Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 1 - '20:50' by Richard Wilson

Spoiler Alert: 20:50 (original installation, 1987) by Richard Wilson,  is an experiential work of art and relies, at least in part, on replacing an initial perception with another one. If you are unfamiliar with this piece of work or hope to have an ‘unsullied’ primary experience, please be aware that this short personal critique gives away key aspects that will irrevocably alter your engagement with it.

In his book about the artist, Simon Morrissey described this piece as having a chameleon effect, and Wilson himself has referred to it as being like a conjurer’s illusion. I recall my first experience with this installation very clearly. This is another work that I enjoyed before I was teaching any subjects related to art and so I approached it with an open mind and with no structured critical preconceptions, and I was rewarded with a good old fashioned ‘wow’ moment…

It was the early 1990s when I saw 20:50 at the Saatchi’s Boundary Road gallery, which was more like an art warehouse and had been converted from a huge paint factory. I had made the journey there with two very special friends: my brother, and a fellow writer-artist who later became my wife. We had seen lots of art, some that was needlessly ‘boundary’ pushing, some that was spectacularly original. There was a room that was so cold that your breath turned to ice dust in the air in front of you and glittered with crystalline rainbows, there was sculpture made from a column of cloud, there was a self-portrait bust made from frozen blood, and towards the end of our tour, through an unremarkable doorway, we entered a very remarkable room.

As we entered the room, the gallery attendant cryptically advised us not to touch the sides. We found ourselves walking along a metal, industrial sort of catwalk that appeared to be suspended in a large clinical warehouse-type space that seemed to have perfect horizontal symmetry. The skylights above were mirrored down below and the room had an airy feeling of space and emptiness... but something was not quite right. It felt like walking into an etching by MC Escher. It looked believable, but yet not quite real. Then I noticed a fine, gossamer-like network of what I took to be filaments catching the light, spreading from the edge of the ‘catwalk’ to the walls. I deduced that it must be the surface of a mirror, though it was almost invisible.

It was about this moment that the gallery attendant approached us and theatrically twisted a piece of white paper towel. He then dipped the tip of this paper towel into the reflective surface and raised it, black and glossy and dripping with… oil. Then the smell that had, of course, been present throughout – a smell of late night garage forecourts and their prismatic puddles – revealed itself strongly to the senses and my brain did a wonderful back-flip: It seemed that instead of being suspended in a white airy space, we were actually waist deep in thick viscous oil that, visually, filled half of that space.

Richard Wilson had taken a potentially hazardous, environment threatening waste product and made an elegant installation of beauty and revelation. All art deals with perception, this art played with it and then turned it on its head. It did not matter if the viewer knew about art, or even thought it was art – the effect was there and directly engaged each individual, man woman and child. In some ways, 20:50 reminds me of the monochrome paintings of Malevich in that it is minimalistic, using only black (oil) and white (gallery walls) for this installation (it has been reconstructed in various environments since) and like Suprematist paintings it is intended to elicit a pure response and does not have any given meaning beyond.

So 20:50 makes it to the number one spot in my top ten pieces of art for a number of reasons, but mainly because of that moment of primary experience when my mental pancake was flipped. A moment at the end of a challenging and entertaining show, shared with two very important people in my life when we were emphatically instructed that art could change the way you see the world and the world may not always be quite what it appears to be. Theory and intellectualising could not alter or challenge the effect, the response was experiential, emotional, undeniable – like most profound moments in life.

That attendant must have enjoyed their job.

You can take a look at the  Saatchi Gallery website  ...

This work also features in the book Evolution of Western Art

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 2 - 'Spiral Jetty' by Robert Smithson

A single track ‘road’ spirals some 1500 feet out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It was constructed from black basalt and agregate, using earth movers and road-building techniques and stood dark and stark against the waters until it repeatedly submerged and resurfaced with deeper precipitations of bright white salt crystals each time. Now, whenever it appears above water, in years of low rainfall, there is very little black - it looks like it has been covered by freshly fallen snow, in the drought heat.

