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Monday
Mar022015

Sara Barker: minimal stories

Sara Barker Conversions 2011 Steel, aluminium, various paints 215 x 115 x 65 cm

A different kind of minimalism, Sara Barker's work is dense with allusion and allegory based on framing absence.  The frame, by definition a marginal element, carries all the responsibility of the witness, and in Barker's work the frame is usually incomplete.  Slices of painting, normally the surface that carries meaning, are partial stories so removed from a full narrative to be just single words or lines, without context.  Yet they are bound together in a construction that captures the meaningless space of the gallery, or the studio: one feels that in their installation, wherever it might be, what is being framed isn't the story at all, that the frames hold the key to a story one must participate in without knowing what it is.  This is magic and mysterious. 

Here is a 2013 video from the Baltic in which she discusses the spatial nature of the construction processes, and shows some very large and complex works:

Thursday
Feb262015

passport to pimlico: 2015

scheme 025 of the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge competition

Found this image in a list of what someone thought were the more interesting entries in the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge competition for a pedestrian and bike bridge across the Thames from an old district to a rebuilt old district now covered in glass towers.  This scheme, 025, presents itself as a Turner painting, a minimalist way of crossing the river, everything thinned to fragility. In true modernist fashion, the differences in the two sides of the river are neither exacerbated or promoted; the bridge is an instrument of locomotion, functional within an engineering context, which is a long, rich and exciting history.

After looking at the rest of the submissions, here, I became very depressed. Except for a few, they are the worst of some first-year studio exercise in a not very good architecture school. Open competitions are always interesting for they give one a register of current architectural conversations and the degree to which the architects and designers who enter the competition are in touch with some of the more rarified levels of the discourse. 

Increasingly, the 'discourse' as practiced in the schools and critical journals does not seem to reach any other level, especially not the levels that actually do design things.  Or even pretend to design things by showing a shallow idea drawn by software that accurately puts reflections of said bridge on the river in all weathers. Even if not a blueblood modernist, the agonies of post-modernism are also missing. Where is the deep context for most of these proposals? Whatever it is, it is abstracted as a meaningless background to The Object: The Bridge.  Why am I depressed?  Because this is a conversation that has been played out for the entirely of my now-long career. It never seems to move on. All the work I have done, all that I have taught and written about, has been totally ineffective, because although this is Nine Elms to Pimlico, my own small Canadian city is also engaged in the acrobatic pedestrian bridge as the locus for civic creativity, with similarly irrelevant results. 

I'll have scheme 025, above, please, but I doubt it will be the one chosen. 

Wednesday
Feb252015

Giuseppe Penone: from 1970 to 2013

Giuseppe Penone. 'Albero di 12 m', 1970. Legno, cm 1213x25. Courtesy Moderna Museet, StockholmIt is a long life, art.  Penone did beautiful deconstructions of trees in the 1970s, cutting away tree rings to reveal the young tree inside a massive trunk.  Recent work, a series at Versailles in 2013, is still about trees, but there is bronze, there are castings, there are interventions in how a tree grows, there is Versailles and its Le Nȏtre landscape, there isn't much povera any more, other than the insistence that trees grow and resist sculptural intentions.  Weather intervenes; the cast tree bark is from a cedar that grew at Versailles, damaged by a storm.  And as we in the boreal forest know, beetles and climate do more to shape the environment than any number of landscape architects and gardeners.  There is an existential reality to trees – the remaking of trees/nature in the image of the divinity of man is what Penone has always resisted.  

Giuseppe Penone, Tra scorza e scorza, Entre écorce et écorce, 2003. Courtesy of Giuseppe Penone. Photo by Tadzio

Tuesday
Feb242015

Turner-Yamamoto: Hanging Garden, 2010

Sinji Turner-Yamamoto. Hanging Garden | 2010 | dead and live white birches, soil, water, metal structure/support for broken trunk, water irrigation system, | deconsecrated 19th century Holy Cross Church (National Register of Historic Places), Cincinnati, Ohio

Sinji Turner-Yamamoto, studied in Kyoto and Bologna.  Hanging Garden is part of on ongoing series (so far eleven), the Global Tree Project, with installations around the world that put trees into iconic spaces.  His website is a cloud of poetic fluff about wisdom, life and meditation; the work is more interesting.  

Arte Povera is a clear influence in this piece: the tree itself containing its own history in its structure, its surface form a tip of an iceberg of biomass.  Here it is two trees, one living and one dead, meeting at the point they enter or emerge from the earth.  A built mirror, both a small tragedy and a clever statement.

