diaghilev, the Swiss curator – who is at present co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London – has been a tireless cultural operator. Since the early 1990s, Obrist’s works (the issue of whether we can use that word about a curator is more or less at the heart of this book) have included exhibitions, biennales, symposia, numerous publications, thousands of hours of recorded interviews and quite the most hectic travel diary in a profession that measures success by airport codes amassed: LAX-LHR-TXL-ICN. He’s even got his own abbreviation: art-world insiders know him simply as HUO.

But the Diaghilev anecdote is also a wry admission that Obrist’s job description has lately acquired an irritating ubiquity – not to say vacuity. In an age when we are enjoined to ‘curate’ online our tastes and consumer choices, when hipster haberdashers peddle ‘curator pants’ with scarcely a shrug of irony, the ‘speculative bubble’ around the term must, Obrist writes, be resisted.

Etymology helps: to curate once meant to take care, in a pastoral, priestly and even medical sense. The word has affinities with ‘curiosity’ and all that implies in terms of collectors’ cabinets and the origins of the modern museum. From the 18th century onwards, the curator of artworks was charged with acquisition, conservation, display and scholarly inquiry – all in modest service of the things themselves. But as civic and national museums grew, and art in the 20th century explored conceptual problems not easily tethered to discrete objects, the role of the curator expanded too. Curators, even in traditional institutions, became more like showmen, more like public intellectuals and more (to the dismay of many actual makers) like artists.

In recent decades, the art world has been somewhat tediously obsessed with this ‘curatorial turn’ and its apparent undermining of artists and critics alike. But Obrist is a good example of the expanded possibilities of the job, and the sheer energy he has brought to working with artists themselves is the abiding impression of Ways of Curating. In a telling and typical reminiscence, he recounts how he absconded from a school trip to Paris in the 1980s so he could visit the artists Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager at their studio, a former steelworks in the suburbs. It was the start of a prodigious travel habit: the adolescent HUO catching night trains across Europe to commune with the likes of Hans-Peter Feldmann and Fischli/Weiss. Along the way he developed an enviable knack for bumping into and cadging ideas from celebrated writers, such as the aged Ionesco. (Actually, the trick is all in turning up: the great landscape writer Tim Robinson tells a story about opening his door one windy morning in Connemara to find the young Obrist, whom he’d never heard of, keen to talk limestone and Wittgenstein.)

Obrist’s relentless curiosity neatly coincided with the kind of exhibitions the artists he met actually wanted to make. He put on his first show in his own kitchen: Boltanski installed a film under the sink, Fischli/Weiss contributed oversized foodstuffs and Feldmann stocked the fridge with marble eggs. The kitchen is a nice emblem of the social impetus behind much of what Obrist has done since: exhibitions often mounted far from the gallery or museum, demanding unpredictable interactions between artists and spectators. He thinks of these shows as essentially conversations, and in recent years his most publicly visible project has been the series of ‘marathons’ organised at the Serpentine: opportunities for Obrist himself to engage in lengthy and loosely structured interviews with the artists, writers and thinkers he admires. Convened around themes such as memory or gardens, these have included bristling chats with Tilda Swinton, Brian Eno, Eric Hobsbawm and John Berger – from whom of course his book’s title is adapted.

A list like the last is one clue to the curator’s slightly perilous position as cultural impresario. The HUO style and modus are easy to parody, and Ways of Curating is well stocked with sentences one could uncharitably read as mere name-dropping. ‘I was reading about Athanasius Kircher in 1986, during a school trip to Rome'; ‘In a conversation I had with her some years ago, Doris Lessing questioned the future of museums.’ ‘See you tomorrow in Hong Kong!’ says the architect Rem Koolhaas to Obrist, who immediately jumps on a plane. There is, too, something of the high-flying CEO memoir about the book’s episodic-diaristic structure, as though – and this is curious in a writer with a genuine taste for and knowledge of great literature – it’s all been hastily dictated or phoned in from far-flung departure lounges.

The more generous and, I think, necessary reading would be that Obrist’s hectic and telegraphic style is a function of the man’s astonishing energy, inquisitiveness and work ethic. Perhaps he also knows that however many miles and hours he puts into being HUO, into juggling all these disparate projects, the fate of the curator is to be forgotten outside his professional coterie. For every Diaghilev there are numerous pioneer exhibition makers, such as those listed by Obrist in a chapter of their own: Harry Graf Kessler, Alexander Dorner, Hugo von Tschudi – the ones who, seized with ‘desire, urgency and a sense that something was missing’, vanished into the work of the artists they championed.

The cutting edge

This essay on Hannah Höch appeared in the Guardian Review.

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The First International Dada Fair took place in Berlin in the summer of 1920, and included works by George Grosz, John Heartfield, Max Ernst and Francis Picabia. Photographs from the opening show the gallery teeming with paintings, posters and scurrilous assemblages; hanging from the ceiling is Prussian Archangel, by Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter: a pig-faced dummy in military uniform. Suited and spatted, the dadaists comport themselves with dandyish indifference to their own anti-art inventions. There are only two women present, and one of them is the bobbed and diminutive Hannah Höch, who leans playfully on a cane borrowed from Grosz while she looks over the shoulder of her lover, Raoul Hausmann. To the right of the couple is a pasted slogan: “Art is dead. Long live the machine art of Tatlin.” And to the left a large, squarish composition in which one can just about discern faces, text and fragments of machinery.

The work in question is Höch’s photomontage Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany. Judging by reviews of the time it was one of the hits of the fair, perhaps because it’s so richly legible in terms of contemporary cultural politics. Ranged in the top right corner are the forces of “anti-dada”: stern representatives of the late empire, the army and the new Weimar government. Below, in the dada corner, are massed artists, communists and other radicals. Raoul Hausmann is being extruded, shat out really, by a machine to which is affixed the head of Karl Marx. There are less crudely anatomical machines scattered about the metre-wide collage, and female film stars such as Pola Negri battle with moustached emissaries of the old German order. In the bottom right corner, Höch has glued a small map showing the European countries in which women could then vote.

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Cut With the Kitchen Knife is Höch’s best-known work, though it’s something of an anomaly – not least in its scale – and it does not appear in the Whitechapel Gallery’s new exhibition. Höch claimed she had hit on the technique of photomontage while on a Baltic holiday with the married Hausmann in 1918; having come across mocked-up photos sent home by German soldiers, in which the young men’s heads were superimposed on pictures of musketeers, they realised the power of cut-and-paste to “alienate” images. This origin tale is slightly misleading, however, because since 1916 Höch had been working for the Berlin publisher Ullstein, producing embroidery and lace designs for such periodicals as Die Dame and Die Praktische Berlinerin. She was probably already familiar with the kinds of collage that an expanding print media practised with photographs. Höch worked on these handicraft magazines for a decade, and even wrote a manifesto of sorts for modern embroidery, in which she enjoined Weimar-era women to “develop a feeling for abstract forms”.

