Saturday, 30 May 2015

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY/ LAURIE ANDERSON (BRIGHTON FESTIVAL ATTENDING ADVENTURES)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK BY CAT'S EYES)
Brighton Dome, Fri 22nd May
This review does contain some PLOT SPOILERS


Before the internet showed up and started recording everything, the fallibility of human memory was almost a creative act. Perhaps you saw some Seventies pseudo-arty piece of erotica shown on BBC2, and over the years your memories of it morphed. So hard was it to see something so ephemeral as a film back then, perhaps you only saw some stills from it, and resorted to imagining what it might be like. It's less that your young mind read more into the film than it was carrying, it's more that the atmosphere of the film and your memories of it ferment over time, acquire a significance which comes to await being pinned to something. Like a dream which stays with you, even though you're never sure why or what it might mean.

Given this, going back to watch the original film is obviously a mistake bordering on category error. It won't add anything to a memory that was only built up subsequently, the film itself can now only undo it all – like pulling the foundations from a tower. One solution, perhaps, is to try and remake the film as you remember it. Which is pretty much what director Peter Strickland is doing here. The Seventies pastiche credit sequence recalls the one for his previous film, 'Berberian Sound Studio', but perhaps here the conceit's enlarged to the whole film.

The programme quoted him as particularly keen to channel the films of Jess Franco, which “struck me as being incredibly rich in atmosphere, intensity and sexual fever”. It notably recycles many of the tropes of Seventies erotic cinema – the inherent kinkiness of lesbianism, assumed to overlap with sado-masochism, the near-hysteric mentality of women – with just enough framing that we know not to take all this entirely seriously. (The audience frequently laughed out loud, though even the absurdest moments are presented deadpan.)

With it's pointedly indeterminate setting in time and place, it could be set in the Seventies, or as easily not. It has the same stilted, distanced feeling of the era, as if the actors are presenting rather than inhabiting the characters. (Often a side-effect of dubbing, though English-language films can have much the same effect, such as 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'.) The central characters, Cynthia and Evelyn, seem to inhabit the same hermetic dream-world, inside which they are either free to pursue their obsessions, or constrained to the same. In fact those central characters are pretty much the only characters, bar a saleswoman, a distantly-glimpsed neighbour and some public talks. (Where some of the audience are quite visibly dummies.) Their cloistered world contains not a single male character.

It's mentioned in passing that Evelyn owns the big house they live in, though she seems to have no job to speak of. While you could speculate over the source of her masochism, the film doesn't seem to encourage this. Its more presented as something she chooses to indulge. She even refers to it at one point as “a luxury”.


The conceit of the film is that Evelyn, ostensibly the masochist of the relationship, is calling all the shots. And Cynthia becomes wearied by the way her life has become so scripted. (In quite a literal sense, she's given cue cards to read like an actor.) Notably, however, if it is Cynthia who has what Hollywood screenwriters would call “the arc” the film starts off with Evelyn and effectively stays with her throughout. Almost every scene, even the ones where Cynthia breaks down under the burden of bossing, are hers. To quote Strickland from the programme again: “The most essential aspect of the film is its dreamy, post-orgasmic flow. One feels as if the film itself is a spell that Evelyn is under. Being under the spell is what she's addicted to.”

Sixties and Seventies culture perhaps became obsessed with the way we live out roles. (Pinter's 1962 play 'The Lover' has many of the same elements.) But perhaps it could never quite decide whether they were liberating or confining. The Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem railed against roles as an aspect of modern alienation. (“Roles are the bloodsuckers of the will to live. They express lived experience, yet at the same time they reify it. They also offer consolation for this impoverishment of life by supplying a surrogate, neurotic gratification.”) While glam rock embraced them about as fully as can be.

And the recurrent and title-supplying motif of the moths, prevalent enough that they get their own section of the credits, exists to exemplify this. In the film it's both a metamorphosing creature capable of taking shining flight and a pinned and labelled specimen on the wall of Cynthia's study. Yet while Cynthia seems happiest pulling off her wig and peeling her false eyelashes, the film ends with the roles still in place. Her breakdowns against the script just become part of the script - another cycle set on repeat. Like the punishment chest Evelyn insists on being locked in, what makes roles confining ultimately makes them inescapable.

Cat's Eyes are Rachel Zeffira and Horrors singer Faris Badwan, not names I can claim to be familiar with. (Though Badwan was recently controversial for decrying the vote.) It's effective enough. Classical instruments are marshalled into producing rich and leisurely Europop, wafts of choral vocals passing like white clouds in the sky, so sweet it almost tips over into sinister. It matches well enough the spell Evelyn is under.

However, it's not staggeringly memorable and unlike Goblin's 'Suspiria' seeing it performed live doesn't add much. Indeed, in one sense the live setting may even distract. For long periods Strickland uses only ambient sounds – the creak of cupboards, the click-clack of bicycle wheels. At first, there's a structural reason. We enter the film with the roleplaying up and running. Consequently we believe Evelyn may actually be a bullied maid to Cynthia, so the initial note that's struck must be one of realism. However, the soundtrack and the ambient sounds then intersperse through out. Doubtless, the contrast allows each to enhance the other. But there also seems a way in which Strickland is actually employing two soundtracks, keeping the ambient sounds running until we find a musicality in those creaking cupboards.

Yet when the soundtrack is played live it creates a strange reversal of the diegetic and non-diegetic, we see the actual strings being struck but with the 'natural' sound of the cupbaord door being closed there's only a representation projected onto a wall behind them. It can weight what should really be a balance.


'Duke of Burgundy' is perhaps eclipsed by Strickland's two previous films, 'Katalin Varga' and 'Berberian Sound Studio'. But it is certainly well worth seeing, if not necessarily waiting for the soundtrack's next live outing.

LAURIE ANDERSON: ALL THE ANIMALS
Brighton Dome, Sunday 24th May


Four years after her last Brighton festival appearance, Laurie Anderson is back with an assemblage of her stories about animals. At which point you may well ask – animals, why them? A clue might come from an early comment on having read 'Wind in the Willows' as a child, and the oddity of a six year old reading about “eccentric gay bachelors”. The point being that Grahame's fully anthropomorphised animals are really only displaced humans. Whereas her interest is in things between, with one forepaw in human culture and a tail flicking back into the animal world. Hence all the tales of teaching her dog to play keyboards, it going on to headline a lot of animal rights benefits and all the rest.

Which may explain both why animals are so popular with children, and why they are such a staple of fables. And Anderson's conception of stories is basically fables in more modern dress. Her conceit may even be that animals and fables become analogies for one another, as representatives of the indeterminate. In one tale Adam and Eve are morphed into a yachting couple who moor on an island, and the snake offers no apples but instead tells Eve stories.

Her measured, melodiously deadpan delivery leaves you constantly wrongfooted as to how to take things, as she shifts between anecdote, surrealist non-sequiturs and philosophical aphorisms. Did she really do a concert for dogs in Sydney harbour, and did curious whales show up half-way through? Perhaps, she's done stranger things. But the literal truth of the stories doesn't seem to matter much, even for the ones which might actually be true.