The deconsecrated 1889-1901 Holy Cross Church in Cincinnati?  What a beautiful thing.  An Irish immigrant church and an attached monastery, it suffered in the decline of the Catholic priesthood and closed in 1977.

Tuesday
Feb172015

0take me to church

Hozier, Take Me to Church, live performance, Dublin, December 2014

the Kristallnacht version

Heard it four times yesterday: in Staples, in Thrifty's, in ARC Printing and London Drugs.  Do they know what he is saying?  It reminds me of the barrage of Vietnam War messaging coming out of Motown and the Brill Building in the 1960s, completely opaque to anyone not involved in the US draft, missing boyfriends or war in general.

Thursday
Feb122015

slum tourism

Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment Volume 14, Issue 2, 201.2 Special Issue:   Global Perspectives on Slum Tourism

Is this what it is, our interest in how barrios organise themselves and rebuild squatter settlements into self-directed, autonomous living environments?  Slum tourism?  

Is our interest in informal urbanism actually aestheticising of poverty as proposed by this issue of Tourism Geographies?  or do tourism geographers see everything as a species of tourism, which is, by nature, grounded in the 'gaze'?  The underlying premise of tourism is that there is an interface between two different kinds of people, usually one with more money than the other, one more mobile than the other, one more 'scientific' than the other.  Tourism as a form of coloniality.  

Despite having done a Phd in geography, this is one particular aspect of geography that I've always found problematic.  It attaches social conditions, ideology and political meaning to urban spatial conditions, usually deserved and valid, such as hierarchies of power in city planning trends. However, it does not allow any other determinants of form than the social, the ideological or the political.  As an architect, this meant that everything I'd ever done, studied and taught was considered completely naïve, mis-judged and really, really toxic.  Found this a bit hard.  We all live and work in social ideological and political contexts, but in the making of architecture these things are inadvertent and perhaps that is where we have been deaf and blind to our own position in society. With a modernist and early postmodernist education I was taught first that the ultimate goal of architecture was not the naked display of power but a better world for all people, and then later that everything had meaning and one had to look after the meanings that buildings radiated. Well, yes, this is a bit naïve.  

Of course there has always been slum tourism.  Slumming was probably around in the eighteenth century – that frisson somewhere between horror and delight in observing the depths of social despair.  Anyway, slum tourism is a whole issue of Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment.  How embarrassing is that.  Nonetheless I find it difficult to think that all study of favelas, barrios and other informal settlements is at heart touristic.  The installation of outside escalators up the hillside barrios of Medellín has physically linked neighbourhoods previously at war.  That drug lords control the small plazas at the top and bottom of each escalator indicates that turf rules still hold, but an escalator is not an impenetrable wall, nor is it a dangerous path through dense housing, nor is it an armoured vehicle.  To find this device that reputedly unites communities is not touristic, rather it is a lesson probably humbly learnt. I don't know of one difficult topography in our cities with an escalator, and personally I don't care who thought of it first.

I think this is at the heart of the Uneven Growth project which is asking for collaboration from the megacities with dense and difficult housing conditions. In theory it could be an elitist project: planners picking and choosing what is 'interesting' about Mumbai; it also could be a chance to hear from community planners in Mumbai itself.  One never knows precisely the status, background, political position or colonised education of developing world voices: is what we are hearing authentic?  authentically postcolonial? an intelligent voice or a sycophantic fool?  How do we get a chance to ride with the rebel side and not be a tourist with it?

Wednesday
Feb112015

Uneven growth: tactical urbanism

From the MoMA Uneven Growth website: 'Challenging assumed relationships between formal and informal, bottom-up and top-down urban development, the resulting design scenarios, developed over a 14-month initiative, consider how emergent forms of tactical urbanism can respond to alterations in the nature of public space, housing, mobility, the environment, and other major issues of near-future urbanization.'

Megacities, and the poverty within them, seem to outline a future of more concern than war, perhaps because slums have long been pathologised as behavioural sinks, a view that prevailed throughout the twentieth-century and is now being challenged. Turns out there is more humane urbanity in a barrio, stronger organisation and more design automony in barrio councils than in any OECD city.  Ideas are flowing from south to north, an indication that our complacent wealthy cities suffer a deficit of design intelligence.

in On Site review 32: weak systems Eduardo Aquino wrote about beaches as systems of human interaction found nowhere else: an egalitarian, non-judgemental field sitting between the city and the ocean where new and free relationships can form.  There is simply no equivalent condition in the contemporary northern city – parks haven't the same transitional spatiality. Aquino's archetypal beach is in Rio de Janeiro, and he cites Lina Bo Bardi's boardwalk in São Paulo; somehow our beaches don't seem to work this way.  Is it weather, where we are all clenched against the cold, even in summer?  — a defensiveness that infects all aspects of our lives and makes us uncharitable and rigid?  Perhaps I exaggerate, but the most exciting urban critiques and constructs are coming from the informal sectors of southern megacities where conventional urban planning, rooted in European urban culture, has never ventured.

