Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Seaside Surrealism

In 1936 the painter Paul Nash published an article in Architectural Review titled ‘Swanage – or Seaside Surrealism’. To my mind if you were after seaside surrealism today you might be even better off visiting the oddly named ‘Manhood Peninsula’ in West Sussex – a bulge of land, south of Chichester that includes the town of Selsey, the sandy beaches of East and West Wittering (where you’ll find the home of rock’s most mummified guitarist, Keith Richards) and the wonderful Pagham harbour.
The peninsula is not the place for flashy spectacular surrealism – if it is an extravaganza of the uncanny that is wanted then a visit to places like Clacton or Scarborough out of season would be more in order. Instead what you find on the Manhood Peninsula is a more quietly disquieting form of surrealism, of historical memory poking through the fragile membrane of the present. Wandering around the town of Selsey you start to notice how many of the houses on or near the seafront are made out of railway carriages. Sometimes all that is left of this history is the regularity and smallness of the windows, but other houses declare their roots (and routes) by fully restoring the carriage-work. Setting up house with a couple of railway carriages is a way of making an immediate habitation, and an immediate claim to a piece of land.
Elsewhere, as you travel from Selsey to the Witterings you’ll find the home-made museum ‘Rejectamenta’ – which sometimes feels a bit like ‘Dejectamenta’ – a collection of ephemera from the early 1970s onwards. For anyone who grew up in the 70s this is a slightly trippy return to a time when commodities gathered loyalty by including tiny – and pretty useless – toys in cereal packets and collectable cards in packs of tea. If you want to know what those ‘free gifts’ look like then Rejectamenta is the place for you. It is part of Earnley Butterflies, Birds and Beasts, and as well as collecting the most ephemeral of the ephemera it also has Biba dresses, posters, and such like.
Pagham Harbour is now a nature reserve presided over by the RSPB (the royal society for the protection of birds). It is, incidentally the place where my son first became interested in bird watching. The RSPB website claims it as an ‘unspoilt haven of big skies, coastal marshes and sea’. But rather than this being one of the few undeveloped areas of an intensely over-developed coastline, Pagham Harbour has a history as an important port in the middle-ages through to the late nineteenth century. Pagham Harbour was taking the lead in developing this coastline for trade. What produced this area of ‘unspoilt’ coastline was a series of massive storms early in the twentieth century that reclaimed the area as a wetland, and cast all of human endeavour into the sea. In this case the ‘unspoilt’ is a double negative that results in the spoiling of the spoilt.  
Put perhaps the pinnacle of this quiet surrealism is Selsey’s very own sound mirror. Sound mirrors, or acoustic mirrors were an early form of radar, built between the wars as early warning systems used to detect incoming air attacks. Built out of concrete they were massive, cumbersome parabolic microphones, that worked by pointing a huge unmovable ear-trumpet to the sky. If you placed a stethoscope-like instrument on the acoustic mirror you could hear aeroplanes, but you couldn’t quite make out where they were coming from, you could also hear the noise of nearby traffic and everything else. But unlike the sinister-looking sound mirrors that you find in Dungeness, the sound mirror in Selsey Bill has been turned into a house that has long since been abandoned and has been cast adrift on a traffic island.

