The Vorticists at the Tate: The Losers of History

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Like the movement itself, Tate Britain’s exhibition “The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World” comes front-loaded with its biggest hits, then quickly trails off and is over soon after. The dominant figure, rightly, is Wyndham Lewis, who later defined Vorticism as whatever it was he was thinking and doing at the time. As the last couple of rooms drift into derivative works by fellow-travellers, Lewis’ drawings remain the one consistently strong current amongst increasingly insipid art; and yet it is clear that Lewis himself is already beginning to exhaust the material of his art and looking to develop his ideas further.

Despite the objections of fellow Vorticists who felt they were written out of history by Lewis’s later pronouncements, everyone involved in the movement quickly moved on and either succeeded or failed as artists independent of theorising from before The War. One of several large failings of this exhibition is that it does little to address the question of how much the Vorticists were a movement of like-minded artists, or whether they were little more than Wyndham Lewis’ gang.

Not much actual Vorticist art remains, so as with many stunted art movements we find ourselves judging Vorticism by its words more than its deeds. This inevitably pulls us back to Lewis, editor and main polemicist of the Vorticist magazine BLAST. It has become too tempting in retrospect to judge the entire movement from reading BLAST, picking out the names that appear in it and judging how well their art fits with the magazine’s contents, particularly those written by Lewis. This mistake seems to have been repeated in the Tate show.

In reality, three towering figures form the central pivot on which Vorticism turned: Lewis, Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It was Pound who named the movement, and indeed seems to have been the driving force behind forming a movement at all. He had form: a year earlier he had started the Imagist movement in poetry, and had a long-term liking of starting organisations of artists. This was done partly because Pound liked the idea of having a posse, but also to attract and support like-minded talents. So many of Vorticism’s central ideas are an expansion of Pound’s basic concepts of Imagism, and for the rest of his life Pound’s poetry and essays on culture refined, developed and elaborated upon the principles formulated crudely in BLAST. Lewis was the more effective polemicist, but his manifestos for BLAST contain idealistic imperatives and revolutionary zeal closer to Pound’s temperament. That may have been Pound’s influence, or perhaps Lewis’ idealism was knocked out of him by The War.

Gaudier-Brzeska, the youngest of the lot, produced the first physical and most tangible manifestations of Vorticism. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound not only unites the two artists: the bust exemplifies their common understanding of culture, history and creativity. They saw Modernism as a new Renaissance, in the sense that as their forbears had rediscovered the Classical world and remade it in their image, they were re-finding the forms of civilisations across the world, throughout history, and the impulses that drove them. It is a thread that runs through all modernism and postmodernism for the past hundred years, from the poetry of Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, down to its most debased forms of International Style and Po-Mo Playfulness.

Gaudier-Brzeska was the first to die, killed in the trenches at Neuville-St.-Vaast four months short of his twenty-fourth birthday. His absence defines Vorticism as much as his presence did. After The War, Lewis turned his talents for Blasting and Blessing to satire and grotesques, casting himself as The Enemy, the perpetual outsider. For Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska’s death encapsulated all that was futile and destructive in war, so he devoted his life to trying to understand the political and economic circumstances that allow such outrages to happen, and to making others understand. His efforts led him into obsessions over social credit, fascism and Jews, and into a mental hospital with an indictment for treason hanging over him.

The War killed Vorticism as surely as it spawned Dada, and yet in the Tate show it appears as little more than a timeline that leads you from the first room to the last. The exhibition gives no wider context to show how Vorticism was born or how it was snuffed out, or how it related to other art movements at the time. Jacob Epstein is included (because he’s in BLAST, natch) but more to bulk up the show than to demonstrate what is and is not Vorticism. There is not even a clear explication of the crucial distinctions between Vorticism and the superficially similar Cubism and Futurism. Pound pops up here and there like a special guest star, with nothing beyond assertion that he was an important figure in the movement. There is, indeed, no context at all to show how Vorticism did or did not shape the subsequent careers of its participants (not just Lewis, but other artists like David Bomberg, Jessica Dismorr, Christopher Nevinson, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth.)

