Gillian Wearing

OCA students outside The Whitechapel Gallery for Gillian Wearing

The OCA blog of the day is here …

What follows is my blog which starts before the study day begins …

The OCA is due to visit the Whitechapel Gallery again after a week at the end of April to see the Gillian Wearing exhibition. I did hear a review of this exhibition on Radio 4 (Front Row in which her work interviewing people is discussed by Sarah Crompton ( Art editor for The Daily Telegraph. She mentions that Wearing won the Turner Prize (in 1997) and explores the masks people wear (no pun intended) often through video interviews as well as still photography. A large collection of Gillian Wearing’s work is in The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition; she deserves to be better known. She has compassion in wanting to see the world through other’s eyes. What is the mask, what is the real person? Wearing is a listener. Some of her work is hard to take such as that of mother abusing her daughter yet her work is also inspiring.

A short talk by the curator of the exhibition is available on YouTube; he sees the discrepancy between the public and the private as an important aspect of her work …

One review can be seen here; it is a fairly brief one from the Daily Telegraph by Alaister Smart who mentions her ability to penetrate and unravel the people she portrays; her work is transportive, the sign of art …

The OCA sends us a link to another interview with Gillian Wearing in The Guardian …

This interview sems to be more about her than her work and as a result, I do not find it very interesting – the artist becomes celebrity – it is her work I want to see and experience. She is clearly an artist who uses photography rather than a straight photographer. I do not relate very easily to her as a person but surely the subject of the exhibition is her work not her; will knowing about her help me to understand her work? The interviewer asks her about her parents, fishing it seems for some personal meaning to her work and accepts he is projecting.

The interviewer, Tim Adams, however does make an interesting point by saying that Gillian Wearing has a talent for drawing people out and enabling them to say or write things that are perhaps truthful; this seems to be her role as an artist rather than being a photographer.

A video of her work I find eerie yet this is probably my reaction to the music rather than her work …

another video, shows clips of her work and is quite amusing while also being interesting …

Receiving a copy of the monograph that accompanies the exhibition, I start to see what Gillian Wearing is about – playing with masks and a sense of identity is something other artists have done (one thinks of the American photographer Cindy Sherman who has been photographing herself in different guises for many years) yet Wearing still manages to make something new and different out of it.

Doris Krystof writes that Wearing’s work is about “communication as an act of (self-) realisation”.

One in the eye for Gareth - a rain drop had fallen from above!

                          One in the eye for Gareth Dent – he removes the falling water drop with a finger 

Her work does not seem easy to understand and so reading the essays at then beginning of the gallery guide in an attempt to gain some insight into what it is all about. The images are cleverly constructed and obviously require a lot of work to put together; for instance, the prosthetic masks for the series where GW plays the role of her immediate family members took a mask maker four months each to complete.

Personally, I am not sure I like the work and this might be because GW is probing, looking beyond the public self to a less well defined one. As she says, “what people project as the human mask they are is obviously is very different to what goes on inside. There is always a disparity and I am interested in that.” Dan Cameron writing in 2004 (Parkett, no. 70, page 100) notices the recurrent theme of awkwardness in her work, saying that it can “provoke a marked degree of discomfort in the viewer, by creating perspectives that produce in us a feeling of unexpected intimacy with her subjects.”

Daniel F. Herrman notes that Wearing’s work presents a “dramaturgic dissonance” between the public and the private space. I see something very seminal in her works since she uses “signs” and “masks”. She also appears to be playing with the fraught nature of photographic truth where faction and fiction are hard to identify.

As I approach the gallery, I find myself wondering that makes Gillian Wearing stand out as an artist. It has been mentioned that she presented a certain interpersonal reality before it became popularised on TV. Is her work the celebration of the beautiful woman she apparently is!?

She certainly has the hallmark of a great artist in that she presents her work in a way that looks simple. Her themes relate to the personality and we all have one of some kind; this makes her work quite universal and something that anyone can relate to.

