A Man in Love with the Past: the year in retrospect

Friday 28 December 2007

Last December Georgina wrote in Sarsaparilla about her books of the year:

Instead of naming a book that was released this year, how about we name a book that was our ‘one’ of the year, regardless of when it was published. Perhaps you might have read something that was particularly pertinent, perhaps you finally got around to reading something that really stood out from the bedside pile. Perhaps you read nothing of note.

I haven’t written nearly as much about books this year as I wanted to, so here’s my chance to make it up a little.
Book of the year: For me, this was William GaddisThe Recognitions, a novel whose 950 pages I finally read after finding an ex-library copy in Melbourne’s Grub Street Bookshop years ago (thanks, Macrobertson Girls’ High!) Taking up from where Wyndham Lewis left off, it’s one of those books which has just grown more and more relevant to our world with each year since its first publication 50-odd years ago. Its double-edged dissection of the dearly-held belief that art reveals truth is set in a society whose slippery duplicity is probably more familiar to us than to Gaddis‘ contemporaries. The book’s unique written style was later echoed by Pynchon, De Lillo, and others, but I’ve never read anything so uncompromising or sinister in its relationship with the reader.
Runner up: As is all too typical, I became interested in Gilbert Sorrentino just after his death. I’d lazily pigeonholed his novel Mulligan Stew as one of those faddish, would-be cult novels from the 70s, based solely on its dogged recurrence in those little bookseller’s ads at the backs of yellowing paperbacks, with the inevitable trite comparisons to Joyce, Vonnegut, and Moorcock which publishers used interchangeably back then. In fact, it’s one of the funniest literary satires written, especially for people who sometimes grumble to themselves that they’ve read too much to really enjoy books any more. Best of all, it never lets up on the gags to explain the philosophical and emotional core that its facade attempts to conceal. A book that’s worth it for the first page alone.
Literary discovery of the year: Ronald Firbank. From dilettante and fin-desiecle also-ran, to cultish outsider, to the inventor of modernism. It’s those jokers you have to watch out for.
Reverse-Humiliation: Apart from The Recognitions, I finally knocked Jealousy and Life: A User’s Manual off my to-read list.

Music gig of the year: Even before his death, my thoughts about music kept coming back to the February performance of Stockhausen’s Trans. A student orchestra, some dramatic lighting, and not just Stockhausen’s imagination, but his boldness and self-assuredness when making something new; all came together to create an uncanny experience which leaves people bandying around expressions like “otherworldly” and “life-changing”. There’s no other piece of music quite like this; nor, in all likelihood, will there be.
Music recording of the year (any type): Special thanks are due to Different Waters, for uploading a complete version of La Monte Young’s long-deleted masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano.
CD of the year: It was a year in which I avoided CDs and vinyl in favour of foraging for downloadable music, so you might blame my limited range of discs for my choice; but honestly, I don’t think I could have possibly heard anything more surprising than Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full album. An elderly ex-Beatle makes a CD for Starbucks, and instead of cobbling together a lazy cash cow he finally makes his first album in, well, forever, that embraces all of his strengths (brilliantly crafted songwriting and arrangements, brought off with a disarming informality) and almost entirely rejects all his weaknesses (complacency, bombast, second-guessing, ill-judged whimsy).
Music discovery of the year: Zygmunt Krauze, whose piece Folk Music I heard thanks to The Rambler’s fascinating description of Polish “Unism“, a home-grown movement of minimalist art and music that emerged in the 1960s.

Art event of the year: Too much new art that I saw in London looked like high-falutintchotchkes created for investors with at least one eye on the auctions. My personal highlight was a visit to the Groeninge Museum in Brugge and seeing renaissance Flemish masterworks by the likes of Memling, Van Der Goes, and Van Eyck, the same artists I’d just been reading about in The Recognitions. Looking at this art you can understand what Ezra Pound meant when he said that Western culture went wrong somewhere in the 17th century.
Public art event of the year: After a mysterious extension to its intended stay, Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant finally came down from the fourth pedestal in Trafalgar Square. Honestly, it looked like the sort of thing Coldplay would turn out if they were paid to make a sculpture.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

The top ten photos in my Flickr account

Wednesday 12 September 2007

It took a while for me to notice that Flickr provides an analysis of how many times your photos have been looked at. I’ve never expected any of my stuff to have broad appeal, but it’s intriguing to see what people seem to be interested in.
With one exception, this is the fairly stable order of popularity amongst my pictures.

