Saturday 29 August 2020


Tate Modern, London

”Nothing is as surreal as reality itself.”

Masks and Stars

Changing her name from the less memorable Henriette Markovitch, Dora Maar’s placed herself within the Surrealist inner circle with her photography. She was herself photographed by Man Ray (who told her she couldn’t become his assistant as there was nothing he could teach her), had Paul Eluard dedicate a poem to her, conducted an affair with Picasso… okay, the last one might not be terribly unusual.

But more pertinent to her work might be her sharing a darkroom with Surrealist photographer Brassai while working as an assistant to fashion photographer Harry Ossip Meerson. The fashion work, true, she took on for the cash. And the show doesn’t shy from explaining that this was an era of “body discipline”, where articles on fitness, health and hygiene predominated. Nevertheless, there didn’t follow the distinction between day job and dark room activity that you might think.

As both Surrealist and glamour images are unconcerned with realism, they’re not just composed - they’re ostentatiously arranged. Figures sport fixed and defined poses, with shadows placed so firmly they become part of the composition. In one (untitled, 1935, above) a glamorous model who seems about to take a curtain call, looking every inch a star, has her head replaced by an actual star.

In another (also 1935) a face-mask is held away to reveal precisely the same face beneath. It illustrates Wilde’s famous credo “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” We should stop seeing masks as hiding selves and start seeing them as instead creating selves.
But it’s more than motifs jumping across genres, there’s a strong accordance between the mood of Maar’s fashion and Surrealist work. They’re both glamorous, in the sense of associated with heightened states. (And we should remember that at the time the Surrealists thrilled to the ‘irrationality’ of Hollywood films and advertising art.)

Appealingly there’s one image, ’The Years Lie In Wait for You’ (c. 1935, above) which shows a spider’s web superimposed over a model. It’s thought this was commissioned work, to sell an anti-ageing cream. But no-one’s sure, and the story’s complicated by the model being Maar’s Surrealist compatriot Nusch Eluard.

While ’Untitled (Hand-Shell)’ (1934, above) not only retains elements from ’Untitled Element For Fashion Photograph’ (also above, from the same year) it keeps much of the glamour - a manicured hand displayed under perfectly arranged lighting. It’s a strong enough image to make it onto the show’s poster. The chief difference is that the hand isn’t left as a separate object but linked to the shell. And as the image somewhat resembles a snail, it takes us a second to realise the impossibility of it. It doesn’t shock, like so many Surrealist images, so much as subvert, sneak up on us.

The disembodied hand is something of a staple of horror films, often as a kind of negative window onto the soul. It’s associated with amoral grasping, what we’d do without head or heart to guide us. But that doesn’t seem to fit here at all. One reading would be to see this as a truncated timeline of evolution, that we crawled from the sea then came to paint our nails. But the image is ambiguous; even though the hand stretches from the shell, it’s still possible to read the timeline backwards.

The collage ’Untitled (Danger)’ (1936, above) borrows from Ernst’s montages taken from popular magazines. Though he would normally manipulate what he found, adding or over-pasting elements. Society figures would come to sport bird heads or bat wings, while still sitting smartly in their drawing room. Maar juxtaposes two figures merely by placing them against a new background, the full extent of her alterations. So, much like the hand shell, our initial reaction is to try and parse it as an integral image.

And even after we’ve given up on that, it’s easy enough to image either figure in the setting of their original pulp magazine. But set against the softly lapping shore their histrionic poses look absurd. (More so for the lack of interaction between them.) It’s similar to meeting someone in real life who behaved as though they were in some genre adventure story.

The Weight of Absence

A very early photo, ’Le Mont St. Michael’ (1931, above), of a monastery cloister and described as her “first significant commission”, establishes a theme taken up in much of her later work. And it’s, I kid not, absence. What’s going on in that photo, with its space so empty but for those ominous shadows?

It’s not that something is about to happen. If fact you could almost will for something to happen, just to break the overpowering spell. When horror films switch from the atmospheric set-up to actually revealing the monster, it can come as a relief. Something often even built into the film, the revelation we’re at least dealing with a specific, defined thing renders it part-way to being defeated. This image is more the sensing of absence as a presence, the way you can realise you’re not carrying something you should be.

Which is common in Surrealist art. Objects are sometimes arranged in order to convey a central absence. Perhaps it suggests that in the object-oriented world of the bourgeoisie the irrational needs no place to hide, in fact empty space is its natural habitat. Perhaps it combines with, and extends, child animism, to the point where even absence becomes a form of life. But ultimately trying to rationalise it is paradoxical, for it literally involves focusing on nothing. Which is perhaps the point.

And you can see the echo of this image in ’Silence’ (1935/6, above), a title which is of course also a form of absence. The figures don’t fill or dominate the tunnel, but are more littered along it, like punctuation to a missing sentence.

The Surreal Lies in the Streets

We then learn the industrious Maar had a third string to her bow, she was also taking street photography. Against the background of the Depression, this era saw frequent fights between left and right (yeah, hard to imagine today), making the street a contested zone. And like many Surrealists Maar was quite partisan in those struggles, involved in campaigns and attending rallies. Many of these photos are straightforward reportage. But others, despite being entirely unaltered snaps of things she saw, are definitely Surrealist.

Take ’Untitled (Man Looking Inside a Pavement Inspection Door)’ (1935, above). An entirely explicable image, it does also resemble the Surrealist motif of a hole opening up in reality. Smartly, the image is cropped so the background figure is also headless. But it’s perhaps too smart, too witty, too close to a gag to be thought fully Surreal. However, others are more lyrical, more suggestive…

’After the Rain’ (1933, above) evokes so transient a moment there’s almost something Impressionist about it. That long-shadowed late afternoon will soon dissolve into dusk, the glistening pavement will dry, and so on. But it’s more about the passing of a mood than of the moment. And this is conveyed by the figures. Partly, by passing… by already having passed through the scene they enhance the sense of transience. But not only is one a child, the shot is taken from a low angle, suggesting their perspective. And children are more receptive to such spirits of the moment.

