ARTYFACTS: February 2012

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hagiography of the Hajj? (British Museum)

My friend Frank Gormley, although non-religious, was fascinated by pilgrimage and did the St James way to Santiago Compostela and several other routes. He saw them as routes for reflection. The Hajj intrigues, not least because it’s closed to non-believers. The British Museum therefore take you on the journey, as if you were doing it for real.
Several journeys
The Hajj is several journeys. A physical journey to the place you have prayed towards, for the whole of your life – Mecca; a spiritual journey where you reflect on your own moral behaviour and values; a journey in time back to the age of Mohammed and Abraham, to the roots of revelation through the prophets; a communal journey as most pilgrims travel in a mutually supporting group; a transformative journey, as the experience is often a turning point in the pilgrim’s life. It’s many intertwined journeys.
Getting there
On a huge map we see how Muslims got to Medina and Mecca. The journeys across North Africa across the Sahara were demanding, as were those across the Arabian desert (900 miles) and the ocean from the Far East and India. The routes were hard and hazardous with the dangers of hunger, thirst, robbery and destitution. Some early travel books are exhibited along with some curious infidels, who sneaked in.
There’s an illustrated manuscript with a dialogue between a pilgrim on a camel and one on foot. The camel mounted man dismisses those who walk but the walker castigates him, as he sees the camel and not the man doing the Hajj. The point is that the journey is part of the experience – to travel is as important as to arrive. In 1932 there were only 20,000 pilgrims, in 2011, 3 million, most of who travel by plane. You can’t help but think that a ‘package by plane’ or 'holiday Hajj' is a vastly diminished experience.
Being there
Let’s see if I can remember the rituals. You start by donning a simple two-piece white gown, then 7 anti-clockwise walks round the Ka’ba, try to kiss the black stone in the corner (supposedly a white stone from paradise turned black by man’s sin), drink from the Zaman Well, run to Mina, camp for a night on the Plain of Arafat, throw 49 pebbles at 3 pillars, then ritually shave your hair, wash or buy a token for a sacrificed animal to feed the poor. Repeat the pebble stoning then say goodbye. It takes five or six days. The pictures and videos show real passion and emotion, with many in tears and this is what raises the experience to more than an exhibition. You can't help but be touched by proxy. I particularly liked the audio recordings of people who had completed the Hajj. Whatever my thoughts, it’s their thing and most seem to have been both moved and changed by the experience. But I wanted to ask if they really did believe that Adam built the first church on the Ka’ba site, that the black stone really did come from Paradise, that the Koran really is the ‘word of God’? In the end religious practice that pretends to be the rock of ages, for me founders on the rock of incredulity.
Too reverential
I also found it odd that there was no reference (maybe I missed it) to the many stampedes, crushes and gun battles that have taken place at the Hajj. Over 360 died in 2006, 251 trampled to death in 2004, 14 crushed to death in 2003, 35 die in a stampede in 2001: 251 trampled to death in 2001, 118 trampled to death in 1998, 343 pilgrims died and 1,500 injured in fire in 1997, 270 killed in stampede in 1994, 1,426 pilgrims killed in tunnel leading to holy sites in 1990, 400 died as Saudi authorities confronted pro-Iranian demonstration in 1987. If God is in the house, then he has some explaining to do. Could it be the Saudi support for the show that prevents this level of objectivity and honesty? This is an absolute monarchy with dubious political/theological reach (Wahabbism), tens of thousands of political prisoners and astronomical levels of corruption and moral duplicity. The British Museum should be above this sort of hagiography of the Hajj.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Manuscripts exhibition – what they don't tell you - a tale of Royal and religious censorship (British Library exhibition)