10! I still haven’t seen Patrick Keiller’s London again, so I still don’t know how close I got to guessing the particular location of the forgotten corner of the city that briefly appears in the film. Instead, I relied on Iain Sinclair’s description of finding the same place some years later, somewhere near St Andrew By The Wardrobe.

9! Trainspotters ahoy! The Tube’s inexplicable allure adds a cachet to even the most mundane snapshots.

8! Heh heh, I said ‘faggots’. I’m amazed this one isn’t the most viewed in the entire set, because half of my website traffic consists of kids on MySpace linking to the smaller version on this blog.

7! The promise of violence. Because people like violence. Especially when it’s close enough to enjoy but you’re safely out of the way.

6! The tastefully understated Colloseum photograph. One of very few taken on my holiday in Italy. I can’t help feeling people are mildly disappointed when their searches turn up my photos.

5! See? This is exactly what I mean. This a security guard outside the Sagrada Familia and is tagged accordingly, so I hope people turning up this one are more interested in handcuffs than Gaudi.

4! The only thing more exciting than an old Tube station is a derelict Tube station. Aldwych station, once briefly known as Strand station, is now a ghost station and frequent stand-in for real Underground stations on film and TV.

3! Now here’s the anomaly. A blurry shot at a graduate art show off Brick Lane, which has suddenly rocketed up the charts in only the past week. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s been discovered by a cabal of Ballardian fetishists who like to pretend this is Rosanna Arquette.

2! A street stall of nested dolls for the tourists in Riga. There’s nothing like Harry Potter, Stalin, and Osama Bin Laden tags to boost the hit rate, although I guess this photo must have disappointed many feverish authors hopefully searching for illustrations for their slash fiction.

1! Ah, the inanimate carbon rod of my photo set! These soothing wood tones and rich timber grain have brightened the desktops of geeks around the world. A pinnacle of repose and tranquility, which I thought had an unassailable lead over the others until the James Spader wannabes turned up.

Gone to the bar to talk about art*

Monday 3 September 2007

September’s here, so all the art galleries around London are reopening after their summer break. This means one thing:

Large buckets filled with beer bottles, down every side street in the east end of London. If you’re not getting them for free you’re honestly not trying. There’s also new art, but you’re usually better off ignoring it. In London, anyway.
Most of it to be found in Vyner Street in Hackney, a short back alley near the canal with allegedly a dozen or so art spaces (no one person has ever found them all) tucked away amidst the warehouses and sweatshops doomed by imminent gentrification.
Early in the year some earnest soul had chalked on the outside of one of the galleries “Wake up Vyner Street! The world needs you!” An endearingly romantic sentiment, if obviously only half right.

* Actual note once left on a message board in the sculpture department of RMIT. Don’t worry, by second semester midterm break the system has ironed out these personal little kinks.

Australia as a Picturesque Ruin

Saturday 18 August 2007

…the Dawn and Dusk Society lobbied to set up a committee for the erection of fake ancient ruins around Australia.

The above note is just a passing comment in an article on another subject, found in a 1960s issue of Meanjin. I wrote this down several years ago, while I still had the issue ready at hand, but didn’t note the author, article, or issue number, and the journal is now in storage at the other end of the world. This is the first mention on the web of the mysterious Dawn and Dusk Society, at least as far as Google is concerned.

