Friday, June 24, 2016

Quick Light

 Alex Katz, West 1, 1998

The Serpentine Gallery currently has two excellent exhibitions, not to mention the striking new Bjarke Ingels pavilion.  I'll write about Etel Adnan separately; here I offer a few words about Alex Katz, and some images too because, unusually, you are allowed to take photographs.  The show is called 'Quick Light', suggesting moments of illumination, sun glancing off objects or perhaps, in the large painting above, windows glimpsed at night from a passing car.  Get up close to this painting and there are no further clues to the forms of the buildings or the identity of the city, all is black.  Such scenes are non-specific but were painted in New York, where Katz was born back in 1927 and where he started painting among the Abstract Expressionists and hanging out with the New York School poets. In another nocturnal image, Untitled Cityscape 4 (below), we see only a fragment of a dark building, a two-dimensional shadow against a cold grey sky streaked with ghostly cloud forms.  It is like a cropped detail from an Edward Hopper painting.  The fork of an aerial and corner of a dimly lit window have an air of menace.  What we are shown of the roof resembles a fortification. 

 Alex Katz, Untitled Cityscape 4, 2014

Some of the daylit scenes in this exhibition have an unsettling quality too - an air of mystery that you find in younger artists Katz has influenced like Peter Doig4pm 2014 is painted in sickly shades of green and the view of what looks like a distant boathouse is obscured by a tree whose leaves are blowing into the cold sky.  As with Doig's landscapes, you often find yourself picturing a scene from a film, just before or after some darkly significant event.  That cloud of leaves in motion reminded me of the park in Antonioni's Blow Up where you hear nothing but the wind in the trees.  The painting below could be the illustration of a fable or fairy story, or some dream-like narrative by a Robert Walser or Franz Kafka.  It is painted in flat planes of colour, like a Matisse, except for the feathery strands of grass which seem to be animated by a breeze.  I thought again of cinema - the wind in the buckwheat in Tarkovsky's Mirror, the wheat swaying in Herzog's Kaspar Hauser.  Katz has said that he wanted his large-scale paintings to have the quality of the blown-up faces and landscapes you see on a movie screen. 

Alex Katz, Red House 3, 2013
 
Leaving the Serpentine Gallery and walking back out into the bright sunshine of Hyde Park I found myself seeing the lake and trees and various tableaux of figures in terms of Katz's vision of landscape.  A recent article in the Telegraph described the way Katz experienced something similar himself in the art of Cézanne.  'About a decade ago, Katz visited an exhibition of work by the French post-impressionist. “I was looking at his stuff and saying: ‘See, the guy couldn’t paint, it’s terrible, this is overworked’ – stuff like that,” he recalls. “Then, when I got on a train, all I could see were Cézanne landscapes. His vision is so strong that it dominates your mind. And that, for me, is the highest thing an artist can do.”'

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Way of Being in the World

Last Sunday I managed to get to the last day of the Balham Literary Festival, A Way of Being in the World, which was entirely devoted to questions of landscape and place, nature and the city. The first session, 'Running Riot In The Urban Landscape', focused on the disappearance of public space and ways to reclaim the streets.  It featured academic/urban explorer Bradley Garrett, guerilla gardener Richard Reynolds and poet Inua Ellams who leads nocturnal cultural walks through cities.  Their contributions raised fascinating questions about the effectiveness of such practices in exposing and challenging the power structures of the city.  Guerilla gardening, for example, may have roots in the history of land struggles but today in Western cities it can, in a small way, help along gentrification and the withdrawal of local government from their responsibility to maintain the built environment.  It was heartening though to hear that one London traffic roundabout persists as an island of lavender a decade after Richard first gave it a makeover.


In the Q&A afterwards Richard's mother, sitting in a kind of throne by the stage, recounted an anecdote about his rebellious streak at boarding school.  It made me think of those precursors of the urban explorers that Brad had referred to earlier, the Night Climbers of Cambridge, students who scaled the city's buildings with a joie de vivre and confidence that seems connected to their position of social privilege.  As Sam Jordison wrote in a Guardian article when the original 1937 book documenting their activities was reissued, 'just as it's possible to suggest that those currently seeking highs on city rooftops are reacting against their cotton-wool upbringings, so Whipplesnaith's stories of death-defying derring-do in Cambridge say a lot about those whose parents had lost so much in the first world war but who themselves were (for now) bereft of action and significance.'


