Vicious British Bullshit: A Few Known Antidotes (2014)

4 Oct

Sleaford Mods

The other week, Pieter Last from Rammel Club sent me a message to see if I’d be up for playing some Eastern Bloc vinyl records early doors and between the first couple of band changeovers at the two sold-out homecoming gigs by Sleaford Mods in Nottingham, a question to which there was only ever going to be one answer. I’d seen them play at least twice before, once in the days before Jason Williamson’s hook-up with Andrew Fearn, once after it, and the change between 2010 and 2012 had been remarkable. In 2010, Williamson’s persona, observations and potential were all there, but with Fearn on board, things had become very different. However great a joke it seems that Fearn just pushes the ‘play’ button on his laptop and stands back when they’re onstage, it’s clear that offstage, making the loops, something miraculous is at work – one after another, Fearn’s loops are so brutally memorable that it’s as though he’s hit on the dance music equivalent of The Ramones’ early catalogue of primal guitar riffs.

More recently there’s been something else, too, and that’s the energy that comes with being heard. Put bluntly, it’s hard to sustain things when your focus is chopped up by other commitments, one gig every few months, or weeks, between office jobs and the usual kinds of everyday shit the world at large dishes out. Even when that’s your subject – as it is very much Williamson’s – the energy of those two gigs in Nottingham were the product of that long struggle plus the sharpening of tools that has come from playing more gigs, getting the records out and heard – the purpose that comes with a sense that someone out there, after all the hard slog, is listening. The attention won by Austerity Dogs in 2012 has been consolidated in spades with this year’s Divide & Exit, both records full of on-point take-downs of three decades of political and pop-cultural bullshit. Songs like Tiswas and Jobseeker will make this clear to anyone who isn’t too invested in the present mess to acknowledge it.

Datblygu

One of the joys of witnessing Sleaford Mods in a packed small venue, in front of a home crowd, and not once but twice, was being reminded of other things I hadn’t thought about for awhile. The Welsh language post-punk of Datblygu came to mind, and if you haven’t heard Datblygu before, their 1988 masterpiece Gwlad Ar Fy Nghefn (‘Land On My Back’) is a good starting point, well worth a listen almost 30 years on from the band’s inception in Cardigan. Even if you don’t speak Welsh, the message will communicate itself loud and clear, much, I suppose, as some in the US and Germany struggle with following Williamson’s East Midlands streams of consciousness and UK specific references, even as they respond to the sheer force of what he and Fearn are doing. Looking up Datblygu last month I was pleased to discover that their mid-nineties vanishing act appears to have ended: an interview by Sarah King with core members David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan covers the band’s history, while a new documentary (in Welsh, but with English subtitles) emerged in 2012.

Datblygu

If the attitude and way with words of Sleaford Mods appeals, then there will be much to delight you in Datblygu’s extensive back catalogue and uncompromising stance, not least David R Edwards’ thoughts on being considered a poet. As King notes, “when I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic No. I fucking hate poets.’’ His full elaboration on the theme strikes a definite chord:

‘The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet…Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol, help oil the creative machinery. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that…’ It’s good to have them back.

Sarah Curtis (Snub TV, 1989)

Hearing Sleaford Mods run through Tied Up In Nottz brought another sound I’d not thought about for years back into focus, this time triggered by the loose resemblance between Fearn’s bassline and the one used on Manchester based King Of The Slums’ Vicious British Boyfriend (1989). Any resemblance is probably coincidental – it’s a pretty standard post-punk bassline, after all – and KOTS’s distinctive feature was always, anyway, the play between the distorted viola of Sarah Curtis and the tabloid-skewering lyrics of Charley Keigher. Like many late eighties bands, their recorded output is often patchy, the production doing their live impact a disservice, but there are tracks that still hint at what they were capable of. Bear With Me ventures into a strange territory somewhere between abrasive psychedelia, hypnotic rave and blunt realism: “Bear with me,/my best is yet to come,/and I am a liar/with a lot of material…/la, la, la…I got loads/la, la, la…I got loads”, sings Keigher, over and over, while Curtis merges the spirit of the Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song with a feeling of having lived through one lost decade, just as another throws its shadow over the near horizon.