Thursday
Feb052015

Dorchester Projects Archive House, Chicago

(c) 2006-2014 - Theaster Gates. Archive House Past (2009) and Present (2013) photos: Sara Pooley

Dorchester Projects, a cluster of houses and storefronts on South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago, includes this house, before and after.  Gates' explanation is that he 'purchased the neighbouring two-story vacant house [next to the storefront he was living in] and initiated a design project to restore and reactivate the home as a site of community interaction and uplift'.  There is a gallery of photos on his website which show how the interior has been largely stripped to structure and resurfaced with floor to ceiling bookshelves, slide trays, recycled board sheathing.  Despite the street-front propriety of the house in 2009, it was abandoned and must have been unuseable inside for such a massive re-configuration of surface to have occurred.  

Unuseability is not just cosmetic: the hierarchy of spaces in a prairie four-square house is also without utility.  Of course anything can occupy and make do with any kind of space if it has to, but the project here is not just to move into an old house because it is all you can afford, but to make that old house spatially part of the community.  The slide room is itself, not a previous bedroom: the present bears no relationship to the past.  This is the difference between repurposing and renovation. Gates bought a structure and stripped away everything that did not apply to his project of community building, replacing it with salvaged materials that come with no evidential history.  

Nor are the collections of music and books cast-offs, discards: the front of the store is a listening room for the 8,000 LPs from a former local record store, Dr Wax Records that went under in the economic downturn in 2010.  The back of the store is a reading room for the Johnson Library: the Johnson Publishing Company's in-house editor's library and the Ebony and Jet magazine archive.  Johnston Publishing is the largest African-American-owned publishing house, and was founded in Chicago in 1942. The Dorchester Projects grounds these African-American histories in buildings whose purpose is to keep them alive, rather than locking them into some sort of museological archive.  This is yet another part of Gates' project – to keep history close.  

The sink, below, properly plumbed in but without a cheap vanity from Home Depot holding it up: this is like cooking with completely unprocessed foods. Given the pre-processed and over-manufactured rubbish that appears in building dumpsters, no doubt a cheap or even a good vanity could have been found, but the 'vanity' comes with so many bourgeois associations of, again, propriety where the facts of plumbing have to be hidden, that it becomes a negative force in the house.  An assemblage of beams, frames and trims to get the sink to a useable height has no references: the material was free, it fulfills a need.  This isn't art, although it is arty enough, this is identity politics.

Theaster Gates Studio

Wednesday
Feb042015

Theaster Gates: Dorchester Projects, Chicago

Still from "What does it mean for us to be generous with one another?" with Theaster Gates. https://blogs.uchicago.edu/feast/2012/05/what_does_it_mean_for_us_to_be.html

In his 2013 essay, 'Complicating Theaster Gates', Andy Horwitz asks: 'does an expanded frame of artistic practice demand expanded frames of critical engagement?'  Gates describes himself as an urban planner and sculptor who has also 'assembled gospel choirs, formed temporary unions and used systems of mass production as a way of underscoring the need that industry has for the body.' Not sure what the last bit means other than something about the de-population of industrial processes in favour of technology, but with the first two, Gates orchestrates normal community practices into what is, critically, called art.  Because Gates is an artist, is everything he does art?  Or is what he does as a community organiser defined as art?  Or does buying property and turning houses and old shops into an extended community arts centre, make the real estate transaction art?  And if not art, then an expanded practice?

Horwitz's essay outlines different, expanded forms of critical evaluation for what has been presented, probably by Gates himself, as an expanded art practice.  The Dorchester Projects involve money, entrepreneurship, real estate, equity or lack of, market, investment, capital – all areas with clear matrices for success and return, and not matrices applied to art practice. Yet, as Horwitz points out, increasingly these are the matrices used by arts funding agencies: how many visitors see each work, what is the projected audience, how much do they pay: i.e. what is the public investment in art and how is it measured? I come up against this (something I am woefully unprepared for) when filling out grant applications for On Site review.  What is a subscription's public impact; what is the community benefit of an architectural journal; is a single copy sale the equivalent of a ticket to a single opera performance?  Increasingly funding agencies are not that interested in content; they are interested in financial viability measured by the financial statement and a diversity of investors.  Can I say, or can Gates say, that each reader or each kid who drops into the arts centre, is an investor? if not in money but in social capital?  How is this quantified?

