Posts By Seán Sheehan

dirtroad

New Books Worth Reading

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You don’t have to be a Corbynista to know that the Establishment does not encourage radical politics of the genuinely socialist kind and that it will do whatever it can to belittle any group garnering mass support for daring to challenge the status quo. In the domain of cultural practice, mutatis mutandis, hugely important figures like Ken Loach and James Kelman are marginalized by the intelligentsia for the same underlying reason.

The political order wants safe middle-of-the-road parties and it matters not a great deal which of the established parties steers the ship of state; the cultural order appears to be liberatory in its warm acceptance of the whole aesthetic gamut but it shies away from Ken Loach’s films and James Kelman’s novels, leaving it to non-British critics and commentators to praise their cinematic and literary achievements. Kelman know the score:

‘areas of human experience [I write about] should not appear in public; we don’t want to know. We know that people are in the street, that they have no money and are maybe begging, but we don’t want to see them in literature. They should be swept under the carpet.’  

Lifting up the carpet and sweeping out what is underneath has been a trademark of Kelman’s writing – tastefully dismissed as ‘pugilism’ by bourgeois supremo critic James Wood – but Dirt Road cannot be so easily pigeon-holed. It is a story about grief, a terrible family loss that a father and his son have to cope with, but without the emotionalism that characterises humanist fiction on painful topic. It’s a road-trip novel but without the romance or consolation or violence you expect to find in books about journeys across the Deep South.

What makes it special is the language, the way we don’t express our feelings in neat sentences with carefully chosen adjectives and adverbs to nuance our refined sensibilities, the inarticulateness that is part of the expression of anguish and of hope. No living writer does this better than Kelman and Dirt Road quietly explores what it is like to struggle with the awful sense of loss that inhabits the body and mind when someone who was close dies.

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Spring Reading Selection

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Spring Reading: A review of some of the book I have enjoyed so far this year. 

The Opacity of Narrative by Peter Lamarque (Rowman & Littlefield)

We all like to tell stories but narrative is invested with meanings that make it more serious and questionable than we ever imagined. There is something called narratology –a term that Word 10 flags up as a spelling mistake – because a story isn’t simply a representation of a world that does or could exist. Fictional or not, a narrative is an artefact, not some entity in the natural world, and a postmodernist like Hayden White writes of historical narratives shaping the relationships that turn facts into a story with a particular significance. This isn’t saying historians constitute the actual facts but it does get close to saying the resulting narrative is not altogether different to a story that might emerge if they did. The historian shares something with the novelist: both recount and shape events within a temporal dimension, imposing a structure, and creating a narrative. Herodotus is a historian but what he writes is also a work of literature and the first Penguin edition classified it as fiction;  Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark was published as nonfiction in America but fiction in Britain; Hitler’s Diaries turned out to be fiction but this doesn’t make it literature. The Opacity of Narrative sets out with admirable lucidity the questions and queries and the tricky issues in the fields of epistemology, philosophy and aesthetics that arise when narrative loses any claim to transparency. It becomes important to work on identifying kinds of narrative practice, the different conventions they follow and the nature of the truth claims involved and this book succeeds in making you think about what is involved in doing so. A story is never just a story.

 

China Miéville critical essays edited by Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia   

Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville by Carl Freedman (Gylphi)

The form of fictional stories that monopolize the subject matter of newspapers’ book reviews and the display tables in bookshops is representative realism, filling in a story in reassuringly familiar ways as if there is a readily knowable world out there and a novel can capture it verbally just as a photograph shows us what it is a photograph of. A photograph or a realistic novel, we naively feel, stands in a causal, mimetic relation to their subject matter but, as the essays brought together by Edwards and Venezia and the critical study by Freeman show, there is a narrative complexity to China Miéville’s novels that rejects such a model of transparency  In place of a fixed line leading to a determined destination, Iron Council describes a train line (and the journey along it) that is always in the making: ‘Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future.’ In The City & The City the ability of
language to cement an ideology of seeing and unseeing is on show in a single city of two psychological halves, the inhabitants of one literally not seeing what is in front of their eyes. In Embassytown, a species incapable of understanding metaphor, for whom each word can mean one thing only since meaning does not depend on a system of differences, discovers what it means to use words non-literally. For Miéville, the issues raised by his imaginative stories are packed with political intent and this is what makes him the most interesting of all contemporary novelists.

