Archive | May, 2017

Photography Is…

18 May

Generally you expect art fairs to be mixed-media affairs. A bit of painting, a bit of sculpture, a bit of photography, a bit of—sigh, all right, if you really must, but please mop the floor when you’ve finished—performance: the variety keeps things interesting. In the case of Photo London, however, you could say that the lack of variety is what makes it interesting. It’s about photography and nothing else. Exclusivity of medium is its USP.

And yet, and yet… If you look at the public programme for this year’s edition, currently running at Somerset House, you’ll realize that the definition of photography has been expanded to the point where it now incorporates pretty much every other medium. Photography is video; photography is sculpture; you name it, it is photography and photography is it.

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Prof. Phil Shaw, Self-Help (detail). Courtesy Rebecca Hossack

Though it has the alibi of recreating a historic photographic exhibition (William Henry Fox Talbot’s public display of prints at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, in 1839), Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds turns out to be an immersive virtual-reality artwork: you strap on goggles and a backpack and then stumble around a Gothic revival hall as a rodent scuttles across the floor and a spider scrambles up a wall to a rising soundtrack of Chartist rioters, glimpsable through a virtual window.

It’s fun but it’s only photography in so far as everything is photography. Asked at the launch what his next project might be, Collishaw joked, somewhat ruefully (VR is technically demanding, one surmises), “oil painting”. If that proves to be the case, the resulting work may well find a place in the next Photo London. After all, photography is oil painting.

Which is not to say that there’s no what you might call “straight photography” to gawp at, and it’s always fun to see what’s trending as subject matter in such traditional (I’d better use the word to establish my commentariat credentials) “indexical” works. Muhammad Ali seems quite present this year, which may be related to the fact that the sporting hero and activist died recently.

There are usually shots aplenty of (as well as by) Andy Warhol, who died a while ago; and then there’s Mick Jagger – he’s still alive, of course, but hasn’t released a really good album since at least 1983 (Undercover of the Night) and some would say 1972 (Exile on Main Street); personally I still like She’s the Boss, a solo outing from 1985, but this is not the place to play you my mixtape, so perhaps we can just agree on the formulation that Sir Mick is a lot less musically alive than he once was. Someone mentioned that there were lots of pictures of cows a few years ago; this year I was struck by the number of elephants, which I find rewarding because this magazine is called Elephant. To me, every image of an elephant on display at the fair is a kind of more or less conscious tribute to us.

I enjoyed the sign at the entrance to the rooms dedicated to the work of Taryn Simon, who has been named this year’s Master of Photography. The display, it announced, “may contain graphic images”. Which made me want to say – and I did say it, though there was no one there to hear me – “Look, either it does or it doesn’t. Don’t you know?” The subjunctive mood seems at odds with photography, which is traditionally viewed as the most documentary and fact-based of mediums; something is either there in the frame or it isn’t. But Simon’s work isn’t really photography, or not old-style photography at any rate.

The centrepiece here is Image Atlas, a collaboration with programmer Aaron Swartz, which presents a real-time, internet-based investigation of global cultural differences (and similarities). Entering a sombre cathedral-like space, you step up to a console and type in a search item of your choosing, which prompts a giant screen to display the top results in different geographical territories. The person before me wanted to know about “Beauty”; from Germany to Egypt the results seemed fairly uniform.

I am proud to have a supremely uninquiring mind and no curiosity whatsoever, so when it fell my turn at the keyboard coming up with a search term proved a trial. “What would I like to know about?” I pondered, emptily. Time was passing; the people behind me were growing impatient. So I thought: “What would my football-obsessed son want me to type in?” To which the answer presented itself immediately: Arsenal. I was tempted to stop keying after the first four letters in order to deliver on that half-promise of graphic content on the entrance door. But in the event I typed in all seven letters: opposite the names of France and other First World footballing nations there duly appeared on the screen a Gunners club badge and/or pictures of Alexis Sanchez celebrating a goal; for Afghanistan and Iran, by contrast, there were pictures of mushroom clouds and munitions corresponding to a historically more enduring use of the arsenal.

The Collishaw and Simon displays have strong elements of installation about them; indeed, one might even be tempted to say that they seem to be trying to demonstrate that photography is installation. Equally installation-y in feel, if in a rather more olde-worlde fashion, is the work of Prof. Phil Shaw. Displayed in the Rebecca Hossack gallery booth (S5), Prof. Shaw’s witty “bookshelf” prints interrogate the changing place of the printed word in the digital (and, if you like, post-truth) world. Colour-coded to suggest lines on the underground network or to hint at the outline of the British Isles, they also make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a hospitably furnished, book-lined room. Which is one of the nicer tricks photography can play on you.

