Friday, 23 October 2009

Ballard on Paolozzi

"Surrealism took one of its main inspirations from psychoanalysis, accepted the distinction between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality. But one, the world of the mind, is largely ruled by the laws of fictions, by one's dreams, visions, impressions and so on, and the whole idea of the unconscious as a narrative stage. Surrealism moulds the two worlds together, remakes the external world of reality in terms of the internal world of fantasy and fictions. Now what has happened, and one reason why there are really no Surrealist painters in the true sense of the term today, is that this position has been reversed. It's the external world which is now the realm, the paramount realm of fantasy. And it's the internal world of the mind which is the one node of reality that most of us have. The fiction is all out there. You can't overlay your own fiction on top of that. You've got to use, I think, a much more analytic technique than the synthetic technique of the Surrealists. Eduardo does this in his graphics. He's approaching the subject matter of the present day exactly like the scientist on safari, looking at the landscape, testing, putting sensors out, charting various parameters."
- JG Ballard on Eduardo Paolozzi, from a conversation with Paolozzi and Frank Whitford in 1971. Read the rest here.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Leonard Baskin

I've had a bit of an obsession with the work of Leonard Baskin since I first came across it on the cover of Ted Hughes's Crow (top). It was in fact Baskin who suggested that Hughes write poems on the theme, having already made several drawings of crows.

Baskin (1922-2000) was an American sculptor, printmaker, writer, illustrator and teacher. Born in New Jersey, he studied art in Florence and Paris, and spent seven years living in Devon near his close friend Hughes, but spent most of his life in Massachusetts. Inspired by William Blake, in 1942 he founded the Gehenna Press while still a student at Yale; although only a small private press, it would produce over 100 books during Baskin's lifetime.

There are a couple of prints (including the last one above) by Baskin in an outstanding exhibition, The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, which is currently at the Whitworth Gallery, just around the corner from where I live. They're huge, much larger than I expected, maybe about six feet tall. More on The American Scene when I get the catalogue.

Click on the images for links.


These are stills from Czech animator Jiří Barta's extraordinary adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Krysař (1985). The attention to detail in the figures and the expressionist set design (slightly reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) is incredible, both were largely carved out of wood, and considering that the film is over 5o minutes in length, it's quite remarkable that it was completed at all - indeed, Barta has had trouble obtaining funding in recent years (you can see a preview of his current project here). Real rats - both live and dead - were used in the film, and there's a rather grotesque twist in the tale which diverges from earlier versions; I'd say it's not for children, but I would have loved to have seen stuff like this when I was a kid.

More info here, here and here. Available on the Jiří Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness DVD.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Interview with Russell Mills

Russell Mills has, in addition to developing his own highly distinctive style of collage, created album covers for Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Nine Inch Nails, Michael Nyman and Harold Budd; designed covers for books by David Toop, Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett and Don Delillo; been involved in various sound and multimedia projects including collaborations with members of Wire; and produced two albums, Strange Familiar and Pearl + Umbra, under the name of Undark (with contributions from Eno, Sylvian, Kevin Shields, Bill Laswell and many more). He very kindly found the time to answer a few of my questions by email.

Do you see the decline of physical music formats as a loss, or as an opportunity for music and visuals to be brought together in new ways?

To be honest, both. On the one hand I'm saddened by the demise of the album cover and the continuing absence of the actual physical item. This is not a nostalgic yearning, but because I believe that people (maybe especially those interested in music), still enjoy the convenience and the intimacy of holding in their hands, wherever they are and whenever they want, something that has a specific meaning and relationship, be it to an album of music or a book. There is something distinctly personal about this activity that is not there when one is obliged to download music and visuals via a computer. On the other hand the technological developments that are still unfolding should mean that there are new avenues to explore, which might encourage genuinely new hybrid marriages of visuals with sound.

Do you draw regularly?

No. I used to all the time. Now I tend to draw when I need to either jot down ideas and notions or to record something that might have been triggered by something I'm working on. These drawings are minimal, a shorthand, enough for me to be able to go back to them for reference, not for showing and not to be held up as some example of skill or virtuosity.

Do you think that if you were starting out today, you would find it more (or less) difficult to get established as an artist/designer?

