I’ve been thinking about the landscape today. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside, one of those children of the safer olden days who was let out from a young age, unaccompanied by adults, us riding bikes many miles from home. A few years later, my mum was desperately upset when a boy in her class (she was a teacher) was murdered by a man while he was out playing on his bike. If that had happened before our pre-teens her attitude to our freedom may have been different. This incident was one of several that reminded us, although we always knew it, that the rural idyll was not inviolable. Another incident was the death from cancer of a local farmworker caused by long hours spraying pesticides. Despite the fact that I grew up in the English county that is probably the most industrialised in its agriculture, with its vast fields and machines and its many souring incidents, I still have a deep nostalgia for the English landscape and a slight sense that it can possibly be recovered, as it was. I think this may be influenced by the fact that my family is very aware of artistic representations of the landscape as it was. As it was, meaning, before the Second War when farmers were encouraged and forced to double productivity.
I’ve just enjoyed watching Andrew Marr’s Britain from Above programme, which uses archive film, aerial images, contemporary data mapping and historic maps to present an overview of Britain as a system – past, present, future; economic, social, environmental. It’s fascinating, if rather Reithian in its style (Marr’s voice merges seamlessly with the clipped tones of the BBC Ancients in the archive clips). Tonight’s programme was about East Anglia, especially West Norfolk, where the fields are bigger and flatter than anywhere else. I felt rather dismayed at the neutral Reithian quality in Marr’s voice when he said that more new towns would cover the fields, and more industry, and with yet more industry would come more yet more new towns.
These nostalgic and perhaps romantic thoughts about landscape have been intensified by walking round Shoreham today, in search of the idyllic pastoral visions of Samuel Palmer. I wanted to know if those close, safe and mystical orchards and woods really existed as in his prints and paintings. Well, I don’t know if you can see any traces of it in my photos. Who knows, of course, if his paintings of Shoreham were in any sense realistic – of course, they probably weren’t. He never showed the hard work of the rural life. But, considering how close Shoreham is to London, it does represent an idyll of sorts. And when you add the layer of nostalgia that Palmer’s association brings, which alerts you to the gnarlier trees and the toytown cottages, it does seem to be patch of England as it was.
I was intending to post just about the Skeletons: London’s Buried Bones exhibition, at the Wellcome Collection gallery. I was simply going to comment in depth on its curation, which seems at first disappointingly simplistic, compared to previous Wellcome extravaganzas. It is elegaic, very like a graveyard, in that it consists of almost nothing more than a host of skeletons in glass cases, lined up in rows, toes all pointing the same way. Like visiting a graveyard, the exhibition rewards you by a monotonous reading of each epitaph in turn – name, date of death, cause of death…but unlike normal gravestones the cause of death is provided in full medical detail. This detail is not as dry as the bones, as it seems at first, but becomes fascinating as you delve into the exhibition. Also unlike a graveyard, you can actually see the bones, see the evidence with your eyes. You can almost draw lines from the label to the fissures and pitted scars on these bones. You see that medical knowledge is not so very arcane but is a system for describing what can be very traumatic damage to the body. You may imagine that disease and the pressures of life affect the flesh but not the bones as much as all that. However, many of these bones are ravaged.
So, I was going to write about the curation of this exhibition, how it is a collaboration between the Museum of London and the Wellcome Trust, combining medical and archaeological knowledge almost seamlessly, how it includes the trademark curatorial feature of Wellcome exhibitions of contemporary art in with historic medical items. In this case, the art is large photographs of the sites today where these bones were found, many no longer visibly burial grounds but lumbered over by blocks of flats and offices. They make visible the fact that our city is built on skeletons, or on top of the lives and deaths of millions of Londoners.
