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)


 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.


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.


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


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.


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.

Saying almost everything about almost anything

This review of two new books of essays appeared recently in the Irish Times.

On Dolls, Edited by Kenneth Gross, Notting Hill Editions, £12, 186pp; I Remember, By Joe Brainard, Notting Hill Editions, £12, 186pp

‘There is something called the essay,” wrote the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick in 1986, but “it is not altogether genuine in its shape, like fiction or poetry.” Hardwick intended no slight on the form of the essay, at which she excelled; she meant rather that it was not quite a form at all but an experiment or adventure with the idea of a coherent style or genre. An essay could take any shape whatever, and its subject might be anything under the sun.

Of course essays have certain things in common: a personal voice, some commitment to style or self-consciousness regarding their means of expression, a notion (even if ultimately rejected) of truth in nonfiction writing. But if there is indeed a thing called the essay, it must be defined by its freedom – as Aldous Huxley had it, “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”.

I thought of Huxley’s and Hardwick’s efforts at indefinition while surveying these latest arrivals from Notting Hill Editions (NHE). Since 2011, this small London publisher has been reprinting some classic essays and commissioning new ones, and there have been familiar names and genuine discoveries among both groups. So far, the highlights have been Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (written in the weeks following his mother’s death, in 1977), Thomas Bernhard’s scabrous account of being feted by the literary establishment in My Prizes, and the poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s lively and self-revealing essay on humiliation. Among the most recent volumes are a new edition of WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction and an anthology, Say What You Mean, of writing from the New York literary and political magazine n+1.

Perhaps the clearest (because least obvious) picture of the literary scope of the essay, at least as NHE conceives it, may be discerned by setting two of these new books alongside each other. Kenneth Gross’s On Dolls is a fascinating and intermittently creepy compilation of writings on dolls, puppets and other lifelike toys. Here is Baudelaire, in The Philosophy of Toys (1853), contemplating the infant urge to destroy the most treasured plaything: “Finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul? This moment marks the beginning of stupor and melancholy.”

Predictably, Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny is included, though he ultimately uncovers that unsettling sensation not in everyday objects that seem like living things but in more grisly images, courtesy of a bravura reading of ETA Hoffmann’s story The Sandman. Lesser-known essays include Kleist’s odd narrative reflection On the Marionette Theatre, Rilke on curious wax dolls made by Lotte Pritzel and a section from Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria, about the oldest waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s: a Sleeping Beauty based on Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry.

Compact form 

The essay seems an apt vehicle for writing and thinking about these mostly diminutive simulacra, and not only because the essay itself is frequently a compact literary form, covering a great deal of discrepant ground by the shortest route.

It’s also because essayists as a breed appear temperamentally attached to the littlest things. On Dolls includes Walter Benjamin’s delicate and rigorous divagation on the attraction of old toys, but a thorough anthology of essayistic miniaturism would also have to excerpt Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Room and Georges Perec’s excellent essay on the objects habitually arrayed on his desk. And it would need to include the American artist and writer Joe Brainard, whose fragmented autobiography (of sorts), I Remember, evolved from an earlier booklet consisting of 10 drawings of individual hairs from different portions of his body, with captions identifying the parts.

I Remember, first published in 1970 and followed by More I Remember and More I Remember More, is composed entirely of discrete micromemories, often just a sentence long and all prefaced with the same phrase: “I remember a boy who could pull the underside of his eyelids down over his eyeballs . . . I remember stamp hinges . . . I remember rainbows that didn’t live up to my expectations.”

Brainard grew up gay in the 1950s, and many of his memories are tender, unembarrassed recollections of his early sexual experiences. In his preface to this new edition – Brainard himself died of Aids in 1994 – Paul Auster tries to make an inventory of the book’s range of subjects; they include family, food, clothes, movies, school, church, bodies, daydreams, holidays, objects (many of these), jokes and sex.