Höch, in other words, was an unlikely addition to the boisterous lineup of Berlin dada, and efforts to edge her out of the frame began almost immediately. Whether because of her conventional training in the applied arts, her involvement in commercial illustration or the mere fact of her being a woman, Grosz and Heartfield took against her work, and tried to exclude it from the fair; she was only reinstated when Hausmann, a key figure in the group, threatened to withdraw. Most of what she exhibited in 1920 has been lost: more photomontages and a few of her trademark“dada dolls”. A photograph of Höch cradling one of these curious figurines shows her sporting an astonishing science-fiction get-up, but she did not relish the exhibitionist element in dada. It is said she was embarrassed by the bohemian antics of her male confederates, though she did appear in a supporting role (armed with a saucepan and a toy gun) in at least one clamorous performance.

The montages that Höch made in the years following the fair divide equally between explicitly political comment – more or less in line with communist colleagues such as Heartfield – and a visual celebration of the 1920s New Woman: though the latter leans in turn towards more formal, eventually abstract, experiments. In Heads of State, from 1920, she took a recent newspaper photograph of German president Friedrich Ebert and his defence minister Gustav Noske, pictured in their bathing trunks at a Baltic resort, and set their paunchy figures atop an iron-on embroidery pattern of a woman with a parasol, surrounded by flowers and butterflies. A year later, in Dada-Ernst – which might mean “Dada-Serious”, or may be a reference to fellow collagist Max Ernst – she was juxtaposing sentimental images of 19th-century femininity with photographs of athletic young women whose limbs, freed at last from the constraints of the old century, are equated with the soaring forms of skyscrapers. There are bare legs everywhere in Höch’s art from this point on: flexing and leaping, frequently amputated from any actual body, the motif expresses at once the graphic energy of the New Woman and a kind of surrealist grotesque – the abscised limb with a life of its own.

Hannah Höch c1926

By the end of the 1920s Höch had lost touch with most of the Berlin dada group, though she remained well-connected among the European avant-garde: her friends and occasional collaborators included Tristan Tzara, László Moholy-Nagy and Kurt Schwitters. (Along with Hans Arp, Schwitters, she later recalled, was among the very few male artists she knew who was willing to take a woman seriously as a colleague.) She had split from Hausmann in 1922, and at the end of the decade, having moved to the Netherlands, she began a lesbian relationship with the Dutch writer Til Brugman.

For almost 10 years after the dada fair, Höch declined to exhibit her photomontages, preferring to concentrate on painting. But she had not stopped cutting and pasting, and this period produced two of her most compelling and self-contained projects. The first, From an Ethnographic Museum, is a group of 17 works made in the late 1920s, featuring images of non-European sculpture sutured to photographic fragments of human bodies and faces. In the catalogue for the Whitechapel exhibition, the scholar Brett Van Hoesen frets about the artist’s precise attitude to her colonial source materials. Höch had frequented ethnographic museums in Leiden and Berlin, but we cannot say for certain that she developed much of a critical perspective towards relics from Germany‘s lost colonies or the ways they were now exhibited. She seems more interested here in form than politics, experimenting with increasingly grotesque agglomerations of heads and body parts, and setting her inventions against slabs of livid colour.

At the same time, she had embarked on a more private project, completed in 1934. Höch’s Album is a scrapbook of a little over 100 pages into which she pasted 421 photographs cut from magazines and newspapers. It is not an exercise in photomontage as such; almost all the images are intact, and the book’s visual intensity is mostly a matter of how they collide and rhyme across double-page spreads. She borrows liberally from fashion photography, movie-star portraits, architectural studies and natural-history close-ups. The legs of dancers and naked gymnasts resemble nests of scaffolding and the spindly forms of Karl Blossfeldt’s plant photographs; dogs and kittens stare soulfully like Hollywood starlets and pompous statesmen. It’s been argued that the Album was a repository for motifs to be employed later in her photomontages, but the effect is actually of a fully achieved work, in which the forms and images of mass media meld and interlace into an exotic whole.

Für ein Fest gemacht

Little of Höch’s post-dada work was exhibited at the time. Though her collages were not included in theEntartete Kunst exhibition of 1937, she had been an early victim of the Nazis’ assault on “degenerate art”. An exhibition of her paintings and photomontages was planned at the Bauhaus in Dessau in May 1932, but was cancelled when the Nazi-dominated local council closed the school. Höch had been marked out with many of her dada contemporaries as a “cultural Bolshevik”; in a postwar interview she commented regarding the retrospective evidence of the 1920 fair: “Those few slogans were indeed evidence enough, in the Nazi era, to have us all tried and condemned as communists.” While many avant-gardists now fled Germany, Höch went into internal exile: she bought a house on the outskirts of Berlin, hoping her neighbours would not guess at her past and denounce her, and she lived out the war with her own work and those of several dada exiles hidden away in a cabinet.

It’s customary to see in Höch’s postwar art a blithe turn towards an almost decorative abstraction, all vestiges of her radical past fallen away in favour of dizzying arrangements of colour. There is a little truth in this: her palette was now drawn from colour advertisements, and especially from magazines such as Life. But the accusation misses the astonishing complexity of pieces such as her 1967 Industrial Landscape, in which photographs of a crowded swimming pool and the Swiss resort of Lugano are filleted and repurposed to such an extent that they resemble teeming factories and smokestacks. Perhaps only Ernst (whom it seems she never met) achieved quite this level of skill with the scalpel. Besides, there are many instances where motifs from her early work – notably fragments of the female body – reappear with new force and meaning: the grinning mouth of Marilyn Monroe, for example, hovering beside a fish’s eye in herLittle Sun of 1969.

Höch died in 1978, her place in 20th‑century art history almost, but not quite assured. Postwar histories of dadaism tended to patronise at best; she does not appear at all in Robert Motherwell’s 1951 Dada Painters and Poets, and Hans Richter, in 1965, called her “a good girl” with a “slightly nun-like grace”. But gradually she snuck into the canon – she was part of the major Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968 – and scholars and curators have since belatedly recognised that she was both a key dadaist and considerably more: a true pioneer of photomontage and a complex, funny critic of mainstream and art-world misogyny alike. The Whitechapel show reminds us most of all that her innovative presence has survived in the work of later monteurs: in the laconic and unsettling incisions practised by John Stezaker, in the pointed assault on images of women and commodities in the work of Linder Sterling, and more recently in the playful grotesques of the late Polish artist Jan Dziaczkowski. Her keenest insight is to have already seen, almost a century ago, that the profusion of images given us by the mass media might constitute “a new and fantastic field for a creative human being”.

The Conjurer: In the Archive with Timothy Prus

This essay on the Archive of Modern Conflict appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Aperture magazine.

Hand-tinted photograph of a Meesrs Yarrow & Co. torpedo boat, Scotstoun district, Glasgow, 1879. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Archive of Modern Conflict, London.

