Sunday, 1 September 2013

Larkin’s ‘The Trees’: A Schism of Being and Becoming

An especial attraction, perhaps even virtue, of ‘The Trees’, is that certain of its purported themes – death, existence, becoming – may be seen in either secular or Christian terms, whether express nods to humanism and doctrine or simply chance echoes of the two. Whatever Larkin’s stylistic agenda here, ‘The Trees’, at the very least, meditates evocatively on growth, flourishing and mortality, be his intent philosophical or purely literary. If, though, ‘The Trees’ does intimate something conceptual as well as poetic, perhaps it is the collision of Nature’s unbounded metaphysics with Man’s limited experience. That conflict of timelessness and of our interim Being, though not implicit from the outset, emerges as the poem develops.

The poem’s opening, “The trees are coming into life/Like something almost said”, is a declaration of life, a natural process asserted rather than simply undergone. That initial richness, though, is tempered by the “grief” of the “greenness”, as if Nature is somehow conscious of its coming deterioration even amid that formative vitality, a melancholy recognition that abundance must submit to effect and change. Self-arbitrating Nature, and, in the second stanza, Man’s view of such phenomena – of Nature possessing motivation or intellect – shapes the “conflict” I described earlier. The opening stanza attributes agency as well as aesthetics to Nature, the impression that the trees can somehow emote at their lifespan, dwell on the prospect of fate.

Having, at the poem’s beginning, so lyrically sounded the birth pangs of the trees, Larkin seeks to objectify Man’s own view of them, imagining our resentment even when met with their colour and grace. Their annual conjuring feat of “looking new” affronts the reality that “we grow old”, as if their implacable beauty denotes some sleight of hand. It is to the trees that Larkin’s Christian motif “born again” is accorded, Nature enjoying perpetual renewal when Man, at best, is afforded ‘mere’ experience, and the innate transience it evokes. The doors of Man’s perception are purely ajar, whilst Nature’s verve is cyclical, recalling the peculiar dogma of Yeats’ “ever-singing leaves” that, like Larkin’s trees, are impervious to the laws of age and decay. The trees’ life and youth must be hard won if to be sanctioned, laboured if to be moral in the eyes of Man’s decline, rather than practice the nefariousness “trick” implies.

In the final stanza, the trees compound Larkin’s seeming exasperation at their resilience, as he describes the “threshing” of the “unresting castles”, Nature’s seamless fortress indomitable in its vigour and texture. If May is Larkin’s cruellest month, when the trees announce their own cessation, then their plight is only temporary, spurring themselves on to “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh”. Pervasive within ‘Trees’, if only tacitly, is an oddly Christian narrative of development, existence, passing away, and a metaphysics addressing new life. A paradox, though, is that it is Nature, rather than Man, which enjoys this rebirth, whilst we are to accept mortality. For all our instinctual adulation of Nature – Larkin recognising Nature’s self-expression at the moment of regeneration – there is an almost pained observation of its revival, its rallying cry somehow at the expense of our death. The “trick” seems to us a dubious metaphysics, Nature’s assured self-sufficiency attesting to a mysterious resolve that lies beyond our apprehension, an energy we cannot rationalise and which “appears” underhand. Whilst the trees “die too”, they, in contrast to Man, persist, enjoying as much an aesthetic as an existential renaissance, that rebirth almost as wilful as it is natural. Nature’s metaphysics is the envy of Man, its “restless castles” the sublime guarantor of rebirth.

For us, the Christian promise of renewal is an enchanted hypothesis, and yet, for Nature, an immutable given. If that is so, the poem evinces a reluctant rather than willing humanism, casting the eternal not as a gift but the atemporal as a cold intellectualism. Man is everywhere governed by the strictures of experience when Nature’s resurrection is confirmed, Larkin’s trees teasing and inexorable, the exquisite both an instrument of mockery and an object of awe.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Bejeweled Evolution

Once a contention, now a proverb, “…endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”, Darwin’s epochal observation at the close of The Origin of Species (1859) might aptly describe Katie Paterson’s theme and agenda in her latest exhibition, at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. In appointing Man’s place on Earth as her subject, Paterson explores not simply our adaptation to the natural world, but also related issues of social space, our functioning therein, and how evolution conveys as much an aesthetic as a developmental narrative. The centrepiece, ‘Fossil Necklace’, charts the unfolding of life over 3.5 billion years.

