Well, it ain’t over ‘til the proverbial — and stereotypically plus-sized — diva, binary or otherwise, puts down her lozenges to launch a final attack on the lorgnette-clutching, socially-distanced crowds. In as plain a variety of English as I can bring myself to adopt: we haven’t heard the last of COVID-19. Done as we might think we are with the pandemic the US President declared over, the virus continues to catch us unawares and mess with our lives.
It sure is messing with mine right now, in a number of ways. Almost immediately on arriving in New York City two weeks ago, I caught some resilient variant of the bug I had managed to steer clear of for so long. And it caught up with me despite all vaccinations and boosters, having taken advantage of the first opportunity to have my last antiviral top-up just two days before my departure.
This is my first return visit to my old Manhattan neighborhood in three years … but clearly things did not go at all as planned or hoped for. What makes matters worse is that I had intended to be of some use to an old friend and former domestic partner, who, just days prior to my arrival, suffered a massive heart attack and has been in intensive care ever since. Here I am, stuck in his apartment, just a 20-minute walk away from the hospital that is now off limits. No doubt, millions of New Yorkers felt like that during lockdown — when everything and everyone close by was suddenly out of reach.
Just what is a landscape? It is with this question that I open the undergraduate art history module Looking into Landscape, which I have been teaching at Aberystwyth University since 2016. In 2014, I leaped at the opportunity of trialling the module in China, where the history of art engaging with the natural and human-made environment spans many more centuries than it does in the West, and where it bears little resemblance to what Westerners tend to regard as “landscape” when referring to artistic practices rather than the outdoors. Landscape, that is, as a genre distinct from portraiture or still life.
But I am not lecturing. Actually, I am on research leave, which will take me back to New York – after a three-year absence from my old neighborhood and the favorite haunts that may well have become unrecognizable or ceased to exist in the interim – in preparation for my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism, about which I shall have – and have to have – more to say in subsequent posts as I ponder just what I have gotten myself into this time.
To some extent, Asphalt Expressionism – a belated follow-up to my 2018 exhibition Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies – is a response to the question “Just what is a landscape?” It aims to explore, in a series of photographs snapped with my phone camera, the terrain of Manhattan from the perspective of a walker looking down on the pavement rather than ahead, taking in the sights. It is an alternative approach, a looking away from what is privileged or deemed worth seeing. It is also an alternative to the tourist’s selfie, as my feet will stand in for my face in pictures that say “I was here.”
Unlike selfies, my photographs will not be shared first, let alone exclusively via social media, from the platforms and forums of which I have largely absented myself. Do these images belong in a gallery? Do they need to be printed and displayed to have a life, to find eyes and minds other than mine to serve other than dead ends?
Is the gallery the habitat for creative practices engaging with the act and art of living? I asked myself just that the other day when I went to Liverpool in order to experience – or, as it turned out, in hopes of experiencing – the exhibition Radical Landscapes. The show, at Tate Liverpool, invites audiences to consider many of the forms that responses to the environment can take and how those responses may be motivated, whether it is primarily to make a living or to fight for the survival of the planet.
The dissatisfaction I felt walking through Radical Landscapes – well worth the walk though it is – is not so much that it does define its territory so loosely. It is that it still insisted on calling all those responses “landscapes” and declaring them to be “radical.” “Radical Landscapes” is not an oxymoron – Peter Kennard’s Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) makes that plain – but it is certainly a misnomer.
Curators Darren Pih and Laura Bruni doprovide some indications of how the theme or subject of their project was delimited by throwing a few descriptors into the mix, via the exhibition’s subtitle: Art, Identity and Activism. Still, much of what is on show, from oils to soil, is not genre landscape. What is radical in the creative practice of adapting to our changing environment or adopting ways of making the future survivable is activism, which may or may not yield a physical by-product displayable in a gallery space. You cannot expect to be walking a line in, say, Peru – or any line that, through radical thinking and doing, has temporarily been withdrawn between art and life or between objects and objectives – by looking at line, color and form in a cube, white or otherwise.
There is evidence of radical engagement with land on the walls, mainly in the form of documentarian photographs. But those images only remind us how galleries, by educating us about what is or was out there, also distances us from those radical approaches. In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Helen Legg, Director of Tate Liverpool, makes the claim that the “gallery space for this exhibition has become inverted, with the outdoors brought inside: living sculptures, film, painting, photography and immersive installations transform the gallery into a new fertile terrain.” For the most part, this is not achieved. Radical Landscape is no New York Earth Room. You can smell the difference. Nor does it hand out shovels or seed.
