Tuesday, 29 September 2015

AGAINST SOCIAL CLEANSING HIPSTERS AND MEDIA-BAITING FUCK PARADERS

(aka the fundamental human right for hipsters to eat their overpriced cereal in peace)


Okay, a Fuck Parade protest is held outside the trendy Cereal Killers cafe inthe East End of London. The first and most obvious question being – why don't the two sides just fall in love and get married?

In perhaps the most classic case of Eighties nostalgia we've had yet, Class War are back. Only this time they're rebranded as a political party, and stand in elections. On the same kind of reformist platform they always jeered at when anybody else did it. (Just about impossible enough not to be likely to happen, while falling way short of being genuinely radical.) But otherwise unchanged.

Rather than embark on all the hard work of grassroots social struggle their chosen method was always stuntism. Perform a shock-horror action, then get it replayed endlessly by an obligingly denunciatory media – a reaction out of all proportion to the tiny numbers involved. It's yippie-style theatrics in punk clothing. Combined with a crude and fetishistic notion of class, where everyone is either a diamond geezer knoworrimeanguv or else they're Boris Johnson. Despite what we've heard on rotation the last couple of days, the problem with Class War isn't that they threaten violence. Its that they peddle only the theatre of violence in order to become the panto villain in the media soap opera.

And what better target for a media symbol of working class resistance than a media symbol of gentrification? Those contemptible hipsters who run Cereal Killers were happy to get their smug mugs in the media as a symbol of the 'transformation' of the East End when they thought it would add to the queues of credulous yuppies willing to pay post-ironic prices for some soggy Cheerios in flavoured milk. There's been times where you could scarcely open the paper without being confronted by identical twins Twattledum and Twattledee. When it was pointed out to them they were operating in one of the poorest areas of London, so were effectively the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of burning a twenty in front of a tramp, they refused to even answer any questions on the subject. Since the protests they've been belatedly acknowledging maybe there is a problem after all, while stammering about it being a big broad issue and so nothing to do with them, at all, honest, no siree.


...which, inevitably enough, is the point the chattering class commentators have taken up and run with. Protests to them are like strikes to the Tories. They are not against them, they are always keen to insist. They're just against every single example of them which has ever happened in modern history. They sagely concede there are problems and suggest at more positive alternatives without ever... actually suggesting anything. The overall tone is a knowing shrug of the shoulders. “But, darling, it's so difficult even I don't know what to do? And I've got a column.” Bridget Christie is one example, but by now there must be hundreds more.

And it's important to note that Class War themselves are complicit in this. While the cafe got a bit of paint on its windows, the nearby estate agents Marsh and Parsons had its windows smashed. And really, who likes estate agents? This is overlooked by one side so they can continually harp on about the sacred nature of small businesses, as if they're run by benevolent and community-minded saints rather than money-grubbing profiteers. And also by the other, precisely because they see that media chatter as their oxygen of publicity. Class War founder Ian Bone has said bluntly “a broken window at Foxtons isn’t going to get any publicity at all, whereas we’ve seen what happens with independent shops. We’d be stupid not to.”

So if I don't side with either side you may well be asking at this point what I am in favour of? As ever, the best leadership is example. The resistance to social cleansing going on in London's Sweets Way estate has seen much less press attention. After all, its not based around meeting media expectations but the immediate needs of a local community. (Inevitably, most of the publicity it has seen has been via celebrity supporters, such as Russell Brand.) But also, its grassroots opposition to the powers that be will in the long run be more of a threat to them.

Watch how the Fuck Parade and the security guards behave in these two videos below. There's no point, of course, in directly comparing how 'aggressive' the two groups are. That's the sort of pat moralism that decontextualises and depoliticises events until nothing meaningful is left. Yet, just for a minute or two, let's take the media agenda and assume there is. Because there's really no competition. Despite all the hoo-hah, despite Twattledum and Dee in a classic case of entitlement culture calling the protests a “hate crime” (while inexplicably being able to open for business the next day) really very little happens. I've seen worse go on in the East End, or for that matter here in Brighton, on a regular Saturday night. 

The behaviour of the security guards at Sweets Way is far more threatening, far more violent. Yet did it receive a fraction of the coverage the Fuck Parade did? I use my words advisedly. Did it fuck. The class war continues, just away from wherever Class War are. Real protest against gentrification goes on, local people working together just as they should. Just don't expect to read about it in the mainstream media.