King Of The Slums (Early 90s)

How that next decade turned out has been the subject of predictably anodyne media reminiscences, a fake nostalgia neatly deflated in Sleaford Mods’ A Little Ditty, but it’s worth remembering that much has already been half lost to that reductive Britpop story of 90s UK music. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tricky’s 1995 debut LP Maxinquaye, a record that managed the peculiar feat of being sufficiently avant-garde to feel like something we’re still trying to catch up with (if you doubt this, watch the video he and Martina Topley-Bird made to accompany Hell Is Round the Corner and consider how far ahead of the curve it looks and sounds even now) while also finding itself adopted as a dinner party soundtrack staple. “As I grow, I grow collective…till then you have to live with yourself”, drawls Tricky, aka Adrian Thaws, perfectly articulating the movements of a mind caught between political consciousness and outright paranoia: “We’re hungry, beware of our appetite…My brain thinks bomb-like, bomb-like”. All the while, Topley-Bird’s voice underscores the presiding mood of psychic fragility and potentially explosive threat.

Tricky - Hell Is Round The Corner (Video Still)

If Tricky’s Maxinquaye built its unsettling, alienated atmospherics from seductive harmonies, and found itself too often misread as a kind of hip easy listening as a result, Vent, the opening track on Pre-Millenium Tension (1996) made it clear that he wasn’t planning on letting that particular misunderstanding happen twice. Raw, abrasive, claustrophobic, like a panic attack in sound, Vent is an unequivocal nineties update of one of the founding statements of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. Its ‘don’t push me’ refrain is transformed from the socially-conscious statement of 1983 to a cog inside an internal monologue, a phrase circling a mind that’s coming apart under pressure. Just as Williamson and Fearn articulate the internal monologues of that post-crash underclass created by a fabricated (and entirely misnamed) ‘austerity’, so Tricky articulates the psychic chaos of the years that laid the foundations for this post-crash world, with its discredited institutions, corruption and increasingly dangerous demagoguery.

Tricky with Martina Topley Bird (mid-90s)

Perhaps it felt relevant to play tracks from 1970s Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland at those Sleaford Mods gigs in September precisely because what their music describes is life, as lived at the fag end of a discredited ideology whose adherents still cling to power despite barely believing their own words, let alone expecting anyone else to. The reigning assumptions of the 2014 political conference season must feel not unlike those imposed by Party bureaucracies in the former Eastern Bloc: badly scripted rituals, determined to miss the point at any cost. The substance of a dissident essay like Vaclav Havel’s The Power Of The Powerless seems as applicable to the here and now of the UK as it did to its original context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, as all this plays itself out, we will be subject to increasing quantities of bullshit to defer the inevitable reckoning. Luckily, wherever there is bullshit there are antidotes to bullshit, ready to be heard if we only care enough to seek them out and listen.

Footnote: Jason Williamson played Arthur Seaton in a voice-over recorded for James Walker’s Slap and Sickle, a film essay about Alan Sillitoe’s links to Russian dissidents in the 1970s, screened as part of a link up between Nottingham Writers’ Studio and English PEN, designed to promote the national Catechism campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot on November 12 2012.

The Holcombe Tarot Series (1971 – 1975)

28 Jul

“The Tarot has always intrigued me, not because I believe it has any supernatural, occult or divinatory properties, but for precisely the opposite reason: that its symbols are empty, ambiguous and contradictory, and in being so seem to absorb whatever meanings or interpretations we wish to project into their random alignments. In this, they have something of the same quality found in art works that transcend the time and context of their making – not because they contain anything innately transcendent but because they remain ambiguous and open to interpretation for all times and potential viewers. Perhaps my own Tarot series is an exercise in this kind of randomness. The cards it contains mean nothing, in themselves, and any reading of their faces is as valid as any other, beyond a few very rudimentary cues and prompts. Yet in meaning nothing they may also be open to the kind of interpretation that will seem to signify psychological and personal insight…”

[Robert Holcombe, unpublished letter to Cy Albertine, 1975]

Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

 

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.

Jack Bilbo: “A Modernist Fighter for Humanity” (1948)

3 May
Jack Bilbo's One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s autobiography, very lavishly published by his own imprint, The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, in 1948, carries a subtitle that sums up the man and his life: “Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo: The first forty years of the complete and intimate life-story of an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity”. As self declarations go this takes some beating, and the autobiography itself (the resemblance of much of which to adventure fiction is probably not entirely coincidental) is nothing if not readable. Whether all or even much of it is true is a question that crops up continually while you read it, but even if only a small fraction of its material closely matches what might be called an authentic account of the real Jack Bilbo’s life and times – Jack Bilbo being, anyway, a persona that had been created by Jack Bilbo himself in order to escape his original identity as a German Jew born Hugo Cyrill Kulp Baruch in 1907, the son of the owner of a successful theatrical props and costumes empire in Berlin – you’d still have to admit that the man led a pretty remarkable existence.