The Society is mentioned in such a casual way that it appears to have once been assumed familiar enough to readers to need no explication. Did it have much in common with other forgotten booster movements like the Wattle Day League or the Who’s For Australia Campaign? Was it more of a club like the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo? An Antipodean outpost of eccentricity like the latter-day Baker Street Irregulars? Or is it possibly a fictional entity from a popular story of the day?
As it was described, the Society’s motive was to inspire a sense of history heretofore lacking in Australians. As I recall, the reference to the Society was made in a gently mocking tone, for its misguided nature and unconscious ironies, but even at this point in time its forlorn wish would have seemed, on the surface at least, fairly straightforward in a way that is impossible now.
(Before dealing with the historical and cultural consequences of such a project, a more immediate cognitive problem springs to mind: without a historical context to set it against, how could you tell an honest fake was meant to be seen as a ruin, and not as a folly, a false fake?)
Even ignoring Australia’s long neglected indigenous history, the idea of concocting an ersatz heritage is one fraught with contradictions for all but the least reconstructed White Australians. The “sense of history” created would of course be a denial of history, of Australia’s colonial past. But if this true history were successfully erased and overwritten with the shiny new ancient fictional extended remix, what new mythology would we have of ourselves? I can’t imagine that modern Australians would be more confident and assured of their place in the world, having grown up surrounded by symbols of a glorious past now irretrievably decayed. We have had a hard enough time adjusting to the starkness of the Australian landscape as it is, without it being additionally littered with evidence of our failures.
We don’t have to ask if the heritage the Society had in mind was British – in one aspect, the plan is but one more transplanted artifact from the Old Country – but how far back would the grand project extend? Would we find a Roman bath in Balranald? A Viking ship part-buried in Vaucluse? I like the idea of a large network of pseudo-academies springing up across the country, like those of the Creationists, dedicated to reconciling these fantastic absurdities to the real world.
As successive waves of immigrants have found their place in Australia, would they get to make their own contributions in turn to the collection of fake national relics? If the plan had succeeded, we could now enjoy shattered Doric columns beside fallen pagodas, and vine-covered colonnades topped with minarets. As a nation still reluctant to admit to one invasion, Australia would now happily affirm a multitude of colonial incursions in its past, even though most of them were fictional.
Perhaps it is time for the Society’s design to be revived, albeit in a more subtle and insidious form. Throughout recorded history, societies have expressed a belief in a golden age before their own, from which their contemporaries have descended and declined. The historical reminders we erect should manifest our faith in the values of better times preceding ours. Monuments to whistling milkmen, statues of doctors making house calls, and shrines to schoolkids who walked sixteen miles to school each day, immortalised in bronze in a pose of deference to an elder. An obelisk to those who left their homes unlocked. A plaque to a policeman older than you.
Amid these reminders we could go about our business confident that times are bad and will get worse, but once there was a better life which we have abandoned. And beneath these thoughts still lies the double truth we carry in our heads, of what we would like to believe our country to be, and what we know it really is.

I am the passenger

Thursday 9 August 2007



A long – probably one-sided – conversation about the merits of tubular steel-framed furniture.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Now I know how the Fonz feels, because I got me a library card; specifically, a reader’s pass to the British Library. I wanted to find out more about John Cage and Ernő Goldfinger, but couldn’t find a copy of Nigel Warburton’s biography of Goldfinger anywhere else.
Warburton takes time to mention Cage’s brief association with the architect, but has nothing more to add than what Cage has already written about the experience, other than the intriguing detail that Goldfinger made his remark about the need for an architects to devote their lives solely to architecture while “preaching to some girlfriends”.
There’s nothing about why Cage’s former professor chose Goldfinger as the man to mentor Cage, but it can be inferred from the rest of the chapter. Goldfinger had quickly established a reputation as something of an enfant terrible since arriving in Paris, making a lot of noise and getting himself introduced to the best and brightest in town. Except for Picasso: Goldfinger refused to meet an artist he suspected would not treat him as an equal.
In fact, the younger Goldfinger could easily be a character out of a Wyndham Lewis novel, judging from Warburton’s book. As well as the harem kept in his offices, “Ernő’s wild spirits even resulted in a challenge to a duel. The source of the insult was his shimmying at a nightclub.” The duel (with sabres) was averted after both parties had their lawyers prepare and exchange “elaborate official apologies”. On another occasion he had “gone on the rampage after one Bal des Quat’z Arts, where there was open hostility between the ateliers, storming off into the night intent on beating up homosexuals.” Just as well Cage didn’t stay around for long.

Filler by Proxy L: Special Commemorative Edition ($250 unframed, $350 framed)

Monday 30 April 2007

First, a piece of self-generated filler: I was testing for dead links and discovered that Haiku Review has finally published the Richard Tipping review they asked me for about three years ago, and which I submitted to them about two years ago:

Les techniques sont semblables à ceux employées par des «pirates de l’air de médias» et autre activistes, qui ont puisqu’alternativement coopté et reassimilated par industrie de publicité. Quant à la bureaucratie, travaux tels que retentir le silence être maladroit dans leur monumentality et leur contenu didactique, définissant un message édifiant que n’importe quel bureaucrate ou conseil à l’âme noble pourrait approuver.

It’s also available in Dutch, Korean, Portugese, and English, among other languages.