Friday, 25 September 2015

'THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN' WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK


Fabrica, Brighton, Thurs 17th Sept


From the pulpit, the now accustomed position for addressing Fabrica events, the speaker intoned “we are gathered here today to give way to our surrealist urges”. Of course she went on to repeat the by-now notorious reaction of the British censor to this classic Surrealist film, back in 1928 - “if there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”. It was the Bill Grundy moment of its day, so absolutely the reaction the movement wanted to evoke that it could surely serve as their epitaph.

Except, as the speaker went on to tell us, the film then did the double and managed to antagonise the Surrealists themselves. Some say Antonin Artaud was himself outraged by director Germaine Dulac's treatment of his script. (Though inevitably enough accounts vary, and Artaud might not meet the strict legal definition of a reliable witness.) Certainly Dali and Bunel's 'Un Chien Andalou' is often cited as the first film in the style, despite being made a year later.

The speaker (whose name has now embarrassingly slipped my ageing brain) went on to suggest, as a woman Dulac had managed to challenge and subvert the standard Surrealist fetish of the female body. As the fantasy writer Angela Carter was later to say of the brethren: “I had to give them up in the end. They were, with a few patronised exceptions, all men and they told me that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman – and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too... an equal share in the right to vision.” The idea of a proto-feminist film-maker playing the Surrealists at their own game and winning, succeeding in upending their orthodoxies - its certainly appealing. Yet is it simply too good to be true?

Certainly, the film starts in the tradition of Surrealist orthodoxy. The Clergyman pours wine from a shell into vials, only to repeatedly smash them. The General appears, seizes the shell from him and swords it in two. We are probably on safe ground assuming the dark 'wine' is menstrual blood, a kind of alchemic symbol for the essence of woman. The Soldier interrupts to seize the shell and swords it in two. (The gesture seems to parallel the infamously stomach-turning eye-slitting at the opening of 'Chien Andalou', itself often regarded as a metaphor for penetration.) In short he shows how its done – with violence. The Madonna/whore dichotomy in attitudes to women couldn't be clearer cut.

The film may be best compared not to 'Chien Andalou' but Dali and Bunel's later 'L'Age d'Or' (1930) – and not just in the anti-clericalism. Their film is largely structured around a repressive society keeping the two lovers apart. While Dulac takes the thing the other way up, follows the Clergyman as he endlessly tries to get in on the act between the General and his Wife. When confronted by a Surrealist work, of course you first reach for your Freud. The Clergyman is Freud's Oedipal child, trying to off the Father (represented by the Soldier) to get close to the Mother. When we first see him walk... well in fact he crawls. Hence the scene where he interrupts them (in, inevitably enough, a confessional) and assaults the Father. He's then shown proudly brandishing a key, both a phallic symbol and an unlocker of mysteries.

There may be images which feminise the Clergyman – the tails of his cassock extending like a bridal veil, for example – but this is from a time when childhood and womanhood were associated. So... do we need to reach any further than Freud?


But then what, for example, of the Clergyman's stilted movements? They're not in the least childlike. Check out when he's running, he looks more like a stuffed shirt granted motion. (I won't say “come to life”.) And besides, let's look again at that opening scene. The pouring and smashing is kind of hard to parse. But it seems both a male attempt to contain that essence, and the Clergyman repeatedly attempting to transmute his desire into a kind of religious iconoclasm. And both repeatedly failing, for like a magic object from a folk tale the seashell never empties. The Clergyman doesn't even seem to expect it to empty, he carries on with his ceaseless task in a ritualised fashion.

And the scene where he confronts the General and his wife We're rarely shown two faces in the same shot, and we even see the General's head split – all images of the fractured self, rather than three separate characters. And on ridding himself of the Father, the Clergyman later goes on to undress the Mother. But he's left not with the naked female body he desires, she impossibly grows more clothing and he's left clutching her bra. A notably somewhat seashell-like bra. The title, we should remember, is 'The Seashell and the Clergyman' - suggesting he is chasing not a woman but a symbol, an idealisation.


Ultimately, to break past his mental construction of femininity he must invert the standard male gaze and look inward. The black globe is like some relation to the vials of earlier, which is first polished and treasured by fleets of maids – but then smashed. He sees his own face in the broken pieces, but on bending down picks up the shell. This is the key. It simultaneously takes us back to the opening scene and out of it. To misquote Bakhunin, the destructive urge is not only creative but liberating. With his mental construction of masculinity demolished, he's able to drink directly from the shell. It's definitely a film about the male psyche, in which women only appear insofar as projections of his mind. But perhaps its angle on the male psyche does come from outside...