Horwitz's discussion of Gates, the limits of artistic practice in conventional terms and the unlimited potential of an expanded artistic practice reveals the emphasis put on epistemological categories drawn from a near-archaic critical tradition, while the on-the-street reality of Gates' expanded practice involves everything any small business has to go through: planning permissions, approvals, utilities, etc.  For this, we need to revisit how we talk about art.  

Gates is acting as a developer while calling his Dorchester Projects art.  Fine by me, but it seems to rankle with some that art should be used so instrumentally.  This is, however, the definition of activist art, that it is instrumental.

Tuesday
Feb032015

Theaster Gates: Migration Rickshaws, 2012

Theaster Gates. Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping, Building and Playing, 2013. White Cube

Relatively speaking, not a lot out there on Theaster Gates, given how multivalent and ubiquitous his practice is. Urban design and community-building play a large part, as does a fairly conventional art practice such as the Civil Tapestry series.  He is described on his website as a Chicago-based artist who has 'developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.' And wikipedia states he is 'an American Social Practice Installation artist' [wikipedia's caps].

Gates is perhaps someone who has done a lot of things: urban planning, construction, ceramics, installations and performances not unconnected to church performance.  He bought half a street in south Chicago and turned it into a community arts corridor: he has a project, he points this project to many processes and ways of making his project visible.  

The rickshaws are, like a shoe shine series, objects made from found materials: the social reference to the shoe shine stand is perhaps clearer than the rickshaw in terms of American black history, but the rickshaws are wheeled vehicles that carry the tools and materials for new lives.  The materials are embedded with old lives and old wrongs.  The form is generally two stair stringers with things stacked on top, a wagon wheel at the far end.  Similar carts figure in fleeing refugee images the world over.  In isolating the cart from all context, i.e. it has become a sculpture in a gallery, the form assumes a universality in the way that Joseph Beuys' sleds and stacks of felt, so personal and autobiographical, become a synecdoche for all cases of individual survival – if not felt and fat, then leaves, or snow, or hay, or cardboard.  Gates' Migration Rickshaws are both literally and figuratively vehicles that carry a load: it is the load that becomes didactic. Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping and Building, Migration Rickshaw for German Living, Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey, Rickshaw for Hardware.  What is it that makes a life?  

I realise that the current term for found stuff you make art out of is re-purposed materials – discarded things whose new purpose seems to be art.  I'm not sure this is effective re-purposing, again it seems didactic: nothing is waste, nothing is too humble to be re-used.  There is a vintage, early-twentieth century look to these rickshaws that makes them so much more romantic than a steel shopping cart full of plastic bags and bottles, the more usual urban migration rickshaw these days. One could actually build something with Gates' rickshaw loads; bottles and plastic are simply articles whose only destination is molecular reorganisation at an industrial scale. There is perhaps a recovery project here, a pre-civil rights movement recovery when 'freedom' implied an individual sense of destiny and dignity, not the freedom to be shot by a neighbourhood watch idiot because you are wearing a hoodie.  

Theaster Gates. Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey, 2012 55 1/2 x 96 7/8 x 29 1/8 in. Desk drawers, wood and wheels

Monday
Feb022015

Theaster Gates: Civil Tapestry 5, 2012

Theaster Gates, Civil Tapestry 5, 2012. Decommissioned fire hoses on oil cloth mounted on wood panel 58 x 208 x 4 inches (147.3 x 528.3 x 10.2 cm) Bequest of Arthur B. Michael, Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY.

In the wake of recent police shootings of black young people, much attention has been paid to the Birmingham, Alabama riots of 1963 where fire hoses were used on high school students on civil rights marches.  Theaster Gates has a series of works, Civil Tapestry, made from decommissioned fire hoses.  

Powerful pieces these, minimalist colour field blocks at first glance, and then one starts to see the printed specs, usually telling us they have been tested to 450 lbs pressure, appalling to think of the impact of such pressure on the human body.  Like the best minimalism, these pieces shout a big message: they are one thing, one material, with a complex political history.  

Looking up 'decommissioned fire hose' one finds lots of tributes to those heroes that are fire fighters; the hoses also receive accolades: a snappy overnight bag/log carrier made out of opened-out used hose becomes a tribute to the hard work of the hose.   9/11 and front-line responders have shifted the political status of the firehose from a vicious instrument of urban street torture to a heroic signifier of bravery. 