I was going to write only about that, but then I skipped through the Guardian today and saw this piece about Jamie Livingston who decided in 1979 to take one polaroid every day of his life. The photos continued without fail until he died of a brain tumour on his 41st birthday in 1997. This gave me pause because today is my 41st birthday. My 40th passed almost unnoticed but my 41st has really made me think about age, achievement and urgency, about the remaining days and what remains of our days past. The newspapers have been fuller than ever before of stories about ice melting, bees dying and needing to prepare for extinction, making us wonder what the future will hold and what we have to do now as it comes upon us. How much should I just carry on as normal? How much do the details of my life matter? How much will taking photographs and making art achieve in the face of all this? Will my life begin at 41, just as Jamie Livingston’s ended? Do you achieve more if you know life is threatened, or not?
He didn’t know he was going to die, not until his last year perhaps. There is one photo that shows a massive operation scar across his head, visible evidence in his skeleton of the fact of either impending death or a great effort to survive, whichever fact you take it to be. But many photos follow that show him living at home, getting married, being with friends, carrying on, that is until they don’t carry on any more. The photographs could almost be seen as going back in time from that point, once you know about his death, a daily record of each day lived until it ended. There is a close connection between photography and therapy, or it could be said that photography is a kind of mania to hold on to life as it passes, for example, as seen in the work of W Eugene Smith who obsessively recorded New York as he gradually lost his sanity. Even though I was wondering about the validity of photography (does it help or change anything?), seeing these daily polaroids made me even more want to record what I love and discover more unloved things that could become loved through being photographed. So, I went out with my camera and took some photos…
While I take an unearned but muggy-August-Friday-ish break from writing a short film about a Concrete artist whose paintings visualise mathematical ideas, here are a few thoughts about interpreting the meanings intended by artists. This article by Tom Lubbock got me thinking about how much and whether artists can be said to investigate an idea. He criticises the Tate’s interpretive text for Martin Creed’s Work No. 850, which is a concrete and systematic artwork of a kind, but a pretty surprising kind as it involves runners sprinting up and down the gallery. He picks up on the assertion that the work ‘investigates’ the body, the ebb and flow of nature etc, saying that the work does have runners and so on, but it doesn’t have themes or metaphors, and we shouldn’t try to look for them within the work. He says we are held in a double bind, that we are told art’s meanings are arbitrary, yet the interpretation provided always insists that there must be some meaning because without meaning it can’t be commended or valued.
Then I was sent this article responding, referring specifically to Lubbock’s sniffy comments on the Telectroscope. The experience was spoilt for Lubbock because the telectroscope was devised by an artist, Paul St George, whose website said that the work was about themes and ideas. This is an overreaction. There are some valid points to be made about the quality of museum & gallery interpretation but I’m not sure Lubbock’s are subtle enough. Just as the 4IP article author (Tim Wright?) says, we’ve all experienced lazy and irritating labels, which make use of that tedious curator-speak which generalises far too much and assumes meanings that aren’t intended. A better article would have analysed those types of writing and explored better alternative interpretations. Gallery and museum education work emphasises a more hermeneutic, active and social process of exploring meanings with audiences. Unfortunately there is still too much separation between curatorial label-writing and this kind of work. But still, that gap is an opportunity.
Blogs do provide some chance for people to discuss meanings of artworks seen in exhibitions. For example, Jonathon Jones writes more positively about Work No. 850, provoking many comments from readers on its associations for them.
Oh, and if you can face reading even more on this theme of art and explanation, there are 50 responses to this blog post by Jones!
I’ve been so involved in projects to do with the web and digital culture lately, that the topic I consider to be the most important has been pushed to the background. It was seeing these two things recently that made me hear the ticking of the clock again: This simple site counting down from 100 months – which is how long we have to solve the problem and this warning from the DEFRA chief advisor that we need to plan for the devastating effects of a temperature increase by 4C. Then, I got all niggled at the news that Boris Johnson had cancelled some green projects. Last year I published an article called Cultural Education for a Changed Planet in the Art and Climate Change edition of the engage journal , which I recommend you get hold of as all the articles together make for an inspiring and important read. Here is my article on its own.