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Two Books Set in Ireland: Photography and Fiction

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Breakfast at Cannibal’s Joe, Jay Spencer Green

Joe runs a CIA office in Dublin and he’s having problems with his cover as the manager of a company that is expected to be making a profit just like any bona fide company. This is the starting point for a novel that never lets up on its humourous attitude to matters that in an alternative universe – like the one we live in – would be the cause of severe consternation.

Jokes come fast and furious, shooting across every page of the novel, and most of them are Joe’s. The reader may need reminding that this character is an American secret service operator because his brand of humour is black and so laden with irony as to make him sound like the quintessential stereotype of the smart-arsed Dubliner who finds it difficult to take anything seriously. Sometimes the jokes are funny in an informed kind of way, as when Joe describes an MI6 agent with whom he is having difficulties as ‘the sort of asshole you see in photos surrendering Singapore to the Japs’. At other times they are just funny in a cosmopolitan way, as when a bomb goes off in Connolly St station when it is not the rush hour but still busy because of train delays: ‘leaves on the line, a suicide in Raheny, commuters from Sligo sabotaging their train so they wouldn’t have to go home to Sligo for the weekend’.

More common are jokes of a purely gratuitous nature, as in a list of collective nouns (‘…an army of amputees, a shitload of nappies…) that has not the slightest relevance to the bizarre plot that is unfolding. Breakfast at Cannibal’s Joe is to be read as an antidote for humour-deprived states of mind or just anyone suffering from mirthlessness in a mirthless world. 

Beyond Maps and Atlases, Bertien van Manen (Mack)

Bertien van Manen came to Ireland with pain in her heart, recently widowed, and a simple camera in her hands. ’I was guided by a feeling and a search, a longing for some kind of meaning in a place of myths and legends’. Hmm… that’s worrying, smacking as it does of someone who might have recently completed a short course in the kind of Irish literature that only the non-Irish enjoy reading. It doesn’t help to learn that she loves the work of John Banville.

Such reservations soon evaporate in a Celtic twilight when looking at the photographs in Beyond Maps and Atlases for what you see is less a homage to Yeats and the fairies and more a bleak but not nihilistic documentation of a small island with its western seaboard facing the un-human Atlantic. I don’t know if all the photographs were taken in the west of Ireland but that’s the feeling they convey: scary seascapes, dark and forbidding foliage, a country road eerily lit in yellow by a car’s headlights, human shapes disfigured by bad lighting and a cheap camera and a truly repellent image of a dead and fox-ravaged lamb.

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Artist and Empire

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The subject of this exhibition is representations of the British Empire by artists over the past four hundred years. You might expect a bucket of blood to confront visitors in the first room at Tate Britain but the subject has to be approached more carefully given a recent poll indicating that 44% of British people look back to their empire with pride. So the first room of the exhibition, entitled Maps and Flags, plays it safe with examples of early cartography and some splendid Ghanaian asafo flags. Brian Friel’s Translations comes to mind as a more insightful probe into the role of maps in the making of the empire.

The second room, Trophies of Empire, looks at the variety of artefacts and art associated with Britain’s imperial project and, given the size and extent of the empire, it is not surprising to find an astonishing range of material on display. There is Stubb’s grand painting, ‘A Cheetah and Stag with Two Indian Attendants’, illustrations of plants and animals by amateur scientists and naturalists and no shortage of material resulting from looting, bartering and purchasing by traders and soldiers. Carved heads from Benin, a small part of the systematic plundering conducted by British forces in 1897, are the prize exhibits here but a visit to the British Museum is necessary to appreciate just how magnificent was the art practised in a corner of Nigeria centuries past.

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Walker Evans Depth of Field von John Hill

Photography & Fiction Books of 2015

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Depth of Field, Walker Evans (Prestel)

More than anyone else, Walker Evans made the vernacular a respected field for photography, taking the documentary style of newspapers and magazines to the level of art, holding a mirror up to ordinary life. This book is a retrospective: not just his classic, dispassionate work of the Depression era but material from before and after those years. He managed to do nearly all his work as paid assignments, a remarkable achievement, and his famous New York subway project was a rare exception.

This book is packed with photographs that cannot be forgotten, like the ‘Alabama Cotton tenant Farmer’s Wife’ that captures dignity and goodness in the scrubbed face of a woman standing against a wall of her clapboard house. Her willingness to pose so unaffectedly is more understandable in the light of knowing that Evans spent three weeks in Hale County, Alabama getting to know people and win their trust. He was there with James Agee on a writing assignment for Fortune magazine and looking at the photos Evans took it comes as no surprise to learn the magazine declined to publish them.