Gates' Civil Tapestries are similar to Rosalie Gascoigne's work: deceptively lush, these pieces, abstract and elegant, until one realises how freighted with social history the materials are.  Highway signs and fire hoses – simply the colourful discards of everyday life until the context provided by the artist proves the materials neither neutral nor innocent, instead they become sinister. 

Water hoses turned on high school students, Birmingham, Alabama 1963. Charles Moore, photographer. Life Magazine 1963.

Theaster Gates. Red line with black and enthusiasm, 2013. Decommissioned fire hose and wood 59 × 92 × 4 1/2 in Red-lining was, is, a practice whereby certain neighbourhoods are kept starved of services, where insurance is higher, where mortgages are never given.  Part of USA National Housing Act policies of segregation in the 1930s, the red line indicated districts of no investment potential.

Wednesday
Jan212015

P J Harvey: On Battleship Hill, 2011

Sunday
Jan182015

technical strategies: horses

Alexander the Great depicted in a mosaic depicting Battle of Issus. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

In terms of strategy I'm beginning to wonder if contemporary news coverage isn't preoccupied more with battles than with larger strategies, which would perhaps necessitate a discussion of root causes.  Edward Luttwak, writing about Roger Knight's book on Napoleon in LRB, 18 December 2014,  likens levels of strategy to a building where each floor is dependent on the one below: operational strategies depend on technical levels of strategy, and tactical strategy depends on operational strategy – the ability to actually fight.  At the level of grand strategy where wars are fought between empires of alliances, there is an assumption that the supporting levels of strategy are all in place.  In fact it all has to be in place: Germany in WWI was powerful and skilful in battle (technical, operational and tactical levels) but was hitched to the declining Ottoman and Hapsburg empires pitted against the British, French, Japanese and Russian empires.  One might say these latter empires were declining as well, but were in an earlier and less debilitated stage of decline.  Or in Napoleon's case it wasn't the battle of Waterloo that ended his reign, rather (according to Luttwak) it was the ongoing presence of a vast array of opposing forces, from Sardinia to Sweden, Britain to Russia.

This, above, is allegedly Alexander at the battle of Issus in 333 BC against Darius of Persia.  The mosaic shows the base unit of a fighting force: the man, his armour, his sword and his horse: the elements of the technical strategy.  It was a decisive battle, fought near present day Mosul.  According to wikipedia Alexander had the smaller army but better tactics; his victory 'led to the fall of the Acaemenid Empire', or the First Persian Empire that had formed in the sixth century BC. One reason given is that the Persian empire by 333 was too large and too incoherent for efficient military support.  I'm sure there were other reasons, but the failure of a coalition of many nations is interesting in light of our present creation and de-creation of allies and axes.

Here is the full mosaic, below, Darius in a chariot anticipating the eventual conversion of cavalry to tanks. There is such a similarity between all these battle depictions, from Issus to Wounded Knee.  It is the horses, the horses.

The Battle of Issus, between Alexander the Great on horseback to the left, and Darius III in the chariot to the right, represented in a Pompeii mosaic dated 1st century BC – Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Monday
Jan122015

more cavalry

Mounted warriors pursue enemies. Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din's Gami' at-tawarih. Tabriz, first quarter of the fourteenth century. Water colours on paper. Original size: 17.5 cm x 25.8 cm. Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Orientabteilung, Diez A fol. 70, p. 59.

And we return to a depiction not unlike the ledger drawings.  Although the previous post's image from the 1371 Manual of Horsemanship and Military Practice shows the mounts bouncing towards each other like something from Thelwell, these horses are intent, flying flat out, gory scenes of death and dismemberment along the way.

My goodness, here is a forum all about historical martial arts – horses, armour, speed, distance and the length of your stirrups. This should explain it all, she said hopefully.

There is great interest in historic warfare and accurate re-enactments, and much debate about, among other countless details, such things as whether Parthian horses stirred up such clouds of dust that the Romans couldn't actually see where they were. Maybe.  'Chiron' (Lieutenant) says some would be making dust while others waited for their riders to restock their arrow quivers.  This level of logistical detail seems to go on for pages as discussion shifts from the gait used to get to the battle to whether all the horses arrived together or not; this is for an army that existed from 247 BC to 224 AD, in what is now Iran.  The Parthian empire covered pretty much all the middle east countries racked by war today, from Afghanistan to Georgia, Iraq to Turkey.  