All Kinds of Stuff
John Kricfalusi regularly updates his blog with lots of strongly held opinions about cartoons: in particular, the aspects of art, design, writing and acting that go into them, and the way that corporate economics can screw them up. His last posts have been observing the decline of cereal box artwork, and the difference between acting and dialogue performed by a real person, and performed by a cartoon:

I had just read the script for “Disco Droopy” and someone tipped me off on where the scriptwriter was hiding out…. I chased him down and began to deliver God’s justice upon him… reality sunk in slowly; it produced a last rebellious and futile spasmic outcry. This is what artists face every day of their lives in the terrible icy world of animation scripts.

The real surprise in this post is his brief reference at the end to the extensive restoration work recently done on Ren and Stimpy, salvaging scenes from an old VHS tape. They had to restore Ren and Stimpy. What has the world come to?

Music Stuff

Composer Daniel Wolf has been posting frequently on Renewable Music about the ways that music seeps into other parts of life, including a recent series on Music Landmarks (see the sidebar), a bit like The Rambler’s Music Since 1960 series.
Finally, WFMU has video of John Cage performing his Water Walk, complete with bathtub, pressure cooker, blender and watering can (but not working radios) on the American TV game show I’ve Got A Secret, in 1960. The previous year, Cage had performed his music on the Italian quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia, where as a contestant he won enough money to buy a minivan for Merce Cunningham’s dance company. Has any composer beaten Cage’s record for TV game show appearances?
In case you hadn’t guessed from the description, the video is a great bit of fun.

Sol LeWitt died on Sunday

Monday 9 April 2007

I learned about Sol LeWitt’s art at about the same time I first heard Philip Glass‘ music, which was appropriate given that the two worked together on several occasions in the 1970s (the photo above is from his cover design for Glass’ LP Music in 12 Parts, Parts 1 & 2).
The New York Times has an obituary (use Bugmenot if you’re asked to register) which attempts to explain the appeal of his drawings which were conceived as simple sets of instructions for someone else to execute:

Sometimes these plans derived from a logical system, like a game; sometimes they defied logic so that the results could not be foreseen, with instructions intentionally vague to allow for interpretation. Characteristically, he would then credit assistants or others with the results…. he always gave his team wiggle room, believing that the input of others — their joy, boredom, frustration or whatever — remained part of the art.

This doesn’t really capture the real impression these drawings first made on me: the realisation that a work of visual art could be made, and appreciated, in the same way as a piece of music. The plans simultaneously governed the form and determined the detail of the finished drawing, and the finished interpretation could be enjoyed for the individual nuances contained within the realisation of an abstract concept. (This also means I don’t care how joyous or bored those assistants were.)

Crown Point Press has a selection of LeWitt’s prints reproduced online. You can read LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art or, if you prefer, have John Baldessari sing them for you.

Tourists at the Gates of Hell!

Saturday 31 March 2007

Tourists at the Gates of Hell!

Tourists at the Gates of Hell!

And what evil lurks behind the Gates of Hell?

A bloke eating crisps.

Truly, this man was the Jesus of Cool.

Wednesday 21 February 2007

There haven’t been enough pictures here lately, so here’s one I nicked from Straight from the Tated&nbsp.

Contextualising the contemporary artist within capitalist society: a case study

Tuesday 5 December 2006

(Fournier Street, Spitalfields. Evening. A TOUR GUIDE is leading a small CROWD on a Jack the Ripper tour. He stops to point out the sights.)

TOUR GUIDE
Here we see Christ Church, the masterpiece of Nicholas Hawksmoor, known as “the Devil’s Architect”. People have spent decades trying to decipher the occult symbolism behind its mysterious design.

CROWD
Aaah!

TOUR GUIDE
Opposite, we stand before the infamous Ten Bells pub, where the Ripper would select his unfortunate victims from among the ladies of the night.

CROWD
Oooh!

(Concluding his lurid peroration, the CROWD continues its walk up the street a little further, when the TOUR GUIDE stops again to call attention to another place of similarly sordid interest to the tour. He gestures at a doorway in a modest row of brick houses in the shadow of the church.)

TOUR GUIDE
And this house is the residence of the notorious modern British artist Tracey Emin, who paid one million pounds for the house several years ago.

CROWD
Whoah!

(On one of the upper storey windows, a wooden shutter suddenly bangs open. The head of TRACEY EMIN appears, leaning over the sill to yell into the street below.)

TRACEY EMIN
One POINT ONE million!

FINIS

Also published at Sarsaparilla.