The capitalist city is arterial, functional, built for passing through. It’s divided neatly into zones, with mechanisms to get people and other units between those zones, according to schedules. The tendency is to reject the city with the capitalist. However the Surrealists instead re-imagined it. The city wasn’t a way to get to work on time, but a forest of symbols, a creator of chance encounters. The many elements… flow of vehicles and people, different architectural styles, times of day, weather patterns… each combine into a unique combination, and then another which overwrites the last.

To drift through the city without aim, going where you’re taken, that was thought a Surrealist activity in itself. Cities are for our senses the gift that never stops giving, an unending accumulation of impressions. We’ve stopped ourselves up so we didn’t have to notice any more. We need our eyes opening again, and this is what Surrealism is for.

The point isn’t to make art, or even change the nature of art. It’s to cure us from that affliction, by any means necessary. Louis Aragon insisted “our cities are peopled with unrecognised sphinxes which will never stop the passing dreamer and ask him mortal questions unless he first projects his meditation, his absence of mind, towards them.”

If we were to see the show as a Venn diagram, this is the point everything overlaps and we see Maar at her highest concentrate. There’s the immediacy of the verité street scenes but at the same time the enticing allure of the glamour images and the rich strangeness of the Surrealist collages. The show speaks of photography’s “precarious relationship to reality”, which allows it to “render the familiar strange.” Ben Luke in the Standard is more succinct: “She makes real life uncanny.”

Cause to Weep

Then in the winter of 1935 she met Picasso. At which point the show seems to be blown as much off course as was she, as if his domineering ego is exerting itself from beyond the grave. We’re shown her photos of working versions of ’Guernica’, interesting in themselves but about Picasso rather than her. We’re proudly told she was the model for his ’Weeping Woman’. But that’s not the same thing as it being a portrait of her. It’s a Picasso picture, and its true subject is Picasso. (There’s a detail of their relationship which seems telling. Having grown up in South America, Maar spoke perfect Spanish. But, despite living so long in Paris, Picasso spoke only poor French.)

After she’d guided him over a rare impasse in his art, he encouraged her to return to painting. A rare case of Picasso doing something for a woman’s creativity. The only problem being, he gave wholly the wrong advice. Her painting, in the main, just shows you what a great photographer she’d been. Worse, it’s generally imitative of his style from the period, the combination of classicism and primitivism.

However, while I may simply be hopefully imagining it, ’Portrait of a Woman’ (1939) exaggerates his tropes to the point they become exposed, like pushing an argument to its logical conclusion. The female elements placed on a table, in contrast to the neat vertical strokes of the background, seem to emphasise the artificiality of phrases like ‘putting on your face’, to the point we see "woman" as a construction. Sporting its own eyes and full lips, the table itself seems feminised, as if the two have morphed together. Notably, in French the word ‘table’ is given a feminine pronoun.

Their inevitable break triggered a depression in her. (Equally inevitably caused by him finding another woman. Or, more accurately another another woman.) Which was exacerbated by a flurry of ill winds, including the death of her mother, of Nush Eluard and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Against this background she painted ’Still Life With Jar and Cup’ (1945, above). There’s a running joke that every contemporary art show has at least one work described as “an interrogation of ‘the real’”, a piece of boilerplate post-modern bollocks. No-one says it here, and it’s one time you could justifiably apply it. We associate such solid outlines with sharply delineated objects but, particularly with the bottle, they sport the paraphernalia of three dimensions while actually looking flat and iconic. 

The blurry paint and the narrow chromatic range make these objects look neither solid nor intangible, but some strange ghost form which slips between the two. There’s a similarity to the work of Giorgo Morandi.

Around now, Maar is supposed to have reverted to Catholicism. But there is something Zen, in the strict sense of the term, about these still lives. As they seem to question reality they’re unsettling, but at the same time they’re simple and calm, perhaps even serene. They seem to be telling us that nothing in the world is as we think it is. But never mind, you’ll get over it.

In later life, she created ‘photograms’ - photo negatives painted on, corroded or otherwise manipulated. The works are fine, if perhaps a throwback to work produced in the inter-war years. But two details stand out. She showed them to few, so few they were effectively discovered after her death in 1997. And she made a point of saying she no longer found the street inspiring; it was “more extravagant” but at the same time “banal”. Creating art purely within her own darkroom suggests she’d retreated to an insular world and, knowing it, didn’t consider it worthwhile to show her work to a world it had no connection with. It had become like dreams in the more conventional sense, incubated in private and without significance to others.

Overall, her images have none of the standard sub-Dalian paraphernalia the style is normally littered with, and are all the stranger for it. People too readily associate Surrealism with the fantastical, with the depiction of impossible things. But it’s less concerned with conjuring up unexpected sights, with simulating hallucinations, and more with challenging our existing ways of looking. As Michael Richardson has said “Surrealism neither aims to subvert realism… not does it try to transcend it. It looks for entirely different means by which to explore reality itself.” Or, to jump back to Wilde, he insisted “the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”.

But, while perhaps the Tate have been spoiling us, overall Maar couldn’t match the impact of Dorothea Tanning or Wifredo Lam. True the high points of the show, the Surrealist collages and Parisian street scenes, are high indeed. But like that late afternoon street she shot, they seemed to arrive too soon and pass too quickly.

But perhaps hers is more the story of Surrealism. The irony is that war, through the First World War then the Spanish Civil War, did so much to stir up the movement. Then it was war, through World War Two, which slew it. Modern art no longer seemed a transformative medium, political radicalism lay dead, the once-inspiring Soviet Union exposed as crushingly repressive, unconscious forces now nothing but tools with which ad men could manipulate us. The dream, as someone once said, was over.

Saturday 22 August 2020


Back in the day, much of the stuff John Peel played I’d first loathe but slowly come to love. (The Fall being the most classic example.) But the Delgados I initially didn’t dislike, I just dismissed. It didn’t seem challenging so much as unmemorable, pretty tunes maybe but no substance, another chip off the indie block. Only by increments did I work my way round to them.