The key image may have come early on. Before the earth was created, flocks of birds swarmed the air with nowhere to land, endlessly forming and reforming different shapes. But when one bird dies they have nowhere to bury him, so his daughter inserts him in the back of her head. Then began memory. Memory and the earth thereby become conflated. Each gives you a reference point, they're ordering devices. But ordering devices associated with myth's classic Fall moment – awareness of death.

And Anderson's accumulated stories become like the murmurations of those birds. It's an image remarkably similar to the one in 'Landfall', of her belongings floating in her flooded studio after Hurricane Sandy. As the show moves on things don't develop so much as accrue, images and themes sparking off one another. The earth's gravity never quite takes control. Like the daughter bird, there's no path laid our for us. The show's not about dispelling nuggets of feelgood wisdom or giving you new ideas about the world. It's more like getting a personal trainer for your imagination, making you more alert to associations, sharpening your antennae.

Not unrelatedly absence was also a key theme. There's lists of all the animals who have existed over time but are now gone, there's the Hebrew alphabet kicking off with a silent letter to represent all that can't be said. (I have no idea whether this was something she made up or not!) It suggests these epigrammatic tales are themselves incomplete. They're there largely to hint at larger things, even if its up to us what those larger things might be.

Like the daughter bird, the show is so reliant on us doing so much of the work the glass of water can feel half-empty as easily as half-full. This show worked better for me than her previous Festival appearance. Perhaps I was more keyed in to what to expect, or perhaps the experience is so subjective it may simply be down to what mood you're in on the night.

Something she didn't do at all in Brighton, from Buenos Aires...


Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Saturday, 23 May 2015

'SHINE BACK AT THE SUN' (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)


Another Spotify playlist for those who care to listen. A grab-bag of stuff I've been listening to lately, and ocassionally even writing about on this blog. 

Including, but not limited to, Slint sounding fragile yet expansive, one of the most minimal Can tracks ever (which by Can standards is saying something),  Goblin getting infernal, Alternative TV having an existential crisis, a track by Swans and a track about swans. We don't just throw this show together, you know..

Bob Dylan: No More Auction Block
Slint: Washer
Arab Strap: Phone Me Tonight
Can: Desert
Goblin: Opening to the Sighs (Originale)/ Sighs
Tricky: Bad Dreams
The Fall: Who Makes The Nazis? (Peel session)
Big Bill Broonzy: Letter to My Baby
Dock Boggs: Pretty Polly
Pentangle: Rain And Snow
Fucked Up: Royal Swan
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Gomez: Shitbag/ Steve McCroski (Radio One session)
Swans: A Little God In My Hands
Alternative TV: Lost In Room

”Facing the sky as the ultimate sum
Of the lives that it chose to survive
And shine back at the sun
To take the world between your bill
To leave enough and have your fill
To leave the water but drink the milk
To be a royal swan
To spin the wool with silk
To be a royal swan”

Saturday, 16 May 2015

THE POP GROUP/ SQUAREPUSHER/ ANNA CALVI (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THE POP GROUP
The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 5th May


When frontman Mark Stewart launches the set with the words “we are all prostitutes”, the title and opening line of perhaps their most classic number, it might signal a statement of intent. Last time round it had been the set closer. Clearly, this won't be a night for messing about.

But it might also suggest a deeper purpose. The last gig had been built around the 1980 album 'We Are Time'. This time its all about the brand new release 'Citizen Zombie', and they're getting the known numbers out the way. Indeed, the title track is the very next to be played. Though it was somewhat controversially pitchforked by Pitchfork, from where I'm standing this makes for a better gig. The fresh songs dominate the set and make the band sound... well, fresher. They seem to run the gamut from quite bouncy numbers to the sinister and discordant. (Stewart back-announces one recited vocal piece as “a bit weird, that one”. And coming from him…)


I said last time round that the curse that befalls bands is that they get better, and that their incendiary yet disorientating blend of syncopation and dislocation could easily suffer from such a fate. But possibly they have got the better sort of better, from the days they were channelling some force they could barely control. Yet they're still not too accomplished, if things are no longer right on the edge of chaos they're still closer to it than today's health and safety regulations normally allow.

I even take to fancying they sound less like a reunited band getting back in the saddle than a band taking their next step – like they'd just been timewarped from 1980 to now, and were picking up where they left off. With typical impassioned hyperbole, Stewart was recently insisting to the Guardian that today's bleak times were precisely the reason to reignite things: “We always wanted to be a pop group...We’re getting right into the belly of the beast. And this is the time to be there.”

And seeing them live you could almost believe him...

The afore-mentioned 'We Are All Prostitutes' not from Brighton but... well, you'll guess where. Still ringing true today...



SQUAREPUSHER
Brighton Dome, Fri 8th May


The only way I can think to describe electronica artist Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) is that he's to dance music what modern jazz was to trad. He twists, turns and distorts the beats into near-unrecognisable shapes, marshalls them into unpredictable compositions. And yet you feel at the heart of it is someone who loves old-style dance, loves the feeling of surrender to wave after wave of pummelling beats like a blissful form of drowning, someone who's remaking it his way than someone arriving with lofty notions to improve it. It remains dancey throughout. ('Modern dance' might even be a better term than klunkers like 'intelligent drum'n'bass'. But it would make everyone think of Pere Ubu so it isn't much good.)

The result's like a cross between an arcade game on mind-altering drugs and the music of the spheres, a pretty virtuous combination indeed. The beats are so heavy you feel as much as hear them, while the visuals are keyed by the music (by some electronic process I don't profess to understand) – so are in perfect time and give a perfect synaesthesic experience. The overall experience is mesmerising.

Last time I saw Squarepusher, in this very venue some seven or eight years ago, he seemed able to play bass and keyboards simultaneously. This time his bass stood propped up behind him like Chekhov's gun, with everyone waiting for it to go off. And yet I think the set sounded better without it. Jenkinson more or less started out as a bassist, and is an accomplished player. But he's almost too accomplished, the virtuoso playing can bring back something I hoped dance's beats had buried – muso-ness. The bass could make it jazzy in all the wrong ways. While with pure electronica it all sounds... purer somehow, more unearthly, more difficult to grasp.

In fact he only picked the thing up for the encore. Shorn of the fencing mask he'd sported for the whole of the main set, he first picked out idle notes as if mucking around casually at home. They only slowly built up into a fuller, more textured number, much more leisurely than the frenetic force of before. He mostly played notes so high-register I thought he must have switched to guitar, and needed to be told otherwise afterwards. After the sheer sonic shock of the main set, after which almost all the audience were on the feet, it was perhaps a strange sidestep. But the music was effective and demonstrated the variety of sounds he's capable of.

This is from... well, for once the actual gig...


ANNA CALVI
Brighton Dome, Sat 9th May


Anna Calvi must be one of the most theatrical performers I've seen lately, and I write that as someone who was only recently at Marc Almond. She purposefully strides on stage after the rest of the band, and finishes the gig with fans throwing flowers to her. She remains slightly aloof, rarely speaking. Despite a slightly alarming resemblance to Simmonds from 'Agents of Shield', with her trademark tied-back hair, scarlet lipstick and flamenco outfits, and her equally distinctive voice she's very much a self-identifying star.

At the same time she's just as much a guitarist, strapping on at the start of the gig then keeping it to hand throughout. As someone known to reject the very concept of guitar solos as pointless busywork... well truth be told, at times I found them too excessive, but mostly coped with them surprisingly well. They seemed expressive rather than merely flamboyant, connected to the rest of the music rather than interrupting it. The guitar became her voice when her voice wasn't being her voice.