I suspect that it would be far harder for me to get started now, let alone get established. For one thing there are far too many so-called artists/designers graduating these days, all competing for fewer commissions/jobs. Secondly I think a lot of those who are in a position to commission work do not have the capacity to risk or the knowledge base to allow them to trust to the capacity to risk to commission me. The sensibility of commissioners and their increasingly corporate bosses is not about risk or encouraging the new but about shifting units, and therefore tends to encourage repetition, plagiarism and or laziness i.e commission something like someone else's work, in their "style" or commission what's already tried and known. Lazy and boring. No I wouldn't stand a chance nowadays.

Reading about your cover for Roger Eno’s Between Tides, it struck me that some of the symbolism and use of materials (volcanic sand etc) might be almost impossible to ‘read’ or decipher just from the visuals – is it important that they are directly communicated to the viewer? Or are we left to try and make these connections for ourselves?

You're right; most of the underlying symbolism is probably not perceived by a viewer. The symbolism revealed in my research towards a work has inspired and informed the evolution of that work. Of course it would be wonderful if a viewer or viewers found the same or similar signs in the work but I know it's not going to happen. I don't set out to directly communicate these ideas in an easily digested form. That would be boring for me and would be an insult to the intelligence of the potential audience. I'm not concerned with "illustrating" in the sense of producing an image that merely replicates a passage of text; I'm more concerned with producing something that obliquely alludes to an essence of the subject matter, or of the emotional core, whether it be text or music. I hope that the end result, whilst being an amalgam of the contextually anchored and the process-driven, is also arresting or seductive and intriguing. I would hope that a viewer might find their own way into an image, to find their own interpretations of the artwork.

Marshall Arisman has said, "Every gallery I’ve ever had has told me to quit illustration. They’ve said, 'It will ruin your fine art career.'" Have your commissions for book/album covers etc ever made this an issue?

Yes. In England, definitely. Generally I've found that the English - England as opposed to the UK - particularly the critics, the "gallerists" (what does that fecking mean?), the art historians and the so-called curators, etc., i.e. the cultural arbitrators, don't like or trust people who do more than one thing. I have worked in "disciplines" as diverse as illustration, design, painting, multimedia installation, sound and design of sets and lighting for theatre, music and contemporary dance, but this diversity just puts the English cultural commentator in a sweat - it's not convenient, as it does not conform to known taxonomies. I've consciously worked against the restrictive barriers imposed by categorisation in the creative arts, as I'm naturally curious about the world and how it works and how it might be improved. I've therefore always wanted to explore new ideas and new ways of making. In this country, in the arts, an artist working in this way, doing more than one thing, blurring the boundaries, is considered to be a dilettante. This is used in the derogatory sense as one who is a lover of the arts (particularly the so-called "Fine Arts" - why do Fine Artists feel so insecure that they have to use the adjective Fine before the word Artist?) but who is an amateur, a dabbler, as someone who is not committed or serious. Whilst I think this term is ill-used I am proud to be an amateur. A serious, committed amateur. I approach everything I do as an amateur, with eyes wide with wonder, wanting to discover the new, the potential, the perhaps, the maybe and the "what if?"

Those so-called arbiters of taste conveniently forget their own paltry grasp of art history. Is the work of Leonardo da Vinci viewed suspiciously because he painted, drew, sculpted, invented flying machines, tanks and ballbearings, studied water currents, pregnant women and blood systems? No he has held up as being of the highest order, a model of modern man. Sadly, and I think shortsightedly, if a contemporary artist/scientist is perceived as working in this way it is treated with utter disdain nowadays. Much to the loss of progress.

Abroad, in Europe, America and Japan this problem doesn't seem to exist; there is no prejudice against an artist whose work spans disciplines, in fact such individuals are applauded and encouraged - and even funded occasionally.

I've always believed in synergy, symbiosis and synectics. These avenues lead to the hybrid, the unknown.

Why do you think that collage became so prevalent during the 20th century (from Schwitters to Public Enemy)?

