Saturday, 22 March 2014


One of the pleasures of the TV programme Food and Drink, when it was in its first incarnation on the BBC in the 1980s, was watching and listening to the effervescent Jilly Goolden. Goolden was known for her exuberant descriptions of the flavour and smell of drink, especially of wine. With Goolden the language of wine developed an expressive palette of referents and descriptors. A wine might be said to be ‘creamy, nutty with slight honey notes and an apple oak taste’. But that would be Goolden with the hand-break on. On more memorable occasions she could invoke the smell of pencil shavings, the hint of liquorice, kerosene notes, the slight scent of wet tarmac, and so on. Mythically – but perhaps actually too – she could invoke an echo of cat pee meandering through some Chardonnay.
To my ear it sounded excessively detailed. To others it was hugely pretentious and seemed to ‘out’ would-be sommeliers, oenologists, viticulturists (the exotic names were enough to condemn them) as snobs and toffs trying to make their booze of choice something posher, more highly cultured than it was. It was wine. It was red, it was white and occasionally it was pink. It either made you wince or it didn’t. It either went down-the-hatch with pleasure or not.
Some years later I heard Goolden being interviewed on the radio. It was fascinating. When she first got interested in wine, reviewers could write such things like: ‘this is the kind of wine you could shake by the hand and introduce to your club’. Not only was it thoroughly aristocratic it was also ludicrously uninformative. All you got was the equivalent of a thumbs-up, or thumbs-down. Goolden’s emphasis on description and the reference to tastes and scents in the world was a radically materialist refusal of this world of gentlemen’s clubs and the posh back-slapping that went with it. Hers was an intervention that aimed to offer sensorial accuracy and democratic availability. Cheers Jilly. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Hotel of Dreams

About seven years ago I started working at a university in another town to the one I lived in, which meant that I either had to find some sort of permanent digs there or else stay in bed-and-breakfasts and cheap hotels. I chose the latter. The hotels and b&bs, as you might expect, turned out to be of varied character: one b&b room had the main light switch for the room located outside in the corridor. I decided that to make all this more bearable I should try and turn it into a project of some sort.
In Tom Waits’ song ‘9th and Hennepin’ from Rain Dogs the singer offers a description of a down-at-heal part of town seen and imagined from a passing train. He is clearly looking at a cheap hotel when he sings: ‘And the rooms all smell like diesel, and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here’. It is a scary thought that when sleeping in a hotel your dream-life could be invaded by the dream-world of another, or that the dreams of others might seep under the doors, through the walls and congregate in your pillow. But, I wondered, would it be too far-fetched to imagine that the room itself was some sort of repository of dreams, or that it was an agent in dreaming, shaping and populating your dreams?
The idea might not mean straying that far from classical Freudianism. After all it was Freud who taught us that the content of dreams couldn’t be translated willy-nilly into a symbolic vocabulary of dreaming. It was Freud that came up with the formula that dreams were poetic utterances that used the flotsam and jetsam of our ordinary life and arranged it according to a grammar of memory and desire. Perhaps quite rightly those interested in psychoanalysis have concentrated on the memory and desire part of this rather than what Freud calls the ‘day’s residue’, but it could be that it is the day’s residue that should be given more attention. Where better to find these residues than in the immediate environs of such uncanny worlds of cheap hotels?
My project (which I must admit I have pursued fairly diffidently) consists of taking a photograph of the hotel room and the view from the window of the room, a photograph after I have slept in the bed, and accompanied this with an account of the dream that occurred in this ‘dream site’. I was hoping to avoid the strange disconnect and boredom that occurs when you hear another’s dream, because I would be offering a material context and suggesting that perhaps the dream belonged as much to the room as it belonged to me. The idea would be that at some point I would make a ‘coffee table’ type book called Dream Hotels and that while it might encourage the reader to think that they would be encountering sumptuous swanky hotels they would in fact find more run-of-the-mill hotels, as well as actual rather than idealised dreams. Anyway here is a dream from this project and above and below is the room it occurred in:

We might be in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. We are in a thick forest. There is a man with a beard and a hat sitting in a dark old-fashioned car (it could be a Humber). On the passenger seat is a very large bushel of twigs. There is a complicated heist in process that involves a lot of double crossing. The man in the car has a canny plan that will mean that he secures the heist and leaves everyone else empty handed. I am the man but I have forgotten the plan.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Richard Hamilton, persistent pasticheur

The comprehensive Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern (13 February to 26 May 2014) is, I think, something of a surprise. I usually think that Hamilton’s work suffers when it is shown in museum surveys of modern art: the worked smoothness of the surface, the range of media (various print technologies) and what seemed like quotations of more visceral painting styles, often feels overly-laboured and intellectually cool compared to the bravura displays of painterly panache of work contemporaneous with Hamilton’s. However much you felt that the labouring and the quotations were part of the point, it still felt that there were swirls of mist floating between viewer and painting compared to the more emphatic and immediate paintwork of Hamilton’s contemporary Magda Cordell (and you can go and search out a fantastic Cordell painting in Tate Modern after the Hamilton show). But seen all together some of Hamilton’s work looks great with their trademark micro-splodges and smears seemingly not just referring back to abstract expressionism but forward to a sort of ruinous waste infecting the surface of the modern.
The scatological is a major theme in Hamilton’s work and one of his most famous works is The Citizen which depicts the dirty protest of IRA prisoners held in the Maze prison. Brian Sewell has declared thisone of the very few great paintings in the history of British art in the later 20th century”, an evaluation that, no doubt, Hamilton would have been proud of, yet how would he have felt about such an assessment coming from the pen of someone whose unworried connoisseurialism was precisely what Hamilton and his colleagues in the Independent Group fought against?
The scatological is also foregrounded in one of the most successful rooms in the exhibition: ‘Shit and Flowers’. The title seems like a provocation, and on first flush the paintings of luscious sunsets illuminating large, healthy turds looks like the joke of a punky A-level student. Yet when seen beside the re-worked adverts of Andrex toilet tissues we get to see this as part of an anthropology of the contemporary: we live in a world were nature is incessantly praised as long as it doesn’t include the nature of our evacuations; we are seduced to buy toilet paper with promises of beautiful women and unspoilt woods as long as we can’t imagine such women having a shit. In a conversation with Michael Craig-Martin, Hamilton told him: “As a student I learned by imitating, I was a persistent pasticheur”. While pastiche doesn’t always get a great press, Hamilton reveals its analytic power. I would take undergraduate media studies students to see this show because the analysis of advertising is more powerful, more cutting, than any of the standard textbooks on “how to analyse an advert”.
One of the true finds in this exhibition, for me at least, didn’t occur in the exhibition itself but in the exhibition book shop. Here you can buy a catalogue produced for Richard Hamilton’s exhibition at the British Pavilion in the Venice Biennale of 1993. The catalogue is written by Sarat Maharaj who at the time had been working on a monograph on Hamilton. The monograph, unfortunately, never appeared and this is perhaps the closest you get to it. It is, as many would expect, intellectual and analytic, but the big surprise is just how funny it is. On the back page is an advert for an invented conference on Hamilton’s work. At the bottom is a detachable slip for sending off for more information about the symposium. It also alerts you to the fact that there are “concession rates if you book an all-round superb-value ‘Avant-garde in Venice’ excursion. Arrive at the Hamilton show by water taxi!” I wonder how many people sent off for more information, or did try and book for the excursion?