She often plays in the interchange where rock'n'roll meets country, the twangy, trebly echoey sound of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky'. And in general the music manages to keep a foot in rootsy without ever sounding regressive or constrained. She even manages a Bruce Springsteen cover without losing me, something I would have previously thought impossible. Overall the music can hone in on quite small sounds, then break into explosive bursts. The woman to her (stage) right bustles between a bewildering array of instruments, squeeze-box, xylophone, scraping a bow across a cymbal...

It's impressive, it's never short of invention. And yet, for all that its brimming with passion, somehow there wasn't enough heart to it. You can admire it, you can like it, but can you love it? To quote my thoughts on betterness in full from that old Pop Group review:

”The curse that normally befalls bands isn't that they get worse but that they get better. They become tighter, more professional, and lose the looseness – the unstable elements that had made them so idiosyncratic and unpredictable.”

Some of those present who'd seen her before did suggest she has got better in this way. Though she could have been born better for all I'd know. All I can say is betterness beset her that night.

Embedding disallowed but follow this link for actual gig footage.

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Saturday, 9 May 2015

'LOWRY AND THE PAINTING OF MODERN LIFE'


The final part in a series of art exhibition reviews which are both hopelessly late and focus on modernism and the city. Earlier parts were on the Ashcan painter George Bellows and photography and the contemporary city.

"I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn't easy. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off."

”A Very Fine Industrial Subject Matter”

It may be, of all people, Noel Gallagher we have to thank for this. Though Lowry's work was well collected, much sat in vaults and an ongoing campaign was calling for it to be better shown. But when he commented in an interview “they're not considered Tate-worthy” he wrapped the whole thing up in a snappy soundbite. After which there was really only one way to prove him wrong. (Though the Tate have denied this and claimed their exhibition was already in the works.) The choice of Tate Britain over Tate Liverpool may have been an attempt to shake the 'Northern', and thereby supposedly provincial, tag. (Or not compete with the Lowry in Salford.)

At the same time, the degree of Lowry's marginalisation from the art establishment may be part-mythologised. He became a member of the prestigious Royal Academy in 1962, and after his death in 1976 they gave him a full reteospective exhibition. Nevertheless, as some reviews demonstrated, his work can still be sneered at.

Perhaps it endured a triple whammy from disdain from critics. It was in a naïve style, it straightforwardly depicted scenes of ordinary working class life without any obvious need for gatekeepers. And – most heinous of all – it was popular! It sold particularly well in prints, its illustrational nature not losing too much in the translation to reproduction. Much antagonism is a simple case of snobbery. The disdain may well have been mutual. Like the earlier William Roberts, with whom Lowry has much in common, he was a cantankerous and private character, who turned down more honours than anyone else in Britain.

However, all of that obscures more than it enlightens. You can't really answer the question 'Was Lowry any good?' without asking 'what exactly was he doing?'


Let's start with the late work 'Piccadilly Circus, London' (1960, above), partly because it screws with the notion of Lowry being all about some kind of 'Northernness'. It was painted years before I was born, yet contains enough that's recognisable to me to spark off memories in my head – those bright red Routemaster buses, as if built to be oversize children's toys. But we have to get past all that. Lowry was painting the world of his day as he saw it. We have to think ourselves back to a time when all those giant-size Bovril adverts were boldly new, when for visitors to London it was akin to seeing today's Piccadilly Circus, with its futuristic banks of multiplex screens.

And for that reason the show's title is bang-on. Lowry didn't paint these scenes for us, arriving decades later. He painted modern life for a contemporary audience. Understanding this explains how he was influenced by Impressionist and post-Impressionist studies of real life (though the shows' placing examples side-by-side perhaps emphasises their differences above their similarities), and how he was taken seriously by French critics even when their British brethren only offered him disdain. As the curators put it:

“For Lowry thinking about painting... meant always thinking about what is most vivid, and pictorially unfamiliar, in contemporary life. The crowd at a football match, or a sky full of chimneys belching smoke, or the red of a London double-decker bus, any of them might jolt painting back to life.”

Lowry is – there's no avoiding it - repetitive. His motifs arrived early and, while he found variation within them, he didn’t venture outside them much. (And when he tried the results weren’t always successful. As several reviews stated, 'The Cripple' is just a poor knock-off of Otto Dix.) There are those who counter that his subject matter, the rhythms of city life, was equally repetitive. And they’re right, though the repetition does at times pale on you in a large comprehensive exhibition such as this.

But there’s an upside. The repetition, the naïve style keeps telling you this should all be straightforward. But, much like folk art, there’s something beguiling about it, it never quite settles. In this way the persona Lowry affected and so rigidly stuck to - a straightforward Northerner, with a day job and little time for intellectualisations - should be seen as part of his art as much as a self-defence mechanism.

People have seen in Lowry social reformist criticism, celebrations of working class life, disdain for the passive masses, straightforwardly nice little scenes and more. That's the advantage of deadpan. Everybody is able to project themselves onto those blank-faced figures. And in so doing, they miss Lowry. Despite his twee image, he didn't shy from showing the darker side of city life. We'll see examples later. But the point is the way the tone fluctuates, between the quiet celebrations of street life and the murmurs of unease – sometimes within the same work.


The early 'Coming from the Mill' (1930, above) might seem an archetypical clog-footed, chimney-belching Lowry. Stop a moment and you can see significant formal similarities to George Bellows' 'New York'. The scene is witnessed from the same elevated, slightly removed viewpoint. There's the same division of the composition into bands , with lower zone given to an accumulation of barely individuated figures, figures depicted in a way which could only be described as figurative. They even share a horse and cart! Less obviously but still present - both artists were happy to create from composite, not feeling constrained to fidelity to present scenes purely as they came across them. Perhaps above all there's the same sense of painterliness – that we are looking at a painting of something urban and modern - something we're not used to seeing painted.

Nevertheless the differences are bigger, so much bigger that its the similarities which need pointing out. In Bellows' era it might still have felt natural to paint rather than photograph the city. But by Lowry's time, twenty years later even in this early work, it was a conscious choice. (Check out his quip up top about using a camera.) And not uncoincidentally the sense that we're looking at an undisguised representation is enhanced. Bellows work is as dynamic and forceful as the New York it depicts, whereas Lowry's Northern England is in every sense an ocean away. The style is more naïve, the palette paler and more limited, colours often applied flatly. While a large part of Bellows' composition is the vertiginously receeding perspective, Lowry effectively resorts to perspective only where he has to. (In, for example, the stub of a sidestreet.) In the upper half of the painting he abandons it entirely, painting the equivalent of theatre flats. As Laura Cumming put in the Guardian: “The surface of his paintings is wall-like in itself: solid, obdurate, opaque.” He often painted on panel or board, to emphasise this sense of flatness.

Perhaps we should hear the case for the prosecution. Not writing particularly of this work, Richard Durrant lamented in the Telegraph:

“By contrast with [the] masters, the mediocrity of Lowry’s painting technique is blindingly obvious… [he] created pictorial space with lines, not brush work. He would draw the outlines of buildings with a straight edge and then colour them in…. But then, Lowry’s Manchester isn’t a recognisable place populated by real people but a toy town from a picture book intended for small children.”

