ARTYFACTS: July 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tomoko Takahashi: Junk Junkie

I didn’t like Gormley’s Critical Mass on the roof, but even worse is the Tomoko Takahashi work on the floor below. She’s a junk junkie. The website claims that she recycles detritus into ‘illuminating’ works of art. I think not. There’s little that’s ‘illuminating’ and much that suggests an artist who values her own process over the final goal. The problem with junk is that it is ugly. When put together in collages, they’re even uglier. Then to add a layer of cliché she uses montaged photographs as a backdrop. This technique is so hackneyed (or should I say Hockneyed) that it’s laughable.

Now there is one interesting exception to this and that’s the wooden room with the photocopier. The idea that a machine in the corner produces represented images that cover the internal walls of the entire room is getting somewhere. Again, however, it’s a good idea gone bad. The actual images are dull, repetitive and irrelevent.

Anthony Gormley: Can’t figure it out?

Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion is a beautiful building, enhanced by its position on the shore and its sharp, simple lines. Inside it’s bright and clean, on the roof, however, is an installation by Gormley that doesn’t, in my opinion, enhance the experience.

Am I alone in thinking that we’ve had enough of these cast metal figures from Gormley? What more is there to do or say with the technique? In this case we have sixty figures in twelve basic poses lying on the roof. At first they look as though they’ve been placed at random. However, they have actually been placed on the metal crossbeams of this Grade 1 listed building. Built in 1935, from a welded steel frame, the heavy solid figures had to be carefully laid onto the metal girders to prevent the roof from collapsing. Now there’s something odd about an aesthetic spectacle driven by the necessity of a building’s internal structure. It's a matter of convenience not art.

The figures are fine but the artist’s references to ‘sky burial’ are bogus, as the piece was made for an internal setting, a Viennese railway shed. This is typical of an aesthetic view that says, make of it what you will, art is just a trigger for any old tosh that you want to imagine or verbalise. The view from the roof is stunning, especially on a sunny, windy day from Beachy head along the pebble beach and the turquoise sea. These figures just lie there lifeless, inert and irrelevant. Gormley’s in danger of becoming a one trick pony.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Magnificent Maps - British Library

I love maps, my wife hates maps. I’d like them on our walls, Gil rips them off. So, when I arranged to meet a friend at the Magnificent Maps Exhibition at the British Library, I expected lots of men pouring over the detail. But, no, there were more women than men and a surprising number of kids.

It’s loosely themed, but the real joy comes in interrogating the maps themselves. Where is Britain, Jerusalem, Constantinople? What are those red areas, like scarlet fingers on so many of the maps? Hey it’s the Red Sea! We spent nearly three hours in the exhibition, as many of the maps had 2D treasures that needed to be hunted out. What was nice was gthe way people shared their discoveries, two or three on any one map.

We assume that north should be at the top, but it was not always so. Many early maps, such as the Mappa Mundi, had East at the top or other ‘orient’ations. The Mappa Mundi dates from around 1300 and has Jerusalem in the centre, and East at the top. The Med, Nile and Red sea are all clearly visible.

The maps from the 15th and 16th centuries are representations of European voyages of discovery and are coastal fading off into great swathes of the unknown. It is in later centuroies that maps are used as political representations and tools of war.

Geological and other maps with a specific significance were absent. It was a shame that William Smith’s famous first geological map The Map that changed the World, was not here.

There’s maps on vellum silk, tapestries and paper but I was disappointed that there was no final room on digital maps as there’s been a revolution over the last decade with Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Streetview and Satnav devices. The whole world has been captured on one huge realistic map in Google Earth. That’s the bird’s eye view. Dynamic maps on TomTom, Google Streetview turn maps into tools. GPS is creating crime maps and social networking such as Foursquare. In other words, screen-based maps are vastly more functional and useful than print maps.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception - is it for real?

A dream within a dream is an Edgar Allen Poe poem with the famous line, ‘Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?’ and Shakespeare was doing it 400 years ago. Movies have used the ‘dream theme’ often enough, especially as an opening gambit or play within a play, then cut to with the character wakening up or the word ‘CUT’ as we pan back to show that the scene was being filmed for a movie. Nested dreams have been used in Nightmare on Elm Street and An American Werewolf in London. But it was in The Matrix that the nested dreams/reality theme became the main plot context. In Inception, it’s taken to whole new level, or levels.