GW succeeds in communicating her message.

GW explores sensitive issues that are relevant to all of us, whether we like it or not.

Herrmann suggests that GW is exploring her own identity and in doing so, asking us to explore our identity.

Gillian says she is not a photographer or a video artist; so what is she doing and where is she coming from? Finally, I have made it to the exhibition and meet up with other OCA students; now is the time to rally understand the work.

The first piece of work we see is a video installation of GW dancing in a Peckham shopping arcade …

This is the only chance we get to see GW the person without a mask although it is not easy to really see what she looks like: her movements are wild and spontaneous yet she does not look like the world’s greatest dancer. The fact she is dancing in the middle of a public place might attract undue attention yet the presence of a camera probably deters people from responding as they might have done.

Her work is about how we interact with the world!

Prelude is the first video installation we are advised to see. It shows grainy black and white footage of a woman talking; however, the voice we hear is that of her twin sister for Lindsey, the worm in the video, has since died. The entrance hall of the exhibition contains a number of booths with different videos.

our OCA group at the Gilian Wearing exhibition

At the end of the entrance hall is a self-portrait of Gillian Wearing; it is characteristically awkward revealing a face that seems expressionless and makes her look like some kind of spacewoman. She wears a green top.

One piece of work that strikes me is a recreation of a Durer painting showing a group of reeds in fine detail. As with much of her work, it is painstakingly reconstructed; being in a lightbox, the illumination is brilliant. It is only later that I find out that this is a video installation and that one can see ants moving up and down the stems of plants! This is a wonderful recreation not just a modern copy.

In the same room, are a large number of photographs of people holding up cards on which they have written their inner thoughts. These photographs are not well constructed (feet are often cut off) and GW admits she is certainly not a photographer (a photographer would pay much more attention to what is and what is not included in the frame). GW does not need to be a photographer to do what she is doing.

One OCA student, Keith Greenoulgh, now at Level 3, remarks with a laugh that in art photography, no one ever smiles! I can not help but agree with this observation; perhaps it is a reaction to the false smiles we often wear in our everyday lives.

Another room is full of large portrait photographs. I wonder how much GW has to do with the actual production of these prints; presumably she uses a lab to have them made. We are told that she uses a team to construct the prosthetic masks and no doubt the team make the photographs too.

As seems to be the vogue at present, the photographs have no captions but one can find them together on a sign to one side. I like this effect because it encourages us to view the photograph rather than treat it as a referent.

One image in this room strikes me in particular. It is a black and white print of a woman. The pose is very stylised and the woman holds a mask of Gillian Wearing that hangs down from one hand. Small hearts are painted on her face, the dark lips are perfectly pursed, the hair is carefully arranged. By chance, Helen, another OCA student, knows who the woman pictured is; her name was Claude Cahun, a lesbian French resistance worker during the war in the Channel Islands who got arrested by the Germans and was due to be put to death but was in the end spared. One wonders what draws Gillian Wearing to this particular person.

Goffman points out that there can be a difference between what one says and the kind of body language one is using, GW is reflecting this kind of two-faced behaviour not in a judgemental way rather with understanding.

Another video installation is called “2 into 1” and is about a mother and her two twin boys. The humorous aspect here is partly the the two twins boys who seems very mischievous and yet endearing but also the way that the mother speaks the boys voice while the boys speak with their mother’s voice; this is a device that Wearing uses in other video installations.

Seeing GW’s work in a gallery space is much more striking than seeing it between the pages of the exhibition catalogue. It starts to assume a worth of it’s own and one no longer needs to think about it so much, one can just enjoy it. new nuances of meaning are discovered.

10 to 16 is a series of videos revealing the experiences of teenagers spoken through the bodies of older people who lip-sync the teenagers words (GW’s standard device again).

10 is of a ten year old boy who has a tree house and likes to sit up there, reading; his words are mouthed by a late middle-aged man lying on a sofa.