And their music should work that way, should slowly creep up on you. Particularly with their career-highlight album ’Peloton’ they managed to pull off the same magic trick as the later Velvets, without ever sounding imitative of them. They often start off with a simple melodic line, only to mess with it. Lyrics are at once erudite and elusive, hinting at dark deeds which couldn’t be spoken of openly. Remember that soporific drink that Mia Farrow’s made to sup in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, the one where she complains about the undertaste? Delgados songs are similar, initially sounding sweet but gradually revealing a bitter residue. As John Cale once said, “a nice way of saying something nasty.”

Or, in another analogy, imagine spotting an invitingly clear blue pool. Only after jumping in do you realise that serene surface actually masks a myriad of undercurrents. Listening, you tend to get tangled up within them.

They formed after they being ejected en masse from another band, but deciding to carry on regardless. As this left them short on numbers, drummer Paul Savage enlisted his then girlfriend Emma Pollock. Who naturally went on to become one of the two main songwriters.

Their first album ’Domestiques’ (1996) admittedly 
did sound for the most part like another John Peel band, people who’d listened to lots of the Velvets and Sonic Youth. But with positives. Songs were fast, sprightly, full of vim and infectious humour. One chorus goes: “What’s your middle name?/ I haven’t got one.”

’Peloton’ (1998) was only their second release, as if the Beatles had jumped straight from ’Hard Day’s Night’ to ’Revolver.’ The songwriting, chiefly by Pollock and Alun Woodward, matured and became more idiosyncratic. Songs sound no longer like they’ve been thrown up in a gust of youthful enthusiasm but precisely calibrated, as if they’d been built by a watchmaker. Elements enter and leave the arrangement at sharply defined moments, sometimes of only a few seconds in length.

There had been strings on ’Domestiques’. But their greater use on the follow-up seems based, as so often, on happenstance. Asked to play an acoustic gig they decided on getting in some accompanists, bassist Stuart Henderson bumping into someone he knew at a bus stop.

With ‘The Great Eastern’ (2000) and particularly with it’s follow-up ’Hate’ (2002) the strings and brass expanded. Their Peel Sessions act as a kind of timeline. The second, from 1996, drafts in a violin. By the fifth, in 2000, there’s three of them, plus a viola, a cello, a piano and a flute.

’Hate’ opens with a choir, as if setting out its stall early. Heard on its own, it sounds magnificent, and there are some sensational tracks on the albums. But heard after ’Peloton’, it’s hard to shake the feeling something more special and unique has been over-written. Graham Greene once said a writer must have a sliver of ice at his heart. Their later output is richer and fuller, but it all starts to melt that sliver of ice. The strings which had punctuated the sound now come to enrich it. The same track to start with the choir, ‘The Light Before We Land’, includes the lines “Remind me how we used to feel/ Before when life was real.”

And another thing… As the Guardian’s Dave Simpson wrote in a live review: “The vocal interplay between pure-voiced tomboy Emma Pollock and introspective pretty boy Alun Woodward is especially stunning.” And yet by ’Hate’ they’d come to drop that interplay altogether.

Their own description of ‘Universal Audio’ (2004) was “we had pretty much come round full circle and had dispensed with our… orchestra, trying to keep the songs as simple and upbeat as possible.” The seventh and final Peel session for that album not only dispensed with the extra instruments, it was acoustic.

Wait a second - upbeat? Did those doleful Scottish indie kids just say upbeat? Yes, they did. And they really were. The shift had in fact been presaged by some of the tracks from ’Hate’, such as ’Coming In From the Cold’ - a toast to carefree summertime adventuring:

”Raise your glass
”We're going to drink now till the summer's past
”So bring the hats out, we all need a laugh
”And let the neighbours talk”

(Though, appealingly, the sliver of ice never entirely melted. Pretty soon Pollock is slipping in lines like “Not to blame/ No-one’s telling you you’re not to blame.”)

Now everyone thinks of us anti-social alternative music fans reacting to commercial success like vampires to sunlight, retreating to the refuge of early Throbbing Gristle demos. But if a band can pull off a hit song while still sounding great, that’s something to celebrate. I can still remember how exhilarating it was to see the Smiths storming ‘Top of the Pops’ way back when. And it would have been as awesome to see ’Coming In From the Cold’ climb the charts. In this interview Pollock effectively says that cult had become confining: “It's not just about success. It's about the feeling that what you're doing has been received well by as many people as possible.”

This site explains that “they dismembered in 2005 after disputes.” The truth was slightly less painful than that sounds. Well, slightly. The thing was… however deserved success may have been, the hits never came. At least not in this world. Henderson caused the split, commenting he couldn’t continue "to pour so much of my energy and time into something that never quite seemed to get the attention or respect I felt it deserved." (A statement that, through running this blog, I in no way relate to.)

But in a way, all that’s appropriate. Like a stubborn stain that won’t scrub out, even for a shirt you want to wear for your Saturday night, melancholy couldn’t be removed from the Delgados story.

‘Pull the Wires From the Wall’, off ’Peloton’, which made John Peel’s All-Time Festive Fifty in 2000…

Saturday 15 August 2020


Tate Modern, London

”Television has attacked us for a lifetime. Now we strike back.” 
- Nam June Paik, 1992

The Next Step Towards Inderminacy 

One of the many videos included with this show is a German TV documentary on the Fluxus International Festival of Newest Music in 1962. Inevitably, it takes more interest in reaction shots than the events themselves. And, affecting smug viewer camaraderie as if to say “of course you and I can see through this foolishness”, it informs us: “the audience are not quite sure. Should one keep a straight face or is one allowed to smile?”

Nam June Paik’s history involved video art, music, performance, installations, robots and more - often all at the same time. One constant was the influence of John Cage, who he met in ’58 and thereafter took to referring the years before as BC - Before Cage. In another video Cage plays his infamous silent piece on a Manhattan street. As an audience assembles he sits at the keys with absolute focus, then at the very end opens the lid. Are you allowed to laugh? Was there a serious point to it? Or is it both, impish provocation and Zen statement at the same time? He wasn’t giving anything away. And he could deadpan as well as any comic.

The thing is, Mr. Reporter man, the unanswerability of that question isn’t a failing at all. In fact it’s the very crux of the thing. You haven’t seen through. You haven’t even seen.