On show in the first room, ‘As the World Turns’ (2010) features a rotating turntable playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. At one revolution every twenty-four hours, it is in tandem with the motion of the Earth. That the record, if performed from beginning to end, would run for four years, reflects gradual evolution rather than design in Nature. The movement of the record is almost invisible to the naked eye, and the sound barely audible, mirroring time’s innate rather than humanistically-conceived quality. However defined our impressions may seem, it is the inherent rather than the empirical in Nature which prevails. 

As remarkable for its orchestration as for its production is the black and white photograph ‘Inside the desert lies the tiniest grain of sand’ (2010). To create the image, Paterson worked with nanotechnology experts to take a grain of sand and carve it to just 0.00005mm across, which she then buried deep within the Sahara. The photograph, showing Paterson standing amongst the dunes of the Desert, echoes Hamlet’s dictum that “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space”. Hand outstretched, Paterson seemingly arbitrates her surroundings, as if passing a decree on Nature. It is precisely the illusion of her creative sovereignty, though, that is revealed by the curious modesty of Paterson’s presence in the shot – rather than assume centre stage, she is content to be Camus’ Absurd Man, “…who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal”. However inquisitive the mind, we must accept its limitations, exempt from any role in the atemporal, subject rather than impervious to the Phenomenal.

Exhibited in St Peter’s Church, close to the Gallery, is ‘Fossil Necklace’, the product of Paterson’s residency at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. A set of 170 beads on a string, each piece represents a chapter in life’s evolution, merging notions of time and beauty. Encompassing everything from a Thai mollusc to a seed fern from New South Wales, the necklace illustrates the Tree of Life, connecting each extinct and living species. Paterson condenses billions of years into something aesthetic as well as historically reflective, the passage of time constitutive of visual resonance as well as pure linearity. Within the church setting, the necklace accrues material and metaphysical depth, fusing humanism and the spiritual to show how the natural world has sustained Man’s drive to create, appealing to Nature in expressing our most direct feelings and to conjure our most nuanced musings on the sublime.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Exposing the entrenched "morality" of the past

Australia's leader frank about a lamentably recent social ill

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored"
- Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), Proper Studies (1927)

ON March 8th, Australian PM Julia Gillard delivered a remarkable address as part of International Women's Day. Earlier this week, Australian women - and women everywhere - were again her audience. Her theme was forced adoption, and the "moral" conservatism that mandated, with quite breathtaking hypocrisy, the removal of babies from their natural mothers, on the grounds of their being too young, or unmarried, and other "shameful" pretexts. Speaking to over eight hundred people, gathered in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, she set the record straight, pulling the facts from beneath the veil of outright double standards practised between the Fifties and the Seventies. With rhetoric as impassioned as it was objective, her address eloquently but uncompromisingly exposed this social atrocity, and outlined the emerging policies that will prevent such tragic history being repeated.

This, surely, is one of the things that social justice is all about - not insisting that each person play by a given set of rules or risk stigmatisation, but be recognised and valued as a human being regardless of their lifestyle and whether it tallies with prescribed "norms". It is not when we are cajoled into being the same that progress is made, but when our lifestyle choices are acknowledged and respected in individual rather than collective terms. Indeed, it is precisely the freedom to be true to ourselves, rather than abiding by given opinion or social "ideals", that enables the expression of human dignity at all. Liberty is indivisible, and diversity must always prevail, each voice listened to, not merely heard.

As little as forty years ago, the women in that room were told they were "bad", "unfit for motherhood", bemoaned by an outlook that appointed social conservatism the official disguise of bigotry, "tradition" the aesthetic term for a formal policy of oppression. History will record their victimisation by a "system" that stressed "propriety" over love, as if intolerance were preferable to compassion, but also their unswerving thoughts of the children they left behind, their innate decency and sense of duty to those absent sons and daughters wholly unshaken by the passage of time.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Amalia Pica in Oxford: Or, a Satire on Vanity

Mollifying Inherited Pretensions

Amalia Pica’s striking For Shower Singers exhibits a number of works in the UK for the first time. Amid the seductively disparate themes and images that abound in the Argentinian-born artist’s latest offering, mockery of institutions and the otherwise earnest ambitions of the individual might be identified as her principal concerns here. Spanning various genres, from wall displays to installations, London-based Pica satirises our cautious preservation of traditional and proverbial status, implying that we construe anachronisms for legitimate emblems, historicism as a worthy arbitrator of would-be social and creative enterprises.

Red Carpet (2010), duct tape on cardboard, traverses a wooden floor in straight and curved forms. How much Pica echoes the incorrigible celebrity culture in which we are saturated, a breathless and peculiarly Western desire for fame mirrored, here, in a suitably contorted rather than logical presentation. Soberingly, Pica leaves us wondering whether hierarchic structures, aside from their Hollywood superficiality, possess any more virtue as social constructs or as instinctive moral and artistic categories. 

