Posts By Seán Sheehan

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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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The Power of Paint

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Exhibition Review: The EY Exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free

Turner turned 60 in 1835 and the paintings and watercolours he went on to produce are the subject of the exhibition at Tate Britain (running until January 2015). Work labelled as ‘late’ can carry a double-edged evaluation, pointing upwards to acclaim  ascent to new ground or downwards to indicate a decline into staleness. It can go either way: late Heidegger is radical, late Wordsworth is drearily conservative and if late Dylan comes into the equation the term’s uncertainty wobbles close to collapse.

Tate Britain’s tag line for late Turner, Painting Set Free, makes clear the gallery’s pitch, indicating that we view these post-1835 works as a liberation from classical canons and traditional notions of art as merely pictorial representation. Turner, suggests the sub-text, was a modernist avant la lettre who prepared the way for Impressionism, anticipated the spirit of abstract art and educated our sensibilities towards receiving a non-mimetic notion of art.

This has been a familiar way of viewing Turner for half a century now so there is nothing shockingly new in Tate Britain’s approach but what does distinguish this exhibition is the concentrated gathering in one space of so many works by Turner over a precise period of time. The result is a visual feast that takes narrative moments from myths, the bible and history and stirs in a heady blend of watery mists and hazy but vibrant colours to enact ethereal dramas of light and dark.

The atmosphere of his paintings comes from light-drenched vistas that exist independently of whatever set of humans, nymphs, gods or goddesses happen to inhabit one portion of a canvas. Turner is not afraid to add touches of impasto while remaining loyal to his palette of airy blue, creamy to murky white, golden yellow, russet that mutates to scalding red and burnt orange.

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No Peace in the Void

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Book Review: Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek (Verso, 2014)

 

Žižek continues to fret away at the sweet-tasting bone of ontology, gnawing it from slightly new angles in the hope of stripping away any remaining morsels that will distract from savouring the pure marrow that lies within — a materialist philosophy that confronts the mystery of why there is nothing instead of something. His latest venture starts again with the dichotomy that  Kant drew between the  fundamental and allegedly unknowable nature of reality, the ‘in-itself’, and the human subject who, armed with his categories of thought like Captain America and his shield, goes out to meet and make sense of phenomenal experience.

A worthwhile materialism must go beneath, yet accommodate, the realisation that our sense of reality is governed by horizons of meaning, frames of reference, that we are born into. There is no escaping hard-wired webs of meaning — Kant’s transcendental idealism — but neither is there any breakout from the Real of a meaningless void. London Transport’s advice to mind the gap warns of the unresolved problem bequeathed to us by Kant: as passengers with mental coordinates for the lay of the land we step onto the firm ‘objective’ ground of the station platform and forget the space that is not accounted for in our conceptual maps of reality.

As ever, it is to Hegel’s ontology we must turn for understanding — a split universe of becoming, incessant movement through time in a praxis of being and nothing — and Žižek remains close to translating this ontology into the layperson’s language of quantum physics: a groundless vortex of what Badiou calls pure multiplicities, infinitely divisible and restless pluralities that contingently and finitely stabilize what is inherently opposed to the unifying power of thought. It is a universe utterly at odds with traditional notions of substantial entities bearing essential qualities independent of ourselves – in this sense it is nothing.

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Wittgenstein in Exile

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Book Review

Wittgenstein in Exile, James C. Klagge (MIT Press)

Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Lee Braver (MIT Press)

 

For James Klagge in his study of Wittgenstein and his philosophy, exile becomes a metaphor that help identify the enigmatic nature of his subject. Wittgenstein’s rootless, itinerant life was a crisscross of journeys across western Europe, from his home in Austria  to England, to Norway, to Ireland – returning to Austria to teach children in a rural location, returning to England in 1929 (‘God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train’, announced Maynard Keynes to his wife), returning to Norway to live. Always he travelled, as he lived, alone. He exiled himself from family, friends and academia and, given the strangeness of his temperament, exile serves as a description for his state of mind. Everyone feels alienated to some degree of other – those who don’t are spooky or just plain numpties – but Wittgenstein’s estrangement from the society and culture of his age was profound and the author’s understanding of this underlies what he writes about the man.