I didn’t exactly get lost on my way to the Archive of Modern Conflict—I had no idea where I was going in the first place. My appointment was for three in the afternoon, and at a quarter to the hour I was still on a bus to Kensington, searching my phone and diary in vain for an address which, oddly, I had neglected to request earlier. I can only think that an enigmatic reputation had started to work on my subconscious; it seemed like the sort of place one should fail to find: a collection seemingly devoted to one subject—the photographic history of war and violence— but whose holdings are in fact thematically unruly, merging with the history of the medium, with history in general. It made sense to think the archive had no fixed location.

As it turned out, the Archive of Modern Conflict is more welcoming, more accessible, and still more mysterious than I’d imagined. After a swift e-mail from the top deck, I was directed to an address on a quiet residential street near Holland Park. Timothy Prus, curator and editor, would be waiting in the alleyway.

For the past twenty-two years Prus has presided over a collection that, while it began as an archive of images bearing on the First and Second World Wars, has grown to encompass a frankly eccentric range of photographs—all of them apparently corralled into this West London warren according to the dictates of Prus’s curiosity, taste, and happenstance mode of acquisition. The archive hovers somewhere between the status of a museum with a strict historical remit and a private collection that ramifies according to visual and conceptual lines of inquiry as much as accident and whim. It was founded, and is still funded, by Canadian businessman David Thomson, owner of the Thomson Reuters media empire. He is notably shy of publicity, and Prus cheerfully deflects inquiries regarding Thomson’s reasons for setting up the archive, sketching instead the story of his own interest in vernacular photography. Prus was an art dealer until the archive took over his time, but had been buying old photographs since his childhood in the 1960s; working on the archive, he says, was a welcome corrective after too many years spent looking at abstract paintings.

At present the collection includes over four million photographs, stored in London, Beijing, and Toronto. Prus is by no means tired of photographs of the wars of the last century, but his interests and expertise are considerably more vagrant and unpredictable. One way to gauge the oddity of the enterprise is to innocently ask Prus how he comes by all this stuff. He’ll demur regarding specific dealers and prices, but open up about the stranger sources and attendant stories. He’s most eloquent on the rhythms and the surprises essential to collecting: “If you enthuse about a crazy subject that you’re really interested in, and it’s genuine, then other people are enthused, and eventually, through some kind of mechanism, the stuff will arrive at your door. Sometimes you can wish for something, and it takes more than a decade to arrive. And it never turns up like you imagine it; it’s always a variant.”

Photograph from a 1937 collection recording the village of Gheel, Belgium, known for its three thousand registered nonviolent “lunatics.” Photographer unknown. Courtesy Archive of Modern Conflict, London.

The most visible outcome of this process of enthusiastic, intuitive, and patient collecting is a remarkably diverse program of publications and exhibitions, including fertile collaborations with artists. The books have included The Corinthians (2008), a hymn to the role of Kodachrome in documenting postwar American life; an unsettling survey of Nazis at leisure, entitled Nein, Onkel (No, Uncle, 2007); and the five small colorful albums that make upSilvermine (2013): a selection of snapshots salvaged by collector Thomas Sauvin from a recycling plant on the outskirts of Beijing. And the archive has so far published six installments of its own journal, each with a different format. The two most recent issues have accompanied AMC exhibitions: an enigmatically encyclopedic selection by Prus for Paris Photo 2012, titledCollected Shadows; and Notes Home, an exhibition of postcards from the east coast of England, curated last year by Prus and Ed Jones for the FORMAT International Photography Festival in Derby.

As well as lending to exhibitions and museums, the archive welcomes scholars—though Prus is a little testy on the subject of researchers who turn up with a single historical hobbyhorse in mind: “They’ll hang around here for hours looking for, say, pictures of Middlesex Regiment belt buckles. And we haven’t got time for it.” He vastly prefers visitors who can bring something of their own imagination to the collection; on my way out later, I meet a young scholar who’s working on the mapping of the moon by Victorian engineer James Nasmyth. In the sort of conceptual and visual swerve that the archive makes possible, Prus is convinced that she will learn something too from underwater photography of the same era.

I’ve arrived at the archive in one of the first warm weeks of the year: lunch is still on the table, and the doors are open to a yard where a handful of employees are busying back and forth from the basement with crates destined for Les Rencontres d’Arles 2013. I want to get some idea of what Prus is looking for when he acquires a set of images, and so he talks me through recent purchases, clearing a few plates and hefting a large hardback volume onto the table. It’s an album from the mid-1930s showing children suffering from strabismus, photographed before and after treatment with corrective lenses, with typewritten commentaries on each case. The text seems to imply, says Prus, who relishes the simultaneous absurdism and sadness of the book, that middle-class kids respond better to treatment than the economically disadvantaged. We pause when we realize that many of the children seem to have died during treatment—a squint apparently the least of their troubles.

Obscure professional collections make up some of the most fascinating holdings of the archive: albums that are clearly either one-offs or were produced in-house by state institutions or private corporations in short print runs for limited circulation. Prus tells me he’s recently bought an album of First World War dentistry; then he gets out a volume, compiled during or directly after the same war, that depicts spies and traitors subsequently executed by the French state.

The archive is catalogued by accession number; such is the variety of material in some of the discrete books, folders, or packages that thematic organization on the shelves would be impossible; keywords, accidents, and the expertise of the staff are the only ways to find what you’re looking for. Here is an album produced early in the twentieth century by the Glasgow shipbuilders Yarrow, showing in thirty-four hand-colored photographs a selection of craft manufactured for the Admiralty in the previous quarter-century. The boats themselves are precisely rendered, with crews lined up on deck, or have had their armored hulls peeled away to reveal weaponry inside. But what’s most striking is the exquisite attention to the calm blue-green of the sea and, in almost every case, a sky that turns to a delicate shade of pink as it nears the horizon. Next is a small envelope containing thirteen prints, again hand-colored, that reproduce the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, designed by Carles Buigas for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Relatively long exposure times have turned the water in the fountains, illuminated at night in candy pink and acid green and yellow, into bulbous lozenges of hazy but frozen water.

Cattle ranchers with their livestock, Colombia, 1992. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Archive of Modern Conflict, London.

Another abiding interest, Prus says, is in “the alternative history of abstract photography. That’s taken me back to microscope slides and pattern designs and so on.” One of the more unlikely instances of this sort of abstraction is a collection, also just recently bought, from a flea market in Bogotá, of tiny prints in which Colombian cattle ranchers are photographed with their livestock. The farmers stand proudly with each cow, holding cards on which are handwritten names and numbers. The collection seems to have belonged to an association of Colombian breeders of Normandy cattle. Prus tells me that the seller claimed to have many more images in this line, but failed to turn up to a subsequent rendezvous. What really interests him is the visual typology that develops across the series, the way the animals’ markings deviate and repeat and seem to dominate the snapshots with their abstract patterns.