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

The 1948 autobiography certainly has its share of exaggerations, but the parts that are actually documented seem extraordinary enough. Bilbo travelled a lot, was involved with anti-fascist organisations through the 1930s, ran a bar in Spain during the Civil War and wound up in charge of one of the few Modern Art Galleries to remain active in war-time London, where he gave Kurt Schwitters his most comprehensive and significant exhibition in England, much of which was back on view in Tate’s Schwitters in Britain exhibition during 2013. Whether, between these escapades, he was also touring China with revolutionaries, working with smugglers in Mallorca, found his way to his father’s house in a ‘White’ district of Berlin during the Spartacist uprising with an escort of Red Army soldiers, whose lives he’d saved, got involved in an assassination attempt, met Sigmund Freud after a suicide attempt at the age of 18, or lost his virginity to and very nearly married a 21 year-old mixed race woman in the American South while en route to Hollywood when he was only 14 (but passing as 19 to get work on the ships that took him to America in the first place) is all possibly (or possibly not) more questionable.

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

At times, Jack Bilbo’s memoir reads more like Hemingway on steroids than any kind of factual account (or, perhaps more accurately, Jack London, his admiration for whose writings was, by his own account, the source of the ‘Jack’ in ‘Jack Bilbo’). But Bilbo himself is disarmingly open about his own tendency to distort the record when it suits him. During the 1930s, finding himself back in Berlin from America and desperate for money, he wrote a pulp crime book that his memoir explains was initially intended as a money-making fiction (he called it I Carried a Gun For Al Capone) but found it more marketable when chance misunderstandings with a German newspaper led to its serialisation as a factual account, which was later picked up by a British publisher. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bilbo seems to have shrugged and played the part required of him, acting out the role of an ex-gangster for anyone who fancied listening. A notable raconteur and charismatic storyteller, his 1946 collection of short stories, published under the deliberately double-edged title Out Of My Mind, apparently resulted from nights he put on at his gallery in London where guests listened to Bilbo’s grisly, strange and unlikely tales and had to guess which were true, which false, and which neither, because even Bilbo himself wasn’t entirely sure.

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

He seems, in short, to have treated his own life as a fiction, to be rewritten as he went along on whatever terms he liked: a kind of archetypal Modernist position if ever there was one. You could say that he often seems to have operated as a paradoxically honest confidence trickster, with interesting results. There’s no evidence whatsoever that he had any interest in art, or any training in it, before his arrival in London in 1939, but at some point after that arrival he appears to have decided to become an artist, working furiously to create a series of 34 canvases, which he then touted around galleries. According to his memoir, having been laughed at and refused an exhibition everywhere, he simply set up his own: The Modern Art Gallery, which eventually settled at 24 Charles II Street. His German nationality led to a period of internment, where he met many other Jewish and Leftist intellectuals, collectors and artists forced to flee the Nazi regime, including Kurt Schwitters, so on his eventual release found he had a ready-made stable of contacts with internationally important figures who were not only available but in need of his help to continue their own work. By 1942 he was a genuine artist, curator and dealer, showing Picasso at his own gallery and his own curious works with David Zwemmer, among others. By 1944 he was a feature on Pathé newsreels.

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Were his paintings good? Not by most standard measures, for which Bilbo himself had nothing but contempt anyway, but they have something that is hard to dismiss, at least at their best (he is not, shall we say, a very consistent painter). An uncensored strangeness, an ahead-of-its-time absurdist black humour, a makeshift aesthetic that transcends Bilbo’s own technical limitations more often than it plausibly should, all allied with an imagination that paints whatever passes through it, disregarding most conventional criteria of taste and aesthetics. It’s no wonder that he struck up a quick rapport with Schwitters. Perhaps the best way to think about Bilbo’s own artworks is as those of a ‘bad’ painter with an inconsistent, largely accidental originality, but an originality nonetheless. He’s not a deliberate ‘bad’ painter like Picabia, not an innocent like Henri Rousseau, and clearly not an ‘outsider artist’ in any meaningful sense either. It turns out that he may have been weirdly, if subliminally, influential, too: many of his paintings look disconcertingly current, with a sensibility more common in 2014 than in the 1940s. If so, this must have been mediated in indirect ways. For example: some of Bilbo’s paintings (and certainly the concrete garden sculptures he made in Weybridge after 1945, which are no longer extant) seem to have been reference points for Tony Hancock and his writers when they devised their feature-length art world satire The Rebel (1960).