Notably, he specifically compares Lowry disfavourably with Bellows. Its rather like those elderly relatives you had who’d complainingly compare the Beatles and Stones to classical music. All they could hear was what the music wasn't doing. He draws the outline of what Lowry does, but then fails to colour it in. It’s a description which thinks it’s a critique.

Lowry is quite deliberately deploying folk art styles, strongly associated with the rural past, to depict urban and contemporary subjects. So, while there certainly is something toytownish about his street scenes, that should really be seen less as a diss than a description. At the same time we see those chimneys rise so loftily above the human figures below, there is something diminutive about the whole scene. They look like dioramas.

To quote Laura Cumming again: ““He is never in it, of it, among it; there is no sense of… his proximity. Everything is tiny, distanced.” Its like the frame is there so the artist can be outside of it, so much as other stuff can be within it. Because, after all, what are dioramas and toytowns for? They're mini-environments which allow children to make microcosms of the world, the better to grasp the real thing. The small becomes a manipulable version of the large, the map a means to control the territory, art as a form of sympathetic magic.

How did he arrive at this? Lowry once said:

"We went to Pendlebury in 1909 from a residential side of Manchester, and... at first I disliked it, and then after about a year or so I got used to it, and then I got absorbed in it, then I got infatuated with it. Then I began to wonder if anyone had ever done it... and it seemed to me by that time that it was a very fine industrial subject matter. And I couldn't see anybody at that time who had done it - and nobody had done it, it seemed."


"At first I detested it, and then...One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - (a place) I had ignored for seven years — and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture...

Moving house, missing a train... Lowry is effectively telling us his origin story twice, giving us two separate cinematic-style revelation moments to pin his art to. And when a man says he was bitten by a radioactive spider than later struck by a radioactive cannister while crossing the read – well, we're entitled to feel a little suspicious. Let's note Wikipedia also describes him as “a secretive and mischievous man who enjoyed stories irrespective of their truth”.

But if the tales are too good to be true, that's because they should be true. Bellows painted the city as a new thing, sights men had never before beheld as great new bridges and buildings went up, and which thereby transformed those who did behold it. Lowry paints the modern too. But he paints over-familiar streets with which we've become too accustomed, something we've stopped seeing and need to see anew.

”The Patterns Those People Form”

I'm not sure when or how the term 'matchstick men' got associated with Lowry. Was it another example of a dismissive term coined by some self-important critic, which later gained general acceptance, and so had its sting drawn? Or was it a generic term, analogous to 'stick figure', which just got attached to him? It seems to have been cemented in culture via the medium of popular song, Status Quo's 1968 hit 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' (though that really only borrows the term) and 1978's ghastly 'Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs' by professional Northerners Brian and Michael.

Brian and Michael's effort, risible enough to make Don McLean's 'Vincent' seem insightful by comparison, has quite possibly been more damaging to Lowry than any snooty Southern critic. But not just through it's naff-ness. The point about the matchstick men fixation is that it throws the emphasis in the wrong place. Lowry painted environments then placed his figures within them. If we don't get that we may as well hang his works upside-down.


Look back at the figures in 'Coming From the Mill', the caps and bonnets, their characteristic half-hunched way of walking – like they're a typeface in italics. They look quite similar to the isotope symbolic figures of workers, devised by Otto Neuwirth only five years before Lowry's painting. (The examples above designed by Gerd Arntz and Rudolf Modley respectively.) Yet we should remember that these figures are coming from work (in 'Piccadilly Circus' they're not so uniform), and that this this was a time when people dressed more uniformly, when clothing signified belonging not the need to stand out.

Lowry commented: “Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.” And the half is as important as the real. Like Bellows before him, he painted his figures on the brink of identification. And unlike those isotype figures, designed to be identical, flickers of individuation run through them if you look hard enough.



Their scale can vary greatly. In 'The Football Match' (1949, upper above) they're essentially ants. What counts is the shape they make. Whereas with 'Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook' (1946, lower above) the foreground figures are enlarged enough to take on identities, one small girl in a red coat even gazing back at us. The white ground emphasises the bright colours of their Sunday best clothes. Yet it's equally important that they receed into the background, and there be no precise tipping point where the characterised figures become an anonymised mass. We're not seeing characters set against a crowd background. We're seeing a crowd.


Lowry often uses figures like a musical composer would notes, for example in 'An Accident' (1926, above). The gathering crowd serves to obscure whatever's going on with the titular accident (actually a suicide), they're the title-belying subject of painting. Which creates a work both euphemistic and allusive. Lowry referred to “the patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something's happened”. They're not an anonymous mass, visual statistics. But they do belong to their environment, like animals in a habitat, like flocks of birds in trees.

”The Dreadful Environs”

If the show perhaps underplays Lowry's portraits, it does show many of his bleak industrial landscapes. These are almost his other face to the street scenes – predominantly night over day settings, and instead of the usual teeming crowds largely bereft of human figures. (I remembered them as predominantly portrait while the street scenes were landscape, but looking back it seems there's many exceptions to this.)

They are if anything more diagrammatic than the street scenes, with what the show describes as a “sharp-edged geometry” almost reminiscent of Klee. Sometimes the elements are so iconic they draw their meaning from context as much as the code they're drawn in, like symbols on a map.


There's no human figures at all in 'River Scene (Industrial Landscape)' (1935, above), but the incongruous cottage effectively stands in for one, a friendly but faint puff of white emitting from its chimney amid all the black air. Typically of these scenes, its reminiscent of Paul Nash's work - though, ironically, less his depictions of the British countryside than his renderings of No Man's Land in the First World War. (See for example 'The Menin Road', 1919).  There's the same sense of a landscape simultaneously barren and littered with detritus – an almost post-apocalyptic sense of nature not just despoilt but denatured. In fact there's a remarkable overlap with paintings Lowry made of the Blitz, though this and other works preceded them.

The gallery guide quotes Orwell's 'Road To Wigan Pier' (1937): “I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps... it seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished, nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.” We should remember environmental controls were almost non-existent at this time – add it to the landfill, stick it in a stream, anything went so long as it went.

The sheer number of times Lowry painted rivers cannot be coincidental. In his time, rivers and canals were still workplaces, throughways used for transporting goods. Though you can just about make out a direction for the river here, its hard to imagine it flowing. It simply looks stagnant. There's a connection between the way it seeps into its surroundings and the way the sombre mood of the painting infects the viewer.

Yet for all the ways in which these scenes are like some pollution-sodden riposte to bucolic Romanticism Lowry finds a kind of poetry even here; the guide speaking of “a rueful, almost admiring recognition of the ugly grandeur of the industrial scene”. It's reminiscent of something the Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni once said:

”It's too simplistic to say... that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention... was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable... The neurosis I sought to describe... is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can't manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date.”

Post War: Sun Over Pendlebury

One of the exhibition's main theses is to find a path of development in an artist often assumed to be uniform and unchanging:

“From the Second World War onwards, Lowry's art took a different tack. For all his solid Lancashire Conservatism, he responded profoundly to the new political and cultural realities of Britain after 1945. The obstreperous vitality of the working class becomes increasingly a subject. His style grew more comic and cartoonish. It edged deliberately towards the 'popular'.”