11 is the voice of a truant boy who has attacked others and talks of killing someone one day; his words are spoken by a couple of women having a picnic in the park.

12 is the voice of a totally unphased boy who seems happy with life although he is concerned about the possible loss of the tiger; he speaks through a middle-aged woman.

13 is the voice of a boy who wants to kill his mother for being a lesbian; this is spoken through the body of a naked dwarf who first lies in a bath then sits on the edge and finally puts a towel around himself and closes the bathroom door. There is laughter in the room as the boy says how he plans to kill his mother by preparing a pea soup.

14 a boy says how he steals money not just from his mother but also people in the street; talks through the body of a man in jeans seated on a fence.

15 a boy talks about buses through the body of a black man at a bus stop.

16 a fat person talks about the experience of being obese through a late middle-aged man in a suit.

One of the tutor’s present, describes GW as a fine artist rather than a photographer. Her approach is conceptual with a lot of effort spent in communicating what she wants to say. She has found her own theme and sticks to it doggedly.

More innovative than Cindy Sherman who tends to repeat the same idea; GW is progressing.

Talks about the need to develop one’s own narrative approach. Align interests with what one is doing; narrative may develop as one works; a body of work can develop out of this. Alex Soth who did a book about the Mississipi did not plan to do such a book; it merely arose out of pictures he was taking for no particular reason.

Another video in the downstairs hall is of what appears to be a mother and a grown up daughter who is dressed only in pants and bra. At times, the mother and daughter seem very close but very now and then the mother starts pushing her daughter down to the floor; this seems to be about the sometimes tempestuous nature of intimacy and the way a parent can abuse it.

Another video is called Bully Boy and shows, in a staged act, the way bullying can take place; I come in half way through and get the impression that although not real, this is some kind of encounter group, in which the participants are playing out fantasies. This is very disturbing so I am relieved to learn that they are actually playing assigned roles that they have been asked to undertake. The act is to help someone who is watching and has been bullied in the past; he then shouts at the people who have been play acting the bullying to tell them how he feels. This does seem confrontational even though it is in jest. Reminds me of the encounter groups that used to take place in the 1970’s.

The day ends with some of us lunching together after which most leave; I decide to stay a little longer as there is still much to see.

The confessions are a series of videos that play in booths, not unlike in Catholic confessionals. Those talking wear masks so one can not see who they are although one can see their eyes moving.

There is the confession of a man who has had a violent background; he was sent to prison for killing someone who he met by chance. He now holds down a good job and is liked but suffers from deep depression. I can’t help but find myself questioning his attitude which is so confidently negative.

A woman talks of how she stabbed her husband in self-defence; he had been violent towards her many times and when the case eventually comes to court, she is acquitted. It takes her another 6 months to get her children back from the care they have been placed in. She is still coming to terms with what she is doing and racked with guilt although she never intended any harm and was acting in self defence.

A 57 year old man talks about still being a virgin.

Another man talks abut how he wants to have his penis surgically removed but does not want to have a sex change. Still wants to be a man – frankly, I find this somewhat amusing although it is obvious that the man feels isolated.

One of the last images I see is a huge, incredibly well made black and white photograph of a flower arrangement- it is called People (2011). The concept is Wearing’s but I suspect someone else did the flower arrangement and someone else made the photograph.

It is good to know that Gillian Wearing does not claim to be a photographer and is rather a fine artist artist who uses the photographic medium because I do not see the photographs she makes as real examples of photography. What might these be? A subject for another day perhaps.

On reflection, I wonder whether the Gillian Wearing exhibition succeeds as a whole and feel it suffers because it is a collection of different bodies of work, all of which need to be understood in their own way. For instance, just taking the time to watch and listen to the confessionals would have been enough; as it was, I only found time to listen to a few.

This exhibition was more about the artist, presenting different bodies of work to say what a great artist she is. Overall, there seems to be nothing to take away except a feeling of unease about the human psyche.