Smart art direction

Christopher Nolan wrote the script and so the dream levels are written to be filmed and the dimension of time captured through cutting. Each dream-level has its own unique aesthetic. Note that each level gets more abstract, cleaner and brighter. Clever cinematic, art direction.

Level 1 – Interior of

First Class cabin in a 747, the most perfectly controlled and disengaged from reality environment than man knows, a tiny capsule of luxury moving at over 500 mph at 35,000 feet above the earth. This is the pinnacle of Nolan’s dream structure pyramid and already plays with the reality theme.

Level 2 – A classic gritty blue/grey NY car chase look and feel, with fast cuts, crashes, shoot-outs and bridge scene. We cut from tight car/taxi/van interiors to street exteriors and the wonderful idea of a freight train ploughing through it all from the unconscious of the dreamer.

Level 3 – A warm, classy, cream/brown claustrophobic hotel interior, all smart bars, rooms, and corridors with dim lights and lifts. We’re meant to feel a little uneasy in this world, where we’re never at home, always on the move, in the limbo of hotel-land. This is echoed in Di Caprio’s personal dreamland where his wife takes her suicidal leap.

Level 4 – We’re way out here in a simple, stripped down, bright, white, remote exterior. By shifting to a classic Nordic, cold-war, computer-game inspired, shoot’em up in the snow, with lots of camouflaged soldiers and a slightly unreal fortress/hospital, Nolan gives us a world that seems a bit unreal but slams into us with its guns, grenades and explosions. He’s playing with us here.

Level 5 - Cobb's dreams. These are perhaps not strictly a fifth level. The glacial, coastal, crumbling city is perhaps the most stunning and most dreamlike visual in the whole movie - truly surreal. His other worlds are the most ambiguous and tantalising. We have the tangential test-run aesthetic of Paris, its Hausman streets being folded over like an omelette and café scene exploding all around them. The dreamlike 8mm sequences of his kids and wife's world are much more psychologically sophisticated that the others.

Nested dreams

The movie is a Cartesian experiment, what if all we perceive is a dream and that we can dream within a dream, then dream within that dream and so on. Not a new idea but the idea that you control the process to create dreams and steal memories is novel. Indeed, this is a movie that has to be read like a novel, as it makes you think back, reflect and has lots of clever narrative structure and revelations. Dreams, memories and time are all telescoped out and back again with the mind playing spoiler tricks on itself through unconscious desires and real memories. The cleverness of the movie is making each radically different world seem real. To do this, each world needs to be needs to be believable. The real wonder of the movie is the fact that cinema can create so many worlds in one movie and that suspension of disbelief clicks in immediately. The director realy is playing with the audience here and plays his big creator's card at the end.


Falls, the sense of falling which triggers waking, is used as the recovery device. People are tipped off chairs, fall in lifts, fall in vans crashing off bridges and ‘falling’ and gravity are used to question given realities. Another idea brilliantly realised in the movie, as it allows unreal scenes of fights in environments where the physics is changing. Planes, trains and automobiles are all used to literally create environments in which gravity shifts and we can dream being cut off from the normality of the real world. Again the real/unreal theme is explored.

Freudian memories

The Freudian concept of the unconscious plays God in creating a dreamworld’s people. They are projections of the dreamers mind and can work with him or against him. These constructs appear in the movie as extras or as a revengeful destructive rioting mob, ambushing gunmen. This sense of shared space but one dreamers world is, perhaps, the most difficult idea to grasp as there’s no evidence that it’s possible and therefore seems illogical.

Repressed memories are stored in safes that have to be unlocked. This is a clever visual device and although a little literal, provides psychological surprises. If this movie has a fault it’s in sticking to conventional Freudian theories or repression, Oedipus complex and the unconscious. They’re taken as givens. I’d have preferred a less romantic and more contemporary interpretation of dreams, perhaps a more honest look at extreme anxiety, sexuality and recurring dreams. But hey, this film has enough on its photographic plate.

Soft time

Time is logarithmic in nested dreams, so a several second fall of a van telescopes out into minutes and hours elsewhere. To watch this movie you must hold the complex concept of variable time in your mind, corresponding to the different levels. Slow-mo and cuts between the levels do this well. We jump between different dreams and rates of time. That’s clever.