And a work like ‘TV Buddha’ (1974, above) works in a similar way. A Buddhist figure sits before a camera and TV screen, as if using his own as like a meditational aid. In fact, as you see yourself and other attendees caught in the screen background, the figure becomes rather like Cage in the video. It would be tempting to see in it a provocative critique, perhaps of rich Westerners with their consumerist appropriation of Buddhism. We must be allowed to smile.

But it’s equally possible no joke is intended. To use TV for this - really, why not? Being able to recognise yourself in the mirror is an early stage in overcoming infant egoism. And to get free of yourself, to see outside of your own subjectivities, is part of meditation’s aim. Cage of course was a Buddhist. And Paik seems at least semi-sympathetic, commenting “I am not a follower of Zen, but I react to Zen in the same way I react to Bach.”

Staying on the TV theme… you’ll get used to this with Paik… is ‘TV Garden’ (1974/7), where TV screen of various screen sizes and angles are made into part, possibly the fruits, of a garden. “Television is part of ecology”, he explained. And much of his work involves dissolving apparent borders - East/West (born in Korea, Paik also lived and worked in Japan, America and Germany), ancient/modern and, here, he commingles culture and nature. The work’s “like nature, which is beautiful”, he commented, “not because it changes beautifully, but simply because it changes”.

The show goes to some lengths to reconstruct his first solo exhibition, ‘Exposition of Music - Electronic Television’ in Wuppertal in 1963. But the effort is worth it. The gallery was the ground floor of a converted villa, but Paik took over the whole building - including the stairs, the basement, the garden and the private residence upstairs. Even the toilet was not immune.

Several of these works are already AC, in the sense of moving beyond Cage. With his prepared pianos Cage mostly inserted objects inside them, interfering with the hammers. The piano seemed ‘normal’, until you tried to play it. Paik attaches items until it looks like a surrealist object in its own right (above), then connects the keys to external things. One sets off a siren, another switches off the room lights, yet another turns them back on, and so on.

The audience is encouraged not to witness and privately contemplate completed art objects. But neither do they merely observe the results of chance processes, as often the case with Cage. Instead they move through a space at their own choosing, interacting with things as they come across them. Art becomes a conversation, not a recital or set speech. “As the next step towards more indeterminacy”, Paik explained, “I wanted to let the audience act and play by itself”.

When Control Was Remote (The Screen Era)

Paik was able to buy his first portable video recorder in 1965, and indeed the Sixties was the decade television technology became ubiquitous. The issues he dealt with very much of his time. But the way he saw technology… truth to tell he sometimes seemed confused.

When he insisted “the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas”, it was a Futurist statement which could have been made by Marinetti had he lived long enough. Yet at other points he seems to envisage a cultural war, with he and his cohorts as the Viet Cong waging guerrilla combat against the mighty tech giants. Though even here technology seems something like Patty Hearst, born into privilege but always yearning to be liberated by the other side. Even when he worked with the tech sector, such as at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, there’s a sense of him going undercover behind enemy lines.

For example, the video installation ’Nixon’ (1965, above) is almost a literalisation of culture jamming. Two TV images of Nixon are distorted by magnetic coils. Like Burroughs’ writing it suggests that the mass media is less an outright fiction than a distortion of reality. So by scrambling it, by distorting the distortion further, we decode it into telling the truth. As well as the obvious political reading, it seems connected to the sound distortions often used by psychedelic music of this era, when only shortly before the studio had merely tried to imitate a ‘live’ sound.

Yet in this conflict, if not contradiction, he proved a microcosm of his era. In the social upsets of the late Sixties, crowds would chant “the whole world’s watching.” There was a tendency to see the same generational shift in technology as with people. Radio involved a reporter telling you what he saw, while with TV you saw it all yourself. Mass media was inherently liberating, flowing across borders until it corroded them, levelling old hierarchies.

But at the same time one of the famous Parisian agitational posters framed the state broadcaster with the phrase “the enemy speaks to us at 6pm”. The Situationist writer Guy Debord declared “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation”. Even John Lennon, star of the new media, commented how they “keep you doped with religion and sex and TV.”

And we’re not done yet with those era-embracing contradictions. After an earlier Tate show, I argued much Sixties art fell into a chalk-and-cheese divide between Conceptualism and Fluxus. Paik was officially a member of Fluxus, participating in their events. During which he’d undress and smear himself with toothpaste while playing the Moonlight Sonata… you know, that sort of thing. 

Fluxus was originally called ‘Neo Dada’, and Paik’s texts and publicity have that Dada roughness, pasted down at irregular angles, sometimes over a seemingly unconnected background, bulletins from the front line. And that extemporisation contrasts creatively with his interest in technology. Which we tend to assume will arrive in our lives all sleek and shiny, like a UFO landing. Technology is seen as just another manifestation of high culture, another mystification to challenge and overthrow. For example ’Robot-K456’ (1964, below) was, in the show’s words, “designed as an intentionally shoddy human figure”, to dispel such sci-fi allure.

Fluxus took up Dada’s desire to shock. For it’s first performance, 'Robot K-456’ played the Kennedy inaugural address while shitting white beans. But it also channelled another element of Dada too often overlooked. In its antipathy to high culture, it sought to bring back play. Audience participation doesn’t come across as a lofty ideal, where people are exhorted not to passively sit there supping up the capitalist system of agglomeration, but imbibed with an infectious sense of involvement. To misquote an old ad - overthrowing commodity culture, let’s pretend it’s fun.

Which relates to another art movement of the era. There’s a vitrine of objects from Paik’s studio, which includes Buddhist figures alongside toy plastic robots. And this eclecticism, this magpie collecting of images and shaking up of signs until the effect is culturally levelling, is very Pop Art.

‘Family of Robots’ (1986, example above) for example, were made from working TVs. The grandparents came from vintage equipment, then down to the children composed out of the latest models. It’s reminiscent of the <i>‘Simpsons’</i> scene where Bart insists of hugging the TV instead of Homer, as “it’s done more to raise me than you have”. We are now effectively made of TV technology, its images imprinted on our brains. It’s a similar theme to the Scottish Pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, if different in execution. And it’s also similar to Paolozzi in never forgetting, in fact revelling, in the way that robots are considered a suitable toy for children.

