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.

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.

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.

[blog post goes here]

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Today I wrote up a thoughtful piece about the gig I played Saturday night, and the differences between analogue electronics and computer software. I thought I’d mailed it to myself to post tonight, but it’s nowhere in my email. I either forgot to hit send, hit print by mistake, or deleted it without sending. The blog post may appear tomorrow, but in the meantime please enjoy this photograph of a pretty swan made from an old car tyre.

Two New Shows Coming Up

Thursday 14 July 2011

Not much blogging lately, because I’ve been preparing for two shows coming up in the next few weeks: a live music gig and an art exhibition.

Live gig! ABJECT BLOC. My first analogue electronic gig in… six years? With John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Anthony Iles, Allon, Lee Gamble (DJs).
Saturday 23 July 2011. 8pm start. £5 donation. Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road, London E14 7HA.

Sorry about the short notice but the date had to be juggled a bit. I’m dusting off the old analogue gear to get some live feedback oscillation happening again, with sets from the very fine John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Lee Gamble and others.


Art show! Collected Collaborations. An exhibition initiated by the Artists’ Book Research Group, featuring propositional projects from the Redrawing Collective (Ben Harper, Fiona Macdonald, Alex Martinis Roe, Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Spiros Panigirakis) and OSW (Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell). Guest Curator: Brad Haylock.
Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield Campus, Melbourne. 4 August – 1 October 2011.

This is the exhibition of art books, including brand new contributions the Redrawing Collective. This project is a further extension of the project that included my sound installation Redrawing: String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta). We have created a two-part book that is both a performative object and a platform for critical engagement.

Every Goddamn Day

Friday 1 July 2011

“Well thanks for wrecking my evening.” The modern art critic in crisis.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

This was almost going to be one of those “Great Moments In Art Criticism” posts.

“For me the Turner prize is a hit-and-miss affair – there are years when it actually seems important who wins and years when I honestly couldn’t care less. This year, I care because Mark Leckey is on the shortlist.”
Jonathan Jones, “The Turner should go to Mark Leckey”, The Guardian, 13 May 2008.

“Leckey won a Turner prize in 2008, which goes to show you should never take these awards too seriously.”
Jonathan Jones, “Mark Leckey’s art creates noise without meaning”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011.

Jones’ latter review is so vituperously negative (he compares Leckey to Gordon Brown, which is just plain mean) that maybe, just maybe, he should have mentioned his dramatic change of heart. The comments section, usually a desultory place peopled with commentators who don’t seem particularly interested in art, has come alive. Comments both for and against, amongst the usual dross, make some fascinating points on the current state of art and art criticism.

Jones himself responds frequently, steadfastly refusing to admit he made a basic error in interpreting one of Leckey’s works and offering unintentionally hilarious ripostes such as “It was 2008! Why would I refer back to it?” and the Mugatu-like “I have put my views of art across in such contexts as a Turner Prize jury. Have you been a Turner judge? So where do you come off so high and mighty?” Eventually, Mark Leckey himself comments, along with other critics, all of whom predictably end up wallowing in self-pity. Why did all this anger and sorrow suddenly burst forth?

Stephen Potter famously observed that the role of the critic is to convey to the reader what a splendid person the critic is, and that “you must never praise or blame two weeks running.” In his initial praise of Leckey, Jones begins by announcing “I’m a natural fan. I can’t stand indifference.” – and so smartly allows himself intellectual room to praise or blame at will. Regardless of the quality of the art, the critic must alternate praise with blame; their career depends on it.

Car journalist Jack Baruth recently described at some length the necessity of what he calls “the wobble”. Praise every car and you appear a corporate shill; slam every car and you appear apathetic.

A successful automotive journalist doesn’t fall into either of the above traps. He wobbles. He creates what Jimmy Page called “light and shade” in the body of his written work…. Every autowriter with ambitions to be something more than a low-paid PR agent needs the wobble. Credibility, success, a fan base, a recognized name. The wobble giveth, and it taketh away.

The motoring writer’s dilemma is that for the past 20-odd years all cars have been, fundamentally, the same. The car-buying punter no longer has to choose between one model that has disc brakes and no heater, another with a heater and chronic rust problems, or a third with bucket seats and a tendency to flip over and kill you. Baruth’s article explains how a car journalist tries to find or make “the wobble”, and sometimes gets caught out.

Of course, for any of this car talk to be relevant to Jonathan Jones, modern British art would have to be somehow comparable to the car industry. The latter has large financial investments riding on the steady production of homogenised product, largely devoid of any extreme highs or lows of user experience, whereas…

Fear and Loathing in Street View

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Google was somewhere around Rancheria, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.

Pis Manneken-Pis

Saturday 30 April 2011

Rather like my fateful encounter with Jeremy Bentham, I was wandering pleasantly half-bombed on midday Chimay Bleus around the streets by Bruxelles-Midi station while waiting for the Eurostar when I turned a corner and bumped into this guy.

I thought he’d been dressed up as a prank but it turns out this is a Regular Thing. This day’s outfit is supposed to “honour the IT division of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).” Apparently Belgian tech geeks are into yachting; or at least Yacht Rock.

Lost in Amsterdam

Friday 22 April 2011

Off to see Sonntag aus Licht – back after Easter.

Little Old Ladies Are Waiting To Rob You Blind.

Friday 18 March 2011

The evolution of my video style: a pictorial history

Friday 11 March 2011

In 2008, Fiona Macdonald made a flat, white video for my installation at her Redrawing show.

In 2010, I made my own video for a performance of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta), and uploaded it to YouTube.

In 2011, my piece This Is All I Need was performed as part of Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear, with a video projected against the back wall.

Next year, I expect I shall make a video that is solid black.


Friday 4 March 2011

You really can find anything on Google these days. In their mania for completeness, Google Books has scanned in the Cunt Coloring Book.

Or rather, someone scanned in the first few pages of the book before either they lost interest, the scanner died, or they could resist temptation no longer and had to go break out the Faber-Castells.

Filler By Proxy LXXIX: I’ll Chop Your Head Off!

Sunday 23 January 2011

What could be more exciting than an action comic strip written by a 5 year old boy and drawn by his 29 year old brother? Nothing! You are commanded to read Axe Cop.

The Corrections

Friday 29 October 2010