May 15, 2013
In one of my favorite stories by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd,” the narrator impulsively singles out an elderly gentleman and determines to follow him wherever he goes (sounds like the premise for an art piece by Sophie Calle, doesn’t it?). For most of the next two days and two nights, the old man leads the narrator on an erratic, exhausting excursion through the city of London, taking a meandering path through the high and low neighborhoods of London with no apparent pattern or goal. The way in which Poe’s narrator allows an arbitrary character to determine his path through the city can probably be seen as a precursor of the Situationists and their determination to impose similarly arbitrary ways of negotiating urban spaces in what has come to be called psychogeography. For me, Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (2004) is something of a classic in this genre. Sinclair follows the highway that encircles London regardless of where it takes him, creating a travelogue of forgotten urban corners and what Rem Koolhaas calls “junkspace.” I’ve just finished two brief, quirky books that take this tradition into slightly new directions. Both of these books parse modern urban spaces through elliptical narratives that are an unlikely combination of keen observation, untethered imagination, insider’s knowledge, esoteric erudition, and photographs.
Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12 (London: CB Editions, 2011) employs an encyclopedia of micro-entries to convey the range of urban life found in the W12 postal code, an arbitrary zone laid over an historic area of London that includes Shepherd’s Bush and Wormwood Scrubs. Using a comical system of alphabetically-ordered hyper-brief entries beginning with “ABC,” “A&E,” “Allotment” and ending with “Yawn,” “Yoga Advertisement,” and “Z,” Robinson gives an insider’a view of his neighborhood. Each entry is accompanied by a tiny, well-composed photograph, reinforcing a kind of modesty on the whole project. In both the texts and the dead-pan images (presumably by the author) Robinson remains a calm and bemused observer, unruffled by the urban dilemmas that plague him and his neighbors, casting a forgiving eye on all the flaws and shortcomings of his neighborhood and his fellow residents. He’s also prone to dropping references to literary figures like Coleridge, Dickens, Dinesen, Durrell, Eliot, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others (check out the handy index to see all of the heady “topics” addressed in Days and Nights in W12). But lest we take all of this too seriously, Robinson warns us at the outset that he can’t vouch for all the tales that that are included. “Do you need evidence before you decide” what to believe or not believe, he asks? One day, when the taxi in which he is riding blows a tire on the way to Heathrow airport, he and his Somali driver “sit for a while in silence, smoking [while] gazelle and hartebeest come down the the water to drink.”
It seems to be something of an open secret in Great Britain that Jack Robinson is a pseudonym for Charles Boyle, the publisher of CB editions. Days and Nights in W12 is an expanded version of an earlier 2009 book by “Robinson” called Recessional, part of which may be seen here. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a copy of the earlier title for sale anywhere on this planet.
Erik Anderson takes a different approach to the urban environment by literally inscribing letters on the map of Denver as he takes eight carefully orchestrated walks that spell out the letters P A S T O R A L in his recent book The Poetics of Trespass (Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). As Anderson moves methodically through Denver, following paths that will trace the shape of each letter on the streets and open spaces of the city, the temporal part of the walk is dedicated to meditating, questioning, and stirring together dissimilar disciplines – like poetics and urban planning – in a kind of mental trespass. “The city, like the poem, consists of a tension: how we move in it and how it moves in us.” Anderson is interested in the problem of words and the interplay between words and sound and meaning.
I carved a large “P” into a medium-sized American city today. It was an attempt to inscribe language into a non-linguistic space, one in which, due to the billboards, liquor stores, gas stations and theater, temples, churches and restaurants, strip clubs, bus stops, and the Planned Parenthood office, any possibility of tracing a curve with one’s steps has been rigorous and systematically thwarted.
Like Robinson, Anderson also places small, self-made photographs throughout his text. His images feel less like documents than questions. The most interesting ones deal with the spatial puzzlement that arises in unplanned urban spaces and the odd juxtaposition of urban architectures. I’m not doing Anderson’s richly allusive and elusive book justice with this brief post, but there is an excerpt online, which includes several of the photographs (although the photographs in the book are reproduced in black-and-white). Tacked on after the end of the essay “The Poetics of Trespass” is another shorter essay called “The Neighbor,” on Wong Kar-Wai’s visually stunning film In the Mood for Love (2001). Here, Anderson plays with themes such as displacement, loss, and the nature of film.
April 1, 2013
New Directions is starting up a new Poetry Pamphlet series and, curiously, two of the first four employ photographs. Bernadette Mayer’s Helens of Troy, NY contains a series of photographs of women accompanied by poems that, to some extent, serve as written portraits. Although there is no statement about either the poems or the photographs, the implication is that each of these woman is named Helen who lives in Troy, New York. There is no attribution to the informal photographs, so one is left with the assumption that they were made by the author. The book concludes with a poem “A History of Troy, NY (in homage to Ed Sanders, Patti Smith& Howard Zinn).”