Two disastrous world wars made intellectuals, artists, writers and cultural theorists re-consider the status quo. The moral and cultural certainties of the past (classical music and painting, formalistic structures. etc.) had been torn apart by immoral and despicable conflicts. The world had been ripped into fragments and along with it the cultural rules and traditions of the past. The cultural hierarchies of the past seemed meaningless, irrelevant and redundant. New ideas evolved out of the rubble, ideas about transformation, about processes, about discovering new ways of looking and new ways of working. Collage was born out of this global dereliction as we moved into an age of fragmentation. And as the age of fragmentation was brewing new technologies were emerging at an ever-faster pace. Collage, as a concept and as a construct, became the most important cultural idea of the 20th century; it still is. Collage has affected every aspect of contemporary life from literature to cinema, from comedy to drama, from dance to radio, from design to music. Check out T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), Virginia Woolf's and James Joyce's experiments with stream-of-consciousness writing from the same between the wars period, in tandem with the experiments in fragmentation and juxtaposition of the likes of Picasso, Braque, Schwitters and Duchamp, Walter Benjamin and others, whose works from the same period led to the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Beat poets, and onto Burroughs and Gysin to Keysey et al. From all these we have inherited the likes of the Jack Jackson radio show, which in turn inspired the remarkably fragmented humour of the Goon Show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Fast Show, The League of Gentleman and other such examples of comedic brilliance. Collage too has shaped film/video editing, sound sampling in contemporary music and multimedia installations, Photoshop, literature, Final Cut, advertising, drama, radio and, to maybe stretch a point, marketing, shopping and innovation generally - thankfully. Hybridisation creates far more interesting ideas than specialisation.

“The specialist has become a comic figure, replaced by the artist.”
– Edmund Carpenter.

“Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being. The process itself is the significant step…”
– Edmund Carpenter.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Guerillas in the rumpus room

Re-reading parts of The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter, an influence on Lost Girls, which I'm currently writing about. Some quotes:

"Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers, as if sexual relations were not necessarily an expression of social relations, as if sex were itself an external fact, one as immutable as the weather, creating human practise but never a part of it."

"Myth deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances."

"Fine art, that exists for itself alone, is art in a final state of impotence. If nobody, including the artist, acknowledges art as a means of knowing the world, then art is relegated to a kind of rumpus room of the mind and the irresponsibility of the artist and the irrelevance of art to actual living becomes part and parcel of the practise of art."

"Nothing exercises such power over the imagination as the nature of sexual relationships, and the pornographer who has it in his power to become a terrorist of the imagination, a sexual guerilla whose purpose it is to overturn our most basic notions of these relations, to reinstitute sexuality as a primary mode of being rather than a specialised area of vacation from being and to show that the everyday meetings in the marriage bed are parodies of their own pretensions, that the freest unions may contain the seeds of the worst exploitation."

Nice cover, too, by Roxanna Bikadoroff (there's a good interview with her here).

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Psychopathic architecture

"Adolf Loos (1870-1933) viewed architectural detailing as "criminal" and coined the slogan "Form follows function" to describe the kind of technologically inspired, Promethean architecture that would come to characterise modernism. So, for the past two decades, this "discourse" of twaddle has all been Terry Farrell kiddie-geometry, or Quinlan Terry classicism-nouveau - and now comes the woodiness, not so much criminal as outright psychopathy. Modernism may have had its brutal consequences, yet what can we make of our woeful postmodernism, where form seems to follow nothing but a lack of gumption?"
- Will Self

Read the rest here.


Raoul Servais is a Belgian artist and animator who in 1963 founded Europe's first animation school at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. His 1979 film Harpya is a genuinely creepy tale of a man who rescues a woman from an assailant in the street, before realising she is half bird - a harpy. It earned Servais a Palme d'Or, but also (perhaps understandable but not necessarily founded) accusations of misogyny. Harpya was filmed using innovative techniques, with actors filmed in 35mm against black velvet backgrounds, then the scenery added:

"Harpya was my first attempt to combine live action images with animation. The live actors had to be incorporated in graphical backgrounds, for which I had to invent my own technique at the time. The result was rather satisfying but very time consuming, because it really was limited to a one person's job. I guess Harpya will remain the only film ever made in this technique." - Raoul Servais, from his website

Watch it here.


Some stills from Satiemania, a visualisation of the music of Erik Satie made by Zdenko Gasparovich for Zagreb Film in 1978. Watch it here. Sadly, Gasparovich seems to have done little else of note.