But then again... I browsed a few analyses of this film through the magic of this interweb business. And, while I can't exactly claim to have been thorough, I found myself dissatisfied with all of them. So I wrote my own and, while I prefer it of the options available, now I find I'm not dissatisfied with that.

But of course that's the point of the thing. The most important word in that quote up top about meanings to be found is “if”. It's like Artaud is the General, Dulac the Mother and us the poor befuddled Clergyman. Like him we try to strip Dulac, rob her of her mysteries. But we manage at most a few tokens. As Artaud said “I never considered this film as the demonstration of any theory whatsoever. It’s a film of pure images. And the meaning must be got from the radiation itself of these images.” To search for an answer in the film, to study it for clues, in many ways seems to mistake its nature.

The alert reader may have noticed I have talked about the film through the introductory speaker more than its soundtrack. Another quick trawl through yonder internet suggests the most common problem when soundtracks are set to this film is that they're too polite, too refined. They tend to, so to speak, use classical instruments classically. Perhaps that's simply a result of ensembles taking it on who “do” silent cinema, with a result akin to the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing 'Purple Haze'.

Thankfully, the duo here didn't use supposedly 'contemporary' instruments, like the film is a period piece. Miles Brown largely performed on theramin. (Which was already in existence by this point, even if no-one ever thinks of it like that.) While Drill Folly contributed found sound, samples and electronics. These throbs, hums and whirs made for a reasonable stab at the sound of the subconscious, conveying the repressions of the Clergyman's troubled psyche. While there doesn't have to be one way to score Surrealist films for today, as I said after Steve Severin's soundtrack to Cocteau's  'Blood of a Poet', music concrete and manipulated sound makes for a pretty good choice – the interchange between the familiar and the strange.

However it generally alternated between 'dark' and 'light' sections – with the 'light' parts more conventionally musical. They were at their worst when, for the ballroom scene, they literally contributed ballroom music. Hardly the thing for a style based around creative juxtapositions and unexpected ruptures! Perhaps they were bound to come off as second best against the really-rather-splendid Partial Facsimile soundtrack to 'Cabinet of Dr Caligari' the previous week.

The mudering-the-Father sequence with, despite all I say above, not so bad a soundtrack...

Saturday, 19 September 2015

'THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI' WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK/ CUZ FEATURING MIKE WATT (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

'THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI' (WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK)
Fabrica, Brighton, Thurs 10th Sept


This expressionist classic from 1920 is always good to catch again, but was given a new lease of life by improvising troupe Partial Facsimile. With a demonstration they wouldn't be pulling out any stops, they started proceedings by processing onto the stage dressed as characters from the film. Fabrica's origins as a church came into its own, the vocalist even performing silhouetted in the pulpit.

They had the good sense to set a mood rather than try to dominate the film; employing Godspeed-like 'spectral tremolo' guitar, with low double bass that seemed to counterpoint rather than underline it, above a refreshingly sparse use of electronics and effects. But perhaps most memorable was the the vocalist's contribution, quaveringly coaxing uncanny sounds from his mouth. Since it became possible to electronically treat the voice, every supernatural voice in every Hollywood horror film has been sent super-low. While, happily, the cliché was countered here as all the sounds here came from the tongue rather than the throat. These slid in and out of forming words, sometimes reciting the film's captions sometimes merely babbling, always sounding like broken letters dribbling from thin lips.

The very first line of the film - “spirits surround us on every side” - seemed to set the tone. I was reminded of the way new technologies of the time such as radio waves increased belief in spirits, seemingly proving the existence of unseen forces. After a while I even came to conceive the players were mediumistically calling the film into being through their performance. (I am given to flights of fancy like that.)


Perhaps the test of a live soundtrack is that it leads you to see a film in a new way. I had previously tended to see the somnambulist Cesare as the shadow self of hero Francis. He happily tells his pal Alan they shouldn't fight over the affections of heroine Jane, yet later that night Alan is murdered by Cesare. Cesare then goes to stab Jane under Caligari's orders, but on raising the knife hesitates and abducts her instead.

This time, and perhaps through the vocalist being dressed as Caligari, I came to see the film as being about the title character. Cesare's first victim, after all, is the clerk – who only Caligari has any beef with. As Caligari finds the book by - bear with me here - the historical Caligari he is himself possessed by it, just as he comes to control Cesare. The key scene becomes where, after reading it, he sees “You must become Caligari” written across the sides of buildings. (This became the film's tag line on release.) The overpowering force of the past, its ability to inscribe itself upon the present until it can rewrite itself, is of course a common Gothic theme.