Wittgenstein in Exile is enjoyable to read because it does not indulge in abstruse, intricate arguments and is mercifully free of the mind-numbing prose that results when the author of a book about philosophy solely addresses a professional audience of people assumed to share his interests. Klagge’s comfortable style of writing, reaching out to a wider readership, succeeds in presenting the peculiarity of a man who could not separate his philosophical work from the way he conducted his own life. Unable to avoid remorseless self-examination, Wittgenstein was an artist of the intellect not just in his writings but in his  relationship with the world and to demonstrate this Klagge draws considerably on reminiscences of those who knew Wittgenstein and who experienced in conversation aspects of his austere genius.

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Two London Exhibitions: Two Ways of Seeing

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Two Ways of Seeing: Review of Exhibitions by Kazimir Malevich and Dennis Hopper

Tate Modern is currently home (until 26 October) to a major Malevich retrospective, the likes of which has not been seen in Britain before, while at the Royal Academy there is an exhibition of over 400 photographs taken by Dennis Hopper and on show in Britain for the first time. Malevich and Hopper are both regarded as radical figures who challenged convention but their differences outweigh any perceived similarities. This is not down to painting and photography being different art forms but to the uncrossable gulf between someone who revolutionised the nature of art and someone who happened to be around at a time of social change and captured aspects of it with a camera.

Malevich experienced the October Revolution and then enacted it artistically, dramatically tearing down the old canvas and inaugurating a new way of representing reality. But like most such sweeping summaries, it occludes the history that leads up to a significant moment, washing it over with a rhetorical flourish that rinses out a meaningful understanding. What distinguishes the Tate retrospective is its resolve to show Malevich developing as an artist in a particular place, Russia, and at particular times, from pre-revolutionary tsarism through to Stalinism.

Born in 1879 into a Polish family in Kiev, Malevich travelled to Moscow as a young man, discovered impressionism, saw the work of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse and began to develop his own style of painting while still feeling he had to speak the language of the western avant-garde. This shows in his Self-Portrait of 1908-10 which takes from Gauguin a compositional ploy which positions the image in front of a painting – a just discernible scene of bathers in this case – while presenting himself as dapper and urbane. Room Two of the exhibition shows him as an artist drawn to Russian themes and styles, painting rural workers using simple forms and expressive colours to portray their hard-working, honest lifestyles.  The Scyther of 1911-12 reveals the influence of modernism without sacrificing allegiance to a Russian cultural identity. The figure is barefoot, as poor peasants would have been, set against a warm red background signifying the rye harvest;  the farmer’s form and mass is far from traditional representational art but the word for the colour red in the Russian language also denotes something beautiful (hence, Red Square) and this is also part of the painting’s iconography.

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The Conjoining of Affect with Cognition: Self and Emotional Life

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Book Review: SELF AND EMOTIONAL LIFE, Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Most of us know that we don’t know ourselves as well as we like to think we do but there is a more trusting and steadfast belief in our possession of a self. In everyday life we make reference to it in a variety of ways and, notwithstanding those occasions when we catch a glimpse of an image in a mirror and wonder who that person is, filling out personal details on a form is not usually the cause of metaphysical trepidation. Besides such acts of public self-identification, we do not doubt  that our name is also a marker for a more private and defended identity that lies behind the forename and surname we answer to and surrender to others. Descartes got to the heart of it when he set about doubting everything about the world but reached a bedrock of knowledge with the certainty of his own thinking self.  From this zero-level of  self-proof a mind-body dichotomy emerged as constitutive of the conscious subject and while many philosophers after Descartes have challenged his model it is only with the advance of neuroscience that it has been seriously wounded. This is the subject matter of Self and Emotional Life, a book of two halves by two authors.

Neurobiology shows the brain, consciousness and the body’s nervous system to be interconnected in such remarkably labile ways that the metaphor of the brain as a computer, neatly processing information that reaches it via the senses, has to give way to a picture of an open organism, plastic and frangible, affective and cognitive. The brain – the emotional brain – is modelled as the site of a libidinal economy and this carries implications for any notion of a selfhood inhabiting a comfortable milieu where a subject can be in conversation with itself and its affects. Such an alluring notion is understandable; we think mostly with words after all and forms of introspection, as depicted in cartoon’s thought bubbles or in fiction’s stream-of-consciousness, can seem like engagements with our inner self.