Photo London runs until Sunday; photolondon.org

Hipgnotic Appeal

13 May

Why is that cow staring at me? The album cover designs of Hipgnosis have an enduring, surreal charm.

The town I grew up in didn’t have an art gallery but it did have a record store. When I went there—as I did for many years every Saturday—I went to look as much as I did to listen.

Though you were there ostensibly to find music, you did most of your searching with your eyes—and fingers. Record stores were a non-exclusive and particularly intimate kind of art gallery: you were invited to riffle through the collection and actually touch the artworks. They weren’t fragile and, produced in unlimited editions, they weren’t expensive, so you could even take them home with you if you chose.

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Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother (1970). Photography: S. Thorgerson. © Pink Floyd Music Ltd.

It was there that I first encountered Magritte and Man Ray, not to mention Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton. Or at least I encountered their shadows, refracted darkly through the surreal, idiosyncratic lens of Hipgnosis, sleeve designers to 10CC, Peter Gabriel and—most famously—Pink Floyd. (Their name was given to them indirectly by original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, whom founder members Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgersen met as youngsters in Cambridge.)

Hipgnosis were fun-loving, good-time cousins to the Pictures Generation, allusive, appropriative, offering intriguing, subversive reflections on the broader art and media landscape. Their text-only design for XTC’s Go 2 (“This is a RECORD Cover. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record…”) is meta avant la lettre.

They didn’t do band portraits, and they didn’t necessarily need to listen to the music before coming up with a sleeve to contain and help sell its vinyl incarnation: ideas rejected for one project would reappear elsewhere.

The best of the work reproduced in Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue is the product of a highly privileged kind of patron-client relationship. The most characterful sleeves often came out of explicitly not working too closely with bands’ own ideas. Paul McCartney, who has always fancied himself as a bit of a painter, liked to develop his thoughts before contacting his designers, so Hipgnosis’s work for the ex-Beatle isn’t their best. It isn’t their worst either. This is a complete catalogue so there’s no hiding place for the more cringe-inducing work such as Roy Harper’s awful, literal Lifemask: as Powell’s text makes clear, Harper was to blame for that one.

A lot of ideas began with wordplay, not all of it great: the naked light bulb adorning the cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s first album is 1% perspiration, 0% inspiration; the phallic taps poking out from the shower scene on the sleeve of UFO’s Force It (a visual pun on the US “faucet”) aren’t much better.

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10cc, How Dare You! (1976). Cover design: Hipgnosis/G. Hardie. Photography: A. Powell. © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd.

But then there’s the mise en abyme of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother’s mystifying cow portrait (the eyes just follow you around the room), the arty conceptualism of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. As budgets grew, so did the ambition; this was the age of prog rock excess. For The Nice’s Elegy the team headed off into the Sahara with 120 inflatable red balls. The cover of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door emerged from weeks of research and laborious, exacting set-building.

That said, one of my favourite album covers, not by Hipgnosis, lacks both image and clever text: it’s just a simple black square. (Malevich was a big influence on AC/DC.)

Hipgnosis’s heyday extended from 1967 (when rock went Pop and Peter Blake designed the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to 1982 and the advent of the CD, with the diminished canvas it offered cover designers. The upside was the simultaneous arrival of MTV—Powell and pals moved seamlessly into video.

Vinyl has made a renaissance of late, as have record stores. But as part of that return the 12-inch has acquired an unfortunate Benjaminian “aura”. Venerated and precious, with its physical properties trumpeted (180g! first pressing!), the twenty-first-century vinyl album is at least halfway to enjoying the status of an art object. By contrast, what’s so beguiling about the work here is its indeterminate status, somewhere between marketing campaign and art; its occasional accidental surplus of value, throwaway with a glint of gold; its very occasional unplanned sublimity.

“Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue” by Aubrey Powell is published by Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

Damien Floyd / Pink Hirst

13 May

Many people have said many things about Damien Hirst’s new show in Venice. But no one has compared it to the Pink Floyd exhibition in London—until now.