And certainly, there's much to this. Compare the illos above, the pre-war 'Coming From the Mill' and 'An Accident' against the later 'Piccadilly Circus' and 'Lancashire Fair'. Or look at the large 'VE Day' (1945, above). Its composition is similar to 'Lancashire Fair' but on a still-bigger scale. The horseshoe of houses frames a street party, while the bunting-decked streets receed on either side to suggest similar scenes going on throughout the city. In a small yet significant detail, the foreground figures are slightly cropped by the base of the painting, almost starting to erode the once-distinct separation of the viewer from the view. Those chimneys have stopped belching their sombre browns, bright primary colours are starting to spark up. Its as if the once-trudging crowd find their own will, their own collective identity.

There may be a biographical as much as a social explanation for this. Lowry spent most of the Thirties caring for his bedridden mother, who died in October 1939. This was a time where he gained his own independence, coming out into the world he'd only been able to paint as his mother slept. And perhaps not uncoincidentally, it also seems to be during this period his popularity took off. The same year marked his first London exhibition.

But there's a problem - this is also what comes to construct the 'beloved Lowry', the kitsch national treasure. In the distance, Brian and Michael are starting to don their oversize cloth caps. The show, however, is keen to point out that Lowry didn't permanently swap to the sunny side of the street.


Take for example 'A Protest March' (1959, above). Seen from an unusually elevated perspective, the figures march in ranks, largely in funereal black, their enlarged and outstretched feet marking a heavy trudge. I People come out of their doors but look on bemused, none joining in. t's definitely a march, more than a demonstration or parade. Its the protest march not as celebration of resistance but as obligation, as the rote marker of something which will inevitably fall upon us. The self-assertiveness of working class identity is far from here.


Similarly, 'Ancoats Hospital, Outpatients Hall' (1952, above) is a rare interior for Lowry. The National Health Service was often celebrated in art of this period, for example by Barbara Hepworth, but Lowry presents it less as a benevolent institution than... well, as an institution. The large space, the crowds amassed on benches, you'd be forgiven for first mistaking it for a train station.

People-free Panoramas


The centrepiece of the show, though it comes at the end, is five large panoramas painted in the early Fifties. Notably, the poster image is an enlargement of one of these - 'Industrial Landscape', (1955, above). In a sense they're a fusion of the street scenes with the earlier industrial landscapes, though they're so grand in size any sense of the human element is thrown out. They're more pictogrammatic maps of whole neighbourhoods, sewn together by stitching flyovers and arterial rivers.

Chance handed me a way of framing this shift in scale. After the show I took the coach out of London. At first the windows give you a straight-on, elevated view of the streets around you – much like the earlier scenes. But as the coach then climbs up on the Westway flyover, the immediate environment falls away and the panorama of London stretches out around you.

The show quite rightly focuses on the first of these being made for the 1951 Festival of Britain. A seeming pinnacle of post-war optimism, the event perhaps also marked the point where that world went sour – creating a mechanised, bureaucratised world where people are almost incidental.

The show gives us a long quote from John Berger contextualising these, let's take a sample: “Their logic implies the collapse still to come. This is what has happened to the 'workshop of the world'... the ineffectiveness of national planning... the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital”. But Berger's quote is from 1966, ten to fifteen years after the event, and ironically may have become more appealing to us today. Its more hindsight than insight. As ever, Lowry's response is creatively ambiguous – more so than Berger supposes. We think of flyovers as soulless non-places, most probably litter-strewn and graffiti-covered. But when Lowry painted them, most likely they'd only been built. (Much like Turner's railway viaducts.) Unlike the soot-soaked streets of the Thirties that accumulated in earlier rooms, these scenes are gleaming clean. It's like shuffling through some mortal coil and arriving at a kind of heaven. As with all effective dystopias, he has given his creation something of the compelling pull of utopias.

As with the change in his Forties work, there may be a more biographical explanation. And in fact it's almost the same explanation, just the other way up. By 1951, Lowry was 64. This could be the work of an older man feeling less engaged with the world. The cartoonist Eddie Campbell once said of his own youth: “I was more physically involved in things. I live a more mental life now... My sensations of the real world, the grass and the trees and the concrete aren't as sharp as they were”. ('Arkensword' 17-18) It’s possible Lowry spent little more than a decade alive in the world, the rest framing it from one angle or another.

Friday, 1 May 2015

CONSTRUCTING WORLDS: PHOTOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE IN THE MODERN AGE


Another behind-time exhibition review, continuing our mini-series on Modernist art and the city 


“The minute I touched New York,” Berenice Abbott reflected, “I had a burning desire to photograph this city of incredible contrasts.” And of course she wasn't the only one. This exhibition showcases eighteen instances where such a desire has ignited, (as the show puts it) “the symbiotic relationship between photography and the architectural subject.” Of course there's a style of painting which goes with a type of landscape. But photography seems inherently suited to the city. While nature is sliced and segmented by the shutter, cities come camera-ready. Paintings of cities can feel like when court sketches get shown on the news, a strange juxtaposition of archaic form and new context. (George Bellows, featured in the previous instalment, and LS Lowry, to come, made a virtue of this juxtaposition, just as Bellows painted cars and horse-drawn carts in the same scene. But they're the exception rather than the rule.) We tend to pass through cities rather than stand and look at them, an experience better caught by the snapshot than by the easel.

If this exhibition features no less than eighteen photographers, reader be aware this write-up features what could be described as less than that. Some that is indifferent will be skipped over, but a fair amount of good stuff will also be bypassed. It'll be a drift through the streets not a route map. Where not otherwise stated, quotes are from the curators. Please keep your tickets with you at all times. Refunds will not be given.

The Socialised City

Though the exhibition uses the term 'architecture' in its title and throughout, there's actually something of a distinction between 'architecture photography' (as in portraits of buildings) and 'city photography'. And it's the difference between photographing the trees and photographing the wood. And the afore-mentioned Berenice Abbott is very much in the latter camp. Not for nothing is her most famous image 'Night View New York City' (1932, up top). Her subject matter is the city, even if she only conveys it through sections of it at a time. The city is an assemblage, not an accumulation of disconnected buildings, but an entity in and of itself.

Like many images of this era they're perhaps hard for us to frame in retrospect. The past was perhaps never a more foreign country than Abbott's New York. We have come to use the city first as an amplifier term, a synonym for bigger and badder. (There's a reason why Bowie didn't write 'Suffragette Hamlet'.) Then on top of this comes the conception of the city as the embodiment of capitalism. Babylon was a city. So therefore the city is Babylon. Last year, for the first time in history more than half of the world's population came to live in urban areas, a statistic which is easy to read as another signifier for the triumph of neoliberalism.

So at least since Expressionism the City in art has become an apparently self-contradicting combination of cutting-edge modernity and the basest savagery, exemplified in the title of the early Brecht play 'In The Jungle of the Cities'
(1924). This sense is enhanced for us in the the UK, where the financial district is even dubbed 'the City'. (The recent Occupy protests, taking place not too far from this exhibition, effectively brought back the 'Stop the City' terminology of my youth.) But its equally enhanced for New York, home of the financial district to the world's biggest economy, often seen as as the epicentre of capitalism. So radical art's mission becomes to expose the poverty behind those gleaming Broadway signs, and all the rest of it.