Evans’ early work is more formalist than the photography he became famous for in later years but it is also reflective. In New York in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, he took to capturing the presence of Brooklyn Bridge, the barges moving below them and workers taking lunch on the streets and people on the sidewalks. Faces interest him but in his search for what he called ‘contemporary truth and reality’ he photographs people not just for their unique individuality – he likes them to look straight into the camera — but also for the social semiotics they embody. This shows in his Cuba photographs of 1933 and it never leaves him although he finds meaning also in buildings, gas stations, billboards, the interior of a barber’s shop. Middle-class suburban life has little interest for Evans.

The New York subway work, lasting from 1938 to 1941, came after Alabama but there are many sections in Depth of Field that bring less well-known projects to our attention. In 1941 he was photographer for a book called The Mangrove Coast: The Story of the West Coast of Florida but five years later he is back on city streets doing what he likes best, taking unposed pictures of working people going about their lives, and it continues into the 1950s. Formalist concerns return in his late work of the ‘60s and ‘70s when he sets about celebrating ordinary hand tools—‘the fine naked impression of heft and bite’ in a wrench or ‘the beautiful plumb bob’—and in more of his own words he says something about them that extends to his achievement as a whole: ‘…small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor, and purity’.

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Valerie & TS Eliot

Memorable Non-Fiction of 2015

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The Poems of T.S. Eliot: The Annotated Text. Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Faber & Faber)

T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are linked in strange and unlikely ways. They were both anti-semitic (and Eliot was a racist to boot) but this does not prohibit or prevent the appreciation and enjoyment of their poetry except when, as in Eliot’s King Bolo pieces, the bigotry is put into words. Céline is still worth reading, Wagner worth listening to and it’s not difficult to find other examples of artists with objectionable right-wing convictions–after all, who objects to reading Yeats?

The more interesting connection between Eliot and Pound is the way one of this pair of American poets helped the other; for just as Pound was of enormous importance to the young Joyce he also decisively influenced Eliot in the writing of ‘The Waste Land’ – published in 1922, the same year as Ulysses – and that astonishing poem would not exist in the form it does were it not for Pound’s editing of the work. Until the publication of the first volume of this two-set edition the only way to see clearly what Pound achieved was by way of a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts (Faber & Faber, 1986), showing how Pound worked on the text, but now Faber & Faber have gone one better thanks to the annotations provided here by Ricks and McCue. Quantitively, Eliot’s poetic output is not great but with just ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Four Quartets’ and a handful of other pieces his place in English literature is assured and this is reflected in the fact that the first volume has 346 pages of poems and 965 pages devoted to commenting and annotating them. This, of course, includes a detailed presentation of Pound’s work on ‘The Waste Land’.

It’s always risky to speak of a definitive edition but in this case it is difficult to imagine, unless new work by Eliot comes to light, how the present two volumes could be replaced by something better.

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Goya in London

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Art Review

Goya: The Portraits. National Gallery. Until 10 January 2016

The Goya exhibition at the National Gallery shares something with The World of Pop by bringing to the attention of our eyes an aspect of his art that had previously passed us by. Goya is not famous for his portraits — but if you’ve seen his ‘Antonia Zárate’ in Dublin (loaned to London for this show) you’ll know he can paint people like an angel — but he earned his keep by turning them out for rich patrons and only now, by bringing together so many of them, is it possible to take in his extraordinary achievement. 

His pure skill as a painter reveals itself in the ability to render those parts of the human body not hidden in costumes or layers of clothing; witness the fine skin and eyebrows of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga, the young wife of Infante Don Luis. Goya was hired by the royal couple as a portrait painter and he grew to like them as people capable of being themselves, not straitjacketed by court protocols. And when painting the Duke and Duchess of Osuna with their children Goya seems equally enamoured by their personal qualities and portrays them with a sense of animated informality.

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Teresa BugaÔÇÖ Cubes  Courtesy of Tate Modern

Pop Art in London

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Pop art — a complicit reflection of and a critical response to the plethora of media that bombarded popular culture in the 1960s: magazines, photographs, billboards, colour advertising, television, brand names, celluloid – was bound up with the climatic ascendency of US power in its manifest destiny to conquer the world with military might and icons and logos of the good life and the free market. Baudrillard noted this in 1970 when he characterised pop art as the ‘total integration of artwork into the political economy of the commodity sign’.

crowd of people, even dissenters, becoming just a collection of potential consumers.

