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In and out of the digital world (2020 – 1960)

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Recently I was obliged to prepare a short presentation limited to about 20 slides which was, as far as I could tell, supposed to tell a story about my development as an artist. Maybe that wasn’t the actual official goal but, notwithstanding, I went ahead with that idea.

I began the story of my development with a reference to my earliest memories concerning some of the aesthetic features of the world around me in Singapore. My father, for example, drew my attention to the ‘scarlet hibiscus’ and the ‘creamy-white frangipani’; I was shown the astonishing designs and decorations of the Chinese temples and I was fascinated by the intricate complexity of Chinese writing. I even heard ‘the twittering of the birds’ as my parents played Mah Jong.

I contrasted these aesthetic moments with the sheer grad-grind greyness of my subsequent late 1950s life in the UK. Then in my presentation, I focused on the excitement of the emerging cultural ethos of Britain in the 1960s. This was a time when an alternative culture was getting into full swing; film, music, theatre, literature, art, politics and the social sciences were combining to generate a liberated ‘mind-expanding’ perception. It was (for me) a great time to be alive and the world seemed to overflow with possibilities and potential. What’s more, the songs of the 60s’ culture were terrific …

As I prepared my slide presentation I realised how different the new digital world has become: here, I was creating something that operated in a new modality – and something embedded in a new post-industrial culture. The sheen and glow of the ‘screen’ constitutes and supports a new aesthetic. Nonetheless the memories of those alternative ideas in the wonderful years of the 1960s had a strangely liberating effect upon me.

Then, not long after my presentation had been completed, Lady Gaga appeared on the television. She had organised and curated a marathon broadcast to support the World Health Organisation that had been streamed ‘live’ over several hours the day before. But in the UK someone had decided to condense much of this into a two-hour show featuring a few of Lady Gaga’s original live-stream performers and some additional inclusions from the UK. Amongst them were the Rolling Stones and I was delighted to watch and listen to their stylish rendition of ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ Once again, Mick Jagger’s legendary star-appeal was apparent. The song, ‘You can’t always get what you want’ featured on their 1969 LP ‘Let it bleed’; it reminded me that the song is more than 50 years old!

Then, as the UK television programme unfolded something astonished me: a majority of the songs chosen by the artists were composed, recorded and broadcast in the 1960s. This was ‘my’ era. And the songs I heard were the ones I had listened to on tiny transistor radios or record players with 45 rpm records or 33 rpm albums. Once again, I realised that I had had the irreplaceable cultural privilege of being young and unconstrained and educated in the 1960s.

The performers of these old songs included the brilliantly gifted Billie Eilish, the wonderful John Legend, the huge Rag ’n Bone Man and, of course, the unstoppable brio and genius of Lady Gaga. The only thing which detracted from the UK television programme was the unnecessary and tendentious appearance of the Beckhams. In a time of crisis (such as the one we are living through) we do not need to hear from these confections of the media. Instead, we need to hear, once again, from the alternative and counter culture – a kind of update from the 60s.

Here are some of those perfect songs from the 1960s:

John Legend and Sam Smith – ‘Stand by me’ (1961)
Jennifer Lopez – ‘People’ (1964)
Rag n Bone Man – ‘The times they are a’changin’ (1964)
Billie Eilish and Finneas – ‘Sunny’ (1966)
Michael Buble – ‘God only knows’ (1966)
Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello ‘ Wonderful world’ (1967)
Paul McCartney – ‘Lady Madonna’ (1968)

The Rolling Stones – ‘You can’t always get what you want‘ (1969)

Post script: The presentation to which I refer and that I was originally making is something called a PechaKucha

Venus in exile

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This post relates to my earlier one about Hiroshima roses.

A short review article by Will Gompertz on the Royal Ballet’s joyful ‘The cellist’ raises a question about the current status of ‘beauty’. He began with the assertion that ‘beauty isn’t getting the respect it deserves’. In effect he was saying that ‘Venus’ has been exiled. He contrasted this with a time ‘not so long ago’ when there was great enthusiasm for beauty; for example, the enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant valued beauty and actually considered it a form of morality. Einstein, too, thought that beauty served to draw out our inner child; it is certainly true that we may respond with an almost childlike delight (and even unself-conscious expressions of awe) when we encounter beauty.