But perhaps my favourite reading of the film is undimmed. It is of course most famous for its expressionist style, the crazy angular sets and so on. Perhaps we have become too familiar with these, and what's often overlooked is the way this style persists. It's never framed or contextualised. Caligari's arrival doesn't visually 'corrupt' the once-innocent town in the manner of 'Nosferatu', it looks that way before he gets there. It exists even in the (often argued-over) framing sequence, which supposedly makes sense of the whole thing. We're subliminally aware there are no exterior shots, that this style is all-pervasive and inescapable.

And it's this setting which determines everything. Like Romanticism, the urban environment is alienating, it drives us all into somnambulists wandering its streets. Unlike Romanticism there's no escape from this, it's all dream and no waking, all Oz and no Kansas. The establishing shot of the town, covering a whole hill, rising to an apex, are similar to many of the images of the Tower of Babel. (Compare it with Breugel the Elder's version below.)



And underlying this is how... well, filmic the film is. It is often called 'theatrical', and true its sets are very often theatre flats. Most bizarrely, it has a redundant division into 'Acts' which recalls the guy with the flag walking in front of the motor vehicle. But our rush to the term 'theatrical' most likely comes from our cultural assumptions that film is a more 'realist' medium, and anything not conforming to that narrow view is reassigned to the theatrical. (The popular conception of Expressionism is that it was merely a visual art movement.) Many of the shots are extremely short, for example the classic image of Cesare with Jane on the rooftop lasts only a few seconds. The classic scene of him awakening, slowly opening his eyes, is only possible through close-up. The urban environment was a common theme of modern art in this period. And its this association of the medium of film with the equally modern urban environment which cements it. An skewed environment for a world bent out of shape.

Partial Facsimile promise “we will re-appear in the Spring/Summer of 2016 with an hour-long sonic-visual concept performance”.

CUZ FEATURING MIKE WATT
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 12th Sept


Legendary ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, you are allowed to play up his name like that – after all it's what they did for the poster. Last time the man played our humble town, with the Missingmen, he'd brought with him a punk rock opera about the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. These assuming his return would naturally deal with Breugel the Elder may have to wait a while longer. For instead he's playing in a trio with Sam Dook of the Go! Team. (Who, despite being a Brighton band, I know not of.)

This is one of those reviews that tries to hit a moving target. The set's wide-ranging nature often seemed to be vocal-led, in that very often different vocal styles (or even methods) determined the differing nature of numbers. There'd be for example an incantatory folk-style vocal, a Slint-style narrative-to-musical-soundtrack vocal, a recorded vocal (which didn't sound sampled but like a whole thing committed to tape) and a beat poetry vocal by Watt. (Described by him afterwards as “my Walt Whitman shit”.)


And when they're good, they can be very good. But unfortunately quality seemd as wide-ranging as style. Nothing fails exactly, but not everything is all that memorable either. The set proceeds in the manner of mud slung at a wall, with the inevitable mixture of sticking and not-sticking. Had I been listening at home, I would have pressed fast-forward more than a few times.

Perhaps the problem was that there didn't seem to be any one colour of mud sticking better than the others, not the muscular boogie rock workouts or the more reflective folky stuff. And the lack of any distinct identity was compounded by the 'odd couple' performers – Watt the outgoing and avuncular American, Dook the reserved Englishman hidden behind a combination of cap, beard and thick glasses. Bands these days can sound like an i-Pod on shuffle, like they're just regurgiating back music they've heard without character of their own. This sounded more nascent, like an early rehearsal somehow promoted to gig status. It was different. But it was too different to even be itself.

Not from Sussex but Kent...

Saturday, 12 September 2015

KING CRIMSON (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Brighton Dome, Sat 5th Sept


If King Crimson are can sometimes be seen as the archetypal prog band... well, perhaps they were. Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and the rest had definite roots in blues, psychedelia and pop. (Prog fans tend to be most blind-slighted about that pop business.) Whereas with these boys its like they just showed up one day sounding like they did. So it might not be surprising that they were one of the few bands labouring under that often-desultory label to do what was promised on the lid.

Much of prog's aspiration was really delusion, it served up bog-standard rock music merely gift-wrapped in pseudo-classical ostentateon. Whereas Crimson, at their best, actually progressed things. I racked my mind for a musical analogy for guitarist and main man Robert Fripp, but simply couldn't come up with one. The nearest I could muster was “the English Frank Zappa”. But it only really works because the two could cover so much musical territory while still sounding like themselves. Part of which meant never sounding like one another. Perhaps he's most like Top Cat. You know, the one, the only, truly original.