The mineral rich waters have deposited silts of graduated colour within the spiral waters according to their density and the depth of water. The jetty itself becalms the water so a choppy surface outside the structure eventually reaches mirror stillness at the centre, presenting a perfect reflection of the sky. When the brine shrimp that live in the salt rich waters turn deeper red and move to the surface to breed and spawn, the usual dull rusty colour of the water deepens to a blood red against which the spiral stands stark and bright white.

Spiral Jetty is the most iconic work to come out of the early days of Land Art – or eARTh as it is sometimes known. (See what they did there? The middle three letters of ‘earth’ spell ‘art’, and Land Art uses the Earth itself as its material, and if you take the remaining two letters from the word ‘earth’ they spell… ‘eh’?) Look at nearly any book about Land Art, or ‘art in the environment’, and you will see prominent images of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, constructed in 1970 and still ‘in progress’ to this day. It is a great site specific work of sculpture, conceptual art, art in the environment, monumentalism, television, viral art and pretty much defines the Land Art movement…

- site specific: because it can only exist in the location in which it was constructed, move it and it will change, and so will the locations it is moved from and to.

- sculpture: because it uses the language of sculpture by being three dimensional, referring to the landscape and the human form, by having rhythm, balance in its pattern and interplay between its positive and negative form producing a gentle tension.

- conceptual art: because it primarily exists as an imaginary object which creates emotional and intellectual reactions – it has become an iconic work of art even though it has only been experienced, first hand, by a handful of individuals, and for a good portion of its existence it was not only remote, but completely submerged – we have experienced it via media such as film and photography, the writings of Smithson himself and the critical opinions of others, therefore it is the concept we experience, as conveyed by various media.

- art in the environment: because that is exactly what it is! Smithson had the concept in mind and was scouting for locations, but it was a direct reaction to experiencing that particular location and its surrounding environment that dictated its placement scale and precise form.

- monumentalism: it is art on a very large scale - its only modern precedents were civil engineering projects and architecture, though it does reference ancient earthworks and that is the preferred label used by Smithson for his land art, Earth Works.

- film: because Smithson envisaged the best way to exhibit this piece would be through moving image and made a film to document Spiral Jetty, shown as part of an exhibition of photographs, and it was one of the key works included in the pioneering ‘television galleries’ that Gerry Schum made for German television.

- viral art: because it uses media and dialogue to disseminate its concept and is extended by the on-going visual recording and discussions – as stated earlier, not many people have actually gone out and visited this piece, being in a remote area of the Salt Lakes in Utah, yet millions of people are familiar with the Spiral Jetty’s form and understand its scale… it exists in our individual, internal landscapes of memory and imagination as well as our shared landscape of culture and the global media (such as this weblog) that binds it together.

So is this petrified whirlpool the spiral of life energy, the DNA helix, the dynamic future of the human race, the unfurling fern, the spiral galaxy… or is it the spiral of the water as it all goes down the drain?

The spiral is one of the oldest symbols made by humans – it appears on aboriginal Australian rock paintings where it is thought to represent the sun and life energy. Palaeolithic standing stones at sites such as Newgrange bear spiral patterns and of course it features prominently in Viking and Celtic knot work right up to the Christian era. Part of the symbolism of the spiral and other interweaving black and white knot patterns was the co-dependence of this world and the otherworld – or the living guided by, and always close to, the influence of the ancestors. So many ‘new age thinkers’ were delighted when the DNA that governs our life and growth, and links us to our ancestors, was described as a spiral, or a double helix…

We live on a planet within a spiral galaxy. Perhaps, because a jetty is a type of pier it implies some sort of setting off, into the lake, into the gulf of space… but also a road which is in spiral form, ultimately, does not get you very far. So if you read the jetty as a metaphor of travel, it is either pessimistic - in that it does not really lead anywhere, or optimistic - in that it spirals in on a focussed and specific destination, a destination that is only given real meaning by it being at the end of the journey. The journey remains ever present as the path already trodden is close by and always in view… so is the way as yet untrod. The beginning and end form a cohesive whole with the journey itself… And if you want to visit this work of art, you too would need to embark on quite a journey.