Appearance and reality

The big theme is not the cod-Feudian psychology but the appearance/reality distinction, an abiding theme in philosophy. There is this strong idea going back to Plato’s cave, our perceived reality a representation of reality, from the pure idealism of Berkeley to the unknowable in Kant. It takes a lot to get a philosophical theme across in film, but Nolan succeeds, albeit at a superficial ‘life’s a dream’ level. But he was brave enough to leave the issue hanging at the end. This is a rarefied theme and if more 12+ viewers are exposed to the ideas, so much the better.

Nolan has been building towards this with Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight. Like computer games, you can die but respawn on waking. And Nolan at 39 really is a Gen X game playing director. Some critics don’t like this aspect of the film, but dreams and much more like computer games than TV or movies. Dreams are often disturbing and not romcom material. Those that complain about the 'computer-game' dimensions 1) exaggerate the role of games in the movie 2) misunderstand his interpretation of the unconscious.

That ending

Nolan invites the audience to reflect on whether you the viewer is always dreaming (at least viewing an appeared/represented reality), have just experienced a dreamlike creation through a cinematic projection, have seen the dreams of a Director and his creative team, the dreams of an acted reality, Cobb's dreamworld or the dreamworld of several players. For me, Cobb is dreaming.

Ultimately we have the movie as a dream experience, and when it ends you feel disoriented and just a little bit more sceptical about what you call ‘reality’. Then whole movie collapses into Cobb's solipsistic perspective and that's the beauty of the film. The deep, deep sense. that we're all alone living within our created consciousnesses (and that includes dreams).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fiona Banner - Tate Britain

Forget Rude Britannia, go straight to the free show in the foyer. A Harrier hangs like a dead pheasant from the roof by a single cable; dead, inert but absolutely beautiful. The fact that it’s in such a non-functional pose makes it all the more powerful. It hovers tightly in the narrow hall the antithesis of its natural habitat, screaming over the Welsh or Scottish mountains, erect but impotent. Impossibly sleek, part shark, part ray, it's a form shaped by the necessity of overcoming gravity and air resistance. The art of speed.

There were group of kids just staring at it, literally with 'wonder'. It's nose is only a foot or so off the ground so lots lay beneath its nose for camera phone snaps. Remember that this was the plane that could hover – no one quite knew why this mattered, as we had helicopters, but it could. Nose down that's the trick - no one has ever seen it like this as nose down is death,the point just before it's destruction by the earth and gravity it is designed to escape.

The Jaguar further back, lies on its back, still, silent and vulnerable. It’s polished stainless steel body stripped of camouflage, it’s jet engines empty and hollow. This had a different ambiance, that of something shot down, abandoned. The polished steel made you want to touch and stroke the surface. Surely this is a work that would have benefited from allowing us to touch the structure. Most of the kids did, as soon as the official turned her back. Who can blame them. I did the same.

These are outstanding works by an artist with a huge imagination.

Rude Britannia – Tate Britain

I’ve always found British self-judgement of its humour and satirical talent exaggerated and sure enough, this was a hotch-potch of a show that takes itself too seriously. It was in desperate need of some laughs. The show also lacked focus. Was it satire? Cartoons? Humour?

Much is made of Hogarth but I find his work too literal and the Rake’s Progress a set of clichéd images. What was interesting about the earlier 18th and 19th century material was its obsession with arses and farts. There were people kissing bare arses, exploding farts and no end of metaphorical puffs. In some ways, they were way ruder than the modern proponents.

Cruikshanks The Worship of Bacchus is described by the Tate as a work of genius – it is not. Crudely executed, it is a laboured work of Victorian moralising. It is given a sort of religious status in a room of its own, when what it deserves is an attic.

The modern stars were VIZ (two fat slags) and Steve Bell. VIZ was, and still does, have the ability to make you laugh out loud and read bits out to your wife on the sofa – that’s class. Steve Bell, who lives round the corner from me, has been canning politicos in underpants and bell jars for years. He deserves a Tate show all on his own. The seaside postcards were fine, but there were not enough of them, and the attempt to caricature them as sexist and racist was modern moralising.

But is it art? One problem with satire is its need to be explicit. Art is implicit, meanings are often hidden, subtle and have to be sought out by the viewer who interrogates the work. Satire has to be immediate and obvious. The tension between the two often means that first rate satire is second rate art and vice-versa. The final room was a good example of this, where the attempts at art meant that the works were neither rude, funny.