Tate Modern’s exhibition refocuses this debate not by bringing together the familiar works of Pop Art but by looking at its international face and showing how it was used by artists to raise
social and political issues that went beyond the remit usually associated with Warhol et al. For Evelyn Axell, the space age of the 1960s becomes a site of sexuality in Valentine (1966) by showing Valentine Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut, waiting to be unzipped in an act of erotic voyeurism that celebrates female intimacy. In Joan Rabascall’s Atomic Kiss (1968) the archetypal movie-inspired female mouth in red lipstick is juxtaposed with an image of an atomic explosion. These are interesting and arresting but other pieces on show seem lightweight, like Teresa Buga’s Cubes (1968) which looks like a dismantled Rubik’s Cube painted with graphic signs. It is supposed to anticipate a post-modern world where meaning is never fixed, always subject to deconstruction and reconfiguration, but if
you were unkind you’d say it would not be out of place in a children’s play area. Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian who went to New York and met Warhol, Rauschenberg and the gang, gives us Bombs in Love (1962), a mixed-media sculpture of two found bomb-casings painted in lurid colours of hippydom. It has a curiosity value but a museum rather than an art gallery might best serve as its permanent home.

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Zombie Catholicism

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Book Review: WHO IS CHARLIE?  Emmanuel Todd (Polity, 2015) 

The targeted killing of staff at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris took place on 7th January 2015 and on the 11th of the month a mass protest demonstration in the city attracted between 1.5 and 2 million people. The march had an impeccable pedigree, headed as it was by the likes of Angela Merkel, François Hollande, David Cameron, Jean-Claude Juncker, Nicholas Sarkozy and Donald Tusk. ‘I am Charlie’ became synonymous with ‘I am French’ and when the now state-subsidized satirical magazine was relaunched its cover showed Muhammad with a penis-shaped face and wearing a turban from which hung two round shapes like testicles. For protestors a pencil on a poster became a symbol of liberty, forgetting the way caricatures of Jews had been a stock part of Nazi anti-Semitism.

The people on the protest march did not represent a cross-section of French society: the less well-off from the suburbs, whatever religion they did or did not profess, were not on the streets of Paris; nor were the working class of provincial France well represented. It was a largely middle-class affair with its roots in the old Catholic substratum of France and not in the secularism of the country’s republicanism. Emmanuel Todd sees his country lying to itself, provoking the thought that Charlie is an impostor, and reminds readers that two years earlier Paris had witnessed another huge demonstration, between 340,000 and 800,000 people, protesting at the legalisation of homosexual marriages. Such large numbers did not characterise reactions to the spread of anti-Semitism in France that resulted in the killing of three Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012 or the killing by a French citizen of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014.

Religious beliefs and practices have dramatically declined in France, just as elsewhere across Europe, with the proportion of children born out of wedlock increasing from 5.5% in 1960 to 55% today and the numbers of practising Catholics falling from 33% to 6%. Such a change can destabilise the group psyche of regions where Catholicism was deeply rooted, creating metaphysical anxiety, and Todd’s term for the anthropological and social fallout from this is ‘zombie Catholicism’.

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Return: A Palestinian Memoir

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Everyone wants to get home: at the end of the day, a place of comfort and security, repose. It’s not the magnitude of the space – a bedsit can be remembered with affection – but the space itself, somewhere you fit in.

For Ghada Karmi home is Palestine, the place she left as an infant in 1948, and she returns there in 2005 to Ramallah in the West Bank, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA), after half a century spent living in Britain. She secures a job as a consultant for the Media & Communications  ministry of the PA, which at that time also administers Gaza although a Hamas government is about to emerge there and challenge Fateh’s long-standing claim to represent Palestinian aspirations to statehood. Hamas is prepared to launch rocket attacks on Israel; Fateh is accused of subservience to the occupying power and its ongoing building of a high concrete wall to divide up the West Bank and screen off Jewish settlements from the Arab areas around them.

Fateh’s energies are caught up in the myriad NGOs that emerged in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, when Palestinian statehood seemed only a matter of time. Israel plays with time, waiting for the generation who fled their homes in 1948 to die out and bury with themselves the right to one day return to their land. After a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin, when Jewish militias killed some 120 inhabitants, Ghada Karmi’s family departed, thinking to return when the situation calmed down. That was fifty-seven years earlier. In Ramalleh in 2005, political priorities have changed and  Karmi sees the formation by the PA of an 8,000-strong ‘counter terrorism force’ which brings murderous attacks on Hamas members and the gratitude of Israel.