Sound Mirror, Selsey

Sound Mirrors, Dungeness

Monday, 25 November 2013

Never Realised Projects

            When I was at art school in the mid-1980s one of the projects I never got off the desk was a magazine especially designed to collect never-realised projects. It would have consisted primarily of book reviews, exhibition reviews and obituaries. These would have all been fake: reviews of books that had never been written and exhibitions never staged; obituaries of lives that had never been lived. It would be a way of collecting all those ideas and plans that might be less than fully-baked but don’t deserve to be completely rejected or abandoned to the curatorship of the bottom drawer.
            I imagined that the magazine would have made a good home for some of the more incidental ideas that were circulating amongst the group of people I knew. So, for instance, if you came across a particularly odd bit of amateur collecting – say someone who had turned a garden shed into a museum dedicated to all forms of knots and knotting – then you could write a review of a guide book to micro-museums. The guide book wouldn't exist and the micro-museums could also be fictitious (how about a museum of lost keys? Or a museum dedicated to objects with shells stuck on them?). You could cover a lot of ideas in such a magazine: even, or perhaps especially, ideas you found problematic. I imagined writing an obituary about someone who after a traumatic upbringing joined the army and developed a new form of camouflage. He would test out his camouflage by sending camouflaged troops out into the countryside and he would then stand on top of a hill and see if he could spot them: if he could see them then the camouflage didn’t work; if he couldn’t then either the camouflage was working perfectly or the troops hadn’t carried out his instructions. It was an uncertain outcome. After he left the army he became an abstract painter and seemed to be in a permanent state of anxious undecidedness. Needless to say his death was a suicide.  
            The magazine would have been perfect for all those ideas you have that seem good after a few drinks in the pub, or the sort of ideas that might be suitable for someone with more resources than you had. Of course, because the magazine was itself an unrealised project it could have been an item in such a magazine (if it had existed), or it could wait for the invention of the internet and blogging to find a suitable home.
The other day I came across an old art catalogue from the 1980s (Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture – it was an exhibition in Boston, USA in 1986). I must have bought it at about the same time I was imaging a magazine of unrealised projects. Inside is an essay by Thomas Crow. Crow writes about a made-up art critic who provides an effusive critical review of the exhibition by the made-up painter Hank Herron. Herron’s paintings in the 1970s consisted of making exact copies of the work of the abstract painter Frank Stella, a painter who actually existed and is still alive today. Stella made his name as a sort of post-painterly-post-abstract-expressionist-hard-edged-intellectualist painter who was exhibiting from about the end of the 1950s. He was painterly minimalist, who in the 1980s reinvented himself as a painterly maximalist. The made-up critic was claiming that the copies were better than the originals because they critically explored the hollowness of originality and the uncertainty of authenticity. It was a joke – a pastiche, a parody of what would become a world of artworks that cited other artworks. The article by the made-up critic was called ‘The Fake as More’.

Friday, 8 November 2013


When I was growing up jigsaw puzzles were an important part of the arsenal we could deploy in our protracted war on boredom. Of course it wasn't our first line of defence, and probably lay near the bottom of the barrel: but sometimes that barrel needed scraping (to mix metaphors just a little). When friends weren't around, or if it was raining, or when feeling poorly or unsociable, you could get out a jigsaw to suck up some of the time before that thin sliver of kids’ TV started broadcasting (this was before kids' TV existed as its own entity, and well before it had become a central feature in the repertoire of modern parenting). A jigsaw puzzle in the toy cupboard wasn't something you did once and then passed on: it was something you did endlessly. You had your favourites and the ones you barely tolerated; you had the ones that you had to commit to, and the ones that were probably a bit too easy.
There was something about the jigsaw puzzle that both defeated boredom and felt remarkably similar to it: like a flu jab that gave you a minuscule dose of flu as an inoculation. Jigsawing mimicked boredom in the way it set out to encourage lugubrious dithering, and the way it instilled feckless indecision as the basic response to the world. It gave an ersatz sense of direction to the bored person’s lackadaisical directionless. It felt like the myth of Sisyphus stripped of any grandeur, any tragic dimension. It was like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, employing a tactic for fending off suitors (weaving all day, unpicking all night), but without any of the desperate love, without any of the fear that he wasn't coming home. But of course it also brought with it tiny shards of joy: those fitful feelings of success: Oh that goes there! I thought that was part of the sea, but it’s her nose! These little puffs of pride that pop before they can take shape: clever old you for finding out where that piece goes.
There were one or two jigsaws that went beyond the completion of a task that never needed doing in the first place. These were jigsaws that had a more ritualistic element to them. My The Man from U.N.C.L.E jigsaw was in this category. As you can see it featured a coloured pencil drawing of a scene featuring the unflappable secret agents Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum). The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68) was, as far as I can remember, a drama that at the height of the Cold War brought together Americans and Russians (can you guess which was which?) to defeat even more malevolent forces than communist world domination (or rather these dastardly forces looked a lot like the Cold War vision of communism as nothing but world domination). Verisimilitude obviously wasn't the jigsaw maker’s top priority: the flight of the bullet leaves a ruler-straight vapour trail, for instance. But they knew their audience; young boys who might aspire to draw vapour trailing bullets who also loved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Doing this jigsaw was paying homage, offering cultish dedication. It was important that after completing the jigsaw you took it apart again, ready for the next votive offering.
Looking at the jigsaw now, I remember that I always expected to enjoy certain aspects more than others. I continually thought that the highlight would be fitting the pieces that represent Kuryakin’s gun as he reclines in his casual-clothing-for-men-catalogue-pose, or placing the pieces that are the dolphin-coloured tubular floats of the helicopter’s feet. But jigsaws have their own logic, their own peculiarities. The best parts, I remember, where finding and fitting the pieces that were the fronds of the palm tree, the loose purple shading of the hills in the background, and Napoleon Solo’s briefcase.