Thoroughly researched and contextualised though it is, there is nothing curatorially radical about Radical Landscapes. While the large spaces and open plan display enable stimulating interventions and juxtaposition – such as seeing Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in the glass behind which other objects are mounted on the walls – it nonetheless rehearses what is part of the history it puts on view: the Enclosure Acts that, during the Industrial Revolution, did away with common land and restricts access to most of what remains of the British countryside. We can still see the countryside to which we have no access, but we can no longer experience it – unless we take radical action and trespass, invade, occupy or appropriate what has been taken from us so long ago that we are often no longer aware of that loss and the consequences of our detachment, the aftermath of which involves crises of identity and climate.
Similarly, Radical Landscapes takes from the field of creative practice – from the domain that the radical insist on being public – and parcels out what now can only be contemplated at a remove, not lived. “Developed,” as Legg reminds us, “in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when access to fresh air and green space took on special significance,” Radical Landscapes casts those venturing out to experience it as witnesses, not as participants. We end up looking at where life ends by ending up as art – at historical practices preoccupied with land whose future we are shaping by our actions and apathy alike.
Who was it that said “I shall do my very best to be of aid to anyone who has a problem, large or small”? If the title of this, the 824th entry into the broadcastellan journal did not give away the answer, it might have been anyone’s guess. And perhaps it still is, the black-and-white of legacy media notwithstanding. According to Photoplay – a publication leaving more room for doubt than any self-respecting sceptic would require – that Nightingalean sentiment emanated from the pen of none other than Claudette Colbert, a leading lady most widely known for her Academy Award-winning performance in It Happened One Night – a lady, no less, who gave anyone involved in making movies no end of problems by not letting a Hollywood studio lamp shine on the right side of her face, a cheek that came to be dubbed the dark side of the moon.
Dear me, I thought, when, quite by accident, I discovered that I my favorite film star lent her name to a “Dear Abby” column over a decade before the pseudonymous Abby started answering letters from all and sundry. Having written two letters to Ms. Colbert myself – albeit not until 1991, mind – I was anxious to find out just what advice was given in her name to alleged Photoplay readers whose last names were, as is both customary and convenient, reduced to initials.
“As all the pleasures of intellect arise from the association of ideas,” Richard Payne Knight reasoned in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), “the more the materials of association are multiplied, the more will the sphere of these pleasures be enlarged.” He argued that, to a
mind richly stored, almost every object of nature or art, that presents itself to the sense either excites fresh trains and combinations of ideas, or vivifies and strengthens those which existed before: so that recollection enhances enjoyment, and enjoyment brightens recollection.
While I am not convinced that the “association of ideas” always brings “pleasures” or ‘brightens recollection” – experiences that are not strictly a matter of “intellect” to begin with – I am so prone to raids on the store of memories, in varying states of neglect and disrepair, that any and all matter may turn up and, often unexpectedly, turn into reassembled “materials of association.”
Tracing the proverbial dots that speckle – or perhaps constitute – my mindscape, I invariably connect the tell-tale marks that, like splotches of blood, lead right to the heart of what is the matter with me, and, without any recourse to science, make themselves felt to match my DNA. I am dotty that way.
Call it egocentrism, call it empathy, such provoked but uncalled-for recall can lead to discoveries decidedly beyond “enjoyment.” The compulsion to relate – to find associations relevant and revelatory rather than beside whatever the point of anything may be, according to some – keeps driving home that the past, however processed or pasteurized, like spilled milk made longer-lasting to be cried over anew – keeps repeating on us. Hold our tongue as we may, we can still taste it. I am tasting it now.
“A thing can sometimes be too extraordinary to be remembered.” With that intriguing overthrow of conventional wisdom opens “The Fad of the Fisherman,” a short story by G. K. Chesterton, first published in 1921. “If it is clean out of the course of things,” Chesterton expounds, “and has apparently no causes and no consequences, subsequent events do not recall it; and it remains only a subconscious thing, to be stirred by some accident long after. It drifts apart like a forgotten dream….”
In light of the extraordinary and memorable events unfolding over the last few days like a crumpled serviette disclosing the spat-out remains of a prolonged Partygate feast – the rules-breaking incident that contributed to the eventual if only reluctantly heeded call for the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the notion that something might be “too extraordinary to be remembered” does not quite ring true. So much in politics these days is head-scratchingly, gut-churningly out of the ordinary, the Trump Presidency and its aftermath being a prime example. And yet, the violation of established codes of conduct have become so flagrant and frequent that we, or some – or, I suspect, many – of us no longer recognize them to be unprecedented, unethical or unconstitutional.