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

More intriguingly, especially from the perspective of the Robert Holcombe project, Jack Bilbo’s memoir has a physical but slightly phantom presence in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bunk! series of collages, projected at the ICA in 1952 and later made into a series of prints at the time of Paolozzi’s Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1971 (it also transpires that the story of the Bunk! collages may itself be as fabricated as anything in Bilbo’s memoir, but that’s another story). For whatever reason, the image that contains the Bunk! of the Bunk! series is properly known by one of Bilbo’s titles, built as it is on the page containing Evadne In Green Dimension (1945) as a tipped-in colour plate in the 1948 autobiography. That Bilbo was also present in London and Weybridge until 1949, the year after Holcombe arrived at the Slade (where he also, fictionally, met Eduardo Paolozzi) therefore positions Hugo Baruch, aka Jack Bilbo himself, a man deeply enamoured of self-fictionalisation, at the epicentre of Holcombe’s own formative fictional milieu, which opens up some interesting possibilities. Besides, Bilbo retains his own presence, his estate now represented by England & Co gallery, with whom the artist Aaron Angell recently collaborated to put his own work alongside some of Bilbo’s drawings. He has also made several cameo appearances in the convoluted narrative of Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden‘s ongoing series of noir-inspired historical drawings. In the face of all this, if Bilbo was a fantasist, as seems at least partly the case, he was a fantasist with an uncanny knack of bringing his fabrications into reality.

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

All images are scanned from the pages of Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo (The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, London, 1948). The book is currently out of print.

Robert Holcombe: Folklore, Ritual and the Modern Interior (1955 – 1975)

13 Feb
Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Exhibition opens at Xero, Kline & Coma, 258 Hackney Road, London E2 from 7 – 9pm on Thursday February 13th, then runs for four weeks, from 15 Feb to 9 March (gallery opening times are Sat/Sun 12 – 6pm). 

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [RH: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi (1984)]

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [RH: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art between 1948 and 1951 and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in the city of Leeds. His early, if oblique, involvement with the Independent Group continued into the 1980s, and he maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared.

Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was generally usual at the time. The consumerist excesses of the Immersions series (1970 – 71), the inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors elsewhere, alongside the many disturbances of ordinary spaces that colour the whole body of work, all suggest an artist with a satirical as well as unsettling and surreal take on the emerging society and politics of his age.

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Keren Goldberg’s comments on this exhibition in Art Review can be found here.

Robert Holcombe Exhibition Guide (Syson, 2013)

22 Dec

The Family Bible & Other Fables: Works from the Robert Holcombe Collection (1948 – 1978) is a fictional retrospective exhibition, offering a selection of around 70 works from the three decades of collage held by the Robert Holcombe archive. It’s on display at Syson Gallery and Antenna until January 31, 2014 (the gallery reopens on January 8th after the Christmas break).

The Modernists - Diplodocus (1967)

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1984]

“The question of identity is fascinating. I evade myself. I use only found materials on which I leave no obvious mark and I reconfigure them under an identity that is not mine. But each work generates a fingerprint, anonymous to the casual glance, yet so revealing to one prepared to enter that very particular labyrinth that no escape from identification seems possible without gloves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1973]

1964 programme

ROOM ONE (Timeline, 1948 – 1978):

Unidentified Artist: French etching showing a murderous priest in a storm, 1825.

The origins of this image, or its path into Holcombe’s family, are not known, but Holcombe’s sister, Elizabeth Booth, notes that it was hung in his childhood bedroom, and he took it with him when he left home to study at the Slade in 1948. Clearly, something in this mysterious and violent scene – a portrait of a priest murdering a woman with an axe in an Gothic landscape racked by lightning – resonated with Holcombe, and its influence, both in specifics (the cut tree in its disjointedly theatrical space) and broader terms (its generally unsettling atmosphere and ambiguous message) can be seen in much of Holcombe’s own work. Booth acquired the picture on Holcombe’s death, and notes that by 2003 he would have had it close for pretty much the entirety of his eighty years.

Ozymandias (1948)

This small collage is one of only a handful of works to have survived from Holcombe’s early years. This image, derived from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of 1818, was made and framed the summer before he left Leeds to begin his studies at the Slade.