Then at other times Paik would come up with something like ’Three Eggs’ (1975), in which an egg is filmed and shown on a monitor. Another nearby monitor then has its screen removed, and a real egg inserted…. you get it? This slightly tiresome formal game seems much closer to Conceptualism.

Conceptual art had a dryness it often used as a means of staging absurd jokes deadpan, the better to get its foot in gallery settings. But counter to Fluxus, it tended to relish that dryness, the difficulty, the withholding of aesthetic appeal. True, Fluxus could venture too far over to the playful side of the dial, and become unfocused and self-indulgent - nothing more than bohemian antics, something to do until you grow out of it. Whereas Conceptualism could be too cool, too cerebral, to get anyone riled up enough to change anything. In an era where Jimi Hendrix was setting light to guitars and protesters were levitating the Pentagon it could clamour for attention. 

Someone needed to mix the two up, to get the porridge just right. There are points Paik manages this, but there’s others where he can’t keep up the balancing act. At times he’s found falling into one camp, at others into the other.

No Failure Like Success 

The Tate partly sells this show through his “profound influence on today’s art and culture”. (And see their video, embedded below.) True enough, back in ’74 he predicted “the electronic superhighway”, and asked “do you know how soon artists will have their own TV channels?”

But if some art has proved prophetic, so what? Were that all there was to it, you wouldn’t need to know about Paik any more than you’d need to know about Ade Lovelace to operate your laptop. We don’t want art to predict the next iPhone feature, in fact we don’t want art that merely predicts at all. We want art to raise challenging questions, to critique seeming certainties, to rub up against culture not contribute to it.

When Paik put on his first show in Germany, the most wealthy country in Europe had two TV channels. Mass media was closer to the ‘his master’s voice model’, where the voices of the few were funnelled to the many. An act as simple as offering interaction then seemed radical. And the very technology which enabled TV technology was slowly but surely subjecting it to challenge. Like the still camera before it, the TV camera slowly became both more portable and more affordable.

However, as you watch attendees photographing and filming what are already video works, that’s clearly not the world we live in. We generate the content we consume, we even do it while consuming. But that doesn’t mean DIY culture has triumphed. It means our behaviour has been factored into the new business mode and monetised.

In the Observer, Bidisha found this “a story about the radical 60s generation segueing into the yuppie era.” And like others of that generation, Paik was so successful he inevitably became a victim of that success. Truth to tell, he became one of those people always telling you how futuristic the future will be, until you learn to spot him coming.

In 1984 he became associated with first world-wide satellite broadcast, titled ‘Good Morning Mister Orwell’, intended to mix high art and “popular entertainment”. (Including, risibly, the Thompson twins.) ’Internet Dreams’ (1993, above) is a video wall. We might want to associate this with reversal of perspective. We’re no longer the object, the viewed, the dot among many other dots stuck on the map. We’re now the subject, the viewer. Perhaps even stroking a white cat.

One of the many recurrences of this image is Moore and Gibbons’ celebrated comic 'Watchmen’, where Ozymandias meta-reads a bank of screens like a scrying glass, and so divines the immediate future. But what do we do when we come across this? Of course we channel-surf. Just like we do at home with one screen and a button.

If there was anything valuable to learn here it would be that no magic transfers from sitting in that exalted position, that there’s no super-sighted elite who hatch mater-plans, that those who place themselves above us are at least as clueless as we are. But that’s not the response we’re being prompted for.

Paik had said in 1969 “the real issue is not to make another scientific toy, but to humanise the technology”. We now know all too well that satellite TV just made broadcasting broader, that more screens was merely a quantitive not a qualitative change. It did nothing to disrupt, reverse or humanise the technology.

But worst of wall was James Fox’s BBC4 series ’The Age of the Image’ which said of his video installation ‘Sistine Chapel’ (1993) “it really does capture what it was like to belong to the MTV generation”. You know what else did that? MTV did. And MTV was shit.

On the other hand, this may be seeing it the wrong way up. In his Standard review, Matthew Collings recounts how he had only known Paik through his later work, which he found soporific, and found this show to transform his understanding. That, not ’Internet Dreams’, is the reversal of perspective to pull. Focus on the good stuff.

Paik was like a cross between Babbage and Dr. Frankenstein, extemporising at the limits of possibility. It’s like the well-known story of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop. In their early days they’d spend hours cobbling together unique and entirely unreliable contraptions, that unreliability often being the thing that made them unique. In later years they could just order kit from a catalogue, and they sounded like it. Paik failed by succeeding. He may have been fated to fail, given his time and his interests. But that doesn’t mean the only lessons he has for us are negative ones.

Saturday 8 August 2020


I first saw Kate Bush the same way everybody else did - appearing on ‘Top Of the Pops’ in March 1978 with her debut single ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Accounts of first hearing the song normally focus on her unearthly wailing voice. Unsurprisingly so, for it was a country mile from the soothing cooing women usually went in for with pop songs. Yet most of us first saw her the time we 
first heard her.

In a gross and unfair maldistribution of human resources she was clearly beautiful as well as talented. And, then more than now, looks were a good commodity to trade on for a woman looking for a music career. Instead she threw her performance into evoking the nature of the song’s character. Which so closely matches that vocal they can’t really be disentangled, one just feels like a transposition of the other.

Playing a ghost, she decided to act ghostly. With her long black hair, white dress and strange angular gestures, all hands and elbows, she doesn’t look so far from Sadako in the ’Ring’ films. (Who, much like Cathy at the window, is always lurking at thresholds.) It might sound counter-intuitive to compare Bush, every young lad’s wholesome heart-throb, to the scary spectre from a horror film. Yet there is something siren-like about Sakado’s mesmerising appearances, as Murray Ewing has said she’s “horrific and beautiful at the same time.”

Despite all this subsequently becoming so iconic, the single’s cover actually depicted the b-side, ’Kite’. Which, it seems fair to assume, would have been a label decision. While Bush favoured spectral over sexy, they went for the image where she showed a bit of leg.