BLOGS from other students who also attended the day …

(considers the ethics behind what Wearing is doing).

Roger Ballen exhibition

Am due to see this exhibition and although it is only mid-April, have already started considering it.

There is the notification of the OCA study day with discussion …

There has also been an OCA report from “Marmalade” who attended a masterclass with Ballen …

I read the article about him in the BJP. It is quite revealing about Ballen as a photographer and what he is doing but surely no substitute for the exhibition in spite of some well reproduced photographs. He describes himself as someone who plummets the depths of the unconscious and brings out stuff to share with others.

I listen to a radio programme about Ballen who is an American photographer based in South Africa. It mentions the “shocking” images that came out of South Africa which were not necessarily documentary rather portraits from an area known as Platteland, an area of dirt poor white people; they included a strange photograph of two white twins, deformed and drooling. Ballen found them quite unique, transforming the situation of meeting them into a great photograph which many people look at and question. Why do they focus on that particular image? Ballen continues to work in black and white and has turned the camera inward in his latest series of photographs that focus on both animals and humans; it is called Animal Abstraction. Ballen does not see himself as socio-political rather psychological in his approach, obsessed with the human condition and the image. The photographs come from his mind and his stomach, his identity. Worked in isolation for a number of years before showing his work. Admits to being an obsessive photographer, obsessed with his own condition; photographs are a way he can find out about himself. All his photographs are portraits of himself.

A photograph is made up of thousands of pieces that need putting together; it is like a painting. Transforming the world around one internally to present an external vision of the world.

What is Animal Abstraction about. One has seen such images before since they are in one’s mind. Ballen does not try to figure out the meaning of his work; the images are about the realm of the senses, of the mind. He says he is trying to take a photograph of the inside of his mind; turn your eyeballs backward and what do you see?

Seeing a video he has made attracts me to the group performing it as well as the photographer; some of the dance moves are pretty incredible and one wonders how much was Ballen and how much the group …

The lyrics are violent but the imagery is quite striking; I find it a bit macabre and wonder whether I want to go and see this photographer’s work. Since Peter Haveland will be present, I think there will be a worthwhile discussion afterwards so I shall go.

Another comment which emphasises the need to focus on the work rather than the artist, a view that I like to endorse yet which is stated somewhat forcefully in this context, can be found here …

from here one can access Sean O”Hagan’s review in The Guardian

A fellow OCA student has been and his blog makes a good read; Stan is from the OCASA …

Some valid points are made in the OCA Flickr forum …

Anned writes, possibly a quote from elsewhere … “They’re all self portraits of the inside of his mind.”

John Umsworth qualifies this by saying …

“Mind you he says that we, as viewers, recognise his images because they are also portraits of our minds.”

Anned says … “I think that’s how all art works, I don’t think its mental though, more feelings, thoughts, ideas mixed all up together in a muddle, or maybe that’s just me.”

John replies … ” I saw his work in Manchester; at once compelling and yet repellant. His photographs aren’t muddled, they are very, very carefully constructed as inward views.”

Tutor Clive White quips in … “Well it doesn’t have to be about hidden demons it can be about hidden fairies too! Hahahaha!!”

The conversation then turns to considering the link between the camera shutter and the subconscious.