Abbott arrived in New York only in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash – pretty good timing to be looking for poverty to expose. And at times she did just that, with works such as 'Encampment of the Unemployed' (1935). She largely worked for Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, a rare incubator for socially progressive art in America. But that's not the heart of her work. Mostly she saw the city from quite a different perspective.


We can see this, quite literally, in the (to quote Richard Martin of 'Apollo') “dazzling angles and sharp contrasts” of 'View Of Exchange Place From Broadway New York' (1934, above). Sweeping avenues pull at us, so uncongested to our modern eyes, a web of connections free from the clutter of the past, in a view which feels inviting and celebratory. As Abbott's Wikipedia entry states she “intended to empower people by making them realize that their environment was a consequence of their collective behavior (and vice versa).”

Baudelaire lamented, in a poem laced with classical symbolism, “the old Paris is gone (the shape of a city changes faster than the human heart can tell.)” Whereas Abbott champions this very thing, exulting in “the city that is never the same but always changing”. The photos are dated to the very day like journalism, but human figures can be remote if present at all, as if the changing city itself is what she seeks to capture. As with Bellows, some of her images are literally of construction. New York had first been colonised in the Seventeenth century, and was both sizeable and strategically important from the Eighteenth. Little of that is here. All is gleamingly new, as if the new city has just over-written the old, soon to disappear itself under the next wave of innovation. It's only a couple of decades behind, but a long way indeed from Bellows' “kettle perpetually on the boil” with “paint as real as mud”.

And she was not alone in this perspective. In the recent Royal Academy 'Building the Revolution' exhibition of Modernist architecture of the Russian Revolution, we saw how “the buildings are virtually porous - bursting with openings, held together with criss-crossing gangways or connecting skyways. The show speaks of ‘wide corridors intended to promote social interaction’. …[they’re often] built around a central cylinder housing the staircase. Again and again the emphasis is on buildings which are light, open and airy.”


The term 'Constructing' in the tile of course implies Constructivism, and many of Abbott's photos have a collage-like quality akin to Constructivist photographers such as Rodchenko. See for example the (to use her earlier phrase) “incredible contrast” between two building fronts in 'Glass Brick and Brownstone Fronts, East 48th Street' (1938). And even her fixation with the signage of advertising, in photos such as 'Columbus Circle, New York' (1936, below) should be seen as less a critique of consumerism than a celebration of their, to again quote Richard Martin, “everyday exuberance”. As the curators note, “advertising [had begun] to present itself as a new form of urban iconography, supplanting formal civic sculptures”.

Again, if counter-intuitively, this relates to Soviet modernism. As Owen Hatherley pointed out in 'Militant Modernism': “Constructivist architecture made a fetish of the extraneous, and adverts, banners or radio masts can be found as features of most of the original plans.” If much of that bold and creative new expression was currently being shackled to the selling of goods... well, that condition was doubtless temporary. The point was that it was bold, it was innovative, that we could now shout from the rooftops without even opening our mouths. And soon that ability would be in the hands of the people.


Of course the differences are significant too. The Soviet architects' aim was to rebuild a city, and with it a society, while Abbott's was to photograph an existing one. But the parallels are striking, and aren't coincidental. There was then an evolutionist dimension to radical thought which saw the city as something which inherently socialises us – almost as a crucible with the power to transform us. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto how urban migration had “rescued a great part of the population from the idiocy of country life”. (That infamous and much maligned word 'idiocy' is actually a poor translation of the German term closer in meaning to 'idiosyncrasy', meaning isolation, provincialism, disconnection from the wider world.)

In Kapital he developed the theme: “The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, arduous, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property.” Upton Sinclair titled his 1906 expose of life amid the slaughterhouses of Chicago 'The Jungle'. Yet ended it with a socialist meeting where they boldly cry “the city is ours!”

Modernism Comes Home

And if we already know that the city didn't become ours, and have spent recent decades backtracking somewhat on the notion of the inevitability of communism, its notable how much those wide avenues still carry into the succeeding spaces of his show.

The Case Study House Program occurred in post-war California, where houses were built and then not only made into open homes for public viewing but photographed. The houses we are looking at are therefore essentially adverts for themselves. Jacob Shulman took the “sumptuous architectural photographs [which] advertised a post-war American lifestyle”. After the sharp black-and-white of Abbott's work, things burst into technicolour. Human figures, played of course by models, are placed more prominently and are mostly to be found dressed for dinner or clutching consumer durables. It's a classic case of product as identity.


And yet so much of Abbott's empowering, enabling city remains. There's the same inviting sense of open space, with glass and water as endlessly recurring features. Take 'Case Study House 9' (1949, above), shot at such an angle the lounge already looking expansive enough to play football on, then adding the wall-spanning French windows onto the garden. Its the porous buildings of modernist architecture meeting the California sunshine, the refusal of a rigid distinction between inside and outside.

But there's a crucial difference – what was once to do with the whole city, with socialising humanity, is now relegated to the domestic. Its like an optical illusion where space is simultaneously opened up and abstracted. If you don't see any old-style picket fences in these photos, that's because you don't see any neighbours to peer over them either.


Not for no reason is Shulman's most famous image 'Case Study House 22' (1960, above), in which the occupant of an upraised glass box gazes down onto the city lights below. (In many ways reminiscent of Abbott's 'Night View New York City'.) And there's not one suggestion in the series of a house actually located on a street, the place we tend to come across them. The optical illusion relies on the sleight-of-hand inherent to commodity production. When you buy a product, whether a house, a blue suit or an orange sofa, you know it's mass-produced, one of thousands. But you focus on this one being yours, this product being – in some magical way – an expression of you. The image is splendid isolation in a nutshell.

Yet its perhaps not entirely honest just to criticise from this perspective, and then close the book. These images are designed to seduce the eye and they succeed. You feel if you lived in one of those dream homes you'd start to live an unencumbered life, gliding across those apertures, unclogged by clutter. You would probably think differently, certainly more clearly, once your daily life was so unconstrained. (Frankly, I'd rather live in one of those pads than the place I do.) They represent the post-war economic miracle, where it wasn't just that capitalism seemed to have overcome its contradictions to give you everything it had always offered. Its even subsuming what socialism had to offer into the bargain.

And arguably the images are seductive that the whole exhibition has been designed in this California-style manner. It's open-plan while containing a series of 'pods' dedicated to each individual artist, easy both to pass through and to linger in. And this design, by Office KGDVs, was often praised by reviewers. As Rowan Moore put it in the Guardian “they make of it a little city, allowing glimpses as if of other people’s apartments into galleries on the other side of the show.”

The Plan Prevails


...whereas Lucien Herve perhaps exemplifies the other half of where Abbott's vision went. After the war, Corbusier designed the new Indian city of Chandigarh, and (in one of many collaborations) personally invited Herve to document the result. Nehru described the plan as “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future”. Fine words, indeed. Clearly taken early in the morning, with correspondingly long shadows, the photos evoke a fresh feeling, the dawning of a new world.

And yet... Only the most blimpish Brit would seek to decry Indian independence, or claim it was ever as authoritarian as Soviet Russia. Yet something is badly missing. Abbot's work was dynamic in every sense of the word. We make the city as the city remakes us, in a positive feedback loop. Yet if Shulman has taken the dream and run off with it, Herve is left with the plans. Frankly it feels as if Shulman has captured the soul and Herve is busily propping up the corpse.