If you like books you’ll love this exhibition, but be warned, you’ll need a couple of hours or more to do it justice. 150 manuscripts (literally meaning written by hand) are laid out (a bit confusingly at times). It helps to know your Kings and Queens as the theme is Royalty. This, in fact, limits the scope and honesty of the exhibition but don’t let that put you off.
You get to feel a sheet of parchment and vellum as you enter. Do you know the difference? Paper only became common in the 1400s. At three to four pages per day and even the best scribe making a mistake per page (erased by scraping with knife or pumice stone) this was painstaking work but it’s the illuminations that took the real artistry, time and effort.
The collections, largely put together by Edward IV and Henry VIII that form most of the show. They allow you to lean on the glass cases and you’ll need to, as many of the illuminations are small and repay detailed attention. We must remember that books like this were rare, even in Medieval times. Incredibly expensive to produce, they were owned treasured and treasured by the elite. Indeed, the show is anchored in Monarchy, lineage, the divine right of Kings, their education, relation to religion and chivalry. They literally embed their coats of arms, even their own images, into the books.
What they don’t tell you
Print is power and therefore politics, so a book is never just a book, it’s a device for flattery, preferment, a claim to legitimacy, a contract, a confirmation of status….. In fact, something they don’t tell you here, in the already annoying Jubilee year, is that Henry VIII was a censor who tried to ban reading, even of the Bible, by apprentices and women. Elizabeth I did the same through The Stationer’s Company. So Royalty, far from being bibliophiles promoting reading and writing, were narcissistic owners and censors. One could hardly call the present Royal family readers and intellectuals. Bibliophiles they are not. I have never heard s single one of them utter anything remotely interesting. Did you know that the Royal family have an absolute exemption from the Freedom of Information Act? This law was passed in 2011. Rather than playing an impartial role, they are free to be as partial as they want – as we know from the shenanigans of Andrew and Charles.
Royal and religious dogma
The degree to which books were merely objects of Royal or religious dogma is the real lesson here. We really do see that Gutenberg, and Caxton, truly revolutionised the replication and scalability of the writing and reading of books. Remember that the Catholic Church still had a prohibited books list until 1966. To be clear, the list included;  Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, Galileo Galileo and Blaise Pascal. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for his writings. So Royal and Religious control actually meant censorship.
Nevertheless, these are magnificent books that give us a direct causal link with the past. There’s even annotations in Henry VIIIs own hand in the margins. The Mathew Paris 13th C journey to the Holy Land is an intriguing strip map, as he certainly never did the journey himself. You can wallow in the few books that did exist over these many centuries but don’t fall for this being in any way a golden age for books.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

David Hockney – the wood or the trees? (Royal Academy show)

A bigger picture
Over the last few years I’ve walked and cycled through the woods in Stanmer Park on the outskirts of Brighton. It’s one of my favourite places and as every walker and cyclist will know, it’s astonishing how the same place can appear so radically different from season to season. Hockney also got to know his Yorkshire landscapes through cycling a a boy and has invested the time and effort to capture this cycle. But there’s something odd about these landscapes. There are no figures, not an insect, bird or butterfly, only the earth, plants and trees. It is all flora and no fauna. This is a problem for landscape painting. The joy and meaning of a walk in the woods or down a country track, are the sounds of birds and the wind blowing in the trees, sometimes the crack of wood on wood, and the smells. Painting can, at times, emasculate experience. So what does it do to compensate for these losses? Is he not seeing the wood for the trees?
For Hockney, I suppose, it’s essence. This is an architectural essence, an essence of form, highlighted through the use of colour. That’s fine but it falls short. I still miss the detail of snowdrops, bluebells, fly agaric mushrooms, bracket fungi, butterflies, insects, birds, rabbits, sheep or even cows. A wood is a complex habitat, not just a bare cathedral of trees.
Thixendale Trees (and clouds)
The opening salvo is wonderful. Thixendale Trees is a row of trees shown in each of the four seasons. Of course, it’s not just the trees, but the ploughed, sprouting and wheat filled field along with the grey to puffy, cumulus clouds that speak of the seasons. I’ve become a cloud observer after reading Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, a wonderful insight into those things that float above our heads but about which we know so little. Once you know a little about how they form, even the contrails from aeroplanes become interesting, artificial clouds, a stream of water vapour the by-product of combustion, turning into ice crystals a wing’s length behind the plane as it hits temperatures of -50.
Who doesn’t like trees? They’re so damn big, solid and impressive. And hockney gets this in the Woldgate Woods room, that places you inside the woods. Again it’s the majesty of the trees and their permanence through the seasons. What’s odd is moving through this room with a crowd of well-heeled art lovers, as you never find this many people in a quiet grove in the middle of a forest. To see this show properly, pick a quiet time on a quiet day.
As Colin Tudge says in another of those books that changes your view of the things you see everyday, The Secret Life of Trees, “being big requires a lot of engineering”. The sheer physics of transporting water and food up and down such a structure and the fact that all of this wood and leaves is conjured chemically from thin air, light and water, are the real miracles. Art’s great but art plus science is greater still.
Timber lives but it also dies, often at the hands of man. Logged timber is often a sad sight, like piles of bodies, and in the Trees and Totems room, you get death. The logs are laid out horizontally on the ground ready to be removed, stripped of their roots, branches and leaves, right next to the living forest. The log ends are like wounds and the still standing stumps like amputees. I never like seeing logged stumps, still standing, of living trees. I still remember flying in to Gatwick from Mexico in 1987 and seeing hundreds of huge trees lying, all facing east, felled by the wind. It was like a nuclear disaster – incredibly sad.
Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon defies capture in photographs - it's too big. That's the problem Hockney tackles. However, I'm not sure that this collage of canvases, each with their own vanishing point is the solution. The phto-collage is better, as it also captures changes in light during the day. But this idea of painting capturing the essence of glanced perception doesn't work for me. The architectural images of mills and houses also fail.