I decide to listen to another interview (

Here Ballen talks about finding his voice while photographing in South Africa and started going into people’s houses to photograph,discovering as he did, certain motifs such as cracks on walls, marks on walls, wires, stuffed animals, sheets and pillow cases as well as a certain kind of person that reflected the human condition (this work continued between 1985 to 2001). From this came the book Dorps then Platteland where Ballen focused on a group of whites who were suffering mentally. This was followed by Outland in which Ballen started to interact with his subjects, a significant development for he felt himself becoming an artist rather than just a photographer; pictures became a matter of essence rather than documentary content. In the morning Ballen works at administration and also his other job as geologist until midday when he turns to his photographic work. He does not pre-plan his images such as by making a drawing of what he is going to photograph or thinking about the image beforehand, does not see that photography works this way, it is more instantaneous. One can set things up but photography is about freezing time and time is always changing. Works with a troupe of people hence some faces reappear; more interested in the interior than the exterior. The general misunderstanding people have about photography is that it is merely an objective tool when it is also very subjective, the photographer responding in his/her own way. Ballen never studied photography studying instead psychology and geology as well as economics but he did come from a photographic background, knowing “great photographers”such as Cartier Bresson and Kertesz; looked and listened a lot. Once he started taking photos he was hooked. Did not sell photographs until he was about 50 after 30 and more years of plodding along. Self motivated and had another career for commerce. Never thought about an audience, more of a hobbyist. Only in the last 15 to 20years has photography become so popular as an art form. His success was surprising; his work proved controversial and he got death threats and this proved a shock to his system. Working as a geologist is about going beneath the surface and his photographic work aims to do the same, to penetrate beneath the veneer of everyday life. What about a sense of place in his work? For Ballen,this is incidental, it is about one’s interiority although as a photographer one still has to deal with the external world. He could do these photographs elsewhere yet his photographs do reflect the place he is in and are influenced by it. Ballen still uses flash; this is often used as a hard light to create a better depth of field and a more focused image. This kind of light reflects the violence of South Africa. We are violent and have suppressed that; wars still going on around the world. His work is a  metaphor of the human condition! Contemporary art reflects the alienation and loss of contact with the natural world; his work is about reconnecting us. I find myself accepting much of what Ballen is saying ;he makes some good points.

In an attempt to better understand the work of Roger Ballen, I acquire a book called “Roger Ballen: Photographs from 1969 to 2009” It has a couple of learned essays at the beginning.

Ballen has a background in photography since his mother was an early member of theMagnum Photo Agency while he knew Kertesz as a child. He did not however “make it” as a photographer in his native New York or America although he did become a photographer there, but moved to South Africa where he became a geologist enabling him to make enough money to support himself. It was also here that his photographic work flourished with images of the poor whites of South Africa, a class of people seldom considered by media as a whole since the exploitation of blacks by whites takes up much of the South African narrative.

There are two essays and both seem to be explaining Ballen to the reader. Do we really need an explanation of Ballen’s work!? I find it fairly straightforward since the images are quite powerful yet this does not mean I like it. If I understand it more then perhaps I will like it more.

Ulrich Pohlmann starts by putting Ballen into a nutshell. His work has gone through many transformations and he is now considered one of “the most unusual and exciting developments in contemporary photography.”

An exhibition of Stanley Kubrick’s photographs

STANLEY KUBRICK : still photographs from a film maker

Entrance to Stanley Kubrick exhibition

One wondered what the still photographs of a well known movie maker would be like. Were they being shown for their own merit or simply because they were the work of a leading film director. It is not easy to answer this question directly, the exhibition was probably financially viable because his name was big enough to bring in a large enough audience, yet Kubrick did start out as a still photographer and his excellently executed photographs are a good record of the New York of his time. However, I got the impression that the images were on show more for their content than their style of execution.

A film after all is nothing more than a succession of images and so if one can master the still photograph, one is surely well on the way to making good films.

I have perhaps seen only one of his films since I am not a film goer. This was one of his more controversial films called Clockwork Orange which is about extreme violence, sadistic in nature, violence for the sale of violence. Like most of Stanley Kubrick’s films, it is based on a novel, in this case Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess written in the late 1960’s.

Perhaps the most well known of his films is 2001: A Space Odyssey which was based on a book by Arthur C. Clarke and featured a good musical score; I have not seen more than a few minutes of it.

Stanley Kubrick was influenced by the work of other photographers of whom two are mentioned. The first is Weegee who wrote that “The art of the photographer is to show how, in a city of ten million inhabitants, people live in total solitude.” The other photographer to be mentioned is Walke Evans who wanted to make pictures with “content, authority and quality.”