I Remember, says Auster, is “one of those books that can never be used up”. That’s a banal observation, but it does at least hint at some of the contradictions of the essay form – Brainard’s book is a small masterpiece, at once charmingly casual, or seemingly so, and rigorously arrived at in its repetitive and madly encyclopaedic structure. (Perec spotted its avant-garde heart, and borrowed the technique for his Je me souviens in 1978.)

It’s unlikely that Brainard would have conceived of his little litany as an essay, if he thought of it as literature at all. But like the best examples of the genre, it invents eccentric rules for a form that has none. There are undoubtedly conservative versions of the taste for essays today – a sense that the essay is something well made, or that it represents merely fine writing – but as Elizabeth Hardwick also put it, “there is no end to the essay, and no beginning”.

Son et lumière

This piece on the Hayward Gallery’s Light Show appeared in the Guardian.

David Batchelor's Magic Hour, part of Light Show at the Hayward Gallery in London

In November 1966 the artist James Turrell, then aged 23, embarked on a master’s degree at the University of California. He rented two rooms at the old Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, and set about converting them into a studio. Turrell was working from a hunch, having recently completed a sculpture of sorts titled Afrum that involved projecting light into the corner of a room so that it seemed to become three-dimensional – a solid hovering cube. Now he was intent on studying the properties of light and working out the extent to which he could control it; at the Mendota he began painting out the windows and building pure white walls – a room within a room – at whose edges he installed fluorescent lighting. At night, with the lights off, various apertures let in a little of the city: “The path of the moon, cars, street lights and shop lights.” Turrell had begun to explore what he later called “the thingness of light”.

The young artist already had a degree in perceptual psychology, and in the wake of his Mendota experiments Turrell became involved with the art and technology programme at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There he met Edward Wortz, a psychologist working on life-support systems for the forthcoming lunar missions. Together they began to investigate states of sensory deprivation, and in particular the Ganzfeld effect: the disorientations and even hallucinations caused by immersing yourself in a uniform field of light and colour, without the anchors of horizon or objects. That research has nourished Turrell’s art ever since. He is best known for gorgeously unsettling installations: total environments saturated with light and colour, or rooms open to a framed sky that seems to have become a slab of pigment or a floating sculptural monolith.

At the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition Light Show, devoted to artists of the past 50 years for whom light itself is a medium, Turrell is represented by Wedgework V (1974), one of a series in which rooms are bisected diagonally by a light that looks frozen, as if you could reach out and touch its lucent surface. As the exhibition reminds us, Turrell is just one – albeit the most ambitious in terms of scale – among several artists who in the 1960s started to conceive of light as a malleable substance or vehicle for sculpture.

Conrad Shawcross's Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV

His best-known contemporary in that regard is Dan Flavin, whose 1963 piece The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) is also at the Hayward. Like Turrell, Flavin first thought of his light works – composed, in his case, of bare fluorescent lights – as discrete objects rather than environments, or as if the technological support, rather than the halo it projected, constituted the work. The earliest of Flavin’s fluorescent pieces were attached to the gallery walls as if they were pictures. But he soon began to place them on the floor or use the glowing tubes to circumscribe a lit space; The Nominal Three consists of six vertical white tubes spanning a wall like Roman numerals: I … II … III.

An art made only of light – it sounds airy, not to say metaphysical. But as Hayward curator Cliff Lauson points out in his catalogue essay, the light artists of the 1960s and after were not at all engaged in a pseudo-spiritual exercise. Light was material, not revelation. A work such as Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), with its cinematic beam of “solid light”, depended on the grubby reality of a dusty and smoky atmosphere even to come into visible being. And as Flavin said of his own work: “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else. There is no hidden psychology, no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. It is as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”

Flavin was perhaps asserting the solidity, even mundanity, of his own and his generation’s light art a little too starkly. If it was not exactly a matter of spiritual enlightenment or occult emanations, there was nonetheless a more abstracted level to the work, and a philosophical backdrop – as for others among the minimalist artists of the era – in a phenomenology of perception borrowed from the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In terms of a broader history of art and light such as the Hayward show sketches, you are easily reminded of the intimacy between light and modernity that Walter Benjamin posited in his Arcades Project. To be modern, in the consumerist paradise of the 19th-century mall, meant first of all to be bathed in encouraging rays. The modern city aspired to seethe with light – in 1889 the engineer Jules Bourdais proposed a Sun Tower, 360 metres tall, that would illuminate all of Paris with powerful arc lights.