The Art of War, from Sun Tzu, is a treatise on tactics and strategies that have changed little in the fifteen centuries since it was written.  Reading this and Clausewitz's early nineteenth century On War, one realises that war is a texture, layered but ultimately predictable as certain strategies reoccur throughout the centuries and appear, depressingly, in contemporary campaigns.  Politics change, as do the issues that prompt warfare, but the actual fighting is always aiming and killing, at various scales and speeds.

Friday
Jan092015

swords, horses, flowers

Cavalry Charge from 'Nihayat al-Sul' ('A Manual of Horsemanship and Military Practice'), 1371 (detail of 53088), Islamic School, (14th century) / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Thursday
Jan082015

Cavalry

Winslow Homer. The War for the Union - Cavalry Charge, printed in Harper's Weekly 5 July 1862

There is that relationship between battle and horses that held up until the second world war, cavalry units converting to tank units after the first world war.  There are dreadful stories of horses requisitioned from all over Britain, family horses to milk float dobbins to percheron teams, for the Front, poor things.  Cavalry horses were supposedly a special kind, mythologised in War Horse, but were often just whatever horse was available that hadn't been killed in the previous battle.  One suspects PTSD for animals is not much considered, most of the references to PTSD are about the role of horses in rehabilitating PTSD veterans.  The BBC did a program on horses in WWI. It is tragic, their bravery.

Drawings and paintings of cavalry charges such as this one, just 6 years before the battle of Little Bighorn, differ greatly from the ledger drawings of the previous post.  Here it is all heroics and glory and a large number of blades swinging about in the air.  This wood etching by Winslow Homer for Harper's Weekly was the equivalent of the war photograph of today.  Of course being a drawing licence can be taken.  No blood gushes, it can only be imagined – all those sabres are landing somewhere.  Being a civil war, it was brother against brother; the 'enemy' was like you just wearing a different coloured jacket.  Does it have to happen?  

Some essential reading: James Meek reviews four books on the British Army in Afghanistan (London Review of Books, Vol. 36 No. 24 · 18 December 2014) – many things we did not hear: Basra was an underfunded defeat, the subsequent transfer to Afghanistan was both face-saving and under the aegis of the Americans, Helmand province where they were based had 150-year old active memories of the last British debacle on the Northwest Frontier, British performance was mostly defensive under near-constant fire from local groups.  This isn't quite how it was told sold to us.  I'm waiting for the equivalent analyses of the Canadian record in Khandahar. We didn't have the oppressive prestige of the British Army that had maintained the Empire and all that now-superseded stuff, but the situation in Khandahar province was most likely just as manipulated, just as treacherous.

Monday
Jan052015

Mniconjou: The Battle of Little Big Horn, 1876

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Unlike the linear arrays of a certain kind of depiction of war, battles and their aftermaths, this set of 26 drawings uses an entirely different narrative form.  The whole set is on an american tribes forum and charts the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.  There is an accompanying text by Mniconjou, a Lakota chief who was there.  Both the text and the drawings were recorded at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881, at the request of McChesney, an army doctor at Fort Bennet collecting material for a study of sign language.  Known as ledger drawings, as they were done in blank ledgers, often with ruled pages, columns and general accounting pencils, this set is on blank paper with an array of coloured pencils, which makes them unusual.

These drawings depict in terrible detail the wounds and mutilations on both sides  – horses die, heads and hands are chopped off – this is ghastly warfare.  But then all warfare is, and it reminds one that most of us, who have never been in a war, hear the statistics on deaths in Syria and never think that it is actually like these drawings.

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881The US Army troops are undistinguishable: they have beards, blue trousers, black hats; their horses wear saddles.  The Lakota nation however is drawn in beautiful detain, the different war bonnets carefully counted, the shields inscribed with totems. The army is a homogenous unit; the Lakota are individuals, carrying their family histories with them.  And what of the horses.  They die as well, their saddles gone just as the army dead have lost their boots.

The previous post's paintings and drawings flatten the space of war into a representative frieze.  These ledger drawings are simultaneously profile and plan.  The top of the page is no less important than the middle or the bottom, all participants are equal in size – there is no re-scaling to fit any laws of perspective.  We have been taught that renaissance perspective gives a scene veracity: distance blurs, makes dim and small.  In these ledger drawings the veracity is more overwhelming, everything is foreground, everything is heroic, nothing is diminished for 'art'.  The frieze drawings gain their power in presenting the line of soldiers, or police, as a clear middle ground with no ameliorating fore or back grounds.  The ledger drawings present similar lines, but many of them and all in the same space of the page showing rank after rank of cavalry and warrior riding toward each other and clashing violently.