Trees are the masters of the forest, they are the forest, but what these paintings often miss, is the detail. Thankfully, Hockney redeems himself in the 51 'winter to spring' iPad prints. Here we see flowers, blossom, stalks, leaves and details of smaller plants. A group behind me, when they realised that these were iPad paintings, dismissed them immediately, such is the snobbery of so called art fans. What they want is nostalgia, the history of art, not the real deal. For me, this is the best of the shown work.
When you look around the room you see dozens of very large beautiful prints, but there’s something odd about them – something clean. Get close and you see why. Try an iPad paint package. You have a huge range of brush widths and effects, as well as the ability to digitally repeat a shape, all of which Hockney has mastered. (Well, mastered over time, as you can see a progression over time as he gets to grips with the tools.) Then there’s the huge palette and the ability to erase and easily overwrite. Hockney really likes the immediate identification of a palette in the field on an iPad. This is obviously difficult in paint. There’s some wonderful in painting trees, plants and landscapes, as repeating and overlaying lots of tiny flowers, spotting leaves, streaking out stalks and getting a rich and consistent palette, makes it work well, without destroying the act of ‘painting’. This is a breakthrough in art and it took a 75 year old artist to realise its potential in landscape painting.
This iPod art throws up some interesting issues in aesthetics. Produced digitally on a small screen, they are reproduced, as very large prints, at over ten times the size. So there are several differences between the original work and the displayed version. First there's the rescaling, which produces a work that is much. much bigger. Second, it is backlit on a screen but relies on reflected light as a print. Thirdly,the digital artwork is now an analogue artefact. I'd love to see Hockney take the lead here and distribute this art free on the web or sell them for charity as digital artworks.
Virtual walk?
It was odd to see 150 or so urban, largely city-dwelling, art lovers sit in serried rows staring intently at a country walk in high definition video in the Royal Academy. The images, shot from 9 mounted cameras, are hyper-real but completely silent, even when the wind blows. The idea is to present the glance experience as we cut from glance to glance and do not pan. That’s the aim but in practice vision does not present as a 3x3 grid. In the end it turns into a virtual walk, or slow glide, as it’s painfully slow. Weird but far from real. Where it succeeds is in representing time and so avoiding the single image problem. We walk, we glance and move through landscapes. 
Lastly a word on the padding. Blockbuster shows usually overreach themselves by going way back to uncover early, often poor material, to make the show ‘bigger’. It seems to me a confusion between curatorial goals, the history of art and art itself. Here, the early canvases are a disappointment. Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians and the canyon paintings were lame and as are the earlier Yorkshire landscapes. The Sermon on the Mount room is completely incongruous and could easily have been left out of this show. You want to remain immersed in landscapes, not bounced out into an esoteric study of time and space using a derived image.

I would also like to have seen the iPod prints displayed as iPad images. There's something half-baked about taking a digital image and creating a huge print just so you can show it in the Royal Academy, where they expect prints or paintings. I’d much rather have had the iPAD prints arranged in one row, rather than the second row at 10 foot high on the wall. OK I’ve got that out of my system. Is it worth it – this show? Damn right it is….a thing of great beauty.