If it’s sometimes hard to judge the degree of humor or whimsy in Prus’s engagement with some of the images in the archive, there is no doubting his assiduity in getting hold of them. At the time of my visit, he is overseeing the scanning of hundreds of color negatives from a commercial studio named Photo Jeunesse in Cameroon. Prus, having discovered the business being run at a loss by the son of its Nigerian founder, bought its archive of negatives from the 1970s and ’80s. He regales me with a tale of how he fell in a hole in the street on the same trip, and found himself lying in the hospital for many hours beside the fresh corpse of a road accident victim.

The archive’s incomplete information on many subjects and its curator’s delight in the lurid tales that attend many of his researches and acquisitions perhaps hint at the attraction of this curious institution for contemporary artists. A long-term collaboration with London-based photographer Stephen Gill has resulted in several books. And at the time of my visit prints by Bruce Gilden lined a wall in the basement: starkly lit images of startled Londoners destined for a forthcoming exhibition and book. As regards artists’ relationships with the collection itself, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have recently mined the archive for images of violence and catastrophe and used them to illustrate their edition of the King James Bible. There are car bombs and homicide victims, burning ships and atomic explosions—but also stage magicians and their paraphernalia, and more Nazis at play, laughing at a trained dog that’s jumping a row of chairs. If in contemporary art using found photographs has become something of a cliché, the Archive of Modern Conflict supplies artists with material that is at least heterogeneous and unpredictable, and as likely as not somewhat sinister.

It is hard to determine from my time there, or from Prus’s description, where the exact impetus or the guiding logic for the archive now resides. It seems to function both as an authentic, well-funded resource for certain types of research into the minutiae of the conflicts of the last century and as an experiment in figuring out what photography, conceived in the broadest terms, might mean today. Comprehensiveness could in no way be the goal, nor a simple adherence to an idea of the vernacular photograph: the archive’s holdings intersect too frequently with the interests and the methods of contemporary artists for it to be considered a sort of image-dump for everyday or outsider material. Better, I think, to view the collection as an incomplete, maybe interminable, species of research in itself.

I returned to the archive twice, and the second time spent some hours browsing the shelves. A fat green commemorative leather album contained photographs of all the principal players in the Dreyfus case. An Atlas of Gas Poisoning from the First World War reproduced drawings based on contemporary photographs. There were press-agency photographs of 1940s Parisian rat catchers, psychiatric patients in the Belgian town of Gheel in the 1930s, and celebrated transgender cases of the post-war decades. The scrapbook of a British Army bomb-disposal expert in Northern Ireland. More German soldiers: lounging in the sunlight in the Grand Place, Brussels, or freezing on the Eastern Front. A vast and gorgeous volume from 1903 outlining the “theory of textiles,” with jewel-like fabric samples tipped in. Pilgrims to Lourdes (in the same folder as the rat catchers). Plane crashes. Aerial views. Portraits Psychiatriques. Coming back out into the sunshine of a West London afternoon felt far too sudden—the world had not yet been completely anatomized, nor the results catalogued.

No project, only pictures

This piece on Saul Leiter appeared recently on the LRB blog.

‘I always assumed I would simply be forgotten and disappear from view,’ Saul Leiter said late in life, at a time when the colour photographs he had taken half a century earlier were hardly ever off the pages of magazines, and countless online slideshows celebrated his ‘lost’ views of mid-century New York. Leiter, who died on 26 November (a week short of his 90th birthday), spent his last decade genially playing up to his new status as rediscovered colour pioneer. The mythology was forgivable but a little misleading: in his thirties, Leiter was taken up by Edward Steichen, who showed his black-and-white work at MoMA in 1953, and until the early 1980s he was a fashion photographer for magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

Leiter’s early colour work, however, had vanished to all but connoisseurs, and when these pictures reappeared – spectral and smeary, with most of their action going on at the edges – they seemed to say something about the near-invisibility of their maker. One of his best photographs is a multi-planed view inside a train carriage on the El; a single foot is propped on an empty wicker seat.

Foot on El

Leiter has been retrospectively associated with the New York School. He wasn’t included earlier in part because, unlike Robert Frank and William Klein, or later his friend Diane Arbus, he had no legendary book to bruit his style or his project. (According to Leiter, the problem was that there had not been a project, only pictures.) You can half imagine how such a book might have looked, and fitted the times: monochrome shots of children in Halloween masks, tired bus passengers and incongruous nuns recall the work of Frank, Klein and Cartier-Bresson. But already, in the late 1940s, Leiter had begun to shunt his human subjects to the corners, or smother them in black. He specialised in over-the-shoulder glimpses: a young boy in a yarmulke, dwarfed by the backs of two adults, or a woman at a party reduced to the polka dots of her dress, shining in the dark.

His obscuring tendencies continued in the colour work. Leiter used cheap film that gave his images a muted quality, and the slowness of the stock made it harder to capture the momentary dramas of the street that Klein or Cartier-Bresson could freeze in fast black and white. Technical constraints cannot, however, quite explain what Leiter did with colour and composition. Time and again in the 1950s he depicts New York under snow, with just a red umbrella or a pair of temporary stop lights to punctuate the dirty white. He used the whitewashed windows of defunct stores to silhouette the odd scurrying figure, little more than a smudge of overcoat, shopping bags or another umbrella – always umbrellas. He was a connoisseur of the effects of condensation.

Red Umbrella

At times, Leiter’s taste for glass and mirrors can make for the most flummoxing compositions; there are at least two taxis in Taxi (1956), framed by a liquor-store window, but such is the complex stagger of surfaces that it’s impossible to say just where – street or store – the bald guy with a fat cigar in the middle of the photograph is actually standing.

Leiter moved to New York from Pittsburgh in 1946, fleeing his father (a stern rabbi), set on becoming a painter. His tastes in painting leaned more towards Bonnard and Vuillard, but he seems to have learned something from the monumentality of Abstract Expressionism. In Straw Hat (1955), an oddly antique character daintily crosses the street; but he’s really no more than an orienting point for a study of blue boards above and asphalt below.

Man with Straw Hat

Through Boards (1957) is like one of Rothko’s Black on Maroon paintings bisected by a white car and window shoppers.

Through Boards

At his most extreme, Leiter fills the upper four-fifths of a photograph with a black canopy, below which twenty tiny New Yorkers are trudging through the snow, and a single red tail-light provides the only colour. Through slitted eyes, the city swells to the span of Cinemascope.

Notes on Bowie

[I have an essay on David Bowie  in The Dublin Review 53 Winter 2013-14; here is an extract.]

‘For nearly ten minutes he stood there, motionless, with parted lips, and eyes strangely bright. He was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to have come really from himself.’
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

‘Get out of my mind, all of you!’
—David Bowie, in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

 1.

 I’m enthralled and embarrassed by him in ways that are probably only possible when you have loved too much and too soon. Not only am I mystified on discovering that some people my age or a little older are quite indifferent to David Bowie; I also feel much the same ache and anger when I hear him disparaged as I did thirty years ago. While I was taking notes for this essay a friend pointed to a newspaper article: a tedious columnist was claiming that, all brilliance and invention aside, Bowie has never written a song that truly moved anyone, still less consoled them in the wake, let’s say, of a bereavement. Surely this is true, said my friend. Really? You have no idea, I think – none.