I've shown just three of the drawings here, the full set of 26 is both breathtaking and sobering: a tragedy drawing in careful detail.

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Saturday
Dec202014

panoplies of war

Robert Longo. Untitled (Ferguson) Diptych, 2014. Photograph: Petzel GallerAfter writing about Robert Longo's drawing of Ferguson, in the previous post, I kept thinking of another battle painting featured on Amanda Vickery's The Story of Woman and Art, Lady Butler's 1874 Calling the Roll.

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea, 1874. The Royal Collection, London.And this led me to John Singer Sargent's Gassed, of 1918:

John Singer Sargent. Gassed, 1918. The Imperial War Museum, London

From the Civil Rights Movement:

Martin Spider, Troopers charging marchers at the Pettus Bridge, Civil Rights Voting March in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Reproduced after: Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, New York 1996, 179And lastly, because by this time it seems so obvious, the frieze on the entablature of the Parthenon:

Entablature Frieze on the Parthenon, the Acropolis, Athens, Greece. 447-432 BCThere is something about the linear array of warriors that perhaps has its roots in the rendering of the endless wars – war as a permanent state of existence – between gods, states and cities of the eastern Mediterranean.  Sargent's Gassed is an oil painting, but acts visually as a bas-relief: little depth of field here, and what is in the background is a smaller repetition of the foreground. 

Lady Butler is known for a new sensitivity to the reality of war; conventional paintings of British heroism portrayed the heart of battles, all glory and snorting horses, rather than the ongoing grind of war.  The Roll Call showed British soldiers in a state of extreme and weary collapse, after the battle, not in the battle.  The Grenadier Guards are not shown in their full complement, but are crowded into a dark cluster of wounded spirit.  This was the ordinary, unheroic side of war, a depiction unusual for its time.  Now, I cannot find anywhere that says that Lady Butler actually saw a battle. Sargent was there, Longo wasn't, Martin Spider clearly held the camera.  The painting is not necessarily a witness, rather it supplies a narrative needed, politically, by certain groups at the time.  The nineteenth century British Army needed reform, mid-twentieth century America needed suffrage, The Great War needed an ending, early twentieth-century USA needs to re-examine the licence and the impunity given to its institutions of law and order. 

The Parthenon frieze aside as it is included here for its formal structure, in all of these artworks we see the backs of men, the artist is a viewer from a distance, not gassed, not beaten, not weary. The men do not pose for the artist, or as is the unspoken intention, they do not pose for us, thus they do not accuse.  That is left for the artist to do. 

There is a horizontal datum line through the heads in these pieces, above is an empty air, below all is struggling uncertainty. There is no perspective, and perhaps no perspective can possibly justify these scenes.  We are not asked to engage, the precision of the row exludes us, we are forced to simply gaze at the panoply, and this shocks us.  And it shocks us into muteness because the subjects can't or won't hear us. 

Thursday
Dec182014

Robert Longo: Untitled (Ferguson), 2014

Robert Longo. Untitled (Ferguson) Diptych, 2014. Photograph: Petzel Gallery

Robert Longo (Petzel shows his most recent work) has flirted around the edges of political art for a long time, forming a punk band when the Velvet Underground was a punk band, drawing from photographs figures seemingly in some sort of physical angst, an idea he claims from a still from Fassbinder's The American Soldier.  He redraws iconic abstract expressionist works – a photo of his studio shows a Motherwell on the wall. He did album covers; he has an assistant who actually does the details of his drawings – such is the contemporary art process: the artist thinks of the piece, the assistant realises it, the artist finishes it. He directed Johnny Mnemonic; he did a memorable photo shoot for Bottega Veneta. This is a post-70s New York Lou Reed manqué artistic career that appears to be political but perhaps is merely black and white.  And he is married to Barbara Sukowa.  

This 10' long charcoal drawing, Untitled (Ferguson), is redrawn from news coverage of the Ferguson riots.  It is beautiful in a way that black and white photography often is, as is charcoal.  Jonathan Jones in the Guardian is very taken with it, classifying it along with Warhol's silkscreened 'Birmingham Race Riot', 1964, taken from a news photo, Rauschenberg's Dante drawings and Richard Hamilton's Northern Ireland triptych, especially The State.  With Longo, the artist has stepped back somewhat from manipulating the image: this is a straight translation into charcoal from a digital image projected onto a ten-foot sheet of paper.  The process means that it is not a print, it is from the age of reproduction, it is not reproducible.