No-one had much expected this reappearance, as Fripp had announced his retirement from a music industry he never cared for. It seems to have followed him winning a righetous yet protracted battle for creators' rights, which had left him in his own words “too happy. Time for a pointed stick.” When it was announced this would be a return to the sound of the first run of the band (there's been eight), people then wondered which era (there were three).

And while I confess to not being as familiar with their output as I'd like, I side with those who favour the final era. By the last album, 'Red', time on the road and general attrition had reduced them down to a trio. It was the hard centre which remained, the heaviest, most condensed, most riff-based incarnation. And what makes it is what's in the riffs themselves, sounding like something beyond standard rock fare. There are those who liken hard rock to the sturm und drang of classical music. King Crimson are one of the very few bands who can actually wear that comparison.

There's two things about the live line-up that immediately strike you. First, in his characteristically contrarian insistence he's not going to confirm to rockism, Fripp has taken to looking as much like a chartered accountant as he can. And as the band assemble on stage they're all bedecked in his customary uniform of shirt and tie. It's unusual attire for a drummer, yet the only concession to them is they're allowed black shirts instead of white.

Yes, “them”. There's not only three drummers, making up nearly half of the seven-piece group, but they line up at the front of the stage. It's bassist Tony Levin who takes pole position behind them, pushing Fripp himself to the edge. (From where I sat his head occassionally popped up atop a cymbal.) He has spoken with some glee over this swapping of conventional“backline” and “frontline”.

This must surely be the first time they’ve ever played precisely this setlist, even if you were to disregard the new tracks. By the time they were in their third phase they’d burnt their bridges to anything from their first. (The link claims they'd stopped playing 'Epitaph' before the end of the Sixties.)

But, happily for me, its mostly that later sound they take up tonight. There is, before you ask, the inevitable drum solo. But the lined-up solos so often associated with prog yield to ensemble playing. The drummers dominate, often both starting and finishing numbers like a unit in themselves. They can synchronise like reiterating the beats in triplicate, but spend most time shuffling elegantly around one another. Guitar lines often arrive not just quitely but distantly, like the approach of stealth bombers.

Its a sound which is perhaps reflected in the poster image. The figure has Fripp's favoured attire of button-down shirt and tie but is also, and perhaps more noticeably, single in his vision. While the band members are listed like chemicals in a compound. (An earlier symbol of the band had been knotwork.) It's all about how things come together.

There does sometimes seem a tension between their wanting to take this new line-up and run with it, and the need to serve up the classic tracks the audience will recognise. (You can tell when they go back to an earlier point because one of the drummers will have to shift onto keyboards.) This makes it almost impossible to ascertain whether this is a celebrity “lap of honour” tour or the start of a bold new era – the glass was almost exactly half-full and half-empty. And there are times when sheer cleverness does get in the way. Like coffee nerves, some tracks run through a whole slew of ideas without ever settling on any of them.

But then if I didn't like everything, I'm yet to hear a King Crimson album where I liked everything. They're just too idiosyncratic, too inscrutable for that. And the parts I liked... I reckon myself to have heard music I've not before, and most likely won't again unless I get another chance to see King Crimson.

They finish on what's perhaps their signature number, '21st Century Schizoid Man' Perhaps predictable, but then it remains strange in essence - no matter how many times you hear it. Arriving with their first album, it's perhaps the earliest example of their “heavy riffing from Mars” style. With its distorted sound and scratchy vocal, its too wired, too agitated, to fit in with prog or even hard rock. It almost looks forward to punk, but is too grand and terrible, too overpowering for that. It's a track that never really fitted signifying a band that never really fitted.

The gig starts with a recorded message from the band asking for people to watch the gig rather than film it. And it looks like their wishes have been obeyed for, bar a few rehearsal clips, there's little YouTube footage of this tour. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

'JOSEPH CORNELL WANDERLUST'

(Yes, really! An art exhibition reviewed while its still on!)


“What a fairyland we find ourselves in”
- Letter from Cornell to Dorothea Tanning, 1947

Boxing the Fantastical

With barely concealed pride this show tells you “Joseph Cornell did not draw, paint or sculpt, and declined opportunities to train in traditional artistic methods”. Instead he devoted his energies to collages and assemblages, specialising in what he called “shadow boxes” - constructed environments presented behind glass like cabinets of curiosities. By day commuting to work from suburban to downtown New York, by night he'd assemble artworks on the kitchen table when not caring for his disabled younger brother. Though he knew, exhibited with and was admired by many other artists, he kept a distance from the art world.