Corset (1951)
Revolt (1951)

An unrelated pair of early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued. Letters of the time suggest that, by 1951, he had developed a particular interest in the possibilities of colour screen-printing and was concerned with questions of printing as an element in graphic and interior design. It has been suggested that he was already moving away from fine art as a focal point of his interests by his second year at college, which – if true – would be consistent with his decision to pursue a very different career path to his contemporaries after 1955.

Gothic Conversation: A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel (1952)

A small work, explicitly indebted to Max Ernst and the conventions of Surrealist collage (see also: Corset and The Reading Room of 1951: a sly nod to Ernst’s Loplop also appears in The Kiss, made during  1957). A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel  is significant in bringing together the biological, religious and pop-cultural (here, specifically cinematic) elements that would define much of the work that followed. The atmosphere here is also notably similar to that seen in the anonymous 1825 print he had brought with him to London.

Gothic Conversation: Telekinesis I & II (c.1952 – 56?)

It is difficult to date this unsigned work in two parts with any certainty, but stylistically it closely resembles the work he was beginning to make in the mid-1950s, just prior to and following his return to Leeds in 1955. Many works like this were produced, initially as part of a series of Gothic Conversations, and this group appears to merge, around 1965, with the often similarly-toned and themed Folklore Series.

Marine (1955)

Marine (1955)

“I have no recollection at all of what was on my mind at the moment of creating this, nor any memory of the location of the landscape towards which this strange but real sea creature, whose identity I have also forgotten, directs its gaze. It feels as though I dreamed the whole conjunction and woke one morning, surprised to find it among my papers…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1962]

Marine is one of many images made between 1953 and 1966 based on plates from Stoddard’s Portfolio, a popular collection of photographs showing the sights of the world published by The Werner Company of Chicago and London in 1893. Because the publication ran through many mass market editions over the years, by the 1950s it appears to have been a cheap and versatile source of backgrounds for Holcombe’s early collages. With only a few exceptions, he is drawn to generic and anonymous imagery rather than the more distinctive kinds of photography that were available to him had he wished to use it.

The Kiss (1957)

An unsettling image made from an equally unsettling illustration in John Bull magazine, The Kiss is notable for its anticipation of what would later become the Ghost Pornography series around 1978, in the use of fabrics as a spatially disorientating device, and for its sly nod to Loplop, the bird-like Max Ernst alter-ego who appears in many of Ernst’s collages and paintings from the 1920s onwards. Holcombe signs the work ‘GH’, Gene Harrison, and his own use of a dual pseudonym (the other is ‘MH’, or Michael Harrison) suggests a self referential joke about such avatars may be at least part of the meaning of The Kiss. This may also be reading too much into what is, after all, mostly a genuinely disturbing image of dysfunctional romance.

Untitled (1957)

This untitled image is notable mainly as a very early precursor of a technique that would later be pursued in a more systematic way, in this case the Biological Camouflage series of 1973 – 78. It is also rather unusual in Holcombe’s work for utilising an unsigned watercolour (said by Elizabeth Booth to be a small mountain landscape by a Swiss amateur painter and mountaineer, Mattheus Theobald) rather than a generic tourist brochure photograph, as the base for its visual manipulation. The painting itself was purchased from a street market during a holiday in Swabia during 1956 so is likely to have been bought with the purpose seen here in mind.

Gothic Conversation III (The House in the Forest)

The Radiation Chamber (1958)
The House in the Forest (1964)
1964 Programme (1964)

In The House in the Forest, a fractured moon hangs among the dark trees of a wood in which a famous Workers’ Centre built in Moscow during the 1920s plays the part of the traditional folk-tale cottage. Whether Holcombe intends the juxtaposition of folktale and revolutionary architecture to be read as hopeful or satirical is difficult to tell. He is certainly known to have been conscious of the interesting work being made behind the Iron Curtain (he is thought to have met Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow in Paris during 1963, and dedicated the Krakow suite of 26 collages to her in 1964) and, for similar reasons, to have been acutely aware of the problems faced by the residents of these only nominally socialist states.