At the core of the work is Smithson’s concept of ‘sites’ and ‘nonsites’. One of his modus operandi was to bring material from the landscape and display it in a gallery with references to its place of origin, such as photographs and maps. This, in effect, was exhibiting the concept of another place in the gallery - but what he used to represented the place, did not really look much like it. A map is not the territory. A word is not the object. He called this representation, situated within the gallery, the nonsite. So the gallery experience of this representation created a dialogue of place between the ‘real’ site and the nonsite. This also evoked a conceptual journey from one place to another – between site and nonsite. The somewhat abstract array of rocks, earth, maps and photographs conjured up the idea of a place in the viewer’s imagination, although these tangible materials came from, and represented, a very real place in the real landscape.

Perhaps this should really be my number one in this top ten… it was my ‘wake-up call’ to ‘proper art’ and expanded my awareness of what good art could be at an early stage in my study of art. This paved the way for my appreciation of much of the art that I still enjoy today. I do not think I would have so readily welcomed the work of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, and many more (including Richard Long, of course) if I had not been primed by Spiral Jetty. It is a great, breath-taking, monumental piece of art, but it also deals with many deep concepts, ideas of representation, historic references, environmental issues, scale, science, communication, time, interaction, dialogues of distance, landscape, imagination... It questioned the whole system of gallery exhibition and associated issues of ownership and art collecting.

 It is beautiful.

This work also features in the book Evolution of Western Art

More about Spiral Jetty and the works of Robert Smithson at his estate's official site...

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 3 - 'Stalker' by Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky is (probably) my favourite director, certainly within the realm of ‘the art movie’. He is one of very few ‘auteur’ directors whose artistic vision - and the realisation of that vision - rivals the greatest literary figures, painters and composers. When you watch a Tarkovsky film, you know that every visual element has been considered and controlled, from the beautiful cinematography to the smallest gesture of the actors. At times, it seems that even the elemental forces, such as wind, rain and snow, obey the director’s voice.

I love all Tarkovsky’s films, so it is difficult to choose just one to represent him in this Top Ten Pieces Of Art. Stalker (1979) has left a long-lasting impression upon me and is the film that I think of as ‘pure Tarkovsky’. It is not the most accessible of his films, I would recommend starting with his earlier film, Solaris (1972), his final Sacrifice (1986) or, if your love cinema and relish a challenge, see his autobiographical tour-de-force Mirror (1975).

There is no point in going into plot details or describing key scenes – the content of Stalker cannot be conveyed by any other vehicle than the film itself. This is cinema, pure and true. It is a long, slow-paced film that uses simple poetic clarity to achieve philosophical complexity. Stalker is filmed in ‘Tarkovsky time’ – hypnotic and dream-like. After experiencing one of his films, you remember them as if they were your own dreams… and I think the dream would be different for each viewer and it subtly alters with each viewing. Every time I have watched Stalker, it seems to be a slightly different cut. Sometimes I do not notice the transitions from colour to sepia to monochrome, sometimes there is a scene or passage of dialog that seems to have been changed or re-edited. This is a film that grows and changes with the viewer, and perhaps causes the viewer to grow and change. In this way, Tarkovsky uses cinema in the same way that a shaman uses dream-sharing and his films work as mystical, magical and metaphysical meditations.

Stalker seems to be bleak and stark, on one level, yet it is also one of the most uplifting films I can think of. Its themes are heavy and something to do with personal goals, hopes, the material world and the spiritual realm. It seems rich with metaphor, though Tarkovky maintained that, although some of his films contain the ambiguous and inexplicable, there were no ‘hidden meanings’ in his work. Even so, their interpretation still caused consternation amongst the Soviet State censors and most of the films he made in Russia were either banned, censored, restricted or delayed for years whilst their meanings were discussed and analyzed by an elite few. Far from being angry and negative about this, Tarkovsky pointed out that at least in Russia he could make such films, whereas he thought it highly unlikely they would have ever have seen production in any other nation’s movie industry. He later went to Italy to film Nostalghia and then to Sweden, where he made his final film, Sacrifice.

All of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre are beautiful to behold, every frame could be isolated and presented alongside the very best photography, and each of his films contain moments of absolute, simple yet breath-taking poetic genius. He was a being of light.

Geoff Dyer wrote a good personal appraisal of Stalker for the Guardian - read it here.