If socialism could then be thought of as the next step in evolution, it was also seen as interchangeable with planning – thinking out what worked for people, as against the 'anarchy' of the market. And this is socialism-as-planning at its most reductive, a built environment whose hard edges we are expected to rearrange ourselves around - and the result is a machine clearly not built for living in. You look at the High Court of Justice (1955, above), and feel like you stand as much chance of getting justice from it as milk from a concrete cow. They're mostly reminiscent of Well's film version of 'The Trial' (1962), an urban environment which exists only to anonymise us.

Reframing The Familiar

If the last three photographers existed in a continuity, the next group have strongly similar aesthetics. Abbott had been so taken by a historic New York she spoke as though she felt unable to do anything but document it, an artist and their muse. Whereas what interested Ed Ruscha and his contemporaries was “banal and pedestrian architecture”, which he captured through a “no-style snapshot aesthetic, showing a single object with nearly all contextual details eliminated”. Art can show us something new, something hitherto unimagined. But art can also show us things we've all seen before, but in a way which makes them appear as new.

And, much like the city in general, photography is ideally placed to do this. We use the term 'photographable' as a synonym for memorable. But photographs, formally speaking, document. Photograph a bare brick wall and the lens will diligently record every lump and crevice.

The focus here is thrown on liminal spaces, places you'd normally merely pass through. Stephen Shore, for example, took roadtrips around smalltown America in search of “the prosaic and the mundane”, and made his images into greeting postcards. He'd even stuff these into the spinner racks of the tourist shops he'd pass. Because after all, why bother photographing the memorable? Chances are, you'll remember it anyway.


In Ruscha's case he shows us things from literally a new angle. Or at least ups the ante on Abbott's high-window shots. He took a series of aerial views of parking lots, empty in the early morning, their partition lines becoming abstract compositions. (And at the margins the surrounding grid-plan housing which will later disgorge its cars over these spaces.) See for example '500 W Carling Way' (1967). Here we're a world away from Abbott, from constructing worlds to places already constructed – at a scale beyond our everyday experience. But with their almost eerie sterility, inhabited and yet not, they're just as far away from Shulman's images of post-war abundance. They're actually closest to Herve, but centre what to him seems an almost accidental effect.

Yet, while it might be tempting to try and make Ruscha into a social critic depicting urban alienation, that feels like shoehorning. His aesthetic isn't built around an argument he's advancing, but serves to frame a question – can we find such places sublime, like our forefathers did oceans and mountains? It's Duchamp's problematising questioning of art thrown over the urban environment. I found myself half-seriously comparing them to the Nazca desert lines. In both cases, we know they're there. In neither case does that particularly help us in reading them.


Photo Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Bernd and Hilla Becher worked on “the architecture of industrialisation”, which they described as “anonymous sculptures”. In perhaps the epitome of photography as cataloguing they'd capture objects flat-on, in isolation, displaying the accumulated results in juxtapositional grids. (In the example above, water towers.) And, like Abbott's buildings, you need to see the images assembled like this before you get the picture. It's like the way biologists catalogue insects. When seen together, there's a huge variety of construction styles you'd never otherwise notice. But they're perhaps more like the way folk culture items can be displayed – fastidiously removed from their surrounding culture and function.

Sean O’Hagan writes in the Guardian, of their “documentation of the fast-disappearing industrial architecture of the Rhine-Ruhr region of their native Germany” (my emphasis), as if they’re folklorologists of industrialism, framing a once-living culture in their fixed dispassionate lens. Those pipes, ducts and water-towers were once part of some functioning system, now they’re wrenched away to be pinned to some foreign index system like butterflies in a book. There does seem something almost stereotypically German about the deadpan quality of their work; as with a Brecht and Weill sprechtsang vocal, the more dispassionate the surface the more numinous the content becomes. Its almost like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’, there comes to be something compelling about the detritus, you come to feel there's some meaning which is currently eluding you.

O’Hagan has also remarked on “the underlying sense of loss and melancholy that emanates from these photographs”, and perhaps they rest upon an irresolvable ambiguity. Do they signify an aesthetic to this industrial world of valves and gears, something which we never saw until it was too late? Or do they rely on the decay for their effect? Could we only stop and contemplate them when they stopped being of use to us? Like a twist on the old Bauhaus doctrine, form could only emerge once function was over.

The Future That Never Came


While with the rest of the exhibition, a strength is the way it so frequently takes us out of Europe and North America. Guy Tillim's images, for example, are of post-colonial Africa. 'Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique' (2008, above) opened in 1954 and closed a mere eight years later. It was another twelve before Mozambique gained independence. It looks so dilapidated you at first assume it must be a ruin, then notice the washing hung by squatters along those bold curves. “How strange,” comments Tillim, “that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry memory so well.” The images have a Ballardian quality – even down to the empty swimming pools. Built within the living memory of many, its still as strange to us as a Mayan ruin.

Evocative as they are, one weakness of these images is that they tend to see squatting merely as a symptom of dilapidation. Whereas squatters themselves tend to see the process as a means towards gaining a roof over their heads. It’s the very failure of the planners’ intent which gave these squatters a home; however squalid conditions might be, had it remained the intended luxury hotel they would probably be sleeping in the streets. Wikipedia comments “there are only two common rules... Respect one another. And, the Grande Hotel is open to anybody who wants shelter.” (It also suggests that things were at their strangest while the hotel was still open, filled with staff poised to open doors to never-arriving guests, a cross between 'The Shining, 'Waiting For Godot' and a cargo cult to Western luxury lifestyles which were never going to straddle the globe.)

However Iwan Baan's pictures of the Tower of David in Caracas take a different tack. This 45-storey squat, originally intended as a 'flagship project' for a bank headquarters, has perhaps become iconic, with an episode of Homeland set there. Baan, however, managed to gain access to the inside of the Tower and tells more of the squatters' stories. As Victoria Sadler of the Huffington Post puts it, his images challenge our preconceptions of squatting as living in squalid conditions”.

Writing in the Guardian he commented “At first the tower was just a construction site: no elevators, running water or electricity. But... nowadays its more like a village – a self-contained community in the sky. It has its own economy...the ingenuity is incredible. These people have absolutely nothing, but they find ways to get by.”


We first see a flat-on image of geometric windows, which frame signs of individual habitation (above). The next wall is a grid of rectangular images inside the building, as if we're peering close-up through some of those windows. Like some impromptu, haphazard, sledgehammer version of the Constructivist aesthetic holes in walls become passageways or serve as shop kiosks. But my favourite image is perhaps the most ubiquitous one (below). A weightlifter works out on an open roof, the cityscape stretching away behind him. Yet two figures stand either side of him, as casually as if they were in a basement gym. Baan comments “there's no handrail so you feel like you're floating above the city.” Like many of the images in the 'Pioneers of the Downtown Scene' show of urban New York art, its almost a superhero image – the combination of peril (the precarity of being so close to so huge a drop suggesting a symbol of the precarity of squatter life) with the human figure so dominant over the environment, standing over skyscrapers.