The Modernists (A Haunting) [1965]

The Modernists: A Haunting (1965)

The Modernists series is a loosely themed group of works created by Holcombe between 1965 (when the prefix is first used in a title) and around 1976, when the last works appear to have been made. Unlike more consistent series, like the Krakow portfolio, or the later Biological Camouflage and Ghost Pornography cycles, The Modernists images are linked only by their interest in the thematic subject matter and imagery of modernity itself, drawing heavily on design, fashion, architecture, film and other related material. The variousness of The Modernists also allowed many one-off devices and experiments to be included: A Haunting appears to sow the seed and anticipate a technique that would be much more systematically deployed in Ghost Pornography fifteen years after it was first made.

The Modernists: Idyll (1966)
The Modernists: A Lawn (1966)
The Modernists: Jack London’s Study (1966)

Holcombe’s levels of activity appear to have fluctuated over the years, though before 1981, when he abandoned collage altogether, there are no lengthy breaks in his pattern of working. The beginning of The Modernists cycle in 1965 does appear to have had a liberating effect on him, however, and his productivity between 1966 and 1968 is large and sustained, though unlike other sequences, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. A somewhat darker outcome of this visit was the explicitly anti-fascist portfolio of monochrome images known as Images Portugaises: Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional (1961) in which the blandly appealing propaganda scenes circulated internationally by Salazar’s government were overlaid with illustrations from manuals of surgery, skin disease and machinery.

Folklore Series: The Passageway (1966)
Folklore Series: Canada (1966)
Folklore Series: The London Transmission (1966)

Concurrent with The Modernists beginnings in 1965, Holcombe had also begun making work under the general title Folklore Series, a vehicle for dark, fairy-tale like and explicitly surrealist images of enigmatic scenes and presences. Where The Modernists series develops a kind of ambiguously Pop-inflected aesthetic clearly influenced by the burgeoning young consumer culture of the mid to late 1960s, Folklore Series tends to maintain a pre-war set of concerns, notably with the uncanny and ritualistic, and its images feel more like a subtle linear evolution of the concerns seen in Holcombe’s 1950s works than a new direction. In works like The Passageway, the emphasis is very much on disturbance.

The Modernists: Diplodocus (1967)
The Modernists: A Family Luncheon (1967)
The Modernists: Afternoon (1967)
The Modernists: The Lady of Shallot (1969)
The Modernists: Primavera (1970)

The Modernists series continued to dominate Holcombe’s output during the next few years, and some of these are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the archive. Diplodocus (1967) has become something of an emblematic Holcombe image, its constructed space inhabited by a dinosaur skeleton seemingly revealed to us by an archetypal sixties girl whose outfit matches the curtain she draws back. Intended meanings and symbolism are mostly fluid and enigmatic. Holcombe’s decision to construct a series of 78 Tarot images in 1971 was justified with an observation in a letter to Paolozzi of 1972: “The Tarot reader works not by supernatural means but by allusion, as users intuitively read oblique symbols for personally applicable meanings. I believe art operates in exactly the same way, becoming meaningful only by an intuitive process…” Much in Holcombe’s Tarot Series is echoed in The Modernists, where some symbols – often sexual or political – are clear, others left completely open-ended.

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series: Christ of the Termites (1969)

A more enigmatic response to the religious theme, here a photograph of a church interior is occupied by a termite mound, seemingly built in homage to a hovering mathematical shape. The lunar rise in the foreground of the image, strewn with thorns and roses, is an early, and therefore inaccurate, image of the moon’s surface. It’s noteworthy that several other Holcombe works of 1969 (see also: The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City) have lunar themes, probably inevitable at the high watermark of the Space Race, when after ten years of anticipation and competition with the Soviet programme, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission finally placed humans onto the lunar surface in July 1969, and (Holcombe noted later) “marked the end-point rather than a real beginning for all the promises of Space exploration our generation had been raised on”.

Folklore Series: The Innocents I (1972)
Folklore Series: Black Sun II (1973)
Folklore Series: On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975)

Many of Holcombe’s 1970s works, particularly those in the Folklore Series, develop an apocalyptic tone, often reminiscent of the scenarios found in the dystopian Science Fiction cinema of the same period. In Black Sun II (1973), Home (1975) and On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975), post-war domestic residences seem oblivious to darkening skies and hovering tumours, while The Innocents I (1972) shows a child, isolated in some bleak alien landscape. Elizabeth Booth has suggested that this image may be an oblique reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella The Little Prince, first published in English in 1943, and probably read by Holcombe during his convalescence in Malaya in 1944.