There followed two sessions featuring Cambridge academic and climber Robert Macfarlane.  In the first he was joined by China Miéville who had delivered a new lecture on the eerie and the picturesque the day before (it has just been reprinted in The Guardian). They were discussing one of many recent landscape-related books I've not yet read (for reasons partly explained in my previous post): Nina Lyon's Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man.  The origins and meanings of the Green Man are impossible to trace - what is of interest is how this symbol has repeatedly surfaced in the culture.  Is its current popularity an extension of the urge to identify with animals, China Miéville asked, and would we soon be seeing hipsters in vegetable masks?  Is it a symptom of the urge to aggrandise and domesticate nature by those unable to afford to live in cities but unwilling to live too far away from them?  Is there a connection, Robert Macfarlane wondered, with new ideas about the ecology of forests (the wood wide web) and speculations on the non-human by contemporary philosophers like Jane Bennett?  Ideas in his session sprouted like foliage from the mouth of the Green Man, including China Miéville's notion that the leaves are actually disappearing into his mouth: nature inexorably being swallowed up. 
 

The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley's debut novel, was discussed with Robert Macfarlane in connection with the recent upsurge of interest in folk horror, uncanny sites and haunted landscapes. In the course of the talk we learnt that the book is potentially the first of several novels to be set on the Lancashire coast, a place that has not featured much previously in literature.  A film is now being put together by Andrew Macdonald, producer of Danny Boyle's films and the recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd.  Again I've not read this book myself; The Guardian's review pointed out some flaws but said that 'Hurley’s lyrical grip on his landscape is flawlessly bleak'.  The Telegraph review was extremely positive and again cited the treatment of landscape in descriptions like this: 
'Day after day, the rain swept in off the sea in huge, vaporous curtains that licked Coldbarrow from view and then moved inland to drench the cattle fields. The beach turned to brown sludge and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed.'


Fortified with an excellent pint, courtesy of Richly Evocative's Matt, I was ready for the Festival's final session 'And where next?', which sought to cover globalism, the growth of cities and the anthropocene.  Science journalists Gaia Vince and Fred Pearce were joined by Owen Hatherley, who I always find interesting - I had seen him only a week before at our local Stoke Newington Literary Festival, talking about London with Rowan Moore (they gave it to Heatherwick and the London Garden Bridge with both barrels).  This session also had thematic links to another fascinating talk I had gone to in Stokey - Becky Hogge and Ken Worpole discussing utopias - and to a Radio 4 programme Ken alerted me to afterwards, highlighting the Silicon Valley dream of establishing communities floating entirely free of  the state.

In the Balham discussion Owen Hatherley criticised the rise of favela chic: the way architects undervalue the boring virtues of planning and celebrate the vibrancy of ungoverned urbanisation in the global south.  It took me back to a talk I attended at the ICA about fifteen years ago by Rem Koolhaas, enthusing about his recent work in Lagos.  In an interview last year Koolhaas recalled the way Lagos, a city from which the state had withdrawn, 'mobilised an incredibly beautiful, almost utopian landscape of independence and agency'.  Owen would rather have well-designed urban environments with relatively affordable housing like Vienna.  He lamented the decline of Stockholm where the benefits of social democracy appear to have been jettisoned out of an almost Ballardian sense of boredom.  I will get to see Stockholm myself shortly as we've booked a week there this summer, followed by a week on an island in the Baltic where I may actually have time to catch up on some of the books I've been hearing about recently...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Mountain of Stability

Emperor Huizong, Plum and Birds, early 12th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago I wrote here about filial conflict and garden design in the wonderful eighteenth century Chinese novel known in English as Dream of the Red Chamber.  I recently finished reading another vast novel charting the rise and fall of a Chinese family, Chin P’ing Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), written at the end of the sixteenth century.  Two essays on it have appeared in The New York Review coinciding with the publication of the first and final volumes of David Toy Roy’s translation, one back in 1994 ‘when Roy reported that he had already been working on the project for a quarter century’, and the other last year, when the eighty-year old translator finally made it to the end.  It took me six months to read the five volumes my son is only just about managing to hold up for this photograph.