The Landscape of Neo-liberalism (A New Architectureless Kind of Architecture)

But what about the world since Modernist architecture. We don't, after all, just live in ruins. We may want to ask - who can explain our own world to us? Reviewing an earlier exhibition devoted to the Bechers, O’Hagan commented “this is a requiem for a lost world and shows that, through the passing of time, even that which was once considered purely functional and even ugly, can attain beauty.” Will we ever feel that way about what's around us now?


Two Bas Princen images perhaps capture the landscape of neoliberalism the best. 'Mokattam Ridge (Garbage Recycling City), Cairo' (2009, above) is a vast picture, taken so the city seems to recede into infinity. Yet at the same time it feels stifling, garbage encrusting the rooftops - sometimes piled high, sometimes just scattered debris, yet combined with roof furniture, satellite dishes and other signs of life being lived. Abbott's city looked ever-evolving, constantly over-writing itself. This looks like creation and destruction existing in some strange symbiosis. Its as conflicted as any of Dali or Miro's Spanish Civil War paintings, a city trying to breath while simultaneously stuffing its own throat with garbage. Many of the buildings look half-finished, tarps spread over roofs, columns holding up nothing. One way of reading the image would be as a Tower of Babel where humanity ruined itself without God having to get involved, each storey of the buildings representing an era in history - culminating only in detritus.


'Cooling Point, Dubai' (2009, above) features a black cube like a Borg spaceship combined with the '2001' monolith, in complete contrast to the pale sandy earth around it. Surely this was plonked down, never raised up. In a Muslim country, its almost a parody of the Kaaba in Mecca. Those blue-overalled figures presumably work in it, but seem entirely disconnected. Is there even a doorway among all that blackness? It exposes the contradiction at the heart of neoliberalism. We're constantly told this is not merely the way things happen to be done now, still less something decided upon, but that things have to be this way. Society as it's run right now is a true reflection of our essential nature, a point to which the rest of history had merely led us up to. And yet we see in its architecture not even a twisted reflection but a kind of imposing absence, simultaneously alien and blank-faced, a pristine sheen with nothing behind it. Whether intended by Princen or not, its one of the most Marxist images of the alienation of labour I've seen lately.

It became almost a commonplace to say that occupied Iraq and Afghanistan became the epicentre of the modern world, an almost collage-like clash of values where all the old certainties had been swept away (perhaps symbolised by the looting of the museums) and free market values were imposed at gunpoint. In an almost complete reversal of Abbott, they’re of environments which cannot possibly join up, like a jumbled collage made up by the real world waiting for some photographer to happen by.



Simon Norfolk's 'Bullet-scarred Outdoor Cinema at the Palace of Culture in the Karte Char District of Kabul' (2001/02) and 'Unfinished Speculative Property Development Near Kabul Airport' (2010/11, both above) essentially belong together. The first is in some ways a harsher image than a bullet-ridden human body would be, suggesting not just people but our very sense of society (an outdoor cinema as a place where people gather together) has been destroyed. As, on gaining power, the Taliban attacked and closed cinemas there's no real indication which side committed this. (Though bullets might suggest a fully-fledged battle, and hence invasion.) 

The second is in some ways a successor image to 'Cooling Plant, Dubai' in it's image of a building plonked arbitrarily in a flat landscape. It suggests less a world in flux than trapped in some between state. In the half-light, the off-white building looks almost like some kind of mirage. But the blurred, slow-focus figures look ghostly, like the residue of some time when children still played in public space. 'Part Wedding Cake, Inspired By Bollywood But Reverential to Greek Classicism, It Represents a New Architectureless Kind of Architecture' (2010/11) has a title which essentially performs my job of translating these images into descriptions. The world depicted is a mixture of fairy tale opulence and actual debasement.

If, ever-implicit in Abbott's New York shots, lay the idea we were looking at the world's powerhouse of that era, of course today this has shifted to China. (Or shifted back there, depending on how far back you choose to take your history.) Rather than there be something at odds between the free market and authoritarian political systems, China is ascendent by combining both. So its not altogether unsurprising if some of the most memorable images come from Nadav Kander's images of the Three Gorges Dam project, which displaced over a million people.


In 'Chongquin XI, Chongquing Munipality' (2007, above), fishermen stand before and below a gargantuan bridge. The bridge recedes into misty distance, like something from classical Chinese Painting. The division isn't between the natural and the artificial, but between the grand and the human scale - a scale so disproportionate its almost like an image from 'The Borrowers'. 'Bathers, Yibin, Sichuan' (2007, below) recalls George Bellows' '42 Kids', as covered in the previous instalment. Yet even Bellows allows the image to retain some sense of exuberance, the children pallid but playing, leaping into the water. The bathers here are bunched onto a stump of rock before a grey and uninviting river, the factory chimney above their heads suggesting its only going to get greyer.


Corinna Lotz of 'A World to Win' writes: “There are shades of Whistler’s Battersea Bridge and Casper David Friedrich’s yearning views into the distance. Superhuman constructions tower over tiny human beings who try to carry on with their lives. The eerie beauty of Kander’s images is in stark contrast to the horror of eco-degradation.” And indeed the industrial sublime of Turner is here.

A catch-all definition of the sublime might be that which is too vast to truly take in, and yet we cannot stop looking. Yet the Romantic sublime came from a religious era, where the vastness of nature became a metaphor for the unboundedness of God. These city pictures (and not just Kander's) reverse this. Man-made environments appear as so otherly to us, so beyond our sense of scale yet alone our influence, that we're rendered stupefied. We feel apart from what we made.

In the new corporate world, buildings don't just contain but are themselves billboards for brands. Here in Brighton American Express sponsored the new football stadium, which means whenever anybody mentions “the Amex” as a landmark their brand has been inserted into everyday conversation. Similarly, Owen Hatherley has called the London skyline “both logo and icon.” Also writing in the Guardian, Ian Martin lamented:

"Just look at London’s privatised skyline. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cartoonishly tragic... The utter capitulation of London’s planning system in the face of serious money is detectable right there in that infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air... I loathe its banality... I loathe its monstrous, bullying scale. It’s Gulliver big. End-of-level-boss big. Its stupid anything-goes-now size mocks us.”

But even the monstrous regiment of the London skyline doesn't convey the true banality of the evil we live among. Its grandiloquent, Brobdignigian nature is virtually misdirection. On the train home from the exhibition, I couldn’t help but compare the landscape of South London to the show. And while there may never have been a time when Croydon has thrilled the senses, nevertheless the distinction is striking. They are grand in scale, in fact grander than ever before. But they are grand only in scale, they are as anonymous as they are imposing. Buildings once evoked the same response in us as of mountains and lakes. Now those glass-and-steel sheens are like characterless faces, like an Ozymandian sculpture to the excess banality of evil. We feel only the sublimation of the sublime, never the transcendence. To put it bluntly, the big stuff nowadays only makes us feel small.

The conception of the city as ever-changing, as always over-writing itself, repeats as farce. These buildings are simultaneously so grand and so bland they can all too easily be replaced, but only by another variation on the same non-theme. They're so chillingly ubiquitous your eye can barely fix on their shriekingly bland facades before falling off again. And how can you start to consider an alternative where you can't even notice what's there to begin with? Our landscape now affects us like Valium. The Romantic painter Caspar Friedrich once commented the artist needs to feel the connection to his subject or, “his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead”. Which is about as accurate a description of the landscape of neoliberalism as we’re likely to get.



Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...