If contemporary art is sometimes accused of intellectualising the everyday, of imposing nuance on the manifest, then Sorry for the Metaphor #5 (2010) offers an “apology” for this, only to objectively mimic the ground for that criticism. A figure stands by a reservoir, holding a notice. A signifier has been uprooted, an instruction ignored, prescribed clarity “burdened” with ambiguity. The scene is composed of 128 A3 photocopies. Pica, purportedly sympathetic to decried meditations on the implicit, wills that our appreciation of the world is as natural and imperfect as that realm itself, not defined or governed on our behalf. She prompts those cynical about aesthetic complexity to contemplate whether they would ordinarily tolerate a primitive, ordained configuration of their own experiences, or whether we would sooner intuit, cultivate and interpret those fragmented impressions for ourselves.

Number 1 (2012), a plinth daubed in turquoise paint, attests to a disparaged classicism, the archaic, however affectionate our popular view of it, here portrayed in the most embarrassed light. A foundation has been defaced, material and principle alike defamed. Here, as elsewhere in For Shower Singers, Pica simulates a deft collision of the precious and the anarchic, questioning whether the axiomatic significance accorded to rank and to established values carries a rational or supposed wisdom.  
For Shower Singers
Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street
December 14th, 2012 – February 10th, 2013.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Practicing Urban Meditation

Klein and Moriyama tell an evocative tale of two cities

ANY retrospective promising images of New York or Tokyo immediately and effortlessly excites the cultural imagination of the would-be spectator. A title featuring both cities, then, might be seen more as an event than an exhibit, offering singular aesthetic enlightenment and the inevitability both of new questions and unforeseen paradoxes. Yet even William Klein + Daido Moriyama: New York Tokyo Film Photography betrays that full metropolitan nuance, presenting as it also does shots of Paris, Moscow and Madrid.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

Loyalty and forbidden love over a Victorian summer

IT might be said that, for his portrayal of Michael Fitzhubert in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), little could have better prepared Dominic Guard than his title characterisation of The Go-Between. Just as Michael feels implacable duty to a blonde, ethereal muse, Miranda, Leo Colston is captivated by Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie), as he dispatches her correspondence to her lover, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). Leo, like Michael, fluctuates between reticence and obsession, prescribed inhibitions enticed by false and implausible unions.  If, then, certain of the figures in Picnic and The Go-Between are curiously parallel, then so, too, are their broader narratives - both are set in 1900, examining themes of temptation, ambivalence and forbidden desire, amid stifling conservatism and incorrigible social pride.

The seminal opening line, "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there", is as much a throwaway reminiscence as an aphoristic foreground to the story of reluctance, action and regret that ensues. The film conveys both the recollections of the older Leo and the experiences of the younger, these first words variously a lyrical hypothesis and a would-be evaluation.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

'Site' - The Aesthetics of Order and Chance

Mark Wallinger offers a Deleuzian meditation on form and paradox

"The problem of consistency concerns the manner in which the components of a territorial assemblage hold together. But it also concerns the manner in which different assemblages hold together, with components of passage and relay."

- Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia (1980)

ON show at the BALTIC, Gateshead, until mid-October, Site is Mark Wallinger’s first major solo exhibition in the UK for more than a decade, with four installations themed around order and chance. The Other Wall, 10000000000000000, Construction Site and MARK focus on identity, precision and randomness, echoing Nature’s capacity to spellbind with images both of aesthetic approximation and of structure.
As the centrepiece, 10000000000000000 is a scene composed of 65,536 stones on individual black and white squares. The title is the binary form of 65,536 in decimal, that figure itself the number of charts in Western geomancy, the magic art of divination – that exactitude, though, is one branch of the visual antithesis this exhibit illuminates, that of the apparent and the obscure. On the one hand, the chessboard effect denotes precision and accords definition to the stones, to their individual uniqueness and contrasts of shape, colour and texture. Amid that continuity and linearity, though, we are aware, also, of their seamlessness, their vast array making the stones indistinguishable, chance and randomness within Nature denying any one a stand-alone attraction or quality.

