Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Times and Measures - An Introduction

Life is a chaotic mess. Whatever I believe to be true, mine will be the only system of its kind, because everyone has different standards, priorities and aspirations. Two black boys with different ideals to mine showed me a knife and I gave them what they asked for. For me, there is a universe to explore, for them, perhaps only the dark warren of the ghetto in which to run and hide, not that I should judge them, nor they me.

I want only to think about art, that which is not necessarily painting or installation, but that which makes my solar plexus glow in praise of God, whichever form it takes. I want to see, hear and feel beautiful things when I close my eyes, and by means of some technique, manifest them. If there is such a thing as art, it is to be found within the concepts, processes and finished works of artists, those who explore their original ideas, thereby imparting such knowledge as is free of trivia, prompting those at the initial stage of new thinking to act further.

I do not know whether I can call myself an artist or not – must I be a painter, draughtsman, sculptor, performance artist, filmmaker or photographer, to qualify as an artist? Must I have attended Slade, St. Martin’s, RCA, Goldsmiths or Chelsea? In conceptual art, a work is judged as such because an artist conceived it. If I include myself as an artist, where would it stop? Could anyone become an artist? Could any project manager or entrepreneur, who devises a plan and follows a process to completion, win the Turner Prize?

Roger Hiorns displayed a four-cylinder, sixteen-valve car engine at Frieze, probably from a long-since scrapped mid-range family car such as a Ford Sierra from the late 1980s. The government are encouraging people to scrap their old cars and buy brand new at a discount. That sixteen-valve engine has been immortalised as a symbol of memory, nostalgia, and an out-with-the-old attitude. There was no neon light shaft to make it look prettier, or set it within a multi-dimensional time frame. It was simply a banal, mass-produced product, displayed as art, but one that the artist deemed worthy to represent his idea.

Perhaps, unwittingly, I engineered my own mugging, to teach myself a lesson. In future, I want, consciously, to be in control.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Calm Rain

Is there really any such thing as art, or are there only artists, as Ernst Gombrich said? What makes a great artist – media coverage, popularity, sales success, the lack of competition? Is British art any good? Should I be paying any attention whatsoever to the likes of the Turner Prize?

I have been branded an art critic, after writing silly notes on a couple of shows that made a couple of people smile, but I’m nothing of the sort. I am a writer trying to find something to write about. Nay, I am a person trying to find something to do, and something to look at that reflects my mental images, that are in turn remnants of things I have seen before. For me, adulthood is an exercise in recreating childhood, whilst maintaining my responsibility to the world.

I neither want to be the sort of art critic who tries to explain everything he sees in a painting, thereby ruining its mystique for others, nor the sort who strides through a gallery self-importantly, declaring everything to be shit. I want to look at art and discover something in it for myself that I can then go home and write about. I cannot afford to collect art, but I can own any painting in any museum, mentally and emotionally.

I felt that I myself discovered Marcel Proust, as I read In Search of Lost Time, and that I discovered the object of life, merely to position oneself truly, viewing Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. The pain with which Joy Division’s music is suffused caused me spontaneously to dance, and Donald Judd’s orderliness has encouraged me to get organised in a way that doesn’t mean I have to tidy my room.

Today I took in Tate Britain, the Haunch of Venison and the ICA, before watching Sin Nombre at Prince Charles Cinema. At Tate Britain I paid £15 to see both Turner and the Masters and the Turner Prize 2009 exhibitions. Turner and the Masters might have been a good name for a future Arctic Monkeys side-project band, but the exhibition itself lives in the past, and seemed relevant only to show up the unfortunate inferiority of Turner next to the masters he hoped to emulate, in particular Rembrandt, Canaletto and Poussin. Turner’s paintings appeared to be deliberately pitted against those of his rough contemporaries, and time and again he came off worst, his misjudged angles, vulgar shapes and muddy colours strikingly at odds with his fabulous reputation as the most esteemed of British painters. By the time the procession moves to Philip James de Loutherbourg’s The Glorious First of June 1794, a truly arresting sight for one’s eyes to fall upon, Turner, the tiring lightweight, is most tenuously on the ropes. De Loutherbourg’s sea is green, like that of the Death Horse of Revelation, and appears to swallow men who are resigned to their fate, or hanging on the edge of hope. The clouds of the foreboding sky and blasting cannons are interchangeable, as if the battle portrayed is being fought in mid-Heaven, the hopes of nations, and worn, torn sails, strung up on a sublime web of black threads that lend a further dimension of jutting, swaying movement and action to the scene. Compare the murky, static Battle of Trafalgar, commissioned as an accompaniment to de Loutherbourg’s masterpiece, and Turner appears finally impotent. His best paintings are to be found elsewhere in the permanent collection, and are grey, abstract fragments that pre-empt Impressionism and Rothko, a departure from the nature and pastoral painting that is scarcely relevant today.

At least I felt involved in this show, unlike that of the Turner Prize, the real reason for my trek to the Tate. Having read so much about Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, I was expecting something remarkable, but met something impenetrable, or worse, uninspiring; perhaps I am being unfair, and the dialogue between moulded brain matter and the dust of an atomised jet engine will whisper in my ear at a later date. Richard Wright’s gold wall painting changed in the light and looked very pretty, but my gold Converse do that too. More interesting was the smell of Lucy Skaer’s sperm whale skull, borrowed from a museum collection, but Enrico David’s homoerotic stage display, with a man in the mind and in the back of the throat, reminded me of the less glamorous aspects of the cruising game, such as gonorrhoea.