And yet: the embarrassment. Not so much at the unengaging records that bracket his decade or so of genius and are easily ignored, nor the silliness of this or that image or hubristic acting project. I’m embarrassed instead at a certain brittle grandiloquence, at the inflated thoughts he makes me think. Things like: in or around the summer of 1981, my consciousness changed for good. Or: David Bowie invented me, and he may well have invented you. And the questions he makes me ask, such as this: how much of who you are is still in thrall to images and ideas planted decades ago by someone who was not even sure who or what he wanted to be? Someone whose influence you shared with millions? Exaggerated, sentimental, adolescent questions. Middle-aged ones, too.

 2.

David Jones was born in Brixton and grew up mostly in Bromley, Kent. (I find it hard to write simple facts about him. I have at this point read so many awful Bowie biographies that even typing that sentence feels like it might do bad things to my prose.) His mother had been a cinema usherette; his father, having squandered an inheritance of £3,000 in abortive efforts to set himself up as a show-business impresario, had settled into a job organizing fundraising entertainments for Barnardo’s children’s homes. When David was about ten years old his father took him to meet Tommy Steele, the alarmingly toothy all-round entertainer whose passing facial resemblance to Bowie still looks in retrospect like an awful warning as to the sort of artist he might have become. Except: there is more, still, of Tommy Steele and a host of other middle-of-the-road actors and singers, more of the straight entertainer’s eagerness to please, in Bowie’s career and persona than he or I or the curators of a vast Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum have cared to admit.

3.

 ‘If you could look like anybody in the world?’ Still, thirty and more years after the question first occurred to me – still, no contest.

4.

I’ve been staring at David Bowie’s face now for quite some time. It’s a cliché regarding the ubiquity of certain faces, but I feel as if I know its planes, moods and textures as well as if not better than the faces of people I love. I mean, people I love more than I love David Bowie. I’ve seen this face looking practicedly aloof: it’s the expression you likely picture when you think of David Bowie – if you think of David Bowie. I’ve watched it crack into a repertoire of no less calculated demeanours: a hollow and paranoid cyborg glare beloved of bad Bowie impersonators, a sidelong darting look of surprise that suggests the subject’s jittery mind has been momentarily engaged by an otherwise dull interlocutor, the sort of faintly embarrassing lost-in-music pout that singers of his generation all adopt on stage at the moment the lead guitarist really cuts loose.

There’s an array too of apparently spontaneous grins: a raptorial, triumphant version mid-performance; a naive variant, soon to be controlled, in early publicity photos; the smile that accompanies the slightly panicked charm Bowie deploys in interviews and which conjures, whether he knows it or not, the essence of 1960s showbiz-lad-on-the-make. (Has there ever been an interviewee quite so charming as David Bowie? You’re as likely to spot this smile and the boyish chat that goes with it in interviews from a decade ago as in, say, a late-1970s exchange with Janet Street Porter as he’s about to go on stage – ‘I’ve got a show to do! Coming?’ – or even in the midst of cocaine paranoia in the middle of that decade.) Also, an awkward sneer that seems almost painfully to distort a face whose habitual tendency, so its owner would have us believe, is towards a properly iconic repose. It’s an expression that makes me think of Kenneth Tynan writing about Noël Coward: a man with a face like ‘an appalled monolith’.

Here is one expression that I have not seen repeated. The film clip is just seconds long, and comes from some time in the late 1970s; it might even have been shot in Berlin, where he had fled after a famously excessive and exhausting period in Los Angeles. Exhausting and excessive personally, that is. There are no ups and downs artistically for Bowie in the 1970s, just astonishing consistency of achievement amid those frequent reinventions, until at decade’s end it all stops, or near enough. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. It’s night and Bowie is out with a small retinue when he is spotted and the crowd gets too close for comfort. A figure that might be a man or a woman lunges forward and kisses him. Bowie grins and staggers a little and seems to go limp, gazes into the middle distance with a docile look and simply lets it all happen. Addressing himself now to the camera he strikes a perfect because entirely passive pose, and his face is the face of any instance of lazy, angelic cool you care to mention: from Bacall, Capote and Brando to the opiated half-presence of Brian Jones or Marianne Faithfull. Bowie, of course, haloed here in black and white, knows all of this and more: he sees us seeing the references. He’s managed in a split second to parlay the moment his charisma cracks into something louche, funny, seductive, self-conscious and consequently (almost touchingly) foolish.

Forty-One False Starts

This review of Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers appeared recently in Modern Painters magazine.

la-ca-jc-janet-malcolm-20130505-001In 1986 Janet Malcolm wrote a New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Artforum. Though its antique and patronizing title, ‘A Girl of the Zeitgeist’, was surely embarrassing even at the time, the piece remains a perfect exemplar of its journalistic type and an elegant primer in the author’s cruelly attentive methods. Having interviewed several art-world mavens of the day and sketched for readers the controversy attending a young editor’s energetic rise, Malcolm turns to Sischy herself and discovers her chopping tomatoes at some unnamed soirée. ‘She took a small paring knife and, in the most inefficient manner imaginable, with agonizing slowness, proceeded to fill a bowl, tiny piece by tiny piece, with chopped tomatoes.’ The passage is classically Malcolmian because apart from dicing Sischy’s personality – naive, tenacious, ardent as the heroine of a Victorian novel – it reveals something of the writer’s own art. She arranges her profiles out of raw portions excised from her subjects and the people around them.

Malcolm is best known for her gossipy, acute, self-conscious books about such topics as Gertrude Stein’s murky wartime affiliations, the well-aired marital laundry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and internecine battles among psychoanalysts and their schools. In his introduction to this collection of her occasional essays on art and literature, Ian Frazier approves Malcolm’s aptitude for enduring intense boredom while researching a piece. But dogged fact-mongering and months of interviews are only part of her modus; she’s also, says Frazier, ‘a wild writer’. She has famously written: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he is doing is morally indefensible.’ Sitting for a Malcolm character study means risking some lacerating sentences. And though Forty-One False Starts ends – in brief obits of William Shawn and Joseph Mitchell – with a couple of almost serene appreciations of the New Yorker style in which she was trained, it also doesn’t stint on these trademark moments of gracefully callous revelation.

In fact the title essay, from 1994, is made of nothing but. Malcolm spent a year or so talking with the painter David Salle, whose celebrity and artistic stock were beginning to curdle. She writes of his eager, evasive, egotistical presence: ‘I feel that I only almost know him, and that what I write about him will have the vague, vaporous quality that our most indelible dreams take on when we put them into words.’ The result is an essay parceled out into forty-one sallies at a portrait of Salle, a series of ostensibly abandoned fragments in which the artist is allowed to string himself up with his own self-regard. Malcolm has some fun with scene-setting at the start of each numbered section: ‘David Salle is a slight, handsome man of forty-one … The artist David Salle and I are sitting at a round table in my apartment….’ And she is suggestively laconic about his art: ‘here everything was condensed, impacted, mired. The paintings were like an ugly mood.’ The effect is impressive, but after forty-one of these things it is hard to be sure Malcolm has said much of substance about David Salle, painter.