Mayer’s book reminded me of the classic (and now rather hard to find) self-published artist’s book by Mike Mandel called seven never before published portraits of Edward Weston (1974), which contained portraits of seven men who shared the name of the famous American photographer. Instead of poems, however, Mandel had each Edward Weston complete a questionnaire:
Susan Howe’s book Sorting Facts: or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, is an extended poetic “essay” on two films by Chris Marker – Sans Soleil and La Jetée. Although Marker has title billing in her piece, Howe spends at least as much space on the Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov (1896-1854) and Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986). Her essay/poem, with its reference to Wallace Stevens’ 1917 poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” deals with “the primacy of the ‘factual’” in poetry and film and includes a number of stills from films by all three.
I work in the poetic documentary form, but I didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.
Howe takes aspects of the traditional academic essay and willfully bends them into her own poetic form. And then she blends in elements of her own autobiography – descriptions of going to movie theaters as a child or reminiscences of her deceased husband. Passages that read like film theory are followed by passages of dense poetic shorthand. The result is that Nineteen Ways is neither classic analysis nor essay but a series of oblique glances, some quick like a snapshot and others deeply penetrating.
Yesterday words could come between the distance. Frame light, for example. All living draw near. Knowing no data no something then something. No never and no opposite occident orient. Film with jumps and quick cuts. Dissolves and slide effects. Real chalk. Burnt-out ruins. Without weariness. Without our working conditions. When our forces hadn’t been thrown.
February 1, 2013
I had just finished making my way slowly more or less chronologically through the galleries of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and medieval European art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City when I turned a corner into a tiny gallery that appeared to be an exact recreation of someone’s study. Judging by the evidence, the time was more or less a century ago and the occupant had clearly been a world traveler, an obsessive collector, and something of an eccentric. The clock in the corner was ticking and it appeared that someone had only moments before slid the chair back from the desk with its ancient typewriter and had walked out into the museum. The introductory panel told me I was looking at “The Magnificent Collection of Gilbert G. Hargrove.”
This installation showcases the collection of Gilbert G. Hargrove and the Hargrove family. Gilbert was born in the sleepy town of Pike Pepper, Ohio in 1870. From an early age, Gilbert was an avid reader, spending hours at the local library pouring over books on history, geography, anthropology and art.
At the age of 16, he left home in search of adventure. His travels led him to Kansas City where he landed a job writing obituaries for The Kansas City Times. Suffering from a chronic case of wanderlust, he soon grew restless and headed west. He traveled as far as San Francisco, fell in love and married the daughter of a Chinese railroad worker. Several months later, the newlyweds moved to Shanghai, getting caught in the Boxer Rebellion. He continued his travels becoming a renowned explorer and adventurer.
Eventually, Hargrove returned to Kansas City where one afternoon a mysterious, bespectacled gentleman appeared on his doorstep, informing him of his family’s long-lost collection of art and antiquities dating back to the early 1800s. Soon thereafter, Gilbert met a tragic end when he was run over by a streetcar.
In this installation, we have re-created the den of the curious, nomadic Mr. Hargrove and showcased his own, as well as his ancestors’ and descendants’, eclectic collection.
But as I squinted down to the bottom of the panel I saw some small print in italics.
Gilbert G. Hargrove, his story, and his family are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. The objects in this installation are taken from the collections of Scott Hefley and the Nelson-Atkins.
Needless to say, the exhibition was immense fun. The organizer(s) had been given an all-access pass to cut across the departmental boundaries of the great museum (boundaries that traditionally were inhospitable to cross), and they had been allowed to pick and chose the whimsical, the curious and the truly bizarre and, furthermore, to juxtapose them with utter disregard for chronology, geography, or any other known methodology for subdividing human knowledge. It’s hard to know what the typical museum-goer might think upon wandering into a room essentially devoid of labels, explanations, or certainty of any kind. People don’t normally go to museums in search of ambiguity; they expect to be told artist’s names, dates, schools, isms, and other snippets of presumed truth. But welcome to the new museum, where the aim is often to generate questions rather than answers.
The Hargrove exhibition is accompanied by a small 44-page “family history”, called The Hargrove Family History, written by “Tara Hargrove.” (It’s actually the work of Tara Varney and Bryan Colley, who are both Kansas City playwrights, among other creative endeavors.) The book is a lighthearted spoof on the stereotype of the eccentric collector, beginning with Perry Hargrove, born, rather suspiciously, on July 4, 1776, and whose collection included “such rarities as George Washington’s wig, John Adams’ spade, or his prized possession, the quill pen used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.” Later generations of the family include Mortimer, a janitor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his son Patrick, who forged Impressionist paintings, ending with his grandson, Roger, a Berkeley campus radical and drug addict who thought of museums as places “where art goes to die.”