A quarter of a million people sitting at home watching TV

Wednesday 22 November 2006

I’ve added a few more photos to the Looking at People Looking at Art group on Flickr. These are from the launch of Raum 2810, a new art space in Bonn, which opened with an exhibition and collaborative performance by Michael Graeve and Christoph Dahlhausen.
I was over there for a weekend, to catch up with an old friend. The girlfriend is still thanking me for making her spend the weekend at an abandoned factory in a dormitory suburb on the outskirts of a dull, provincial town in one of the drabber corners of Germany.
Actually, the exhibition and opening were very pleasant; the people were friendly and invited us to stay on afterward for an enormous buffet and copious amounts of Australian shiraz cabernet. All very good, even though one of the dishes was a salad of onion rings and pineapple chunks in mustard sauce.
The old city centre of Bonn was bustling with crowds on Saturday, particularly with crowds of drunk people in silly costumes: it was the first day of Karneval. Yes, this part of the Rhineland starts its pre-lenten festivities in November. But then at night, and on Sunday, the city is deserted: it’s quite a job just finding somewhere to grab a coffee. After 10pm it’s possible to walk through the central streets utterly alone. It was uncannily like being back in Adelaide on a Saturday afternoon.
The girlfriend tried to amuse herself by photographing everything in town with the name “Beethoven” arbitrarily plastered over it, but her camera only had a 512 MB memory card. Nothing was named Schumann, despite both Robert and Clara being buried there, having lived at Endenich, which is now a suburb.
Even the toilets in the bars were hung with posters advertising the next piano recital at the Beethoven Konzerthaus, along with ads for Vicky Leandros’ christmas concert. Sadly, I think I’ll have to miss that.

Another London Pilgrimage: Wyndham Lewis

Sunday 19 November 2006

This jolly building is No. 4 Percy Street, Fitzrovia (“it would be called Soho by a careless guide”), sometime home of Wyndham Lewis at the time he was writing Tarr. No blue plaque marks the site, although Charles Laughton and Coventry Patmore have plaques on the same block. Appropriately, the ground floor is now a boutique called “Almost Famous”, and the first floor houses a “brand development” company.
(In fact, Lewis does have a blue plaque, but at one of his later residences, in Kensington.)

A little further south, across Oxford Street, is Soho Square, where T.E. Hulme once hung Lewis from the railings after an argument got a little out of hand. “I never see the summer house in its centre without remembering how I saw it upside down.” According to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Pound, the dispute was about which man had bonking rights over Kate Lechmere, but I haven’t found corroboration for this anywhere else, and Carpenter had a habit of ascribing motivations to his subjects based on nothing more than his distaste for them.
The statue is of Charles II. Despite his presence, there are no pelicans to keep down the rampant pigeon population.
Soho Square is also the place where Hulme was once apprehended by the law for urinating in public, in broad daylight. Hulme was indignant: “Do you realise you’re addressing a member of the middle class?” The policeman apologised and went away. I looked, but couldn’t find a plaque to commemorate the event.

Simultaneously overenthusiastic and excessively lethargic

Tuesday 10 October 2006

New on the blogroll: Straight from the Tated . It has excellent taste in links.
(Related: Take Every Day as it Comes, Brothers and Sisters)

That’s probably a “yes” to the former, then.

Wednesday 16 August 2006

Me, 25 May, looking around the Pompidou:

That Donald Judd stack is really biffed about: did someone drop it, or did the Pomp get it cheap off the back of a truck?

The Los Angeles Times, 3 August:

The world-renowned Pompidou Center of Paris, which set out in March to celebrate the work of Los Angeles artists, has accidentally destroyed two of their works — which fell from museum walls. A third piece was slightly damaged.

Yes, it turns out the Centre has form in trashing art works loaned to it.

“It’s no secret in the museum business that handling can be very sketchy at Pompidou,” said John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

(Links found via Modern Art Notes.)

I saw the LA show: like everything else at the Pompidou, they stuffed so much into this one exhibition there was no way you could take in everything in a single visit, even if you stayed all day. There were about twenty videos or films, some an hour long, in addition to a couple of hundred static works. Perhaps they were planning for attrition.
After a year in Europe it was great to see a substantial body of art from a place that was new, modern, urbanised (or suburbanised), and spacious (yeah, like Australia). One of the side effects of moving to the UK from Australia is that it has made me want to live in the USA. Even though I can’t drive.