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Photographing Absence

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Book Review: Phantom Home, Ahlam Shibli  (Hatje Cantz, 2013) 

The sudden and violent death of someone close to you can only intensify the grief and feeling of loss that accompanies any bereavement, so much so that looking at a picture of the person may be too unbearable to bear. The raw and unavoidable facticity of someone’s absence becomes a too-painfully presence that would be compounded by a photograph that makes the ordeal even more difficult to cope with. This is understandable and it takes an effort of imagination and empathy to comprehend another kind of response when the sudden and violent death is a public and political moment in the life of a community that is itself living with an ongoing sense of loss and deprivation. Palestinians living in their land under occupation by Israel have witnessed death at the hands of their occupiers for most of their lives and seen the destruction of their homes and crops. They live with daily indignities that prevent them from travelling on certain roads in the West Bank, they suffer from a grossly unfair allocation of water and they observe the expansion of settlements for Israeli colonizers.

Western Graveyard, Nablus, January 20, 2012 In Nablus, the families of the deceased visit the graveyards on Thursday evening or Friday morning to take care of the tombs and sit next to them in commemoration. Usually members of the same family are buried close to one each other, whether they died a martyr’s death or of natural causes.

Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian photographer, explores the visual culture — posters, murals, banners, paintings, photographs and graffiti – of the community of Nablus as it commemorates those accorded the status of martyrs: Palestinians killed fighting Israeli forces, civilians killed in Israeli attacks and suicide bombers whose missions took them into Israel.

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Same Same but Different

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Book Review: Event, Slavoj Žižek; The Most Sublime Hysteric, Slavoj Žižek and Hegel and the Art of NegationAndrew W. Hass 

Event, Slavoj Žižek (Penguin, 2014)

A difficulty in reading Žižek is that he often seems to be juggling with too many balls, making dizzy the reader who tries to track the course of a single idea as it speedily travels from one page to the next before somersaulting in a paragraph. The challenge is not in grasping the idea but in following it amidst the inflections and involuting digressions. The whole asymptotic shebang can become just too much and the exasperated reader is tempted to close shop on the whole act by slamming the book shut.

What makes Event easier to read and follow through from start to finish is that this time one of the balls is bigger and more brightly coloured than all the others. The reader can keep this master ball in focus, safe in the knowledge that the smaller ones circulating with it are all derivatives, examples or reduplications of the one defining conceit: Event.

Ordinarily an event is just something that happens but with an Event something is realized in a way that is extraordinary. Rust Cohle in True Detective is far from being an ordinary police officer because of how he actualizes and fully realizes, in a Platonic way, the Idea of the detective.  For Plato, everyday empirical reality is a pale shadow of the bright and substantial reality of Ideas, an originary and eternal order not to be confused with the fleeting world of appearances. DunmanusBay that I see outside a window, and every other bay that anyone ever sees, only participates in the Idea of Bay by virtue of being a surface copy. Žižek gives Platonism a twist by saying, yes, there are absolute Ideas but they realize themselves purely in appearance. Rust Cohle, in the pursuit of his investigation embodies what it authentically means to be a detective, he enacts the truth that belongs to the concept of detective and in him the Idea of detective shines in all its purity. The essence that he embodies is there, unhidden in the material reality of his behaviour. In Hegelese, the distinction between appearance and essence is inscribed within appearance – because appearance is all there is.

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What Planet Are You On?

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Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World by Geoff Dyer and Steven Hoelscher  (University of Texas Press)

City Stages by Matthew Pillsbury (Aperture)

Some of the finest poetry of Wallace Stevens expresses the constant struggle between representing things as they are, capturing moments that accord with something independent of the mind – moments, one might say, of cast-iron existence where no metaphors or tropes attach themselves to this level of material being — and, on the other hand, the alluring inclination to mediate experience with subjective positions of contestable value. In ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ he writes of ‘form gulping after formlessness’, the need to impose some order and pattern on restless, multiplex reality.

Photography is like the late poetry of Wallace Stevens in that it too battles with the conflicting drives of representing what is there, in all its necessary incongruity, and depicting a mediated slice of life that tells us more about the photographer than the photographed. When Magnum first established itself, co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of ‘ a respect for what is going on [in the world] and a desire to transcribe it visually’. What was going on was war, first in Spain and then across Europe and the globe, and war begat Magnum with the idea amongst a small group of Left-leaning photographers in 1947 for a cooperative that would allow them to take and disseminate pictures free of control from commercial and military organizations. The experience of conflict  had brought home to the Magnum founders the importance of pictures in conveying to non-combatants what happened when  war was unleashed and two of them (Robert Capa in the First Indochina War and David Seymour in the Suez War) would die in the course of their chosen careers. Another one of the co-founders, George Rodger, gave up war photography after taking pictures at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, appalled that he treated ‘this pitiful human flotsam as it were a gigantic still-life’. What shocked Rodger was that ‘I could look at the horror of Belsen … and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I said this is where I quit.’