This is the main disappointment of Forty-One False Starts. Here is a writer of considerable fluency, precision and impertinence, time and again shirking the task of saying anything very accurate or daring – sometimes anything at all – about the work at hand. Take her several essays on photographers and photography. In 2011 Malcolm wrote a profile of Thomas Struth entitled ‘Depth of Field’; as usual, she spent a lot of time with her subject, and the piece is full of nice details about Struth’s domestic and working arrangements, his obliviousness to her presence while he is setting up a shot, the dinners with the artist that seem always to feature in a Malcolm story. But what has she got to say about the photographs? Frankly very little, and much of that slightly flummoxed. She simply doesn’t get Struth’s images of gallery-goers in front of famous paintings, and considers them ‘trite’. Instead she commends his recent studies of pristine industrial interiors writhing with digital infrastructure, and tells us they look ‘like nothing one has seen before’. Maybe she has really not seen their like, but they recall photographs by many artists from Taryn Simon to Jane and Louise Wilson and are something of a decline from Struth’s earlier work.

The problem, it seems, is that Malcolm is suspicious of the notion that a photograph might actually have some content; she lets slip at times an almost camera-club idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ image. (This is not true of all her writing on the subject: there are more substantial and considered pieces on photography in her 1980 book Diana and Nikon.) So Julia Margaret Cameron’s foggy portraits are properly artistic but Oscar Rejlander’s 1857 composite The Two Ways of Life is mere pseudo-academic kitsch: an opinion that made sense fifty years ago and now seems a bit of blind Modernist arrogance. Malcolm disparages Irving Penn’s studies of a muscular nude female dancer as botched experiments, but exempts a few Cameron-ish long exposures that have she says a ‘mysterious blurred painterliness’ – when in fact those really are kitsch: examples of Penn retreating from the awkward intensity of his model.

Given that artists share double billing with writers in the book’s subtitle, there’s something oddly reined-in, but also needlessly snide, about the essays on art and the art world here. One has the suspicion – let’s adopt her haughty ‘one’ for a while – that Malcolm nurses the literary journalist’s common assumption that artists are simply stupider than writers. She doesn’t quite say it, but she sure comes close: ‘I have not found anything any artist has said about his work interesting.’ At their best, she allows, they’re self-conscious rather than smart: a couple of times she claims ‘an air of quotation marks’ hovers about her interviewees. In the Struth piece, there’s a glaring moment when the photographer recalls his teacher Bernd Becher making links between Eugène Atget and Marcel Proust; Malcolm asks if Struth read Proust as a student, or has done since – he admits he didn’t and hasn’t. Instead of letting this detail tell its own story, Malcolm labours the point, relishing Struth’s embarrassment. The passage feels like reflex Janet Malcolm-ism: the slick profiler’s lancing style doing the job that real criticism might have done.

Perhaps that’s unfair – you don’t go to Malcolm expecting to read Susan Sontag or Elizabeth Hardwick. She’s essentially not a critic at all: the literary pieces here, on Bloomsbury and Salinger and Edith Wharton, are more precise than the artistic, but not a lot more. Her skill lies rather in exposing the urges and embarrassments behind the work in question; she does it beautifully, and complexly, but hers is in the end a limited art.

Phantom Ride

This piece on Simon Starling at Tate Britain appeared in the London Review of Books.

Simon Starling’s film installation Phantom Ride, commissioned by Tate Britain for its vast Duveen Galleries, takes its title from a cinematic fad of the early 1900s. Cameras and cameramen were hitched to the buffers of trains, and latterly trams, and filmed the track and scenery as they hurtled along. An early phantom ride was typically a single shot, just a few minutes long, which might, if you visited Hale’s Tours of the World (established on Oxford Street in 1906), have had its speeding colonial vistas enhanced with railway whistles, hissing steam and even shaking benches. Punters craved exoticism as well as velocity, though the thrill sometimes consisted in seeing familiar spaces at speed: there were phantom rides through Ealing, Leeds and Southampton, and in 1910, A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway from Baker St to Uxbridge and Aylesbury.

Starling’s art has frequently involved the reconstruction or repurposing of ramshackle machines. In 2005 he won the Turner Prize with Shedboatshed, rebuilding a tumbledown hut from the banks of the Rhine as a small boat, rowing it to Basel and turning it back into a shed for a show at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst there. He seems to have spotted that there’s something of the railway station, or even the barrel-vaulted carriage, about the Duveen rooms, which were completed in 1937 expressly to house sculpture. Something also of the arcade or the showroom: spaces in which one can be transported while standing still. Phantom Ride, which is shown on a large screen suspended across the riverside end of the gallery, doesn’t take us outside the museum, but instead tells what Starling calls ‘a sort of ghost story’ about the objects formerly displayed there. Neatly, many of these are previous Duveen commissions.

In keeping with its cinematic ancestor, the looped film is seven minutes long; in place of late Victorian sound effects, the gallery is filled with a minatory drone that intermittently turns into mechanical whirrs and creaks. These are the exaggerated sounds of Starling’s motion-control rig, set up over six nights so that the camera could dart and swoop across the gleaming black floors, through empty arches and up towards distant cornices and discreet modern light fittings. At each turn it discovers works exhibited in the gallery over the past seventy years, and where those works are unavailable or no longer extant they’ve been simulated using CGI. The whole has the slick and sickly aspect of slightly dated Hollywood special effects, just convincing enough to make Picasso’s Charnel House or a group of mirrored cubes by Robert Morris seem not quite right.

The combination of ‘real’ footage, digital effects and a complexly motile camera makes for seductive and startling effects, as the ghosts of exhibitions and installations past appear and swiftly vanish. There’s some knowing frustration here of the filmic convention of shot/countershot. Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’turns its black visage in our direction, Darth Vader-like, before being swept away. The camera glides over the reflective surfaces of Fiona Banner’s Jaguar – a full-size fighter plane shown, upside down, in 2010 – and speeds off to light on architectural details or plumb the shadows of other rooms where other works lurk (a Henry Moore? another Epstein?). In a shot that is, cinematically speaking, pure Harry Potter, a statue of St George and dragon floats in mid-air without its plinth, then is gone in a twinkle of computer-generated lens flare.

In fact, some of the best and strangest moments in Starling’s film, ones that make subsequent strolls through the Tate displays feel vertiginous and untethered, are those where the art has momentarily faded out, and the camera is set loose to float towards the vaulted ceiling. Then the place seems properly ghostly, and so does the visitor: like De Quincey’s Piranesi, climbing ever upwards through his Prisons, ‘until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall’.