As Ben Luke points out “all this reads as a textbook biography for an outsider artist — the kind of visionary who never intends to be an artist, whose body of work is discovered at their death. But Cornell, though undoubtedly eccentric and socially awkward, was very much an insider in art-world terms.”

In fact he was first inspired to create not by some inner compulsion but by encountering Surrealist art. We even know the date and place - the Julien Levy Gallery in '31. That Surrealist influence is clear and acknowledged, with early works dedicated to Ernst and Magritte. 'Object (Soap Bubble Set)' (1941) doesn't just a feature a pipe but what's clearly a reference to Magritte's pipe. Yet for all this he never identified himself as a Surrealist. We might wonder why.

Surrealist artworks tend to be about bursting the barriers between dream and wakefulness, between the conscious and the unconscious, so have a tendency to erupt with lurid and provocative imagery. They have a fondness for the Victorian cabinets of curiosities, but use an outer similarity to the obsessive cataloguing and brown-label tagging to wilfully juxtapose unlikely objects – affecting order while practicing its opposite. Plus the sauce on their pudding was a recurrent fixation with the Freudian id, the sexualised subconscious. (Think for example of Ernst's 'The Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses', 1928.)

Cornell called all this “black magic” to his “white magic”. He participated in a 1936 exhibition titled 'Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism', which handily delineates the differences for us - his work is more fantastical than surreal. His methods he described as “creative filing/ creative arranging/as poetics/ as joyous creations”. In an absolute reversal to Ernst, one of his key themes is the innocent curiosity of childhood. His last major exhibition was a show he arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height and with the opening party serving soft drinks and cake.


'Tilly Losch', (c. 1935, above), perhaps one of his signature images, shows the strings on the flying girl without our seeing what she is attached to. There's a Pinnocchio sense of a puppet that's overcome its limitations, that she's now pulling her own strings. There's a sense that, floating legless in her birdcage dress, she is herself the balloon - as if rising by sheer effort of will. A three-dimensional figure against a background flat as a theatre backdrop, she flies free.

But perhaps what's most illustrative isn't what makes him not a Surrealist but what makes him not a Dadaist. In brief, his work isn’t disruptive in the same way. His shadow boxes are constructions not destructions, not spanners thrown into our reality but hermetic environments, other places we can peer into. Anti-art statements such as May Ray's 'Object to be Destroyed' (1923) would be foreign to him. His works don't come out at you, you peer into their strangeness.

The Dada assemblages of, for example, Kurt Schwitters may have some formal similarities. But they're made from ephemera and detritus, as if he's been rummaging through the waste-paper basket of our culture. What to Schwitters was mere material with Cornell became something closer to muses. When Schwitters uses, for example, bus tickets he simply uses them. Whereas, in something we'll come onto later, Cornell employs the iconography of travel. As Robert Hughes said of him “To others, these deposits might be refuse, but to Cornell they were the strata of repressed memory, a jumble of elements waiting to be grafted and mated to one another.”


It’s a concept which lends itself to the romantic notion of the super-sensitive artist scouring junk shops waiting to encounter inspiration. At times the show plays up to this, referring to his seeking out “keepsakes”, its web page describing the works as “charged with personal histories” - as if his thriftstore acquisitions came complete with a kind of psychic history only he was attuned to. The opposite, perhaps, of Duchamp's depersonalised shop-bought readymades. Instead he seems to have accumulated material which he diligently if eccentrically catalogued, then used as a kind of cross between an image repository and a palette board. (See here for some visual examples.)

In this way the glass front is not incidental, not just a way of keeping things together or preserved, but central. Notably he often uses glass within the boxes, incorporating drinking glasses or phials. As Victoria Sadler comments “these boxes remain sealed, the glass lids fixed and closed. The worlds Joseph created always remaining out of reach, untouchable.” In this way these products of the imagination are much like the imagination, vivid but untouchable. Like any peepshow, the peeping's as important as the show. Fittingly, Jennifer Hamblett's film of 'Beehive' (1940/8) merely lets light play on the work and, with a remarkable similarity to the films of the Quay Brothers, this flickering suggests imperceptible movement.

The World of Shadows

A Cornell exhibition is a must for quite a fundamental reason. His works aren't flat collages but objects, which means reproduction (including all the illos here) don't fully capture them – you need to go to a place where they are in order to really see them. As one example, at the same time the boxes are enclosed doors, windows, cut holes and other apertures appear all over them. 'Untitled (To Marguerite Bleach)' (1940, below) presents a book with cut-out chambers. It's reminiscent of a child's view of reading, as they start to decipher the alchemic symbols they find they have the power to make objects appear in your mind. (Its similar to the way children's books will sometimes drop images into text, a little drawing of a dog or a ball replacing the word in a sentence.)


