An Advocation of Cultural Shock and Awe only

Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade authored the USA’s militaristic programme of “Shock and Awe” as a way of using“spectacular displays of power” to “paralyze” an adversary’s perception of the battlefield and destroy his will to fight.

And yet the shock and awe of artworks only stimulates response (except maybe the case of the red tops. If only the Mail were fully paralyzed for weeks on end by the “spectacular displays” of conceptualism which het them up on such a regular basis. Imagine the history of the twentieth century reformulated so that every time modern art had shocked the world, the right wing response was quantifiabl in a bed count.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917


Imagine the power at Mr Duchamp’s finger tips c.1917!). It is the nature of one’s arsenal that dictates perception. Violence begets violence, and a rose is a rose is a rose. Artworks have always had incredible potential for affecting the way of things.

For me, the shock and awe experienced in front of great artworks is a wonderful, mobilizing, empowering force of good. To be overwhelmed by another’s talent is a selfless act, it is a spectacular and egoless admittance of one’s fallibility, a eulogistic clarion call exclaiming humanity’s potential outside of oneself. 

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

To be angered, to be dumbfounded, to be doubtful, to be refuted. Power might well lie in the communality of awe and respect paid, and the admittance of the imperfection of one’s own convictions.

The National Gallery’s re-cleaning of, and re-finding, of Mr da Vinci’s Virgin on the Rocks might well attest to the importance of challenging conventions. 

Leonardo – The Virgin of the Rocks, 1491-1508

At first horrified by the thought of touching this priceless masterpiece, it is only a result of the decision to clean and conserve this masterpiece that its beauty has again been revealed for our eyes. Even a reprinted, pixellated version of the work in a broadsheet left me mesmerized. Awestruck. It felt like an opening into another world; one where the infinity of potential lay in the ambitions of an artist and his vision of the ethereal.

To be paralysed by the actions of an adversary is an act of humiliation. To be paralysed by the endeavour of a peer is an act of humility.

As Ghandi once said, I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.

It is hard to retrace one’s steps if you’ve pulverised the opposition.


Groundhog Day in the Unhomely Home

To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself – Georges Perec

Try as I might, I have come to accept bumping myself – or being bumped – as an inevitability, and art is the worst culprit, it bumps me like no other.

Like birthday-bumps on Groundhog Day, exhibitions bump me no end.

Phil! Phil Connors! I thought that was you!

And like Ned’s indomitable reoccurrence in that marvellous treatise on the insipidity of reoccurences, some bumps are more welcome than others.

Exhibitions confuse my orientation. Artworks muddle my memories, make of them something “wildly coherent” (in the words of Grizzly Bear).

In museums and galleries, time fluctuates, and in The Surreal House (a gallery by any other name?) ­I find myself stuck between “one space” and “another”: my art-o-biography continues to remain unfixed. Such was my experience of and reaction to the Barbican’s current exhibition of the same name, where artworks and ideas displaced my temporality.

(Attentive to the centrality of the uncanny in all this, might we consider the surreal house in those terms, Das Unheimliche-Heim… an unhomely home. For all the comfort I take in looking at and thinking about art, it is nothing compared to reality. My partner reminded me of this last night, as we sat looking out to sea, away from the imposition of architecture and urbanism).

And so, an oppressively small room of Giacometti’s works at the Barbican recalls every word I’ve read or written about the man, and every exhibition I’ve seen. I’m visiting my brother in Norwich almost ten years ago where an exhibition at the Sainsbury’s Centre stops my breath. Or I’m waltzing around the Tate looking for my favourite works. Or I’m in awe at the Pompidou, exploring his studio works and imagining myself there: I even find myself walking through Montparnasse following the man’s footsteps. Now both of our histories have mingled.