For the most part, things are more concrete, if uncanny. Perhaps it’s already clear from the works I’ve mentioned that Starling chose pieces (twenty of them) not only on grounds of their art-historical fame or their spectacular nature, but because they dealt with war and destruction. Almost all of the sculptures, paintings, photographs and films reconvened or reimagined for Phantom Ride involve images or technologies of violence. The camera swerves around Michael Sandle’s A 20th-Century Memorial: an elaborately queasy rendering in bronze and brass of a skeletal Mickey Mouse equipped with machine gun and tripod. There’s another machine gun among a cluster of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculptures. Patrick Keiller’s 2012 installation The Robinson Institute(which also involved the filmmaker trawling the Tate archives) supplies several apposite works, among them Leonard Rosoman’s 1942 painting Bomb Falling into Water.

In the press release for Phantom Ride, Starling quotes Foucault’s claim that the modern museum or archive is a space that aspires to corral all times within its walls. There is certainly a sense that the film compacts moments from the Duveen Galleries’ seven decades into its seven minutes, and a recognition that a museum is also a ghost of itself, a repository for institutional memories of all its past exhibitions and displays. But the more apt reference, which Starling surely has in mind, is Paul Virilio’s work on modern warfare and the machinery of seeing. Because what Starling discovers isn’t a simple thematic concern with war and its depredations, but a fascination with the moving eye and with sightlines – and it’s that fascination that links the layout of a gallery with Mickey the machine-gunner, who trains his barrel straight at the camera, or Warhol’sTriple Elvis, who points his pistol at us three times. Phantom Ride is like a drone’s eye view of the gallery’s history. And in case we miss the point, Starling shows us a tiny balsawood model plane – part of Chris Burden’s 1999 project for the Duveen, WhenRobots Rule – slowly circling and then landing in a pool of light.

It’s not so obvious to what end Starling has composed this admittedly beguiling set of symmetries between the gallery, theatres of war and the historic palaces of commodities the Duveen so resembles. Of course the installation makes one think scurrilous thoughts about the management of gallery-goers’ lines of sight and modes of attention elsewhere at Tate Britain, which has recently rehung its main displays according to a more or less strict chronology. (A chronology that produces exactly the sorts of odd meeting between artists, works and media that a thematic or transhistorical hang is meant to produce.) But perhaps the more lasting effect of Phantom Ride is not in the slightly dreary realm of institutional critique, which here looks a little too much like institutional advertising, but in its melancholy imagining of institutional collapse, as Starling’s camera drifts across a CGI scene of the bomb-damaged Duveen Galleries in 1940, and asks us to picture the place in ruins, supplanted by its lubricious digital twin.

The Music of Prose

This review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C appeared in the TLS.

“Digressions are as pleasant as vacations, but one must return from them before tan turns to burn.” So says Professor Joseph Skizzen, a musicologist and – a little belatedly, because his father tries out for the role first – the protagonist of Middle C, William H. Gass’s third novel in nearly half a century (Omensetter’sLuck appeared in 1966, The Tunnel in 1995). Gass has not exactly taken his own character’s advice: he has allowed his novels to ripen and fatten for years, even decades, at a time, absorbing all manner of speculative, essayistic and self-conscious ruminations. They are in some ways inextricable from the stream of short stories, novellas and non-fiction that he has also published in that time. This latest book is, if anything, even more digressive, with its reflections on libraries, music and the shapes of sentences – all subjects Gass has engaged with in his essays. He turns eighty-nine this summer, and while Middle C may not be a late-stylesumma regarding his work to date, it bristles with many of his familiar topics and tropes.

Not least among these is the sound of literary language itself, which may well be his most abiding concern as a stylist, critic and (now emeritus) professor of philosophy at Washington University in St Louis. Gass’s fiction is often, and not inaccurately, linked to the highest phase of American postmodernism; the stories and novels can be, if not as antic then at least as self-aware as the best of John Barth or Donald Barthelme. What distinguishes them from such company, however, is just how much of Gass’s playfulness is textural rather than structural; if his is still a sort of metafiction, it achieves this at the level of a sometimes extreme concentration on the way his sentences sound; they draw attention to themselves with quite fabulous turns of syntax and prodigious flowerings of assonance and alliteration. As its title suggests, Middle C doesn’t stint on the sound effects, but it is also an essay of sorts on the music of prose.

The novel is, first of all, a story of deliberately implausible displacement. Rudi Skizzen is an ordinary Austrian husband and father who has grown disgusted by the cruelty of his countrymen on the eve of the Second World War. They are cruel, he says, even “in the mug and on the platter, in raucous communal song, immersed in the smell of Kraut, sausages, and beer”. Skizzen knows that many Jewish citizens have fled the country, and so he resolves on a plan: he and his wife, with their two children, will pass themselves off as Jewish, and make their way from Graz to London before the Nazis arrive. The ruse works, and before long the family is installed in England, where Rudi, who had briefly become Yankel Fixel and now takes the name Raymond Scofield, gets a job printing anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets to be dropped on Germany. His wife, Nita, now Miriam, remains “dumbfounded” by these sudden alterations to her identity.

Things turn deviously schematic at this point. Skizzen/Fixel/Scofield is suddenly graced with luck and wins a lot of money on a horse: “after a life of undeserving failure, a sudden unmerited success”. He promptly vanishes, apparently having left for the United States, to which further exile his wife and children must follow. They do so, but they don’t find Rudi. Instead, the novel too swerves and reinvents itself as the story of Rudi’s son Joseph, who is quickly – Gass dispenses briskly with the boy’s acclimatization to his new home in Ohio – established as a hapless student at a small community college and projected forwards to middle age as a music professor of dubious academic credentials with an interest in Schoenberg and certain recurring extracurricular fixations. Joseph’s mother hovers in the background, gardening, and his sister Debbie marries into suburban American cliché.

Gass has some fun with the reader’s expectations here; both phases of Joseph’s life threaten to become comical campus novels in themselves. The young man studies French, and his teacher, Miss Mieux – Gass has an absurd way with the names of minor characters – tries to seduce him, but he flees her plushly cushioned home before the crucial moment. In the parallel narrative of Joseph’s career as a professor, we learn a good deal about the petty rivalries between provincial academics – Howard Palfrey, Morton Rinse – and their fear of overqualified colleagues, which Joseph emphatically is not. His approach to playing the piano, Gass tells us, is “like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks”. But he has managed to convince the college that he is an expert on Schoenberg, with whose exile and revisions of religious identity Joseph identifies.

All of this is entertaining, but you don’t come to Gass for mere academic satire. His real interest lies elsewhere, in style. One is gradually made aware that the novel’s amusements at the levels of plot and character are the merest pretexts for a series of extravagant digressions, scenes in which his characters’ rage for order gives rise to floridly self-generating systems and equally wild sentences. At the library, Joseph works with Miss Moss, a wraithlike older woman who instructs him at length on the varieties of damage that may befall a book during its travels. At home, in the midst of long and loving descriptions of Miriam’s garden, Joseph contemplates the invasive tendencies of violets that are “like immigrants, pushing out established plants and covering the earth with an impermeable carpet of dainty-looking but devilish little flowers whose rootlets, in their eager exercise of total war, throttled worms in their runnels”.