This work also features in the book Evolution of Western Art

There is also a brief overview of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky...

... and biographical info at Wikipedia

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 4 - 'Plight' by Joseph Beuys

This was my first 'primary experience' with the work of Joseph Beuys and one of those pieces that ‘woke me up’ to the potential of what art could be. I had already seen his work in a book at my University (then a Polytechnic) Library and came across this installation during an Art Department trip to London in 1985. The Anthony d’Offay gallery is a small, but hugely influential, private gallery just off New Bond Street. I always checked it out when on art trips to London – it is now open ‘by appointment only’, which is an elitist shame – but back in the day I saw the work of quite a few artists that would become firm favourites of mine, including Richard Long, Cy Twombly, Howard Hodgkin and Maurizio Cattelan.

After a long coach journey followed by the then novel experience of the London Tube, the traffic noise, the hustle and bustle of the streets, the vibration and low roar of the city – then entering this little gallery and as the door swung closed behind me: absolute quiet… The entire space was lined, floor to ceiling, with thick vertical rolls of grey felt that completely sound-proofed the gallery. The still silence gave the impression of being elsewhere, and the thick rolls of felt implied the tree trunks of a dense woodland. The only other components of the installation were a grand piano, with a blackboard on top of it and a small medical thermometer on top of that.

Plight does what an installation should do. It completely alters the space, both aesthetically and emotionally, whilst working with it. This then alters anyone entering the space, and in this case the presence of the viewer(s) directly affects the space and the installation… The piano is locked closed (though I thought I had seen it open on my visit) and the blackboard is blank – these elements seem to represent unrealised potential, or ideas that will never become things… and then you think about what the thermometer may mean. Well, thermometers are used by doctors to diagnose fever and a raised temperature usually implies sickness of some sort. Also, thermometers respond to their environment, but without sentience.

To me, the thermometer is at the core of this work’s genius. After thinking hard, you become aware that although it is cold outside, it is really quite warm in the gallery, because felt is such a good insulating material, not only against sound but for heat too… then you realise that there have been other visitors before you and each one has left behind their body heat, raising the temperature just a little. The thermometer records this tiny and gradual increase and becomes a form of memory for the installation.

Joseph Beuys was a founding member of the Green Party in Germany and was a very politically active artist, though he was more akin to a shaman. In light of this, you then realise that Plight is an environment, and our very presence within it has altered that environment. We have not interfered, we have not ‘done’ anything except exist with the environment. Just by being here, we alter our environment. On a small scale, Plight is a metaphor for global warming and the incremental impact that the human race has on our entire environment.

Plight is good art at its best.

In my humble opinion, Joseph Beuys could be the greatest artist of all time (depending on what day you ask me), and although I think he created works that are even better than this, such as his 'Coyote' performance in 1974 and its related works, I have chosen this piece for My Top Ten Pieces Of Art because of the whole experience I had of it, first hand, during the formative years of my artistic consciousness. In the autumn of 1985, I left the Anthony d’Offay gallery with a lot of profound thoughts, and in exchange, I left a little of my body heat – Plight remembered me and I remember Plight very clearly to this day.

There is a lovely website hosted by the Walker Arts Centre about 'multiples' by Joseph Beuys.

I also talk about the work of Joseph Beuys in the book Evolution of Western Art

Monday, 1 November 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 5 - 'Songs Of Innocence & Experience' by William Blake

Some people would look to The Bible, The Koran, or similar religious texts at those times when they need to contemplate serious matters… for me Songs Of Innocence And Experience (1794) is that book. It is also a book you can turn to for light reading and entertainment – a five-year-old can appreciate the beauty and majesty of the words as well as the illustrations. It is accessible and contains The Tyger, one of the Nation’s best known and well-loved poems.

If this was a Top Ten of artists, William Blake could well be number one, vying with Miro and Beuys… and this piece works as art on many levels. I love books, so this was a way of getting a book into my Top Ten Pieces Of Art, and Songs brings together many of Blake’s important themes and concepts and is a visual piece, a series, narrative imagery and poetry… Songs Of Innocence was originally published in 1789, with Songs Of Experience following in 1793. These two books were then brought together in a single edition as intended in 1794.