But if the vocals are all otherly, the string arrangement behind them is lush and romantic. A love song sung by a ghost is still a love song, after all. And this combination of romantic and sinister effectively defines the song. The luring siren may be a familiar trope. But is Cathy mouthing seductive invitations to lure her prey to his demise, or here because she couldn’t be parted from him, even in death?

The lyrics slip between both, as if she doesn’t really know herself. “Let me have it/ Let me grab your soul away” runs into “I’m coming back to his side/ To put it right.”

I’ve never seen the TV adaptation which inspired her. But the scene is normally played to show the effect Kathy’s apparition has on Heathcliffe. The narrative often starts out by showing him broken, then makes the majority of the film a flashback which slowly leads up to our finding the cause. But the song reverses this perspective. The song’s all about Cathy.

More so, in my case. From the start I knew it was based on a book. Not because I was well-read, but because my Dad told me. This added to its audacity. Top twenty pop songs, not only didn’t they sound like this they certainly weren’t based on books! But he didn’t think to tell me who Heathcliffe was, and my young ears glossed over her singing the name.

Which only worked to my advantage. It enhanced the sense that she was singing directly to me. The line blurred between Cathy at the window and Kate on the TV screen, the singer and character who virtually shared a name.

The opening lines frame Cathy in nature. The “wiley, windy moors” of Yorkshire to be precise, which would seem to match her tempestuous personality. (“Too hard, too greedy.”) So ‘Wuthering Heights’ is romantic in both senses, a love song which evokes the sublime force of nature but presents it as a lover. What you’re drawn to, where you belong, will destroy you. But that destruction will be rhapsodic. Which is pretty much the way you imagine a love affair at that young age, dramatic and utterly life-changing.

(Apologies for the ‘informative’ ’TOTP2’ captions, this was the only version the internet seemed to provide.)

I was too young to consciously think of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a novelty hit. But it was so unique and so complete a package there was no natural lead-in for a follow-up.

But remember what I was saying about talent as a maldistributed resource? Bush wrote ‘Wuthering Heights’ at aged eighteen, and ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ at thirteen. In, legend has it, pink felt tip. She made the recording when sixteen.

Style again perfectly fits content. But by going in the opposite direction. While ‘Wuthering Heights’ was audaciously strange (particularly at the time of its release), ’Child’ is classic songwriting - only unusual in doing usual things unusually well. Both vocals and instrumentation are straightforward and direct. There’s an orchestra, but it only supplies decoration - like a book with illustrated margins. Try to recall the song, it’s the voice and piano which come to you.

Above all, there’s no sense of her playing a character. (The ethereal “he’s here” voice was added to the single version, I suspect, to add some continuity to two otherwise dissimilar numbers.)

While almost the whole of ‘Wuthering Heights’ lay in imagining it being sung to you, this time the appeal of this song is the feeling of eavesdropping. We’ve come from a classic “you” song to a classic “me” song. Bush herself described it as “a very intimate song about a young girl almost voicing her inner thoughts, not really to anyone, but rather to herself.”

As ever, those who chase literal explanations have asked who it was written about. In one case an ex-boyfriend has claimed it was him. I’m not going to link to the right wing rag he sold his story to, and wouldn’t even if the claim wasn’t blatantly absurd. If, listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’, I liked to pretend she was singing to me, at least I knew I was pretending. It’s clear enough to those with ears to listen that she’s singing to a fantasy lover, and one who is some years older than her.

As Christine Kelly has said: “What we’re given with ’Child’ is that ever-so-rare thing in pop music: a young person’s vision of the world, undiluted by executive interference.” What pop music should surely be for, it sounds the strangest thing when we actually get to hear it. She also suggests that, not only has the song rarely been covered, Bush herself needed to drop it when she got just a little older.

Other songs on her first album are quite sexual (presumably because they were written later). But at that age, at least for us sensitive kids, your fantasies weren’t particularly carnal. As you start to separate from your parents, you first invent a replacement figure for them. It’s knowing your fantasy lover is merely a fantasy but luxuriating in that, the way it allows you to stitch together an expansive if rather hazy wish list.

You imagine someone worldly, a quality you’re aware you lack. But most of all, you imagine someone who gets you, to who you don’t have to try and explain yourself. “He’s very understanding, and he’s so aware/ Of all my situations.” “He’s always with me” makes him sound almost omnipresent. Bush said herself:

“I think it's a very natural, basic instinct that you look continually for your father for the rest of your life, as do men continually look for their mother in the women that they meet. I don't think we're all aware of it, but I think it is basically true. You look for that security that the opposite sex in your parenthood gave you as a child.”

She was nineteen by the time the song was released. Now, of course, my brain boggles at what she could do when so young. But when I first heard it I was eleven, and that age seemed impossibly mature. So inevitably a kind of flipping occurred, in singing about someone else to me she articulated the way I imagined her. Things shifted from a song you couldn’t help but pretend she was singing to you, to one you couldn’t help but imagine you were singing to her.

Kate Bush was the poster girl who got you in the heart.

Saturday 1 August 2020


National Gallery, London

”I close my eyes to see.”
- Gauguin

Getting Your Own Good Side

The 2011 Tate retrospective on Gauguin being both comprehensive and incisive, the National smartly decide to focus on something in particular. (There’s a clue in the title.) So for the sake of convenience, let’s imagine that Tate’s still so fresh in our minds that we only need to look for new stuff here.

This being a portrait show and this being Gauguin, naturally there are self-portraits. In fact we start with a room if them. And the Tate show, that started the same way. There’s no other way to go into this, really.

We’re soon told “everything an artist does is in effect a self-portrait”. Even if you were disposed to disagree, you wouldn’t be likely to start from here. It concedes “his writings were emphatically self-centred”, but adds “making himself the chief subject was more than mere narcissism”. At which point you envision the word “discuss” magically forming out of the air. He may well have closed his eyes to see, but he still had a fixation for being seen. As one example, for his ’Christ in the Garden of Olives’ (1889) he modelled his Jesus on… yes, you guessed. Yes, he did.