A sort of descriptive metastasis takes over at such moments, and it is present too in the adult Joseph’s obsessive curation of a personal archive he calls his “Inhumanity Museum”. He collects images and accounts of appalling cruelties, lingering, for example, over the historical details in a report of a woman burnt at the stake. His fascination and horror at the viciousness of humanity – a barbarism he and his family have fraudulently escaped – are given a linguistic turn when he becomes obsessed with a protean, ramifying sentence of his own devising. It comes to him unbidden one morning, and he subsequently finds himself, at the start of every working day, “compelled to mess with it”. In its first iteration, the sentence runs: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure”. It recurs throughout the novel, at first slightly altered, as if it were the subject of a lesson in rhetoric or composition, and later substantially expanded, so that in its longest form it spans more than a page, spins off into reeling parentheses, stalls several times in ellipses, and includes a colourful, alliterative crowd of “nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, shucks, shlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again bible bangers”.

What is Gass up to with this sentence and its variants? In an essay entitled “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”, published in his collection Life Sentences (2012), he argues that syntax may be a symbol in itself, and the sound of prose an adequate allegory: “A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a spiral stair . . . . Its plot is its own performance”. The burgeoning sentence in Middle C is manifestly a version of Joseph’s fretful effort to hedge around the horror left behind in Austria with compulsive and obscuring detail, or to focus so hard on the sound of his own language that he will be absolved of its sense. The sentence, we might guess, has the shape of Joseph’s conscience.

But it is also, like Middle C itself, a late, perhaps final, statement of Gass’s belief in the sound of literary language for its own sake. In an earlier essay, “The Music of Prose”, he robustly defended rhythmic and sonic excess in writing: “Some tunes are rinky-dink indeed, and confined to the carnival, but I get the impression that most of these complaints about the music of prose are simply the fears of lead-eared moralists and message-gatherers”. Joseph’s obsessive tinkering with the recurring sentence leads ultimately to the possibility of real writing; but he has first to practise contriving sentences sculpted solely for their sound or shape, as in a gratuitous line he composes at his new computer keyboard: “We ate our farrow and supposed it was a splendidly healthy, indeed toothsome, way to dine”. Sound escapes and becomes its own sense. In “The Music of Prose”, Gass quotes Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has been more exciting than diagramming sentences”. This might be a motto for the locked-in, compulsive and ultimately liberated protagonist of Middle C.

All That Is Solid

This piece on Helen Marten appeared in Artforum.

IN A COMMERCIAL for Weber’s bread from the late 1960s, Linus, the stripe-shirted boy from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, instructs Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, who has forgotten to bring an object to school for show-and-tell, simply to present her lunch: a peanut-butter sandwich. After all, notes Linus: “There is something interesting to be said for everything around us.” And, he adds, the sandwich in question contains enough energy to run four miles. Sally triumphs at show-and-tell, then tears off toward the horizon.

Given its seemingly obvious title, it took me an unconscionably long time to associate Helen Marten’sPeanuts, 2012, with Charlie Brown and pals, never mind to hit online on Linus’s disquisition regarding the uniformly compelling nature of all things and the translatability of overrefined carbs into vim and vigor. Specifically, I had not worked out that a knotty object, a kind of line drawing rendered in metal that sat atop the piece, was in fact an enlargement of Charlie Brown’s torso. I had spotted the peanuts themselves: three intact shells, nestled in a shallow, square declivity of the work’s upper, slanted stratum. On a plane made of various woods and what we might call near-woods (of which more below), the zigzag motif of Charlie’s sweater was rhymed in a bent strip of metal at the left and once more in what seemed to be soft leather—this last iteration draped somewhat queasily on a loaf of bread. There was another loaf to the right, on a little shelf, and in between a pair of supergleamy fake frosted doughnuts. Below, on the floor, was a sheet of beaten copper, and on it a pile of leaflets that looked like they were advertising a pizza joint; the leaflets featured a reproduction of Gerhard Richter’s paintingBetty, 1988.

Image

Perhaps I had not grasped the comic-strip citation because, as is frequently the case with Marten’s materially bristling and various work, I was so preoccupied with figuring out just what it was made of and how. Here is the list of materials from her recent show at Chisenhale Gallery in London: “solid ash, greasy orange Valchromat, sanded Formica, Sepili, Cherry, doughnuts, waxed paper, laser-cut steel, copper sheet, printed leaflets, peanuts, glued, rough sawn pine and foam packaging, metal legs.” The litany is incomplete, of course: no bread. Unless the loaves were made of “solid ash” or one of those proprietary mock woods—I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lumber—that are composed of extremely stressed and extruded particles of actual wood, or who knows what. Among the effects of the profusion of objects in Marten’s sculptural assemblages is the sense that the substances they are made of (sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure) might transmute into one another. In Marten’s Linus-world, all are equally interesting, all equally digestible.

This absurd metamorphosis need not halt at the level of the things themselves—it happens equally to images, ideas, and art. The equivalence Marten canvases is an aspect of contemporary life: All things may be sublimed into immaterial data, then exchanged with everything else, a Richter painting for a pizza. You could posit Marten’s alimentary impulse as an effort to find some physical purchase on the world again in an era of digital evanescence, though that seems a little too tempting: Quite aside from her recourse elsewhere to video and animation, solid things in her work seem just as likely to wink out of their proximate being and reappear as cartoons of themselves.

What else is Peanuts, or what might it become? On its spindly legs at the start of the Chisenhale exhibition, it looked like the support for an explanatory museum text. Or then again, a highly schematic landscape: Mediterranean, dust-hued, with a castellated ruin meeting sky or sea at the left. It’s also a wide but drastically foreshortened console or lectern or desk. It’s an especially sparse buffet lunch, or a kitchen worktop, with ingredients neatly picked out like the terms of an equation.

“A meal is a plotted space of action,” says Marten, “a ritual, and so also a grammar.” That’s it: Peanutsis a sentence to be parsed or a pictographic conundrum asking to be solved. If Marten likes to play with her food till it morphs into alarming states of matter and meaning, it sometimes seems that the ultimate abjection (or perhaps refinement) of her mutant materials is a declension toward verbal abstraction. The title Peanuts denotes foodstuff, comic strip, animated version of same, but peanuts also means “next to nothing”: an insulting return on a transaction or investment. Language in and around Marten’s sculptures can be paltry or extravagant; her inventories of materials point to an absurd overreach on the part of the manufacturers and marketers of the stuff she deploys. (Consider again that list of what has gone into Peanuts: Sepili and Formica might be the names of neglected nymphs, and Valchromat is clearly an interplanetary despot.) But the work itself is also such a text: If sculpture is of necessity made of the stuff of the consumerist world, Peanuts is something like the list of ingredients on its discarded packaging.