And where else in Modernism do we see this interplay of text and image? Of course in Cubism. If the association with Surrealism is understandable and instructive, if not entirely accurate, some of the other connections made for Cornell are fanciful. (For example, the odd splodge of paint fallen on one or two works supposedly prefiguring abstract expressionism.) Yet with Cubism there's perhaps more of a connection than is generally acknowledged. 'A Parrot for Juan Gris' (1953/4, below) is dedicated to the Spanish Cubist painter. Clearly its a playful take on the theme. Cubism arose as a solution to the 'problem' of rendering three-dimensional objects on flat canvas. Here Cornell finds a child's solution by adding on the third dimension. At the same time, Cubists often incorporated collage elements, such as Picasso's 'Still Life With Chair Caning' (1912), which is precisely what he does here. The parrot is in relief, its relief claws clutching a relief branch. Yet it's sat atop an actual piece of wood. The parrot suggests we see the box as a cage, yet the newspaper lining behind it also suggests a drawer.


Similarly, 'Habitat Group For Shooting Gallery' (1943, below) has (at upper left) a drawn perch which then continues into the real thing. Detritus lies at the bottom of the box as though these were real birds in a cage. Yet the presence of actual objects in the box can only emphasise that they're merely cut-outs. They're even tagged in a (functionally useless) numbering system, as if illustrations in a book. Not particularly visibly in this illo, the glass of the case is cracked in the centre – the notion this might be a bullet-hole reinforced in the work's title. The bird behind this, and another to his right, are rendered in black-and-white. Yet flecks and blobs of colour are splattered onto the wall behind them (some yellow still clinging to the upper bird's tail), as if the colour has been shot away from them, as if they've been robbed them of their radiance.


Cornell frequently used bird images, even titling a 1949 exhibition 'Aviary'. And as the indicia points out these were often parrots and cockatoos – birds capable of mimicking human speech. Let's remember he was influenced by Ernst, who devised the bird alter ego Loplop. Yet for Ernst Loplop represented the overcoming of inhibition, free will in flight. Cornell's birds are more ambiguous – are they confined to those boxes, or does their shadow world represent escape from our space? Here the box seems penetrated, perhaps infected by the outside world. (One theory is that it's a wartime work, representing how war's shadow fell even on Cornell's basement studio. Generally he doesn't seem a social or political artists – his cosmology is entirely private. But there may be something to this.)

The Mind Might Travel

Cornell barely left New York State in his life, never venturing further than the East Coast. Yet as the show says “the imagery of travel permeates [his] work, from maps and postage stamps to timetables and hotel advertisements.” Europe we're told was “to him an ideal realm not so different to a fairy-tale land”, and indeed there's a whole series of works devoted to hotels he never stayed in, often with images purloined from their glossy brochures. 'Naples' (1942, below) is a memento of a town he never visited. Perhaps what matters is the distance, and for me that brings an irony. New York itself has been celebrated in so much music and art yet I have never clapped eyes on the actual place, making it easy for me to see it in this semi-mythologised way. Yet of course what it meant to Cornell was subway rides to work.


It would be tempting to believe that he saw such postcards and hotel brochures as a stimulus to the imagination, and wanted to dream of places unfettered by the undoubted tawdry reality of cramped beds and tip-hungry staff. And yet that would imply a cut-off point, beyond which it wasn't a benefit to know more. Better to have the appetiser then stop eating. Yet he seems to have read of foreign places as voraciously as he was able, and his knowledge was detailed and accurate. In an anecdote on his meeting Marcel Duchamp, they discussed the streets of Paris at some length, only for him to then astonish the Frenchman by saying he'd never been there.

Cornell's quoted as saying that he remained a virgin, thinking sexual activity would rob him of the ability to create. Travel was surely similar, and the signs are that he knew this. When success in later life (he gave up the day job in 1940) brought invitations abroad he always declined them. And he was as interested in people and places of the past, for example reading of Romantic ballet dancers he could never hope to see perform. They're evocations rather than descriptions. The show puts it succinctly: “above all, he longed for the state of yearning itself”. In the wanderlust which titles the show, the wandering is just something to pin the lust onto.