’Self-Portrait’ (1185, above) is another artist-at-work image. Not only does that angled beam to his right suggest an artist’s garret, he looks hunched against it rather than sitting straight, as if its presence has gone on enough to be impregnated in his posture. Then the frame of (presumably) a canvas hems him in from the other side. He’s wearing a coat indoors. A shaft of light crosses across his face and drawing hand, a face looking pale and wan. Unlike the blocks of deep colour Gauguin’s known for, the only bright tones are found on his artworks within the artwork. Everything else is shades of brown, white and green. This is Gauguin pre-Gauguin, still under Impressionist influence.

But not for long. While ’Self-Portrait’ was unmistakably the self-portrait of an artist, ’Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carriere’ (1888/9, above) is equally obviously the self-portrait of Paul Gauguin. There might as well be a speech balloon saying “accept no substitute.”

This time he fills the frame, particularly with that shovel-sized chin, the confining beam replaced by a window view. Rather than gaze off mysteriously into the distance, thinking artist’s wistful thoughts, he firmly meets the viewer’s gaze. The composition seems to focus in on his left eye, everything else arranged around it. And if the colours aren’t quite as full as they’ll become, they’re more vibrant. Compare the two greens of the wall behind him.

Last show I said “the primitive ‘other’ he fetishised was simply a construct of contemporary Western society – not a window onto another world but an unshaven looking glass.” A line I wrote before seeing ’Self-Portrait’ (1890, above). Has he painted himself in brownface? Effectively, yes.

He had spent part of his youth in Peru and, much like Jim Morrison later fantasising about being Native American, had come to believe he had Inca heritage. (Unsurprisingly, he actually came from Spanish colonialists.) In something he’d indulge more and more this is the quasi-positive view of the ‘savage’, a word he often used to convey freedom from inhibition, something to proudly proclaim.

So this is the dashing and swarthy savage of a matinee movie rather than the bestial monster or idiotic clown of more overt racism. He’s captured less precisely than the earlier images, as if less graspable by Western art. (Somewhat ignoring the inconvenient fact that this is still Gauguin painting Gauguin.) But that is no break, it just makes it the opposite side of the same coin.

Let’s fast-forward to Tahiti, the era he’s best known for. (Besides the forthcoming Academy exhibition is titled ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’, so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to fancy that will deal more with his early years.)

It’s noticeable the self-portraits lessen from now on. The show comments: “While in Tahiti, with the French public far away, Gauguin stopped painting depictions of himself.” But this was more tendency than iron rule. For example…

’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’ (1893/4), with that jutting beam now swapped to the other side, looks like the opposite book-end to the first self-portrait. The previously pallid garret-dwelling artist is now bathed in the yellow Tahitian light. Beneath an intrepid hat, his expression exudes confidence and insouciance. And why should this be?

In times past, a chief occupation of artists had been painting flattering portraits of the wealthy. Gradually these were replaced by the camera and ’Hello’ magazine. These would often flauntingly display things they owned which would include, somewhat recursively, other artworks. Here Gauguin effectively paints himself into this tradition, his own great man and flattering portraitist, bringing in one of his most recognisable works - ’Manao Tupapua’ (1894). Unlike ’Self-Portrait’ he’s not painting himself as a painter but as a possessor, we’re expected to know that work is his and accept what it confers upon him.

The show devotes a room to ‘surrogate portraits’, some more convincing than others. ’Still Life With ‘Hope” (1901, above) gets its title from the reproductions on the wall. Unlike the previous illo, this time neither are by Gauguin himself, the topmost being ’Hope’ by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. (The other is a Degas.)

When Gauguin had gone to stay with Van Gogh in the south of France in 1888, as a welcome his room had been hung with the recently completed sunflower pictures, which has enthused him. The most famous of the series wasn’t painted till the next January, though it would seem to be the one referred to here. Its fame lies in it being almost entirely painted in bright yellows and oranges, with only a few touches of offsetting green. The resultant effect is dazzling.

The two prints may well be included as hints to lead us into seeing the sunflowers here as Gauguin’s take on another artist’s work. And the colour scheme could not be more sombre. Compare the two walls, Van Gogh’s vivid yellow which barely looks solid to Gauguin’s slew of deep orange browns. Moreover, while Van Gogh allowed some sunflowers to droop Gauguin permits none of of his to rise, even laying one out flat on the table. Van Gogh paints not just flowers but flowering, Gauguin does the opposite.

He’d gone to some trouble to paint this, having to send off to Paris for - and then growing - the seeds. And the motive was most likely a memento for his old compatriot, who’d died little more than a year after painting that famous work. Being a lowbrow type, it mostly reminds me of the Prince lyric: “All the flowers that you planted in the back yard/ All died when you went away”. De Chanannes had also died, in 1898, and part of Gaugin’s motive in including him might have been to place ‘Hope’ in those inverted commas. (Though the ever-obstinate Degas lived to 1917.)

Though of course Van Gogh had died nearly a decade before, and his clashes with Gauguin were one more thing which pushed him into breakdown and suicide, so why wait till now? The reason was, inevitably enough, egocentric. The displaced portrait of Van Gogh turns out to be a self-portrait twice removed. By this point his own health had been declining for some years, and this painting suggests he saw the end in sight.

If ’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’ was the composition of ’Self-Portrait’ inverted, not a marginalised outsider but a proudly successful artist, ’Self-Portrait’ (1903) goes back to the face from the earlier work. He’s painted directly, in a collarless shirt, in soft pinks, off-whites and greys. Unlike all the earlier works in this sequence, even the very first one, there’s no sign of a persona. The gaze in the painting is the gaze not just of a painter but of this painter, weak (his eyesight was failing among much else) yet unyieldingly self-scrutinising. Seeing in this sequence makes it all the more affecting. He died later that year, aged only 54.

Colonialism And Its Discontents

And still on Tahiti…

Walking round this show I did start to wonder how we’d respond if Jeffrey Epstein was discovered to have been secretly painting, and found ourselves looking at works which showed some artistic value. There’s not a great deal of difference between that scenario and this, after all, besides the passage of time.