Alberto Giacometti, Palace at 4am

Similarly, finding Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy places me simultaneously back at Tate and at the Barbican, and all of a sudden my mind is rambling duplicitously. Numerous exhibitions overlap and inform one another. My own chronology is propped up by and props up the art history I know. I’m at the centre of my own canon. The same with Berlinde de Bruyckere’s works, which place me squarely on Piccadilly at Hauser and Wirth where things get more confused: Subobh Gupta, Hans Josephson, Iza Genzken etc all muscle in. Le Corbusier redoubles at the Barbican and washes me back to Paris and the visiting the Villa la Roche. Everything is concurrent.

Berlinde de Bruyckere, Wezen

Le Corbusier, Villa la Roche

Things get more confusing still when Joseph Cornell’s beautiful assemblages blossom out of a dingy corner, alongside one of Duchamp’s green boxes.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Aviary with Parrot and Drawers), 1949

Now, my dreamy memories of exploring Cornell’s boxes at Chicago’s Art Institute and the alchemical enthusiasm they enthused in me doubles with the poetic and beautiful responses to his work collected in Jonathan Safran Foer’s amazing compendium A Convergence of Birds, which itself enables my mind to wander off in awe and tribute to Jonathan Safran Foer, whose magnificence was captured in a text to me by my friend Laurence just last night having finished Everything is Illuminated.

“Strange and wonderful. I’m amazed that someone so young could write like that. I’m left a little baffled.”

Baffled is the word. I remember reading many years ago that Jonathan Safran Foer writes to his favourite authors and novelists he respects asking for the next blank page they would have written on. These sat framed on his walls, like empty vessels dripping with an imminent potential for greatness. I liked this idea, and I found something of it again in Edward Kienholz’s The Wait.

Edward Kienholz, The Wait, 1964-65, The Whitney Museum of American Art

Here, an antiquated living room dwindles through time and consciousness. A skeleton sits propped in an arm chair, cluttered with vessels and surrounded by photographs. Memories and past experiences, caged expressions of everything before and beyond. What at first appears spectral and haunting, however, becomes somehow soothing. It’s a rendition of hope painting in remindful colours. Don’t let memories haunt you. Don’t burden yourself with the past; rather, let it swim into the now of your most vivid experience. Its title appears to revisit Bill Murray’s experience of Groundhog Day. Don’t lust after the momentous. Rather, celebrate the minutiae.

I have learnt to live with those bumps Perec warned against, to appreciate them even. Memories go hand in hand with lessons.  I’ve learnt to lean towards those moments when one grabs repetition by the hand and revels in its translucence. It is only in the minute changes of pace day to day that life really happens.

Life Out of Balance

Scenes of demolition are everywhere in Our Nation’s Capital.

London is systematically and expensively being dismantled in the hope of a band aid being applied before the Olympics start in 2 years, architectural projects reach desperately out of cavernous pits of concrete, waiting for more funding to be applied to their ungainly, insipid frames, and the unknown future of the England team as we know makes itself apparent on the back of every discarded morning paper; literally thousands of them, sweeping across the city like a flock of BP-sullied origami seagulls.

In my life, however, renewal raises its brave head, resurrected from the ashes of my-life-in-London’s demolition like a phoenix: a vital, grinning, slightly smug phoenix.

I now find myself looking upon such images of demolition with hope rather than despondency as I lie – and wake up – away from this destruction, away from the filth and degradation offered by ONC. And where, for the past few years, I found myself obsessed with the decaying, fractured works of Anselm Kiefer, or the collaged detritus of Kurt Schwitters, suddenly Monet’s most blissful paintings of Giverny, or Morris Louis’s joyously colourful canvas stains seem to replicate my disposition.

Claude Monet, Les arceaux de roses, Giverny (Les arceaux fleuris), 1913, Private Collection.

Morris Louis, Alpha-Phi, 1960, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

(The England football team’s current disposition, on the other hand, might be encapsulated in a nightmarish Otto Dix war etching…

Otto Dix, etching from Der Krieg, 1924

…Maybe a bit of beach time would help all involved?)