The ambitious, corrupt and sexually voracious merchant at the centre of the book, Hsi-men Ch’ing, extends his private estate as he becomes more affluent. But unlike the characters in Dream of the Red Chamber, he has no real interest in landscape design.  The arbours and grottoes of his garden are a stage set for parties and trysts.  Nature poetry is not written in response to the beauty of the seasons - it is a tool of seduction, the means of pursuing a drinking game, or an element in the songs performed for Hsi-men Ch’ing by troupes of actors and prostitutes from the licensed quarter.  Occasionally there are expeditions to monasteries but the monks there are more interested in money, alcohol and sex than they are in contemplating the surrounding mountains:
'For what purpose are Taoist sanctuaries and
  Buddhist temples established?
The Taoists worship their Heavenly Worthies,
    the Buddhists worship Buddha.
They are beautifully landscaped in order to
    give a false sense of purity;
Providing for visitors and welcoming guests
   they engage in perverse doings.
Accoutering their disciples with attractive
   clothes and handsome outfits;
They make use of wanton wine and leisured tea
    in ravishing female beauties...'

Zhang Zeduan, Games in the Jinming Pool, early 12th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Plum in the Golden Vase can be read as an extended critique of Ming society (Roy draws parallels with Dickens’ Bleak House), even though it is set nearly five hundred years in the past, during the reign of Emperor Hui-tsung (pinyin: Huizong).  There were clearly parallels to be drawn between Hui-tsung and the Ming emperors, who were ‘among the most irresponsible rulers in the history of imperial irresponsibility’ according to Roy.  Hui-tsung was very interested in landscape design - so interested that his ambitious projects may have contributed to the fall of the northern Song dynasty, as Robin Lane-Fox explained in a piece for the FT entitled 'How gardening led to the downfall of one Chinese Emperor.'  Not content with one garden, The Basin of the Clarity of Gold (shown in the painting above) he decided to build a second one:
'At Kaifeng, just south of the Yellow river, the emperor lived inside a palace complex that was not, by Chinese standards, outrageously large. What became notorious was his man-made rock garden, which was up to 220ft high. To build it, Huizong sent orders for every sort of plant from all over his empire: lychees, gardenias, palms and plum trees. He also ordered the rarest and biggest stones. Chinese rulers had often been lithomaniacs but Huizong’s orders for waterworn rock outdid them all.  At the foot of this immovable mount, known as the Genyue [Mountain of Stability], Huizong arranged big stones, some with markings like human faces. He had them honoured with plaques and poems, using gold letters if they were particularly distinguished.'
The emperor only had five years to enjoy all this splendour before Kaifeng was captured by tribesmen from the north. Huizong was taken off to Manchuria and his garden smashed up.  Resentment has built up during its construction, as the process of shipping 'so many huge rocks and plants had cluttered up the canals and transport system. There had also been endless corruption and compulsion during the entire high-speed plan'.  Unsurprisingly Hsi-men Ch’ing got involved in this.  At one point in the novel he discusses with an official the way the 'flower and rock convoys' had impoverished ordinary people, before inviting him to partake of a typically lavish lunch.  Just as the collapse of the Song state can be ascribed to the way the country's resources were depleted by the emperor, Hsi-men Ch’ing's own graphically described demise is directly attributable to his excessive appetites.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

I am a tree

A recent piece for Atlas Obscura described some of the stories narrated by non-humans discussed in The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects and It-Narratives in 18th Century England, edited by Mark Blackwell.  Such stories became so successful that 'by 1781, a bored reviewer in The Critical Review could complain that “this mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or — any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection.”'  This made me wonder whether there are examples of it-narratives recounted by paintings - imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray as an eponymous novel, with its central character only able to wonder at the changes it found itself undergoing.  I suppose though that paintings of things - a Monkey, a Hackney-coach - would be less appealing to write about than the things themselves.  Landscape paintings would seem still less promising (unless they were used to tell the story of a particular place), though I can imagine an interesting narrative of the life of, say, a Van Gogh painting, from its birth in a windy field outside Arles to its incarceration in an airtight Tokyo bank vault.