The documentary photographs of New York are certainly interesting although one can be forgiven for not knowing who some of the characters are. Montgomery Clift may have been a great star of his time but who remembers him now? Yet Kubrick also documented the unknown such as a young boy who worked as a boot shiner and also as a deliverer of laundry. Another series of photos takes us into the world of the circus.

He used a portable handheld 5 by 4 camera to make images that rendered fine detail. Some of his photographs of people boxing such as that of two young boys hitting each other, are remarkable not just for their subject matter but also for their technical excellence.

One interesting feature of this exhibition is that the individual photographic prints have no captions; groups of photographs are however mentioned.

Other subjects illustrated include animals in a zoo.

Kubrick was fascinated by the act of looking as evident from his last film “Eyes Wide Shut”. This film  concerned with voyeurism drew inspiration from the Traumnovelle of Arthur Schnitzler.

Perhaps it his portraits that make Kubrick noteworthy as a photographer. He photographed the rich and famous among others; his debutantes of the 1950’s are on show yet we are not told the names of these people. It seems the viewer is being asked to appreciate the photographs for what they are in themselves while captions with names might have detracted from this experience. One photograph of a woman seated in the centre of the image with fruit around her and the presence of an attentive man of whose body we see barely half, sees her unpeeling a banana; the sexuality of the symbolism here is obvious but what statement is it making? Perhaps it is meant to be a joke!

Poet as Painter : a visit to the Magritte Museum

MUSEE MAGRITTE : a look at the art and thought of Rene Magritte

Finding myself in Bruxelles for a week-end, I decided to visit the museum set up in 2009 tthat shows the work of the artist Rene Magritte; on the whole, I am more interested in photography rather than painting but the approach of Magritte to his work is fascinating and does seem relevant to myself as a photographer. The photograph can be considered a surrealist object and it is no coincidence that Magritte was himself interested in photography.

As we approach the Musee Magritte, Palyang mentions that Magritte worked a lot with contrasts; I wonder what she means as Magritte was not from the Bauhaus school in which a series of “contrasts” played an important role. I also do not associate contrast with his work. She mentioned day and night as being one of the contrasts. Of course, one can not ignore the concept of contrast as so much art draws on this with the Bauhaus school recognising this fact. It is perhaps in the meanings of his images that Magritte plays with contrast.

It was not surprising to learn that photography was prevented in the museum but to be told that I was not even allowed to make notes was discomforting; the Magritte museum website also contains text that can not be copied and pasted unless one does a screen grab. Does this shock have any relation to the surprise that many of Magritte’s paintings evoke? I was trying to see positively.

An early inspiration of Magritte’s was Giorgio de Chirico who wrote a poem called The Song of Love; Magritte’s words on de Chirico are about “making a painting speak about something other than the painting itself.” In other words, the painting is an expression of a thought.

Magritte “realised that, ultimately, aesthetics are merely accessory to the artwork: the idea is the only thing that counts.” Quote from the museum website – Also “Art is first and foremost a way of knowing man and the world, and the painter has a role to play in revealing what the world is, or rather the mystery that it contains.”

Magritte - next to The Barbarian, London

It may not be correct to call Magritte a surrealist (he also experimented with Cubism and the naive) but it is undeniable that he was greatly influenced by the Surrealist group as a younger artist and writes of surrealism, “Surrealism is immediate knowledge of the real: the real is absolute, alien to all the different ways of interpreting it.”

Much of the material being shown by the museum is about the personal life of Magritte. There are many photographs of him with his friends and he seems to be detached from the moody torture driven artist who seems so popular in western art; Van Gogh who cut off his ear and eventually committed suicide is a classic example, Lucien Freud who got into physical fights with people on the street a later one perhaps.