William Blake was one of Britain’s most innovative and important creatives, he was a pre-Romantic visionary whose ideas were a primary influence upon the movement. He put forward the fact that rational reasoning is flawed and a balance between intellect and imagination, with the bias leaning toward imagination, is the key to becoming a fulfilled human being. He pointed out that the scientific facts of a generation are generally disproved by the following generation. For example, one period knows the world is flat because they can see that it is, the next works out that it is actually a ball that the sun and the moon and the stars move around, the stars being set in a series of crystal spheres, then someone works out that the sun is actually the centre of the universe… and so on, and then we turn from the macrocosm to the microcosm and we eventually discover the atom, which is thought to be the smallest possible particle of material, until Einstein and Oppenheimer work out that it can be split… So now imagine going back in time and explaining quantum physics to a mediaeval person who believes the world is flat - they would not have a clue and would probably try to burn you at the stake - but go back to any time in human history and talk about dreams, love and emotions, and they would know exactly what you were talking about. Blake thought that these components of the human make-up were what defined us, set us aside and gave us clues as to our place and purpose in the universe.

Songs Of Innocence And Experience is a beautiful little book that was intended to be read and re-read and the meanings considered. In this respect it is a Modern work. We are expected to consider each poem in conjunction with its imagery and in relation to the other poems in the twinned volumes. Each poem form Innocence is ‘answered’ and counterpointed by a poem from Experience and somewhere between the two lays (or lies) a truth. Most of the poems are written in simple language that has a similar feel to nursery rhymes, yet the meanings are complex and changeable, depending on the reader’s experiences and at what point they are at in their personal journey of life.

Visually, the book is a feast with Blake’s distinctive style that foreshadows Expressionism and graphic novels. He was one of the first to successfully combine word and image as a cohesive design, in fact he devised his own method of acid etching to facilitate this. Blake claimed that his dead brother visited him in a dream and explained the innovative process by which writing and drawing can be done on copper engraving sheets using a ‘gum’ that resists the acid, so that the acid eats away the blank areas, creating what we now know as 'relief etching'.

Blake produced the book on a small, ‘pocket edition’ scale, intending the reader to carry it about and re-read in different situations and surroundings. He also purposefully made some of the tiny writing difficult to discern, due to its colour or background. This was to enable the meaning to be revealed in a designed sequence, and also so that some of the information needed some effort to unlock its reward. I think of it in much the same way as modern song-writing, where the chorus may be clear and obvious, but there are often lyrics that take a few listens to decipher and interpret, lending the song a more lasting appeal and revealing parts of the ‘story’ in a sequence. In deed, these poems are 'Songs' and have that ability to accrue meanings, memories, moods... and to become mental anchors for psychological states...

More about Blake's work can be found on-line at this extensive William Blake Archive

,,,and I also discuss Blake in Evolution of Western Art

Friday, 15 October 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 6 - 'The Large Glass' by Marcel Duchamp

I was in the Tate Modern bookshop during a recent visit and found a book dedicated to this one piece… the book was at least as thick as the London telephone directory. The Large Glass is one of the most conceptually advanced pieces of art there is. It brings together quite a few of Marcel Duchamp’s truly innovative approaches and tackles, amongst other things, the meaning of art and our experiences of it.

No, I do not think the viewer needs to be aware of all those theories and ideas behind the work in order to fully appreciate it. And neither did Duchamp! (Although he had intended to produce an accompanying book to promote responses beyond the visual and did extend the piece across several other works.) Whenever there is a lot of thought and conceptual depth to a piece of art – be it music, literature or in visual form – I believe that there is a resonance that enriches the experience of that piece, independently of its ‘meaning’. I enjoy the feeling that I am only getting a part of the whole and there is so much more to come. This is probably why religious art often has grandeur, even when it is from a religion that the viewer does not subscribe to, and why Beethoven, Bach and Scarlatti sound so impressive even to a listener who has not studied classical music and has no formal knowledge of scale, mathematical metre and complex compositional structures. Works that I have a strong positive response to are often backed up by deep meanings and theories – which always interested me – though these are pursued only after the aesthetic ‘hook’ has done its job.