And, always socially awkward, people were as distant to him as places. Think of how many pieces seen already have been dedicated to someone. He produced a series of votive works to famous women, called by the indicia “intense shrine-like portraits”, blurring the Catholic devotional with Hollywood glamour. Surrealism fixated upon the female body, while for Cornell it's always the face. They resemble youthful crushes on distant film stars – obsessive yet strangely chaste.

Twigs For Forests


If Cornell remained in part an outsider artist, this is most evident in the way his work involves microcosms of the world. For example 'Palace' (1943, above) employs twigs to stand for a forest. But its clearest in his many cosmological pieces. These tend to be based on Orreries, clockwork models of the solar system popular among the Victorians. For example 'Celestial Navigation' (1956/9, below) employs key-rings as the arranged spheres and plants flags on a scrap of driftwood like a cratered moon. In others white balls become planets.


In one sense he's playfully upending the certainty of that clockwork precision, the Victorians' hubristic assumption that they knew how the whole process ran. Notably he keeps the reassuring dark woods of the cabinets, even as substitutes the objects within. Yet he retained a Victorian view of science, from a time where lectures doubled as shows. He preferred its antiquated term 'natural philosophy', viewing science as human curiosity on the wing rather than any kind of formalised discipline, and called his studio a laboratory.

And he never lets go of their sense of order, even as he plays with it. Several works have blue sand, either on their base or held inside a lower draw. And sand might seem a virtual symbol of unpredictable disorder, the way we use sandcastles as an image of impermanence. Yet captured in a draw the sand seems more to represent the tides, themselves a measure of the moon. 'Penny Arcade, Pascal's Triangle' (c. 1965) makes the link between Orreries and their perfect geometry with arcade games.

Please Don't Touch

As said earlier, a Cornell show is something that must be seen, in every sense of the phrase. However there’s a paradox at the heart of his work, and it cuts right across this show. As mentioned, his shadow boxes contain unattainable otherworlds. Yet at the same time they can be interactive to the point of being tactile.


'Object (Compass Set)' (1940, above) is but one of many works described as “compartmentalised constructions, the treasures revealed gradually as they are unpacked”. While a work like 'Untitled' (1939/40), a series of images on what resemble circular playing cards, is an endlessly rearrangeable collage. The point of these works is they don't have a 'correct' combination, their state is permanent flux, like an irresolvable jigsaw. (Presumably why it couldn't even have a fixed name.) In a similar example 'Untitled (Musical Box)' (1947) is a scaled postage parcel which “contains unknown objects that, when handled, produce random sounds”.

But perhaps most egregious of all is 'Museum' (1949) of which we're even told “here the usual advice of museums to look but not touch is inverted. Only by handling the scrolls can their contents be discovered”. It is little short of a taunt to be told this then have the promise unhonoured. You long to let your fingers discover those inner chambers, pull out layers and look beneath them. Deprived, you feel like a child whose nose is pressed up against the window of a closed toy shop. The solutions they find, supplying videos demonstrating the white-gloved opening of the objects or sound recordings of the Musical Box, are inadequate workarounds and just make the sealed-off prospect of the objects themselves more enticing. Which makes the exhibition an exercise in both revelation and frustration.

Weren't these objects made for use? Like the toys in 'Toy Story', if they could talk wouldn't they tell us they'd rather be worn out through use than aridly preserved? The curators would doubtless reply that the gallery doesn't even own these works, and they'd be unlikely to get loan of them if they intended allowing us punters to get our grubby mutts on them. This is of course part of a wider problem where artworks have lost their primary purpose and become more investments, and true enough we don't want all exhibitions put on hold until such time as capitalism is brought to a close. But perhaps more of a middle way could be found, where reproductions of some of the works were assembled (like copies of bronzes are sometimes cast) and left out for use. This might have also given the show more of a 'playpen' atmosphere, which would have suited Cornell's work. They could even have served soft drinks and cake.


'The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria' (1941/52, above) contains a book of that name, but also photos, objects and ephemera connected to him. Some of the connections are literal, others more tangental. This is a person as you might think of them, rather than write a biography of them, an unsettleable jumble of impressions. And, by gathering his work, accumulating his multi-chambered cabinets, the show responds to Cornell in a similar way. The 'atticy' upper gallery at the Academy, a nest of nooks and crannies, is as fitting for Cornell as the vast expanse of the main gallery was for the recent Anselm Keifler exhibition. There's a thousand juxtapositions, then escape hatches and rabbit holes that lead you from that reading into something else. Despite its undoubted flaws, this is the best chance you're likely to get to see inside Cornell's private world.


More, and slightly more informative, videos here.