Magritte was not just a highly skilled painter (perhaps only Dali and Ernst were his superiors in craftsmanship), he saw the painting in itself as a dead end; he was also a poet and expressed his insights through painting. This is where I find a bond with Magritte since the photograph can also be limiting and when one has finally reached a point where one can make a technically proficient photograph (this is not as simple as one might assume) one might find one reaches a point where one wants the photograph to say something more than it usually does. The idea that a photograph like a painting, can make a statement, gives the photograph much greater potential as an art object and possibly liberates it’s creator from the “tyranny” of the image.

At one time, Magritte included words within his paintings not as a way to affirm their subject rather as a way to question their meaning and one of Magritte’s most well known paintings is of a pipe beside which is written in childlike script, “This is not a pipe!” Magritte reminds us that what we see represented is not actually the object portrayed; a blindingly obvious statement but one we tend not to be fully aware of. Magritte is using text to “introduce doubt, to question the link, which he considered arbitrary, between the naming of a thing and the thing itself: between image and language” Quote from the Musee Magritte –

One can explore the “This is not a pipe!” painting of a pipe further in Michel Foucault’s essay “This is not a Pipe” written shortly after the death of Magritte in 1967 almost at the age of “three score and ten.” The understanding of this painting is surely relevant to the understanding of visual culture as a whole.

Some of Magritte’s sayings are written on the wall of the museum in both french and dutch but not english. This is rather disappointing as his thought is obviously an important part of his work and lost on the many like myself, who do not know French and Dutch well enough to grasp Magritte’s meaning. Again I am struck by the secretive nature of the museum; Magritte was apparently initially weary of the museum and not in a hurry to give them access to his archive so perhaps he could see his work might be appropriated. In the first year, the Museum had over half a million visitors and with most paying several euros each, the museum must have netted a large income. They are starting an online research centre for the museum so perhaps all the profit gleaned from preventing easy access to a posthumous Magritte will reap rewards that will benefit everyone.

As I see the exhibition, I get an idea for my own work, to explore Magritte further through making photographic representations of his work – perhaps I shall learn something worthwhile from this! Already, I am encouraged to make photographic representations of my own ideas.

Certainly, for me, this visit to see the work of an artist who although highly skilled still felt the painting to be limited, has been worthwhile because it has presented a way to go beyond the image to the realm of the poetic just as Magritte did. I have always admired his work and now I can see why.

After the exhibition, we visit the shop where Magritte’s work has been reproduced in endless different media from mouse mats to fridge magnets. The full museum guide costs Euro 40 which is rather costly. Another book which contains 400 of his paintings does not have a price on it; I note the details and the publisher and look it up on the net where it is unavailable from the publisher and costs over £300 from Amazon. I need to visit the museum the next day and decide to check on the price; it is only 10 euros which is a good price for such a book. Apparently the museum has bought up all the copies but does at least sell it for a reasonable price; I might even try selling my copy on Amazon at a much reduced price such as £100 to see if I can make a healthy profit.

Apart from the 400 images in the book, The Portable Magritte (published, contains an introductory essay by Robert Hughes. This contains a good description of the artist as “storyteller”; “Modern art was well supplied with myth-makers ..But it had few masters of the narrative impulse … Magritte was its chief fabulist. His images were stories first, formal paintings second, but the stories were not narratives … They were snapshots of the impossible, rendered in the dullest and most literal way, vignettes of language and reality locked in mutual cancellation. As a master of puzzle painting Magritte had no equal … ”

After describing some of Magritte’s paintings, Robert Hughes goes on to write about the deeper concerns of Magritte that “were with language itself, the way that meanings were frustrated by words or symbols.” The classic example of this was the pipe painting (described above) that was also presented as an apple.

In fact, one can say that “Magritte became one of the artists whose work became necessary to an understanding of modernist culture.”

Of the shock or surprise Magritte’s paintings often contain, Hughes writes “their trigger is thought itself!”

