Monday, 8 September 2014

Seen From Above

In 1980 the French intellectual Michel de Certeau wrote about what it was like to look down on the streets of Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. De Certeau died before those towers took on the meanings that they have had since 9/11, 2001. But his point wasn't about those towers in particular. He thought that the “pleasure” of looking down on the world from a great height was due to the way that it freed you from the pulsating and ultimately unknowable hubbub taking place at ground level. The view from above was the God-like perspective which rendered the world readable at the cost of our separation from it. Cartographers, city planners, bureaucrats, and administrators viewed the world in this way because it abstracted populations and landmasses so as to render them knowable, manageable, and malleable.
There is pleasure in aerial photography and it’s hard not to see this as connected to its power to abstract. Aerial photographs have a special kind of beauty because they both register the world and offer us a view of that world that most of the time is unavailable to us. We find it hard to connect the photographs to a world that we know: much easier to enjoy the patchwork, the shapes, the lines cut by rivers or roads. That this perspective has been associated with death, with killing is of course unavoidable. The Orson Wells character in The Third Man justifies his racketeering in dodgy pharmaceuticals with the view from the top of a Ferris-Wheel in Vienna.Look down there” he says “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money - or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
In a book of aerial photography that was published in 1953 (Our World from the Air: An International Survey of Man and his Environment) a foreword claims that the twentieth century is the century of the air in the same way that the 19th century was the century of the railway. Because the echo of the Second World War was still reverberating loudly it at once recognises that mechanical flight had allowed humans to drop thousands and thousands of bombs on each other, but wanted to push the reader into thinking about how aerial photography could be used by “the geologist, the archaeologist, the town-planner, the sociologist”.
Today when so many more people have had the experience of mechanical flight, aerial photography still offers an uncanny vision of the world. The view of the world you get from your budget airline passenger seat is never really vertical (unless something has seriously gone wrong) and is always mediated by the slightly cloudy double-glazing of the tiny windows. Aerial photographs have a calmness that is never available in the cramped seating of economy class.
They seems to speak more readily of some of the experiences of the young flyers who became pilots during the Second World War:

The physically amazing thing about flying, after the speed impression of taking off and low flying, is that as you gain height the sense of motion drops away. It’s nothing like looking out of the railway carriage and seeing the blurry silver worms zipping past or the ritual nodding of telegraph lines. It is impressively stable and still up there and this is the important point, the world is laid out for you in unfamiliar terms… the visual field is flattened more after the plan view of the microscope section than the elevation that everyday seeing is accustomed to.

This is the artist Nigel Henderson remembering his experience of flying. It was an experience that went from enormous pleasure to nerve-wracking fear. However familiar it may become, and however it is used for instrumental ends, the view from above is also always vertiginous and discombobulating. A god-like view is the view of someone who has no place. The view from above is also the view of someone falling to earth.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Apocalyptic Wallpaper

In North America in 1952 the critic Harold Rosenberg coined a phrase – ‘Action painters’. Action painters referred to those who today are more usually termed abstract expressionists: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and so on. Rosenberg wanted us to recognise these artists as performing an existential act in the studio. He had some words of warning too. He warned that abstract artists could end up producing nothing more than ‘apocalyptic wallpaper’ if they weren’t careful. The fear of wallpaper and domestic design is everywhere in American abstraction at this time. Mark Rothko, for instance, somewhat earlier, reckoned his paintings ‘must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantel’. Likewise the critic Clement Greenberg was constantly wringing his hands at the way that certain artists could descend into the decorative as if it were a bad case of the ‘dreaded lurgy’.
Across the Atlantic there didn’t seem to be such a fear of the decorative, nor of the domestic. For instance in 1955 the sculptor and collagist Eduardo Paolozzi with his friends Nigel and Judith Henderson set themselves up as a firm to produce wallpaper, textiles, furniture and so on. The firm was called Hammer Prints Ltd. Paolozzi was at the time having a huge success with his sculpture. I like to think that British artists like Paolozzi (and by British I mean Scottish-Italian-British) had read Harold Rosenberg’s essay on action painting, and instead of heeding the warning about apocalyptic wallpaper decided that that was precisely what they wanted to do. What, after all, would it be like to live in house papered with apocalyptic wallpaper?
One of my favourite set of paintings is by the wonderful artist Susan Hiller. I saw an exhibition of her work at the ICA in London in the late 1980s. One of the exhibits was a series of works of paint on the wallpaper used to paper children’s bedrooms: wallpaper featuring parachute jumpers floating through the sky, or action heroes, or cute aliens. These were the gendered wallpapers of a different sort of action: masters of the universe saving the world – not so much existential actors as testosterone-fuelled maniacs. The paint obliterated most of the figuration, but allowed snippets to poke through. The painting used scaled-up images of Hiller’s automatic writing. In some of the paintings it looked like the male action figures were drowning in an unconscious patterning of paint.
For a while I was an abstract painter. My dad used to say that my paintings would look really good in the corridors and boardrooms of a large corporation. I think he was imagining the money that might come my way if I could snag such a commission, but he was also keying into the way that the corridors of power for a while at least, loved the sort of tasteful abstraction that looked simultaneously expensive and inoffensive. I think he also couldn't imagine anyone in their right mind buying one my paintings for their home. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Foreign Holidays

When I was about eleven my parents took my sister and I on a driving holiday on ‘the continent’ (as we called mainland Europe). Over two weeks we dashed from one picturesque town to another across France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy staying in an uneven range of small hotels. We were ill-equipped for such travel in the early 1970s because no one apart from my sister could speak another language, and she was always too shy or too stubborn to lend a linguistic hand. On one occasion, in a small German town, my dad dropped us off at a restaurant, parked the car and came to find us. He had made a note of the name of the street and so after the meal we went to look for the car in Einbahnstrasse. We found what we thought was the street but there was no car there. It was only by luck that we chanced upon the car in another street, and eventually understood that Einbahnstrasse didn't name the street just its condition of one-way-ness.
It was a holiday that was organised by a travel agent; a sort of package-holiday for people who don’t know how to relax (or are a bit suspicious of such hedonism). So we would keep bumping into the same fraught British families as we raced from one destination to the next. It was an era before air-conditioned cars where the seats were nearly always plastic, and where parking a car in a non-shady spot would result in the interior taking on an almost molten state (car rugs were needed to protect bare flesh from being fused to the fiercely hot seats). It was a holiday punctuated with travel-sickness, sullen silences (we took turns and picked up the slack left my dad’s endless optimism), and new experiences. Continental food, even in tourist-ready hotels, could prove tricky and my sister, who had been warned-off eating anything at all by a barmy xenophobic school teacher, maintained a strict ascetic diet of bread and fizzy drinks. And the fizzy drinks were a highlight – who knew that fizzy drinks could taste of apple, or that fizzy orange didn't have to have a radioactive colour and a flavour that made pure sugar taste bitter?
These days the frisson of difference doesn't seem so extreme. I notice it most in the small details. The pylons and telegraph poles are different. The grass is thicker, coarser, more springy. The street signs are placed differently. There are less road markings. The advertising hoardings seem to articulate different causes for commodity-based happiness.