I have experienced this work through media and through its meticulous replica at Tate Modern, made by Richard Hamilton in 1966 and fully endorsed by Duchamp himself. Basically, I like it. I like being in the same room as it. In the gallery, its replica is displayed alongside many impressive and important works from Dada and early Surrealism, yet it is to this piece that most people gravitate – children, grannies, tourists, and art aficionados alike. It dominates the space. It inhabits the space. It alters the space. The space alters it.

It is a construction of oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire (I have been told that some of this wire is actually fuse wire), dust, glass, aluminium, wood and steel, standing 2.73 metres high. Crossing the boundaries between painting, collage and sculpture, The Large Glass, can be viewed from either side. At first glance, the piece appears to be an abstract made up from mechanically inspired shapes and a few more organic forms. The expression of dynamic movement, along with the full title, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass, stimulates us to re-assign meaning to the shapes and begin creating a narrative. The small ‘machines’ take on a dual meaning as they also represent figures. The horizontal bisection of the composition implies a ‘before and after’ or ‘meanwhile’ sequence. The obvious resemblance of a window highlights the role of the viewer and implies that we are looking in upon a scene. As in other works by Duchamp, we have the depiction of objects that have been inspired by mechanistic function, yet are now removed from that function.

The Large Glass is:

A sculpture - it is a free standing three-dimensional piece that can be transported.

An installation - it interacts with any environment in which it is placed and is very different depending on its surroundings.

A painting - some of the forms ‘sandwiched’ between the panes of glass are painted in oils, some of the pigment in other areas is also paint dust.

A collage - it is an assemblage of forms and materials.

A window - it clearly references a window, being something that can be looked through.

A mirror - it reflects aspects of its surroundings, including the viewers, who appear as a ‘ghost image’ standing on the other side.

A threshold - it suggests a transition from one side to the other, from one place to another, the outside looking in or vice versa.

A play - it fringes the realm of theatre with its cast of characters and intriguing plot… Most people agree the technical diagram of the chocolate grinder is the ‘bride’, but who are the ‘bachelors’? They seem to have been reduced to clothes on some sort of hoist… Why are they not ‘suitors’? What is all the ‘apparatus’ for?

A time-lapse recording - some areas contained in The Large Glass lay open and collecting dust for years, sections were cleaned or ‘fixed’ during the first few years of its eight-year making process, from 1915 to 1923 – a technique of very slow ‘painting’ that Duchamp termed ‘dust farming’ or ‘dust breeding’ – so the dust that accumulated is a visual record of the paint pigments used in his studio during that time, as well as fibre from the clothes of Duchamp and some of his associates, and there must also be skin cell debris and a little bit of DNA?

The first part of this work to be revealed to the public was a photograph, taken by Man Ray in 1920, of a section of the lead work. It was a beautifully toned photograph that was taken with an exposure time of two hours! Even this ‘messes’ with our concept of what a photograph is – we usually think of a photograph being a fraction of a second, an instant frozen in time, not a couple of hours in the existence of a stationary object that is undergoing change on an extremely slow time-scale. The image was not explained at first, and some people took it to be an aerial shot of some sort of landscape, maybe an air base, as there was no obvious indicator of physical-scale.

You can see a small low resolution version of this photograph above, along side an image of the original Large Glass. If you look carefully, you can see the cracks. You can see these cracks more obviously on the Vogue cover shot through The Large Glass. The glass was damaged whilst in transport between France and its final destination at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art in America. The new owners of the piece were dismayed, but Duchamp seems to have been delighted. He stated that the damage happened whilst the piece was still technically in his care and therefore was part of the artistic process. He realised that the cracks drew attention to what would have otherwise remained invisible.

The Large Glass is at once “both surface and symbol” (to quote Oscar Wilde) but in this case, the surface is transparent and only evident from its function of holding the composition in place and by reflecting its surroundings, including the observer – the glass also allows the surroundings to be seen through the composition, thereby altering, and integrating with, the artwork. The cracks in the glass draw our attention to the presence of the glass itself as a material.