To briefly recap a story everyone already knows, shortly after arriving in Tahiti he took Tehamana as his ‘wife’ when she may have been no older than thirteen. (He would call her a “girl” in his writings.) He later abandoned the child with her own child, a trick he went on to play on others. Her “experience of their relationship is not recorded,” the show notes - perhaps dryly.

What’s significant is that the way Gauguin conceived of women and the way he conceived of Tahiti are effectively identical, so both are epitomised by his paintings of Tehamana. Each is defined by primitive ‘otherness’. But that’s not seen as a strangeness, something which challenges our comprehension. Instead Gauguin ‘feminised’ Tahiti, made it his wife, assumed its role was to provide for him things he wanted. Hence the apparent paradox of him travelling to Tahiti for inspiration, despite his “look within” credo. (As in the opening quote.)

See for example a more unusual focus on a Tahitian male. ’The Royal End’ (1892, above) was painted after witnessing a King’s funeral. Though, disappointed by what he’d seen, he simply made up something more to his liking. The lips, already accentuated in the stereotypical depiction of ‘the savage’, are made more prominent by the profile view. This is a culture chopped off at the neck and mounted like a trophy.

The show supplies two interesting biographical details. He first ‘saw’ Tahiti through a display at the 1889 World’s Fair, a West-friendly construction of the place. But also, in 1901 he moved from there to the more remote Marquesa islands. His motive, in his own words, was the feeling that colonialism - and in particular the Church - had robbed Tahiti of its cultural identity.

Of course the complaint that old places are ‘spoilt’ and new ones now need to be sought is more the attitude of the holiday-maker than the anti-imperialist. And significantly this coincided with his finally giving up on art sales in Paris, a return to France in 1893 not being the triumphant event he had imagined. So he’d slunk back to the South Seas, no longer frontiersman but exile. He was looking back at a broken bridge, and proudly proclaiming he’d burnt it himself.

Still, from this point his criticism of colonial rule did become more overt. On arrival, he got himself into a grudge match with the local Bishop, who beneath his pious proclamations was having some less-than-holy dalliances with his staff. Gauguin carved a totem of him as a snake-tailed devil, which he goadingly stuck on public show outside his house. (Somehow it’s survived and is included in the show.)

Those two events, the World’s Fair and the conversion to anti-colonialism, are a decade apart. Nevertheless there’s a clear contradiction between them, inside which the essence of Gauguin lurks. His loud railing against colonialism doesn’t counteract his implication in it. In fact it’s the reverse, we are best off seeing these battles with the Bishop as a projected blame game - castigating another for his own sins.

And one reason we can be sure of that is, if this comes to a head in Martinique, it was seeded in Tahiti if not before. ’Melancholic’ (1891, above) for example uses Tehamana as a model. She wears the modest, full-length ‘missionary dress’, so-called because they were what the Church tried to impress upon the local women rather than traditional clothing. Yet at the same time she’s barefoot.

That far-away look this does have much of the Romantic sense of the inscrutable allure of women, as featured heavily in the Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite show. Yet there’s another and perhaps more interesting approach to ambiguity going on behind her. Is that a painting or a window view? The former would seem to lend more to the show’s preferred reading: “Gauguin possibly sought to evoke a mood of nostalgia for a way of life disappearing.” Tehamana’s in Tahiti. Logically, she should be able to see Tahiti out the window, or at least some portion of it. But the ambiguity raises a question. What if the real Tahiti’s now only preserved in art?

Gauguin, at least in this period, seems to have a dislike of interiors, often conveyed as confining to the point of being stunting. (The exceptions being when they seem more porous membranes to the outside world, such as the light bathing ’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’.)

And this motif, of a painting of a figure placed before another painting, is established before Tahiti. The painting’s even larger in ‘Portrait of Madame Roulin’, painted in 1888 while he was still in France. Or perhaps further still.

Gauguin commented of his earlier ‘Vision After the Sermon’ (1888) that the background was formally separated because it existed only in the imagination of the foreground characters. Something similar is afoot with ’Tehamana Has Many Parents’ (1893, above), even if ‘imagination’ is being replaced by memory. Her whole past is lined up behind her, like she’s the living growth at the head of the coral. There’s the same ambiguity as ’Melancholic’, that background may or may not be literally present. But it’s best understood symbolically, as if her past is standing behind her.

There’s also a similarity to ’Young Christian Girl’ (1894, above), painted during his brief return to France and employing an unusual synthesis of Tahitian and Breton imagery. Both place a young woman before a backdrop, a separation enhanced by placing them both in so brightly coloured dresses. (And she’s in another missionary dress, not a native Breton costume.)

But the way this figure fills the frame, combined with her closed eyes and raised hands, recall votive art. We’re used to seeing Christian art where peripheral objects are placed around a main figure as a way of informing us about them, almost like cartouches in ancient art. And at the same time there’s more links between her and her background - the circles on her collar which are carried on past her right shoulder, the elongated paying hands echoed in the tall red trees. Perhaps, like her artist, she closes her eyes to better see what’s around her. If Tehamana remains linked to her past, she is associated with her world.

‘Barbarian Tales’ (1902, above) may be the projected guilt at its most extreme, depicting as a devil in Tahiti’s paradisiacal garden. Absurdly cross-dressed in another missionary dress, just to make it clear whose side this devil is on. He seems stitched into into the composition, as if he doesn’t really belong there. (Would anything seem absent or imbalanced if he wasn’t there?) And with the two other figures so otherworldly and oblivious to him, he looks poised to spill poisoned words into their unsuspecting ears.

The figure is one of Gauguin’s old painter compatriots, Meijer de Haan. What he did to deserve this dishonour isn’t clear, in fact by this point he’d been dead some years. The show suggests that by this point Gauguin was so isolated his companions had effectively been reduced to ghosts.

Gauguin’s growing critique of colonialism shouldn’t be seen as giving his story some sort of redemptive arc. Because his story hasn’t got one. But it is further evidence he was a great artist, even if less successful as a human being. Though it may have been a self-critique he could only express by displacing onto others, this doesn’t prevent his critique from having bite.