In the early decades of the 20th century modernity was frequently summarised as a sort of disorienting coruscation. Think of Joseph Stella’s 1913 painting Battle of Lights (Coney Island), or Marcel Duchamp’s assertion the same year (during an unlikely stay on the Kent coast) that his as yet unfinished Large Glass ought to be “illuminated like Herne Bay pier”. Others began to investigate the role of light in sculpture and on film. László Moholy-Nagy‘s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, completed in 1930, was a curious revolving metal and glass machine that threw startling shadows and reflections on the walls around it as it clattered and spun. (When the artist and designer took his “light space modulator” to the US in 1937, he had trouble explaining to customs officials just what it was – in the end he passed it off as hairdressing equipment.) In Moholy-Nagy’s 1932 film of the thing in action, A Light-Play Black White Grey, it whirs away like the chance meeting of an orrery and a cinema projector, surrounded by constellations of splintered light.

Anthony McCall's You and I Horizontal

At the Hayward there are several works that recall, maybe consciously, both the rigour and the faint end-of-pier quality of Moholy-Nagy’s light machine. Conrad Shawcross‘s kinetic sculpture Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV (2009) consists of a dense metal cage from whose interior a fiercely bright light practically spits abstract shadows. But the most economical homage – also the funniest and most moving – is Fischli and Weiss‘sSon et Lumière (le Rayon Vert) from 1990. Atop a motorised cake stand a plastic cup with mock-cut-glass markings lies on its side and tumbles unpredictably as the turntable spins; a small electric torch shines through the cup and casts ever-changing arabesques of light on the gallery wall. Son et Lumière is at once delightfully simple and absurdly beautiful, a miniature spectacle of Romantic import confected out of the most abject industrial materials. Its subtitle suggests – via Jules Verne‘s novel The Green Ray and Eric Rohmer‘s film of the same title – that we ought to be on the lookout for the miraculous flare of a dying sunset among those dancing lights.

Son et Lumière is a coolly comic instance of another direction that artists working with (or in) light have taken in recent decades, away from the sensory estrangements of the 1960s and towards a light art that is more oblique or self-revealing than wholly immersive. Katie Paterson is one such artist; the Hayward exhibition includes her Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008); a single bare bulb manufactured to match precisely the colour and intensity of moonlight shines in the gallery, alongside a stock of spare bulbs calculated to last an average human lifetime – 66 years at the time the work was made. Equally elegant, though decidedly more wry, is Ceal Floyer‘s Throw, from 1997: a theatrical light that projects a cartoonish splat of illumination on to the gallery floor – light become not just material but the stuff of slapstick pie fights and pratfalls.

Floyer’s is one example of a tendency that perhaps definitively separates more recent light artists from the purveyors of environmental light half a century ago. It exists in a frank embrace of the support or ground on which all this light-play happens: the technology that produces it. And not only in the work of artists such as Leo Villareal, with his use of spectacular computer-controlled LED displays. There are works at the Hayward that manage to be both sublime and determinedly, physically present, as in the case of David Batchelor‘s ravishingly coloured light-boxes, stacked in towers and turned to the wall to reveal the clunky obsolete technology on which they depend. Perhaps it’s simply another way of saying, like the light artists of the 1960s, that we are not in the presence of the spiritual. As Batchelor puts it: “There’s always someone who will mistake a bright light in a darkened space for a religious experience. If you can see the plug, then it stops you getting mystical.”