And so my discovery of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle from the window of my commute – a Brutalist modern social project built in 1974 and awaiting its imminent destruction – has left me with an incongruous feeling of hopefulness both artistic and political.

c/o London SE1 @ flickr

c/o Gavin Humphries @ flickr

 This beastly pack of buildings didn’t live up to the utopian promises of communal living, instead falling into a dilapidated state riddled with crime and poverty. It is now all but derelict, and set for a good ol’ regeneration. Yet there is beauty to be found in its current state. It’s barren soviet austerity reminds me of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, 

Or the Sony Bravia adverts from a few years back,

and I wonder what a bit of colour might do for these lifeless concrete piles of shame. A nice spring clean… of course that’s not what makes me hopeful.

What makes me hopeful is a scene from the epic Godfrey Reggio movie Koyaanisqatsi, which formed an amazing, prescient moment in my life as I watched it recently in Brighton with my partner, accompanied by a live rendition of the incredible Philip Glass score by the great man himself and his ensemble.

courtesy Matthew Andrews

In one of the most memorable, astonishing, heart-wrenching and awesome scenes in a film abound with much of the aforementioned, the detonation of the Pruitt Igoe flats in St. Louis Missouri appears a telling rendition of the 20th centuries legacy to come…

This scene’s story is one of lessons-to-be-learnt, it is of changing our ways, it is of the unsustainability of the sort of grandiose architectural projects that mar our cities and make life insufferable.

The film’s raison d’être is best illuminated in the film’s endnote and the title’s meaning:

The day to day experience of London is thoroughly unpleasant, and the disturbance caused by transport failures, architectural revisioning and, yes, regeneration, is untold in terms of quality of life.

This all calls for another way of living.

Ladies and Gentlemen, No We Ain’t Fuckin’ Jon Bon Jovi

When Jon Bon Jovi first advocated Livin’ on a Prayer in 1986, he seemed to be resigning himself to the gods of fate. I don’t subscribe to this view, nor the rock star sentiments of JBJ and his ilk.

Whilst it is true that it doesn’t really matter if we make it or not, if “making it” means fame and fortune, especially when the sentiment we’ve got each other, and that’s a lot encapsulates the very root of my approach to attaining happiness, I am certainly not content to await the lap of the gods, nor to do it wearing leather and hairspray.

And when in Romain Polland’s 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud he spoke of the sensational of the eternal – an oceanic sensation – which might explain religious sensations and feelings as opposed to hardened beliefs, he captured effectively the joyous impenetrability of the seas even for someone without religion.

I am happy to let the ocean fill me with oceanic feelings, staring out at borderless imponderables.

Iona by FCB Cadell

I am also certain that, in lieu of religion, moving towards the ocean is the most efficient way of improving one’s lot and taking fate into one’s own hands, so last weekend I moved with my partner to Brighton, away from the London monster which has had us ensnared for the last four years, and towards a future full of sensations of the eternal… 

courtesy of Ben and Carol @flickr

 ..and on the way home from London on my first commute, I listened to the Dirty Three’s Ocean Songs – a reverential and majestic album – which in my opinion is able to recreate and inspire such oceanic feelings in the way only art is truly able.

And so as Mr, MR Warren Ellis says at the start of this beautiful clip of the Dirty Three playing The Restless Waves at Roma’s Circolo Degli Artisti,

Ladies and Gentlemen, No We Ain’t Fuckin’ Jon Bon Jovi


Dick Cleggeron

As Clegg and Cameron merged into one another this morning outside 10 Downing Street (see above), an awful feeling in my gut gurgled upwards. Remember the lesson of Harvey Dent, former District Attorney of Gotham City and all round nice guy, besmirched and left evil and vindictive when half of his face was burned with acid. Remember the way he decided between good and evil on the toss of a coin following the destruction of half of his known self. 

Two-Face on the cover of Batman Annual #14 (1990), artwork by Neal Adams.