I had planned a second visit to the Haunch of Venison to pay more attention to the relationship between the works of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, two contemporaries and friends (such that Judd named his son Flavin Starbuck), and to buy a book by or on Judd from the gallery bookshop. Judd would often insert coloured Perspex panels into the tops and bottoms of box frames, invariably made of cheap, easily obtained metal, that would allow light to do what it wanted, casting shapes and shades. Dan Flavin used light itself as the subject, creating shrines with a strong sense of divinity. Within the work of both artists is a dedication to symmetry, order and interchangeability, the appropriation of found and ready-made household/industrial objects anticipating our current stresses on sustainability and recycling. It has been said that adept artists use the materials around them to their advantage, and the works of this pair centre at the junction between art, product design and architecture, the main tenet of which is surely the best use of a space for its intended purpose.

How can neither the Haunch of Venison nor the Institute of Contemporary Arts stock a single book between them by or even on Donald Judd, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century (according to Charles Saatchi)?

Monday, 5 October 2009


It is autumn, and although summer only ended a couple of days ago, it already feels like a distant memory as I sit in a tracksuit on my bed, scarf around my neck, dog-ears hat on my head, computer on my lap, with the smell of my clean washing in the tumble-dryer wafting down from upstairs, or hanging to dry on my bedroom walls, from the picture rail.

Winter is coming. I don’t want it to be like last year again, when the cold froze me quite to the marrow as I sat at my desk in two jumpers, scarf, fingerless gloves, dog-ears hat and two pairs of socks in shoes, as I tried to write, every so often checking the thermometer by the kitchen door to see if the interior temperature had crept above nine degrees.

The difference between this year and last is money. This time last year I was about to quit my full-time job. Currently I’m easing myself into a new one, the concentration and dedication required for which has been responsible for my literary hiatus. It pays well, but detracts greatly from my mental energy, menial and creative efforts seemingly unable to dovetail in my attention, and I collapse into bed at night with a brain full of visual fragments for which I lack the techniques to realise – a writer surely deals in words, not pictures. The inspirations behind these visual fragments include Beverley Bennett (line, repetition), James Tuitt (colour), Donald Judd (compartmentalisation), Dan Flavin (light), Anish Kapoor (carnal dirt), Cy Twombly (grids and collage) and many others whose details aren’t at hand.

I seem to be striving towards the emergence of a totality, in which all my influences and experiences converge into a lifestyle and line of production. As with Gilbert and George, everything should be just so – my life and work should be the same thing. I should treat my personal life with the same respect as I do my job, professionally, with a healthy fear of failure, studying aptly and putting what I learn into practice.

This evening Donald Judd and the idea I have attached to him, of compartmentalisation, have inspired me. Earlier this year I wrote a semi-automatic splurge on mess and clutter called ‘The Box’, in which one box contains everything belonging to its inhabitant, including such unlikely items as sheep noses and matted moose hair. ‘The Box’ and the work of Donald Judd oppose one another. In ‘The Box’ there is no order, the inhabitant consumed in trying vainly to organise his mind and time, at the expense of either creativity or quotidian efficiency; one cannot create art when there are so many other things to take care of, especially with authority figures scrutinising and waiting for an implosion. If the inhabitant were to see the work of Donald Judd, for example, at the Haunch of Venison gallery, he might be inspired to reorganise and clarify his mind and environment, by shelving and boxing everything that exists in his world.

But there is something wonderful in mess, wallowing in one’s own shit, trapped under the rubble, alone and unreachable. That may sound insensitive, but only in chaos can I retreat into pure creativity. Destruction is pleasing to look at. Wrecked buildings and dead landscapes are warming. Dark, dirty holes are comely, flesh and blood, tasty. Our entire world is a trash can, the contents of which can all be sorted and recycled, but let us have a little play in it first.

There has to be found a balance. I have a job in which I have to present myself as an unwavering professional, through fear of losing it. I must operate cleanly and precisely as a robot. At work, my environment must be spotless and free of intrusion; every task must be completed promptly and any appliance used cleaned immediately after use, otherwise I cannot work, and therefore, as I am a cog within the machine, the café cannot work. I have a space in which to work, to complete random tasks within a set framework, and the more time I spend in that space working automatically, the better the results. My smoothies are uniformly thick and creamy, and look how smoothies should, yet I use no instruments for measurement, as my mind and actions are automatic.

In contrast, I have a hobby in which I can do whatever I want, and wallow in my own shit. At home, where I spend very little time, I throw things down and go straight to bed at 1am, only to jolt awake at 5.30 at the buzz of my alarm, pick what I need out of the rubble (shower gel, face wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel and a bathmat), before going over a mental checklist upon leaving the house (keys, phone, money, fags, travelcard, lighter, lip balm). When I find myself at home for half an hour or more, I am not thinking about order and the expedient completion of tasks, I am sinking into the warmth of my chaos and daydreaming. Home is where my ass sinks into the sofa and I become part of my own environment, participating in the visual manifestation of my own mental chaos.

If I am to become a writer, however, I must find the space, somehow, where these boxes overlap. I must be able to glean from the joy of wallowing in my own shit, yet produce efficiently and regularly, work of fine quality.