Worst of all, there’s no sense conveyed of why Vorticism matters. Nothing is presented in a way that shows how Vorticism spoke to the world, and how it made its presence felt throughout the century: through Pound and his many disciples, Henry Moore’s bronzes, T. S. Eliot’s “One takes from history what one needs,” Mark E. Smith’s contrarian denunciations. All the Tate can give us is a funny little English art movement that came and went. They met in Soho but for all we understand of them, they may as well have lived in Petrograd.

Please Mister Please CXXVIII

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The Coasters, “Down Home Girl” (1966).
(3’03″, 4.2 MB, mp3)

Wandering Split: a new video

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Way back in 2002 I was asked to be part of a group exhibition of sound and visual art at West Space in Melbourne. The show, called Gating, combined artworks with sounds emanating from different parts of the room from four sets of speakers, overlaying 14 sound compositions, each containing significant sections of silence.

For my piece, I made a 5-minute spin-off of my long, spoken word piece The Slips. Using chance operations, a new, brief selection of slightly different phrases was made and recorded – one in English, the other in German. A musical accompaniment was made from a deliberately ruined cassette tape of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Neither voice nor music takes up more than half of the total playing length, allowing for silences to appear at various moments. The sound was passed through an electronic gate which would filter out lower frequencies whenever the volume fell below a certain level.

Last week I decided to make an accompanying video for the piece. Using the same principle of chance operations, selections were made from an old educational film available for free in the Internet Archive. Again, short fragments were selected and allowed to appear in the timeline without regard to the soundtrack, or to each other.

Personally, I’m interested in the way the piece creates its own, unhurried pace within such a relatively short frame of time.

Please Mister Please CXXVII

Sunday 14 August 2011

Christian Wolff, “Tilbury 3” (1969). Dimitrios Polisoidis, violin; Hildegard Kleeb, piano.
(5’34″, 10.1 MB, mp3)

The Mystery of Steve Reich

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Why can’t I get excited about tomorrow’s Steve Reich Prom? It’s not his Boring New Stuff, it’s his Cool Old Stuff, and yet I’m not excited. The Man Himself will be there, playing, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve never heard this stuff played live before, and yet I’m not excited. I enjoy listening to his records, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve missed earlier opportunities to hear him live, and yet…

It’s not that I’ve become jaded with his Cool Old Stuff. Over 20 years I’ve had chances to hear his early masterpieces live, and every time I’ve decided not to bother. I’ll jump at the chance to hear – oh, random example – Philip Glass’ old stuff in concert, but for some reason Steve Reich’s music seems to me perfectly adequate as a recording, with nothing additional to be gained from hearing it played live. I have heard live performances of his music, ranging from ordinary to thrilling, yet none of these experiences have changed my opinion in all this time. Why is this?

Great Moments in Journalism: 7 August 2011

Sunday 7 August 2011

The Observer, 7 August 2011:

The Observer, 7 August 2011:

This is the New Music: Mock Tudor III (for real)

Thursday 4 August 2011

Mock Tudor III (variant)

I’ve taken down the old test recording of Mock Tudor III (variant) and replaced it with a much better recording. This gives you a pretty good idea of what my gig in July at ABJECT BLOC sounded like. Everything you hear is live sound from the output of feedback loops, created by connecting signal processors and mixers into circuits, and which can in turn be fed into each other. There are no edits or overdubs, and the only post-production is a bit of crude mastering.

Because my YouTube account was getting lonely, I even made a video of the performance. Rejoice in the sedentary stage life of the electronic composer!

Please Mister Please CXXVI

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Sue Thompson, “Norman” (1962).
(2’22″, 5.4 MB, mp3)

Not Wanting To Say Anything About John Cage

Monday 1 August 2011

The Collected Collaborations show opens this Thursday, featuring artist books by OSW (Open Spatial Workshop) and the Redrawing Collective. The latter is the group I’ve been involved with since the first Redrawing show back in 2008.

For this new show, I was asked to contribute something related to that first show in the form of a book, emphasising the form over the work over its content. After a little thought I found a good way to represent one significant aspect of my piece, String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) in visual form, and in a way that recaptured the original impetus of Redrawing.

This latest iteration of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta), rendered as a 10-minute spectrogram, is being published in a way which simultaneously refers to several aspects of graphic art made by John Cage, another composer who was repeatedly enticed into the visual realm of art. One of these aspects is shown above.

The Redrawing Collective book is being published in a very small edition. In fact, I’m not exactly sure how many are getting printed now.