I should be in Venice. Mostly because I always wanted to be a gondolier and there’s really only one place to realize that particular dream. But I should also be in La Serenissima because there’s some sort of art event going on there at the moment and, having failed to pursue the punting and taken a wrong turn into journalism instead, I ought to be working up an opinion. I need to think something about it.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So Venice is where I should be, knocking back the bellinis and pressing “Publish” on my pre-written hatchet job on Damien Hirst’s new faux-archaeological exhibit, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which is filling up palazzi and puntas with its billion cubic metres of peerless vacuity. “As I toured the exhibit,” I wrote in advance of actually visiting the show, which I won’t now be visiting, “I was struck by the recurrent motifs drawn from theme parks and Disney and found myself asking: Doesn’t the now distinctly middle-aged Mr Hirst know that great biblical line about putting away childish things? I’m not saying that a grown-up should deny all knowledge of Mickey Mouse but after a certain age you shouldn’t still be thinking of him as your best friend either. The most flattering thing I can say about the show is that Michael Jackson would have loved it.” Alas, since I haven’t visited the exhibit and won’t be doing so—though I’ve seen the TV footage and looked at all the images and read the press release, and Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable surely first took life and finds its most complete and satisfactory expression as a press release—it would be unethical of me to publish the review. Thus my immortal judgment is lost to history.

So I’m not in Venice, I’m in London, and compensating myself with a visit to The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like Hirst’s, this is essentially an overblown archaeological show, gargantuan to the point that it contains, according to the press release at least, a larger-than-life installation of Battersea Power Station. How big is that! Or how big would that be, were it true. (It’s just careless wording.)

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Animals cover © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

There are similarities of scale and theme, then, between Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable and Their Mortal Remains. But there is also a crucial difference: the former is a fiction while the latter is archaeology of the real, documenting something that actually happened, full of genuine artefacts salvaged from a long-forgotten and now barely believable time—the Prog Rock Era, to give it its proper geological designation. If Floyd conceptualist-in-chief Roger Waters shares with Hirst a love of the Big (and not always terribly profound) Idea, his most overblown concepts have always been made to rub shoulders with reality. What has emerged has been not just Big Ideas but Big Ideas tested and changed by Actual Work and Lived Experience. There’s grit in the grandiose. From one perspective the album Animals can be seen as an auterish Orwellian fable but as a finished work it’s the result of intense musical and visual collaboration; a Big Idea given ultimate and altered form through the experience of its making; that’s not a sense you much get from Hirst’s new work.

As told here, the story of Animals also takes in the breathtaking climb rate of an escaped inflatable pig called Algie, a missing marksman and a helicopter despatched in hot pursuit, and a telephone call from a Kentish farmer complaining the porcine balloon was bothering his cows.

To ensure that it isn’t mistaken for a mere nostalgia show for old rockers, Their Mortal Remains kicks off with a little aesthetic context. There’s a slightly vainglorious mention of a 1966 Aubrey Beardsley show—which was held at the V&A, don’t you know—as an influence on the psychedelic visual style of time; on an adjacent wall a screen carries clips from Jonathan Miller’s unsettlingly trippy TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland from the same year. This is not so much Swinging London as Swirling London. Walking through the first rooms feels a bit like being sucked through a psychedelic rabbit hole that’s been decorated with consciousness-altering Op Art panache by Bridget Riley.

At the outset Pink Floyd were in with the in crowd, although the show charts a change in taste with the rise of punk and the band’s swift exit out of the door marked “Not cool, man”. There’s Johnny Rotten scrawling “I Hate” on his Pink Floyd T-shirt (before later admitting to quite liking them) and a slightly gratuitous—some might even say pretty vacant—display of Never Mind the Bollocks’s guerilla graphics, offered by way of contrast to the brand of surrealism practised by design agency Hipgnosis on Pink Floyd’s behalf. And anyway, Animals—the one with the pig floating over Battersea Power Station on the cover—is a great punk album. Don’t argue.

Some have suggested that, by comparison with the Bowie show a few years back, Their Mortal Remains lacks personality because Pink Floyd as a band lacked a leading personality. It’s true that their only real “frontman”, Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-related psychosis and retired from the spotlight straight after the band released their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (the title is drawn from The Wind in the Willows). But actually the personality of the show—and of the band—comes out of that very anonymity and the band’s related desire to generate rock’n’roll spectacle by other means. Aided by Bluetooth technology, the exhibition inventively re-creates the band’s early experimentation with temporary architecture, inflatable sculptures and their collaboration with illustrator Gerald Scarfe.

Thankfully, there’s also plenty of pig documentation.

‘The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains’ runs from 13 May until 1 October. vam.ac.uk

First published on elephantmag.com