You sometimes come across versions of it-narratives in contemporary literature.  There are a sequence of them - a dog, a horse, a gold coin - in Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red.  This book is set in Istanbul among Sultan Murat III's miniaturists, whose work was starting to come under the influence of Venetian painting, the art of 'the Franks'.  One chapter is told from the point of view of a picture of a tree and it is the nearest thing I can think of at the moment to an it-narrative by a landscape drawing.  The tree begins by apologising that 'at this moment, there are no other slender trees beside me, no seven–leaf steppe plants, no dark billowing rock formations which at times resemble Satan or a man and no coiling Chinese clouds.  Just the ground, the sky, myself and the horizon.'  So to be precise, this chapter is narrated not by an entire landscape (a recent development in sixteenth century Western art) but by one of the four elements in a simplified version of a landscape.

There isn't really a story-telling tree though.  As we read, we realise there is a storyteller in a coffee house, improvising his tale on the basis of a sketch of a tree.  Or, to be more precise, what we read is the story of this storyteller, recollected later by a character called Orhan who was a young boy at the time of the events of the novel.  And even this is a simplification of a book that gets more complex the closer you look into it...  But to return to that tree: I want to share here the last words of its story (and doing so in English I must quote another narrator, translator Erdağ Göknar, rather than Orhan Pamuk).  These two short paragraphs on art and trees convey an important idea that underlies the plot of the novel and drives one of the court miniaturists in it to murder.   
'A great European master miniaturist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: "Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others."

'I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I'd been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.'

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Throwing Plastic Balls into the Bořín Pond

I have written here before about the connection between land art and The Velvet Underground: Walter de Maria, best known for his Lightning Field, was briefly in an early version of the group.  However there is also a connection between land art and The Plastic People of the Universe, the Prague band who modelled themselves on the Velvets and subsequently went down in history for their role in inspiring Charter 77 and thus, indirectly, the Velvet Revolution.  In 1969, members of the newly formed group took part in an action by Zorka Ságlová, Throwing Plastic Balls into the Bořín Pond in Průhonice.   Ivan Jirous, the art critic who managed the Plastics (a similar role to Andy Warhol in relation to The Velvet Underground) wrote that Ságlová had, with this work, 'joined the growing tendency in contemporary fine art when the artists leave their studios in order to dig ditches in the Nevada Desert, to create configurations of grass turfs, to draw half mile long parallel lines on the desert plateau, ragged with heat' (Nadezda Blazickova-Horova ed., Landscape in Czech Art).  Ságlová had already been involved in the music scene, making costumes for The Primitive Group, another VU-influenced psychedelic rock band (we really need Julian Cope to write Czechrocksampler as their Wikipedia entry is just 'a stub').  Members of The Primitive Group were also on hand that day to throw some balls into Bořín Pond.

Zorka Ságlová made three more works that can be aligned with land art, bringing hay inside a gallery, lighting nineteen bonfires on a snowy plain and laying napkins at a site associated with the Hussite wars.  She was by no means the only Czechoslovakian land artist active in the early seventies.  In April 1974 Jan Mlčoch climbed the Kotel Mountain in 'foul weather' and took some photographs, in an action reminiscent of Hamish Fulton.  In contrast to Mlčoch's brief engagement with landcape, Miloš Šejn has built up an impressively diverse body of work since the late sixties addressing the interface between nature and the body through performance, installation and photography.  And finally there was Petr Štembera, whose early work like Line in the Snow and Painting the Stones (both 1971) treated the environment as a kind of canvass.  In Large Pool (1970) he had gone to an island of the Vltava and shaped two sides of a rain puddle into the sides of a triangle, only to see his intervention washed away by the rain.  As the Kontact site explains, 'later pieces dealt with the relationship between the human body and a natural entity, such as Grafting (1975) when Štembera grafted a bush sprig into his arm in a way common in arboriculture, or in Sleeping in a tree (1975) when, after three sleepless nights, he spent the fourth night in a tree.'

Miloš Šejn, Zelený muž (Green Man), 2003
Photograph: Sejn

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reed writing


Sesonji Koreyuki, Wakan rōeishū Anthology, 1160

Ashide, reed writing, developed in the Heian dynasty as a form of calligraphy written in such a way as to imitate natural forms: reeds, rivers, trees.  By the twelfth century they were being written over actual landscape paintings, creating a hybrid form.  There is an example dating from 1160 in the Kyoto National Museum by Sesonji Koreyuki (or Fujiwara no Koreyuki), Poems from Wakan Roeishu'As the line of characters crosses the drawn-out contours of the image, it transforms into sprouting grasses and cranes standing along what might be a riverine strand' (Thomas LaMarre, Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaelogy of Sensation and Inscription). Landscape is depicted in the overall image and text, but also registered at different levels of magnitude in the shapes and sounds of the individual words.  This artwork opens up the possibility that calligraphy can itself evoke elements of the setting and atmosphere, like a film soundtrack, whilst words and pictures tell the story.