It felt to me at times over the last two days that all three main parties were toying between two sides of an elaborately woven coin, desperately trying to keep their right and left sides happy. “Don’t cut your nose off to spite your face” goes the saying. What sort of an alliance has Clegg signed up to in his quest for Deputy PMship and power? Which parts of his face has he spited? How will the many sides of this larger argument – one crying out for fair and proportional representation – be managed by this Cerberus-like beast of centre right proportions. 

Bust of Janus, Vatican Museum, Rome

Now the two-headed Roman God Janus; God of doorways, of beginnings and ends, is perhaps a more fair description of their entente than the hound at the gates of Hades. We might even be tempted to surmise that the Cleggeron sits at this pivot in British history, a doorway ooking both backwards and forwards, both left and right. Their political multidimensionality might make them open and expansive, democratic even. Able to consider many directions of intent and interest which were voted for in our election. But I can’t help but imbue them with the panoramic views of Bertelli’s famous sculpture Continuous Profile, with all of the obvious connotations. 

Renato Giuseppe Bertelli, Continuous Profile (Head of Mussolini), 1933

Of course, the other most obvious comparison to plum-mouthed, privately educated little TweedleDuo is those “blasphemers, perverts and pederasts” known as Gilbert and George. 

Gilbert and George, Here, 1987

This work from the Met in New York, in which the eccentric old queens react with ambivalence and blameslessness to the crisis unfolding in London’s desolated streets behind them, might do well to encapsulate the other silver-spooning pair’s true understanding of the people suffering in what Cameron previously identified as Broken Britain. Will the Cleggeron react with similar disdain?

It looks like it’s about to get more broken. Not that Middle England will notice.

Start Wearing Purple

On the days that Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown both appear to be – or have been insinuated to be – wearing purple ties in support of the movement,

Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown wearing purple

Take Back Parliament protest

I am full to bursting with hope for this countries future, and yet thoroughly overwhelmed with a pessimistic feeling that the two old parties will somehow negotiate the prolonging of this dreadful system. This Saturday’s demo in Parliament Square hopes to counter the status quo with vocal proclamations of the rotten core of our parliamentary system.

I am heartily and enthusiastically socialist in my political outlook, but the sound bites from both left and right sound solidly like the backtracking of party’s fearful of never again having total power thrust upon them by a cheated electorate. It seems to me that this election has managed to negotiate the pitfalls of First Past the Post, and announced our countries readiness for fair representation: democracy. I would rather see a country run representatively of its constituents than pandering to 30% of it for four years at a time.

As such, let me enthusiastically back the purple campaign with a few purple highlights from my cultural outlook.

Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX

1. Mark Rothko’s Chapel at the Menil Foundation in Houston sets itself as “a sacred space open to all, dedicated to art, spirituality and human rights” without pandering to specified religions, political agendas, grand narratives or personalised manifestos contained within the binaries of good and bad. Here, abstract art possesses a significance removed from things and ideas, and the monotone purple swathes appear calming, understanding, all consuming and beautiful.

2. Avey Tare of Animal Collective uses purple in this beautiful analogical reading of the power love. Colour stands in for and represents emotion where words fall short. Emotive response to sensory stimulation appears a more vital way of capturing the spirit that mundane linguistic failings. “I’ve got a coat of feelings and they are loud”, he sings, and might we all sit back and let that sink in joyously.

3. His Purple Majesty’s devotion to the colour is seemingly mysterious and unexplained, as are the actions of the great little man himself, but in this his signature piece, the colour’s ambivalence could mean just about anything and wonderfully so.

4. Joker is the new dubstep king, a kid from Bristol following in his southwestern forefathers footsteps by stepping out of clichés and producing incredibly stirring and exciting noises. In this mix, the Purple Wow Mix (best name ever) every good noise in the dance canon is employed to its full potential. Essential listening.

Untitled (Black on Grey)

Not much to say, when images speak for me.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Grey)

 I have had a card with this image on in my posession for well over a year. It seems to comprehend and commiserate every possible adversity, and I bought it to express myself in a way words so often fail me whenever such need arose.