The concentration camp, its dead and its survivors were there before Rodger’s eyes but so was his camera and when he put one up against the other something else came into play.  What Wallace Stevens said, in the same year that saw the formation of Magnum Photos, is as true of the photograph as it is of a poem: ‘What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality.’ The tension between the photographer as a reporter and as an artist lies at the core of the best work residing in the Magnum archives for as Philip Jones Griffiths put it, ‘There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life’.

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Architecture is Politics

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Book Review: Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the tradition of progress, John Allan (Artifice) and 21st Century London: The New Architecture, Kenneth Powell (Merrell)

Today, the idea that architecture plays its part in changing society only gains purchase with a pejorative sense of what change entails. Look to the Dubai skyline, where architects are still binging on cocktails of concrete, glass, indentured labour and fat fees – 25% of the world’s cranes were operating there when 100 skyscrapers went up in ten years,  — producing a mad jamboree of eye-catching buildings.

But it can’t be said the architecture fails to respond to the needs of the community because Dubai, peopled with expatriates lured  by the loot, waiting for their contracts to end, doesn’t have anything so organic as to be properly called a community. London, on the other hand, is a city of many communities and while it’s not Dubai the architecture that is currently redefining the city’s skyline is similarly characterized by excessive ostentation fuelled by the inexorable logic of capitalism and purchasable architects eager to join a bandwagon.

The mantra for the architectural companies winning contracts in London is build it big, construct a photogenic monument that will stand alone in glorious and pastless isolation from its neighbourhood, untroubled by its surroundings, self-sufficient testimony to its own ambition. Kate Goodwin, the curator of the Sensing Spaces exhibition now on at the Royal Academy of Arts, spells out what is missing : ‘Unlike almost any other art form, architecture is part of our everyday life, but its ability to dramatically affect the way we think, feel and interact with one another is often overlooked’. The greatest architect who has worked in London, Berthold Lubetkin, would have shaken her hand in warm agreement.

John Allan’s book on Lubetkin is an astonishing achievement and one wonders how many years he spent putting it all together. When it first appeared in 1992 — a second edition has now been published – it was praised as ‘the most intelligent English-language account of any twentieth-century architectural career in its context’ and the accolade still holds. The whole story of Lubetkin’s work is here, from his birth in Georgia in 1901 to his appointment in 1947 as architect-planner of a new town for 30,000 residents in the Durham coalfields. This, his greatest project, was never realized and John Allan analyses with care the reasons behind his resignation from the post.

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Non-Fiction of 2013

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A selection of the best non-fiction read by Seán Sheehan in 2013. Also see the best fiction he read in 2013.

 

An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman (Maclehose Press)

Grossman  made a two-month trip to Armenia in 1961. Some accounts say he needed the money, travelling there as part of an official commission to edit an overlong novel by an Armenian writer, but he also needed to get away from Moscow where officers had arrived at his apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his great novel Life and Fate. Not only had his magnum opus been ‘arrested’, his marriage was in tatters.

He writes of how one never forgets arriving  in a foreign city for the first time, in this case Yerevan:  ‘Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their catapults.’ Sometimes you worry the prose might slip into swooniness but Grossman’s  romanticism is always tempered by the real, even at his most Dylanesque —

I saw warriors, knights, thinkers, swindlers, hucksters, poets, builders, astronomers and preachers. I saw collective-farm chairmen, physicists and engineers who built bridges.

— and it sits alongside an impish sense of humour: arriving in Yerevan, he notices the washing lines with ‘sail-like brassieres of hero-mothers’ and market stalls with eighteen-inch-long radishes ‘that seemed to be belong to some phallic cult’. He is  cynical about the criticisms being unleashed against Stalin, not because they are untrue but because they are expressed by those who previously worshipped him.  Grossman can be hard-nosed but is always alive to the contradictions of existence: Armenia’s always stony landscape yielding orchards of peaches; ordinary lives afflicted with tragedies yet loyalties surviving eternal (like the wife he meets who turned up at the Siberian camp where her husband was serving nineteen years and lived in a hut outside the gulag). His travelogue ends with an Armenian wedding, a tour de force that leaves more famous literary travel writers in a dull shadow. No other writer of our times has expressed with more unsentimental admiration the nature of what it means to live with a sense of nobility.

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