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Working Backwards

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Book Review  

Jolly Lad, John Doran  (Strange Attractor, 2015)

An Encyclopadeia of Myself, Jonathan Meades (Fourth Estate, 2015) 

The autobiographer has something in common with Narcissus although not if the comparison only reduces the writer to being an egoist in love with the story of his own life. Before Narcissus sees himself in a pool he is ardently solicited by the nymph Echo but he rejects her advances and she wastes away in grief until only her voice lives on. When, later, Narcissus sees himself reflected in the water his anguish, like Echo’s, resides in not being able to embrace what is so dearly desired. He dips his arms in the water, reaching for the neck he sees, but cannot touch for himself. Consumed by his own grief, Narcissus dies and mourners find only a flower by the water’s edge. It’s a potently suggestive myth, inlaid with parallels: repetition as representation – verbal in one case, visual in the other; yearning for something out of reach; failure to reciprocate desire leading to death.

Unlike the autobiographer who will be worth reading, Narcissus fails to register a difference between his present self and an image that would represent him. What he sees is not his own self but an other that reflects his self; he speaks and sees his lips moving in the water  but the image doesn’t speak to him although it is a visible and spatial repetition of his voice. Like a letter without an address, his desire returns undelivered to its sender. Derrida’s opposition that pits a writing that is always deceased and deficient against the full presence of the living voice, the script versus the body, is part of the constellation that makes up the author as a selfhood presenting itself. Writing your own life retrospectively attempts to create the self’s authentic voice but, like the image Narcissus beholds in the clear water of the pool, it cannot provide what is being sought. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the narrator addresses Narcissus: ‘What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own.’ Autobiographies can be calibrated according to their degree of success in acknowledging the inherent failure in trying to reach what has passed, as if an echo could somehow be the real thing. As the White Queen paradoxically observes, ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’. John Doran in Jolly Lad has a knotty problem that compounds this immanent impasse: can he bear to look at his previous existence? He writes of a ghastly past that he desperately needs to leave behind but achieving this entails asking himself what kind of self will take its place.

Doran’s childhood was marked by the kind of material deprivation that characterized many working-class families around Liverpool in the 1970s and cannot be simply pointed to as an explanation for his troubled self. His father, reduced to working short hours and a pinched income, had little sympathy with John’s manic attraction to pop music and only in adulthood is his son able to contextualise his father’s moroseness and hatred of U2:

Of course, this was another example of capitalism’s great cloaking mechanism in full effect. Blaming expensive hat wearing stadium rock divots for your lot in life is no less unreasonable than blaming immigrants, the police, the middle classes, those on the dole, claimants of sickness benefit, your neighbour who has a better car than you, those on your shop floor who have better shift patterns than you, the secretary you suspect to be fucking someone else in middle management, the students who are  only working in your office over the summer break, black people, Asian people, Europeans, people from Wigan, people from Manchester, people from London, people from Yorkshire, people from the other, better side of Warrington Road…

(True, it might have been no less unreasonable than blaming others but, let’s be fair,  some mea culpa  should be expressed by son to prescient father for identifying U2 as bellends.)  

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It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

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It is undemanding to look at the photographs taken by Ciarán Og Arnold after the financial meltdown of 2008 and regard them as sad signifiers of life in a distressed small town in the Irish midlands suffering the throes of economic collapse. There is no work for young people but not everyone can emigrate; ergo: hopelessness, ennui, barely suppressed anger and frustration for those left behind on the scrapheap. The Celtic tigers were stuffed with greed, corruption and a venal populace and alongside the dead skin lies the human wreckage. Oh, what a pity.

This is the pound-shop moralism of the ‘beautiful soul’ that Hegel descried in The Phenomenology of Spirit.  It’s too easy and comforting to feel you are standing on the outside, not needing like Pontius Pilate to wash your hands, as if somehow you have nothing to do with the wretched cultural wasteland
 that produces the deprived micro-community so sorrowfully captured by Ciarán Og Arnold. The male angst and sense of despair depicted in his photographs epitomise the rage that resides inside Irish society, a visceral response to life that goes beyond mere economics. If Joyce’s Dubliners presented a dark side of early twentieth-century life then I Went to the Worst of Bars… does something similar for the early twenty-first century.