Gompertz moved on to recognise that it ‘used to be the job of artists, authors and composers’ to celebrate and portray beauty. But he acknowledged, regretfully, that even pop culture’s recent ‘New Romantics’ proved to be no match for the ‘relentless march of modernism’ with its pared-down ‘less-is-more dogma’. He argued that the blame for the demise of beauty in art originated with Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp chose his objects precisely because they were, in his words, ‘anti-retinal’: they provided an unattractive sight and were intended as a ‘weapon aimed at the heart of a bourgeois art establishment aligned to a political class responsible for a horrific, bloody war.’ As Duchamp argued, ‘it was no time for beauty.’

According to Gompertz, an emerging post-Duchampian doctrine of art held that if ‘art meant anything at all’ it should address the truth about what was happening all about us – and what was happening was ugly and base; romanticism and decoration were dead; beauty was superficial and frivolous; a deep cynicism came to characterise the ethos of the secular age. In consequence, as Gompertz puts it, ‘Music became dissonant, literature became fragmented, theatre became absurd, and art turned ugly.’ Recently, Matthew Collings has underlined this anti-aesthetic tendency that was, for example, an obvious feature of what used to called ‘Young British Art’.

I was pleased to read Gompertz’s short review because I too think that something is amiss if we are somehow disallowed from acknowledging and exploring manifestations beauty. My earlier post about finding ‘Hiroshima roses’ touches upon the strange seductions of beauty. And, I was reminded of issues surrounding our engagement with beauty whilst I was making my screen-prints. In fact, during the process, I was never fully conscious of what I was actually accessing from my memory store of images. However, I was dimly aware of some early work I had completed in the ‘graphic-design’ module of my Foundation Studies – especially in that style of design called ‘raw’ as well as the ‘cool conceptual’. But I also knew that, in addition to these influences, I had made work that was ‘good’ to look at. It yielded a certain immediate pleasure. I had even used a gold paint that the tutors had specially prepared for me …

Whilst I was in the screen-print workshop area I enjoyed some good if spasmodic conversations with a few of the other students who were working in the spaces adjacent to me. Then, one woman who had devoted herself to a very sophisticated project for her PhD, said, at the end of my third week of print-making: ‘You work is beautiful.’ She did not appear to say this pejoratively. Nonetheless I was surprised to hear her comment. I had imagined that ‘Venus’ was still in exile. Maybe she is about to return.

In the late 1800s the philosopher Santayana noted that cultures not only esteemed artists almost as much as they did their political and military heroes but that an inordinate amount of time went in to designing the look and appeal of even the most commonplace things. He found that the facts of human-being indicate that perceptions of beauty are central to our lives. I think he is right.

Whilst I know that the world is also full of the vile and the horrible, in truth, I enjoy finding and experiencing beauty in the world. I also like ‘having a go’ at making something with at least a touch of beauty …

The photograph above was taken in Dana, Jordan. It is part of my ‘Hiroshima roses‘ series and shows an explosion of life and death.

Hiroshima Roses

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On March 20th I was expecting to begin hanging my ‘magical realism’ screen prints in the MA Fine Art show. To accompany the prints I had spent ages preparing and completing an unusual, and sometimes strange, autobiography. I had really enjoyed this and I had included short chapters about the people who’d played a significant role in shaping my identity and extending my education. I had also included a few chapters that featured poems or ideological comments. Amongst it all was something that has, for a long time, fascinated me. It’s the idea of ‘Hiroshima roses.’

I was born in 1949 when the world was still living under the long shadow cast by the bombing of Hiroshima. It was a time when many people – including my parents – had a sense of the ominous – of the possibility of total annihilation. The 1950s saw the strengthening of anti-war sentiment and the beginnings of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I would see the media coverage of the famous Aldermaston marches; we were also regularly reminded of the creation of the atom bomb. And we saw, again and again, images of the detonation of the megaton hydrogen bomb; the flash and the mushroom cloud; white-yellow then orange and grey – against a clear silver-blue sky…

As the years went by those images of the exploding nuclear bomb became almost commonplace and part of a spectacular iconography. It seems to me that a strange beauty had found itself attached to horror. So, when I saw those images I thought I was now watching something I called ‘Hiroshima roses.’

I started to look at the world about me in those terms – and every once in a while, when I found them, I took photographs of my ‘Hiroshima roses.’ The photograph above is just one example; it’s the kind of image that reminds me of the fragility of beauty and, ultimately,  of everything that we have created.

Post script: My colleague, P.V., responded to this post with the following observation:

‘We still live in the shadows of total annihilation, and with the strangely beautiful and haunting image of the nuclear explosion to daunt us. But we became used to it, didn’t we? And it no longer seems to threaten us, as it did – although the threat remains the same. Strange are the ways of human nature!’