Jones feels that because Longo chose the image, that makes it significant art, much in the way that Duchamp chose everyday items from which he made art.  I'm not sure that this is a strategy that still holds, a century after Duchamp and the surrealists investigated it.  Longo, and all the rest of us, have a keen eye for the 'significant image'; we are not as graphically naïve as we were during the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War.  The rise of photojournalism, war photographers, and the sheer volume of images of wars and riots and terrible incursions have trained us to read images of war aesthetically.  

Longo's Untitled (Ferguson) is terrifically forbidding and full of foreboding, sobering and monumental — a piece of art to mark the Ferguson travesty of justice and its aftermath, but first of all it is beautiful, romantic even, in its theatrical smokey lighting and its linear array of protagonists, as if the artist simply can't help aestheticising the smell of tear gas.  I suppose I've become cynical in the power of contemporary art to be really angry and this mise-en-scène is about as close as we will get.

Wednesday
Nov122014

Metropolis: postmodern watchlist 2014

Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas. Townhouse for Matt Sabatine, 110 East 64th Street, New York City, 1984. Metropolis Magazine, November 2014

Paul Makovsky and Michael Gotkin's 'Postmodern Watchlist', Metropolis Magazine, November 2014, discusses the historic preservation of postmodern buildings from the 1970s and early '80s and how the commission that designates landmark buildings hasn't a methodology for the kind of modifications and additions that both characterise postmodern buildings and are their fate.

The critique that divided 'building as object' from 'buildings as fabric' developed in the 1970s (Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York was about this very quality of combative individualism) where more and more buildings were suddenly realised to be part of a significant context. The buildings in the list waver between a genuine appreciation of historic methods and materials, and the semblance of such which was the thing that eventually made a mockery of architecture and architectural postmodernism: the keystone that was merely a keystone-shaped incision on the brick, or marble, or stucco rain screen.

The 60-year rule (that a style reaches its nadir at 60 and after that starts to gain historic currency), means that mid-70s architectural postmodernism, when the idea was at its newest and most exciting, won't be the subject of positive theoretical investigation until the 2030s.  I distinguish between architectural postmodernism and postmodernism in other disciplines as architects were distinctly vulnerable to image and style: slapping a pediment on a curtain wall tower was technically simple but theoretically complex.  But that kind of complex discussion was for the critics, who actually existed then, unlike now.

David Balzer's book, Curationism, points out how criticism has been supplanted by curatorial practice: the choosing of arrays of material, ideas, lists, that in their array begin, hopefully, to frame some sort of discussion.  This perhaps has to do with unstable critical positions, no longer is there the magisterial Pevsner, or a Peter Collins, or a Colin Rowe, historians that put architecture into linear continua.  Balzer and the reviewers of his book all cite the deep and lapidary access to unprocessable amounts of information today – we look to curators to process and chart paths for us through this democracy of material.  And it is precisely this democracy that obviates a 'central' critical position.  We are free to choose curators who aggregate images for us.

In the tricky postmodern era of the late 1970s and early 1980s there was no web, in fact there was no personal access to computers. Information came in books and magazines, journals and architects travelling the lecture circuit, showing their work, talking about their ideas.  They still do that, but I'm not sure why given that we can find it all somewhere on the web if we really look. Metropolis started in 1981, a wildly exciting monthly tabloid-sized architectural newspaper from New York, not much distributed outside major US cities, but if you went to New York and found a copy, holy cow, it was such a shot of adrenalin.  It was news from the centre of the earth.  I'm just not sure that kind of thing exists any more – that sense that there is a centre, or even a pulse.  Nonetheless, this was the climate that the postmodern Manhattan buildings, listed in the November 2014 Metropolis, grew up in.  These were buildings that 'curated' the city.  

Agrest and Gandelsonas's East 64th Street townhouse, above, was, quoting Diana Agrest, 'a hinge between two institutional buildings that had almost opposing styles—the Modernist Asia House by Philip Johnson and the Gothic Central Presbyterian Church.'  This is classic architectural postmodernism in the best sense: the obligation of any building to its context, the city and the history of architecture as a conversational act.  Architecture as a mediator.  

Where did that go?  I'm not sure, for although we now live in a socially and culturally mediated world where it is difficult to discern an original thought in the long curated lists of likes, most architecture remains out of sync with this role as a mediator.  It is still, more often than not, a declarative act, viz. the newly opened Museum of Human Rights which conducts a rather shouty debate with angry excluded communities.  

Or, perhaps it is the curators who assume we still want shouty debates, breaking news, cutting edges, heightened reactions, and, as always, the quiet side of the culture of architecture, such as the Agrest and Gandelsonas townhouse, is still seen as a minority interest.