The Tagore Festival

For the second year, I attended the Rabrindranath Tagore Festival at Dartington in Devonshire. Rabrindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. An Indian by birth, he started a school in West Bengal and his teaching as well as his literature continues to be revered; in fact, he was the inspiration for Dartington School.

I only went for one day of the four day event. It started at 07.30a.m. with a concert on sitar and this event was better attended than the two talks that followed it.

Barthes and Eastern Philosophy

In his book “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes explores the nature of photography. He references many subjects and draws a little from eastern philosophy.

In chapter 2 of the book, he writes that “In order to designate reality, Buddha says sunya, the void; but better still: tathata, as Alan Watts has it, the fact of being this, of being thus, of being so; tat means that in Sanskrit and suggests the gesture of the child pointing his finger at something and saying: that, there it is, lo!

Anyone with an understanding of these concepts might question their significance in relation to the superficiality of the photograph; is it not a bit far fetched to cite the profundity of Buddha to demonstrate possible readings of the photograph?

Barthes is aware of this contradiction and that this pointing out of reality by the photograph is a limited one and can not be justly considered as being the same as that of a Buddha; Barthes writes …
“a photograph can not be transformed (spoken) philosophically, it is wholly ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless transparent envelope.”

So Barthes reference to eastern philosophy is conceptual rather than actual, he is just drawing on the symbolism of the Buddhist teaching rather than claiming the photograph has the potency of the Buddha. This is a quite common usage in modern English; for instance, the term “stockbroker guru” does not use the philosphical term guru with it’s true meaning of spiritual guide rather it is an ironic usage of the word guru.

Barthes again uses an eastern term Satori as the title for chapter 21 of Camera Lucida. Satori is a word that implies a sudden yet profound spiritual insight; a photograph can also have a dramatic effect on one (Barthes calls this the punctum), it may well be worth a thousand words possibly even more, yet it can not be equated with the term satori which is a deeper understanding of enlightenment not the acquisition of information supplied by a photograph.

In Chapter 21, Barthes also compares the photograph to a Haiku which comes from the tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism, being a short formal poem describing a moment of profound insight. Although, the photograph has a largely visual effect and the Haiku uses words, arguably both can be said to be potentially a cause for what Barthes calls the punctum to act.

In Western literature, eastern philosophical terms are often used superficially or simply ironically; Barthes appears to be using Eastern concepts of potentially limitless meaning to imply the limitations of the photograph as well as it’s universality.

Society of the Spectacle by Debord

This book describes The Society of the Spectacle as seen by Debord. The concept is quite easily understood but the interest in the book is the way Debord describes it.

The book is a series of passages, the first of which is the following …

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

I find myself questioning the words “all of life”; it surely can not be all of life since we see the world immediately around us as it is rather than “as an accumulation of spectacles” and life is surely what we are presented with rather than what we dream about in our heads. Perhaps the translation has exaggerated what Debord is saying; this discourse has lost my trust as a reader from the very beginning although it is still interesting.

Debord continues that as a result of this … “ the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds … ”

A significant piece is the fourth which says …
“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

This starts to define what is meant by The Society of the Spectacle and it is not what one might immediately assume.

While Debord offers an interesting explanation of his concept, there are statements which are not so easy to understand; for instance, section 9 he writes …
In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.

This statement follows logically from previous statements yet it requires a small leap of faith, one that I am not prepared to make at the beginning of his book. Debord has passed judgement on us all; does the book give us any chance of seeing through this mess we have created for ourselves? If not, it is going to be a very tough read indeed.

Debord is also considering The Society of the Spectacle from a political standpoint as well as a sociological one; I find it quite profound. In a way, Debord seems to be writing about the nous or universal mind that was once posited by the Greek philosophers yet as an externalised rather than an internalised phenomena. He comments on philosophy which he defines as ” the power of separate thought and the thought of separate power“(20) mentioning the “weaknesses of the Western philosophical project which undertook to comprehend activity in terms of the categories of seeing“(19)

One can read the whole book at …