The Modernists: The Wedding at Cana (1974)

A similar technique is used here to that seen in The Family Bible series, but both the source images (here, rather kitsch mid-1950s photographic tableaux of scenes from the life of Jesus instead of the more delicately coloured engravings of The Family Bible) and Holcombe’s treatments are less reverent and, at times, border on the kind of comedy later seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). The Wedding at Cana presents the disciples as attending a bachelor party where the light of Jesus is the glowing shirt of a 1950s washing powder advert. Holcombe, in adding deliberately provocative and inappropriate items to the scene, seems to be partly venting against the puritanical Methodism of his boyhood, but also asking how, in an age when every festival and ritual in the Christian calendar has become an opportunity for consumerism, anyone could seriously object to a collage that simply shows what these events now look like in the homes of those most likely to be offended.

Ghost Pornography: Gilt (1978)

This is the earliest image in the final (known) cycle of Holcombe’s active period, Ghost Pornography, which (a couple of precedents like 1965’s The Modernists: A Haunting aside) he began in 1978 and finally abandoned, so far as we can tell, around 1981, along with his thirty year collage-making activity in its entirety. The reason for his abandonment of this life-long habit of collage-making isn’t known, though Booth believes a combination of depression after 1979, partly based in the wider political situation, increased workload in his final decade before retirement in Leeds, and also, more hopefully, a simple feeling of completion, may all have been factors. Booth also notes that he did continue to make collages on a more occasional basis, mostly as gifts for friends and correspondents, but no longer followed his routine of working at his desk in the spare bedroom for an hour or two most evenings after work. It seems that between around 1981 and 1987 he also began to sort the material he’d been making, securing and framing pieces that may otherwise have suffered damage, but put everything into storage on his move to Exeter in 1988. It was this only partially ordered archive that Booth inherited in 2003 and from which these works have been selected.

Performing the Curtain Rituals I – IX (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors. Holcombe’s purpose, according to a letter written to Eduardo Paolozzi in 1966, was “…to pursue a feeling that once these patronised ‘native’ figures were cut from their original desert and jungle contexts and relocated in modern European interiors, they became both incongruous and rather more like ourselves: the peculiarities of our own customs seem to be exposed. A Pere Ubu-like figure inhabits an ordinary living room; a Zulu warrior poses in front of orange curtains beside an English Nurse, and so on. In the latter, the nurse’s ritual costume does not contrast with but echoes the warrior’s: her clipboard is a shield, her breastplate and utterly impractical head-dress make no more or less sense than his spear, shield and loincloth do. That half the world now aspires to these bizarre interiors only heightens this disjunction between tradition and modernity and the tensions and symbiosis that blur them. I am also in love with the colour balance these combinations of printed materials produce when they are all viewed together…”

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Jesus in Martha's House] (1967) (800x682)

ROOM TWO (The Family Bible):

The Family Bible (1967) [shown as projections]

These works exist only as loose portfolio pages, and are made on the actual plates of a Victorian bible. Because of this, they are extremely delicate and being shown here in projected rather than physical form, to aid their conservation. The series itself is one of the most explicit reflections of Holcombe’s Methodist upbringing. Notable scenes from the Old and New Testaments are brought up to date in a variety of dryly ironic ways: Moses raises his arms before a vision of the El-Al airline’s hyper-modernist office signage or descends from the Mount bearing not Ten Commandments but two brightly coloured Cream Sodas. The men wringing Joseph’s Garments in their hands appear to be polishing silver with a branded product. Joseph’s dream, related to his brethren, is the apparition of a beautiful woman stepping from a bathtub, while a dinosaur strolls past The Fall of Man, oblivious to Adam and Eve’s misfortunes. While often satirical in tone, The Family Bible series also contains more mysterious images: in The Entombment an image of Christ’s body being laid to rest is itself entombed under painted concrete, while Jesus in Martha’s House shows the blue gown of a kneeling woman dissolved into a cloud of blue hyacinth petals.

The Modernists - The Modern Interior I (1967)

STAIRS:

The Modern Interior I (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same images, reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making these two pieces. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s photo-silkscreens, insofar as Holcombe painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

Biological Camouflage: Renaissance II (1978)ROOM THREE (Renaissance):

Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance II (1978)

Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance II (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance III (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance IV (1978)

Most of Holcombe’s various Biological Camouflage series add cellular or other microscope images to landscape photographs, seeking “spatial displacements and disruptions of landscape and architecture, a kind of Land Art on paper. Or maybe it was just about noticing how perfectly cellular patterns blend into and unsettle generic scenes (sourced from tourist guides) using a very simple formula…”, as he wrote to Cy Albertine in 1984. The ‘simple formula’ was that each collage would impose only one modification to its background, presented as a kind of opened hatch within the frame (no diagonals or tilts of the added rectangle or square image are permitted) and somehow ‘matched’, camouflage-style, to the space it modifies. In this smaller group, however, the effect is very different. The grounding images are paintings – four Italian Renaissance frescoes and a French Renaissance tapestry and fresco – while the biological elements are both multiple, shaped and manipulated more elaborately within the frames. Even so, the unsettling effect remains comparable to the many photographic Biological Camouflage series to which this variant is a kind of marginalia.