The Large Glass is primarily a very successful composition, but is also much more: it is a treatise about art, society and humanity – their nature and their interdependence. It is a metaphor that works on many levels and applies to many artistic and social themes, such as the integrity of the surface… art as a window onto culture… perceived duality, class (or should that be glass?) divisions… It also hints that these divisions/differences/boundaries can be quite fragile and need the support of other structures to keep them in place. It also suggests that even if we are unable to pass through from one side to the other, we can just walk around it if we so desire…

I could go on – there is more!

... and there is more about Marcel Duchamp and his work on these two sites:

Making Sense Of Duchamp - timeline with a lovely graphic interface

Marcel Duchamp World Community - lots here!

and I talk about his work in my book Evolution of Western Art

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 7 - 'Blue Velvet' by David Lynch

Blue Velvet written and directed by David Lynch, released in 1986, is one of the most memorable films I have seen. It is darkly funny, and definitely disturbing, on many levels. It is a ‘rights of passage’ story, a modern fairy tale about loss of innocence, about venturing deep into the darkness before finding your way back into the light. Beautiful cinematography – almost any frame makes a well-composed photograph in luscious colour. The story is fantastical, yet at the same time completely and brutally realist in its stilted dialogue, awkward pauses and scary situations. It is one of the few films where I have felt a physical ‘fight or flight’ response - that quickening of adrenalin as if the life threatening situation were real.

Blue Velvet is more thrilling than most crime thrillers and certainly more horrifying than most horror films, whilst remaining totally absorbing and watchable due to its visual beauty, quirky characters and pervasive sense of humour. The story starts off when all-American boy, Jeffrey (played by Kyle Maclachlan), finds a severed human ear and takes it to the local police. He then decides to team up with the police detective’s daughter, Sandy (played by Laura Dern), in order to conduct their own investigation. This leads to a descent into the dark realms of psychotic-middle-class-America and the ingeniously disturbed and depraved world of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper in a bravura and career-defining performance.

Not only is the film a favourite of mine, I can still clearly recall the experience of going to see it when I was a student in Stoke. Along with a group of friends, we decided to make the journey to Manchester to watch the new film from David Lynch on the big screen.

My friend, James, had a Morris Minor traveller so we piled in and drove up. The cinema was a huge Odeon with thick carpets and dated decor that almost looked like an extension of one of the sets from the film… We were totally absorbed by the movie, and for students it was perfectly satisfying: first and foremost it was an exhilarating and entertaining cinematic experience… it was also arty enough and had plenty of imitable characters and quotable dialogue. After a good film, we enjoyed going for a drink and discussing it at length, so we sought out the legendary nightclub, the Hacienda, nucleus for the Factory Records ‘Mad-chester’ Music scene of the 1980s. I remember someone in the queue was wearing a Teenage Jesus And The Jerks T-shirt – so that was cool! I also remember a girl relentlessly bating me for wearing my blue mirror shades inside – I think the over-sized baseball cap I also wore, continuously, at that time did not really help matters – but she was the kind of person who would never understand why anyone would wear a khaki jacket and pith helmet in the city (to paraphrase the great Dave Graney). Or perhaps I just did not catch on to her inventive, though ineffective, ‘come on’… Besides, hey, I was a pretentious art student… and the strobes were actually quite bright. Anyway, I do not recall the exact series of events, but we ended up back at an all-girl student house and 'crashed' for the night. I remember sleeping on the sofa, waking up still wearing my baseball cap, and finding the whole night out an adventure. Well, at a certain age that kind of freedom can still be a novelty, but the whole thing was lent a certain surreal magic by Blue Velvet and its lingering imagery.

Since then, David Lynch has proved to be a true artistic visionary and I believe that in the future he will be regarded, not only as one of our era’s most important film-makers, but as one of the most important artists of the C20th and C21st. He has an individualistic aesthetic sense and possesses a purity of vision that enables him to dissect the cultural subconscious of modern America. I think it was Jonathan Ross who once described Lynch’s films as being the American dreams and nightmares of the people next door… and this is a good summing-up of how his art deals with reality and everyday anxieties, using the lyrical imagery of dreams counter-pointed with the night-sweat terror of our darkest nightmares… a terrible beauty.

The Official Website Of David Lynch is worth a visit!

This film is also mentioned in Evolution of Western Art