In The Other Wall, Wallinger follows thinkers and artists as varied as Lowry, Sartre and Pink Floyd in making a celebrity of an everyday structure. A wall of red, grey and brown bricks, each is labelled with a set of numbers in white chalk. Mirrored here, perhaps, is our tendency to imbue even the inanimate with salience, the seemingly unremarkable noted, rationalised, adapted. The Other Wall tacitly recalls Duchamp’s Fountain, with the Frenchman’s inscription ‘1917’ citing the year of its production, and, here, Wallinger’s ‘1559’, ‘1914’ and ‘1974’, as three of countless examples, moving beyond such chronology but still exciting speculation as to their purported significance – Years? Codes personal to the artist? Application of utterly arbitrary digits? The succession of numbers follows no apparent logic – ‘1415’, ‘4775’, ‘7023’, ‘6421’, and so on – but the curious specificity with which Wallinger endows each brick stresses what could just as easily be a speculation about Nature as, here, a numerical oddity – amid the apparent chance yet individuality within Nature, does there exist a method, an order, an element of determination to even the most disparate social and spatial mechanisms?

An eighty-three minute beach scene, Construction Site shows workmen erecting and dismantling scaffolding at the water's edge. The sea and the construction, as markers of the natural and the created, conjoin Nature and labour, and yet we also see them functioning independently. The men putting up the scaffolding do not stop to observe the water, an aesthetic that is curiously incidental to their work, and of which, as an audience, we are at most implicitly aware. We are not "here" to observe the lap of the wave, but the efforts of the workmen. The natural scene is not, as might stereotypically be supposed, more compelling by virtue of its beauty or tangibility, since Wallinger offers a curious juxtaposition. The ripple of the glistening water is as much a romantic cliché as it is an aesthetic taken for granted, and thus only unconsciously acknowledged by the viewer. Meanwhile, though, it is not the construction per se that is striking, but the setting for that action, a shoreline.

Therein lies orthodoxy and idiosyncrasy - we are used to seeing scaffolding, and understand its purpose, but not in so arbitrary an environment, one we associate with hedonism rather than work, passivity rather than endeavour. Despite their being fused in one continuous shot, then, order and chance are rigidly dissociated - the power of the water could impede the men's work just as its lull is purely a backdrop; at the same time, the workers are curiously oblivious to either its wonder or its threat, Wallinger having them execute their responsibilities as if they have been commissioned or that this is the traditional arena for such industry. Wallinger makes an idol of logical rigour rather than innate beauty, definition and precision emphasised over magnitude, temperament and chance.

Finally, MARK is a video presentation showing that name on a succession of walls - those of hospitals, prisons, homes, railway bridges, underpasses - different wall designs, sizes, periods, but each carrying that same inscription. "MARK" is, of course, the artist's signature, but, as a term rather than name, conjures the broader social role bound up in such domestic or public spaces - unity, compassion, punishment, servitude, destitution, and challenge. Each makes a mark on society, be it in our perception of those settings, or in their reality.

The sequence tells us much about personhood and personality. Firstly, personhood. Across the places in which "MARK" appears, those who inhabit them may experience variable levels of agency or autonomy, but are bounded by "personhood" - the status, if we are to use a standard definition, of being a person - a condition that defies social, moral or professional differences between individuals, and, in being classified as which, questions of our goodness, opinions or freedom are seemingly immaterial. If, as a term, "human being" is more concerned with the existence of the individual, rather than with any criteria or conditions that must be satisfied to "meet" that definition, then ethical and other judgements about, for instance, our conduct or cognitive well-being, may be subservient to a fundamental and all-encompassing "I".

Secondly, personality. "MARK" is etched into different points on the walls - central, to the left, right, higher and lower. Such variations reflect the differences within an essential truth, that each person has character of different moods, shades and extremities - the personalities that engage the attention, those content or seeking to be more individualistic and leftfield, those who aspire, those with a more subdued demeanour, willing to "follow the crowd". Wallinger attests to those contrasts, giving us a "MARK" who cannot help but catch the eye, one that is offset to one side of the screen, one that is more obscure, beneath our line of vision, or one who is more elevated, driven, focused but not at the heart of the action. Within the psychology of Wallinger's showcase graffiti, we detect assertiveness, modesty, and the enigmatic.

In MARK, Wallinger locates equality within wholly dissimilar worlds and circumstances, be they products of the most benign or appalling instances of chance. Families, patients, prisoners, among others - his unseen subjects might never meet, and yet each desires, acts, speaks, expresses. Pronouncements on the merits and flaws of those we connect with such communities are touchingly answerable to Wallinger's neutral yet creative eye - the "MARK" that does not make statements and suppositions, but instead removes the veil of the most confident, proud, ambivalent or anonymous social categories, to hear the voices and denote the value of those within.

A stark, inspiring and fiercely original perspective on identity, organised chaos, and the reliably erratic schemes and forms within Nature.