If calligraphy were to take on too many of the attributes of landscape painting it would lose its status as an artform.  The point is made by Stephen Addiss in relation to the first piece in his book 77 Dances: Japanese Calligraphy by Poets, Monks and Scholars, 1568-1868.  This poem, a detail of which is shown here, was written by Emperor Goyozei (1571-1617).  The most heavily inked characters mean big well river and the next most visually stressed character means snow. ‘Even a quick viewing therefore reveals the main theme of the poem: the Ōi River in snow.’ And although this is not an example of reed writing, since its symbols do not have a dual role as words and image, the paper itself provides a subtle link to its subject matter:
‘The primary pattern on the paper is that of waves, sometimes almost still and sometimes curving, with a secondary element of reeds appearing several times. Near the top, however, a heavier undulating line in blue suggests possible islands in the river or perhaps even the nest of reeds covered with snow. If the latter, it is done in a semi abstract manner, since too much visual correspondence with the poem might be considered vulgar by refined court aesthetes.’
 Vincent Van Gogh, Marsh with Water Lilies, 1881

From a Western perspective the idea of 'reed writing' evokes the idea of the reed pen, used in landscape art by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. In 1888 Van Gogh wrote to tell his brother "These drawings are done with a reed cut the same way as you’d cut a goose quill. I plan to do a series like that. And I hope to do better than the first two. It’s a process I already tried in Holland in the past, but I didn’t have as good reeds there as here."  I have mentioned his use of a reed pen before in relation to an 1881 drawing of the marsh at Passievaart.  And I'll end here by quoting Robert Hughes on the way Van Gogh used his reeds to draw stems of grass in a style that approached calligraphy.
'The reed was not flexible, like other pens. Nor did it hold a lot of ink, so it would not produce long, sinuous lines. The style it favoured was short, blunt, angular and (in a limited way) calligraphic. In some drawings you can see Van Gogh brilliantly exploiting the limitations of the reed. He draws a tuft of grass, for instance, as five or six springing, more or less parallel strokes. The first one is heavy with ink. The next, less so. By the fourth or fifth, the reed is almost empty and the ink strokes faint. This creates the impression of a round tussock, rendered not as flat pattern, but turned towards the light. Then he dips his reed in the ink bottle, recharges it and begins again, on a different clump of grass.'

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss

It's that time of the year when the National Gallery starts to seem humid and crowded, but take the stairs down to Level 0 and you find yourself almost alone. I had Room C to myself yesterday and was able to have a good look at the Gallery’s two newest acquisitions, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827) by Johan Christian Dahl and At Handeck (c1860) by Alexandre Calame.  Neither are as immediately striking as the Calame on loan hanging next door, Chalets at Rigi, with its bright Alpine sunlight and misty purple distances, but after a while I started to appreciate Dahl's Norwegian landscape, painted after a trip he made back to the country of his birth in 1826.  Dahl left Norway originally in 1811 to study in Copenhagen and there is a letter he wrote there in which he says ‘first and foremost I study nature – a pity there are no cliffs and water here, but then one has to make do with the water fountain.’  It must have been a relief to head back north and sketch a real cataract, although in this painting Dahl, characteristically, does not try to make it appear too spectacular.  The falls are just one part of a wider landscape of dark slopes and trees under a wintry sky. 

The new wall text for The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss notes that this location is now the site of a hydroelectric power station.  Reading this I imagined curating a whole exhibition of paintings of rivers that were subsequently tapped for their hydroelectric power - images of the Romantic sublime that could only now be depicted in terms of the industrial sublime.  In providing this information for the visitor, the Gallery turns the painting into a kind of an environmental art work.  But Dahl was not painting a pristine wilderness.  The foreground is strewn with tree trunks that are too large to have been felled by the river.  They were the product of a lumbering operation were logs were thrown into the river and then collected downstream.  Thus the forest trees and running water depicted in this painting were already being treated as a 'standing reserve' for technological exploitation when Johan Christian Dahl passed this way, nearly two centuries ago.

Johan Christian Dahl, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss, 1827