The Modernists: The Birth of English Modernism (1965)

The earliest known work in The Modernists series, this strange image merges an opium den with molecular forms, spun from the vaguely surprised hands of an English labourer. It  presents a kind of imaginary source moment for what now, in hindsight, resembles the most significant cultural shift in Europe since the Renaissance itself.

The Modernists - The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

ANTENNA (Late Works):

The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

Holcombe had first met Richard Hamilton as a fellow student at the Slade in 1948 and this homage is built around various elements associated with Hamilton’s work, all set on the background of a poster showing the members of Roxy Music, a band famously shaped by Hamilton’s influence during his time in Newcastle. Here almost completely obscured by devices like the male body-builder from Hamilton’s iconic 1956 collage What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, relaxing after his exertions of the 1950s, a beaker of unidentified white liquid from a Science Fiction B-Movie and polished Brancusi-like military projectiles, the members of Roxy Music array themselves around a run-down pool hall while Hamilton’s own implied presence is in the position occupied by the viewer, entering the scene like a guest at some spatially and temporally disjointed party.

Immersion I: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion II: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion III: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion IV: The Surgeons (1971)
Study for Immersion (1970)

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

Studies for ‘The Consumer’ (undated, c.1956 – 61)

A row of portraits of a child, each slightly different, are overlaid with consumer products, cut from magazine advertisements of the mid 1950s, and indirectly anticipate the Immersions series of 1970 – 71, though no direct link is made in Holcombe’s correspondence or journals. If the specific work for which these studies were made survives it has not yet been found, and no completed work titled The Consumer is catalogued in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: Resetting the Clock to Another Incorrect Time (1969)
The Modernists: Liberty Leading The People (1968)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated images in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: The Modern Interior II (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same photographic images, as reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making two versions of this piece. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s use of photo-silkscreen, insofar as Holcombe here painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

The Modernists: ‘…And Now I Unleash the Power of Pure Thought…’ (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series, and such related images as ‘And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought’, pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

California: A Study in Yellow (1974)

A fairly simple 1970s update of the device often used by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, by which the subject matter of a figurative painting is de-emphasised in order to highlight more formal and abstract properties. In Holcombe’s version, it is unclear whether he intends the same effect to be experienced, or is more obliquely satirising aspects of formalism in art by producing an image that announces its own superficiality with the word ‘GLOSS’ hovering inside the frame on a somewhat exotic looking paint can. There may be a self-deprecating humour at work in that, by 1974, Holcombe was already making his own formally constrained Biological Camouflage images, which adhere to very strict and near-minimalist compositional rules.

Black Sun (II)

THE READING ROOM (Miscellany):

The Reading Room (1951)

One of a relatively small group of surviving early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued.

Constellation: Coffee Lounge (1955)
Constellation: Shellac I & II (1955)
Constellation: Pump & Shellac III (1955)

Eduardo Paolozzi recalls a number of these small, square images being displayed “scattered across a wall with drawing pins, approximating the pattern of a particular star formation, possibly Orion or The Great Bear, but I can’t exactly remember. Holcombe had an idea that he might photograph and develop the images as negatives and present them in tiny light-boxes inside a darkened room, but nothing ever came of the idea to my knowledge”. The five images framed here are the sole remaining fragments of this unrealised project.

Study for ‘Performing the Curtain Rituals’ (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series in Holcombe’s mid-sixties output, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors.

Comics Series I: The Birth of the Hero (1970)
Comics Series II: Confrontation on the Steps (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series and such related images as The Modernists: And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought (1970), pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City (1969)
The Modernists: Our Price to You, Including Postage & Packaging! (1969)
The Modernists: The Last Supper (1974)
The Modernists: Sof-Set by Max Factor (1966)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the Holcombe archive.

the modernists IX

Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

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