It now takes greater effort to remember, if ever we knew, what once were assumed to be formal matters of procedure and protocol. And we struggle as well to connect the tell-tale dots that, if they were examined closely – like some seemingly random Rorschach blots – and in relation to each other, might enable us not only to arrive at the “causes” – the egoistic and downright egomaniacal roots – of socio-political developments but also to realize the “consequences” of our inattention to pattern-forming details whose neglect profoundly compromises our ability to draw meaningful inferences from the reality of facts and fictions with which we are confronted: the erosion of trust in political figures who, instead of serving their country, help themselves and cling to power as if they were absolute monarchs. How reassuring, then, are the ratiocinations that bring many a murder mystery to its logical if not always satisfactory conclusion.
It is the conclusion rather than the opening lines of Chesterton’s story – a story involving the unlawful actions of a Prime Minister – that brought to mind the astonishment with which I first reached it – a solution that I, appropriating shelved products of popular culture rather than reviewing them, am under no compulsion to withhold. The by me highly anticipated conclusion to Mr. Johnson’s sorry and increasingly sordid Downing Street saga, meanwhile, remains unknown while I am writing this, the 822nd entry in my journal. I might as well say it flat out: the Prime Minister in Chesterton’s story is a murderer who gets away with his crime.
There is a lot of talk these days about ‘toxic masculinity.’ Making a strong case for the correlation of venom and virility, war criminal Vladimir Putin recently mocked the physique of world leaders who, by rolling their eyes at his shirtless posing, permitted themselves a moment of levity at his expense amid a crisis talk on Ukraine. Meanwhile, COVID-19-rules violating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a noxious cocktail of mendacity and indiscretion, opined that, had Putin been born female, the invasion of Ukraine would not have happened. Seriously, would the US Supreme court have decided differently on undoing environmental protection if more earth mothers were among the judges?
I thought the claim that toxicity is masculine had been conclusively laid to rest by Lucretia Borgia – or by Margaret Thatcher, at the very latest. That the flip side of our fancies is still deemed to be “another man’s poison” makes me long for gender fluidity, itself a noisome notion to some. Apart from lamenting the bane of binaries, I have nothing further to say here about exposed torsos or the merits of any remarks made by a disreputable Prime Minister. And yet, there is no escaping the everyday – not even in the attempt to retreat into the presumably out-of-date, of pop past its sell-by date, for the sampling of which this journal was conceived.
What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.
It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing. It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.
Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes. Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look. I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!
The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year. This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person. It is the image of a mask that is already a persona. In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.
“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads. It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago. The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966). And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.
Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired. That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales. This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity. At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.
Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?
Bitch. Moan. Whine. I certainly do a lot of that. Always have. The complaining probably started around the time my mother first pulled away her nipple. These days, though, there just seems to be more to “bitch, moan and whine” about; from the cumulative fallout of the unending pandemic, the new normal of war in Europe and the aftermath of Brexit and the Trump presidency to the burnout and sense of deflation I experience in my line of work as a newly promoted ‘Senior Lecturer’ whose recent and long-fought-for £8 a week pay increase feels more like a slap in the face than a patronising pat on the back for services rendered, albeit not without bitching.
Quit whining about that last one, you might well say; indeed, I try to remind myself that it is nothing compared to what others are suffering, possibly of necessity in the silence that does not necessarily translate into acquiescence. Seeing things in proportion – which is proper, according to some – or putting them into the perspective that, by definition, depends on your angle, tends to be more difficult when you feel ever more keenly that everything is related rather than being relative by default. When you are living in that fragile ecosystem of despair that some might deride as egocentricity, anything is apt to become everything, and it can weigh you down something awful.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.” That is hardly a comprehensive, let alone compassionate, assessment of the voicing of dissatisfaction by your contemporaries, however motivated. It is a derision and dismissal of criticism as selfish, pointless and downright destructive. As the quotation marks indicate, that does not reflect my general views on disaffection.
In fact, those words – “Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine” – were uttered in the 1980s by Clarence Thomas, now a US Supreme Court Justice. And they were voiced not in response to finicky folks rolling their eyes at just about anything – the kind of ‘why me’ injustices of our everyday – but to civil rights leaders who, in their rejection of the status quo, aim to address actual, momentous and seemingly insoluble inequalities.
The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.
McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.
This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.
Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.
McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.
Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.
The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.
Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.
Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).