The temper of these photographs is  immanent for there is no outside, and in place of a simplistic dualism of  subject – a photographer – and object – desolate dance clubs, dismal alleyways, inebriated older men, aggressive younger ones, two goats in a field, girls dressed up for a weekend night out – we see a totality that fuses facts with values, poor lighting with a poverty of opportunity, crappy wallpaper on a wall with horribly stunted horizons, budget-priced film stock with a culturally bankrupt environment.  Ciarán is the sound geezer who has clicked the shutter on his camera but the photographs are communal: the zeitgeist of an Ireland that goes largely unrepresented or, when it is acknowledged, is mediated by the perspective of an Irish media that would have us believe we are all paid up members of that middle-class constituency so piquantly evoked by George Harrison:

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies
Living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner
With their piggy wives
Clutching forks
and knives to eat their bacon

Ciarán Og Arnold does not show us these people but they are the audience silently confronted by the faces, the furniture and vegetation, the cheap clothes and the empty bed that he presents us with.

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A Mediated distribution of
the real and the fictional

What’s in a Photograph?

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Wikipedia scores zilch when it comes to introducing the term fine art photography:

Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer. Fine art photography stands in contrast to representational photography, such as photojournalism, which provides a documentary visual account of specific subjects and events, literally re-presenting objective reality rather than the subjective intent of the photographer; and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services.

This begins by implying that non-fine art photography cannot the act of a creative photographer or —  another possibility given the partisan logic of the premise  —  all photography created by an artist belongs to the fine art stable. The error is then compounded by a categorical contrast between the esteemed subject of fine art photography and two other types of photography: the representational sort, such as photojournalism, and the commercial kind. We can take the hint and regard these last two as inferior: one is merely a visual record of what exists and the other merely vulgar advertising.

Two books published by Hatje Cantz embody what is really at stake here. World Wide Order is a collection of photographs by Julian Röder, divided thematically but united by a concern with the incestuous union of power and economics that we know as capitalism. The first section is entitled The Summits, a series that started when Röder was a participant in the protests at Genoa in 2001 and which evolved as he recorded moments from the opposition to the G8 summits in Brussels, Evian, Gleneagles, Heiligendamn, Thessaloniki and Hokkaido. Impressive as the 2003 anti-war protests were, bringing millions of civilians onto the streets around the world, they were essentially passive and cannot be compared with the spirit of protesters that Röder captures with his camera. He records civil disobedience as it should be — organized, focused, prepared to defend itself, courageous – epitomised by a shot taken at Gleneagles in 2005 that calls to mind an infamous  moment photographed during the Battle of Orgreave. As the G8 organizers retreated to rural locations in order to outwit opposition, conflict moved from urban barricades to country lanes and fields. Gentrify this if you can.

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Rembrandt: Facing the Truth

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Visual Art Review: 

Rembrandt The Late Works (The National Gallery, London)

Rembrandt: The Late Works, Jonathan Bikker et al (Yale University Press)

Rembrandt’s Universe, Gary Schwartz (Thames & Hudson)

Rembrandt is one of those names, like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, that have ascended to a higher almost ethereal sphere and the person behind the name can only be lauded and lavished with imprecise praise. Shrink-wrapped and simplified for posterity, they are Famous and Exemplary and we are not invited to look too closely at their situations and achievements. Everyone knows Martin Luther King had a dream and that he was a good guy but that’s about it. And we know Rembrandt was a really great painter but not so sure what his greatness consisted in. The exhibition at London’s National Gallery (until 18 January), and two books on the artist, go some way towards taking the man off his pedestal and helping us see what is astonishing about his work.

Good painters are uncanny at playing with the movement of light and colours and Rembrandt is no exception in this regard but not all good painters can depict facial expressions with honesty, compassion and sublime skill. Rembrandt is the unrivalled master when it comes to faces. His abiding concern with capturing moods and emotional states as registered by posture and parts of the body, especially faces and hands, helps explain why he painted his own body some eighty times. Vanity, as you see when stepping into the first room of the National Gallery’s stunning exhibition, doesn’t come into it. The room has four self-portraits in oil and one etching, completed between 1659 and 1669, and they will bowl you over.

A day later I found myself in snooty Knightsbridge and a street mostly dedicated to high-end hairdressers and beauty parlours, one of which offered a ‘bespoke permanent make up service’. Rembrandt is the natural antidote to any such endeavour. He paints himself as he is: limp skin, slack jowls, wiry grey hair, drooping eyelids and a W.C. Fields-like nose. The self-portraits were painted during the years in which his common-law wife, Hendrickje, and his son Titus died, a period of grief compounded by his finances nose-diving into bankruptcy. When he died himself, aged 63, he was buried in an anonymous rented grave.

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