Increasingly, museums are rediscovering the usefulness of their quirky origins as cabinets of curiosities. In fact, another wonderfully-selected exhibition currently at the Nelson-Atkins is entitled “Cabinet of Curiosities: Photography & Specimens”). My guess is this trend got a bit of a push from the 1988 founding of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, surely one of oddest collection of curiosities in the world. The MJT has a habit of taking all manner of ridiculous things very seriously and, in doing so, converting the overly-serious occasion of a museum visit into an outing that is comedic, theatrical, and provocative. When the work of artists and curators makes reference to the cabinet of curiosities it is usually calling several notions into play; it’s a strategy that temporarily erases the distinctions between art and kitsch and utilitarian objects and that invokes a lost sense of awe and wonder as visitors encounter objects. Few gestures could be more antithetical to the longstanding image of museums than to throw out criteria such as authenticity and aesthetic judgment, but seems to be one way to encourage looking for its own sake.
The Hargrove Family History is cousin to books like William Boyd’s hoax biography from 1998 of the non-existent abstract expressionist painter Nat Tate, An American Artist: 1928-1960 and Leanne Shapton’s 2009 book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, which purports to tell the story of a failed marriage through the items sent to auction after the divorce. A PDF version of The Hargrove Family History can be downloaded for free from the special website created for the exhibition. The fictional family biography contains a number of uncredited portrait photographs, most of which appear to have either been manipulated or posed, along with photographs of various objects attributed to the family collection.
This is actually the second time in recent months I’ve encountered an exhibition of genuine (or mostly genuine) objects built around the concept of fictitious collectors. Last fall, the London organization Artangel organized the exhibition “Nowhere Less Now,” in which artist Lindsay Seers accumulated a fantastic number of objects into an old sea cadets home in London called the Tin Tabernacle. Every visitor to the exhibition was given a book by the same name, which is a marvelous, heavily illustrated fictional text about memory, codes, shipping, and much more, includes many photographs from private collections and public archives. A digital version can be downloaded for free (iPads only) here.
January 7, 2013
Here is my list of works of fiction and poetry published in 2012 containing embedded photographs. You can see all of my previous lists here. I’ve updated a number of the annual lists recently, usually thanks to readers who point me in the direction of books I’ve overlooked. If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. [Updated January 11, 2013.]
Drndić, Daša. Trieste. London: Maclehose Press. English translation Ellen Elias-Bursać. First published in Croatian in 2007. Contains numerous unattributed photographs.
Hunt, Laird. Kind One. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press. Contains six uncredited photographs. See my review of this powerful novel here.
Kirin, Miroslav. Iskopano. Zagreb: Vukovic & Runjic. Essays, poems and short stories arising from the discovery of family photographs that were excavated upon returning to a home after years of forced exile. The numerous photographs were naturally distorted and chemically altered by their burial in a dunghill. In Croatian.
Kluge, Alexander and Gerhard Richter. December: 39 Stories 39 Pictures. London: Seagull. English-language translation by Martin Chalmers. Originally published in German in 2010. Contains thirty-nine photographs of winter forest scenes by Richter and thirty-nine short pieces by Kluge.
Meno, Joe. Office Girl. NY: Akashic Books. Contains photographs credited to Todd Baxter.
Otto, Whitney. Eight Girls Taking Pictures. NY: Scribner. Contains eight photographs by various female photographers, including Imogen Cunningham, Grete Stern, Ruth Orkin, Camile Solyagua, et., with each photograph serving as the inspiration for a short story.
(Seers, Lindsay) and Ole Hagen. Nowhere Less Now. London: Artangel. This book was given to everyone who attended Nowhere Less Now, a film installation conceived by artist Lindsay Seers and held in London at the Tin Tabernacle from September 8 through October 21, 2012. The book, which is a marvelous fictional text about memory, codes, shipping, and much more, includes many photographs from private collections and public archives. A digital version can be downloaded for free (iPads only) here.
Spivak, John L. Hard Times on a Southern Chain Gang. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. This edition includes a facsimile reprint of Spivak’s novel Georgia Nigger, originally published in 1932, and a new introduction by David A. Davis. John Spivak (1897-1981) was a left-leaning journalist who used his first-hand research to create a fictionalized account that exposed the terrible condition of Georgia’s prison system and chain gangs and the cruel treatment of African American prisoners eight years ago. The novel contained a photographic frontispiece. In addition,Spivak felt compelled to add an appendix because, as he put it in his Postscript to the book, “the scenes described are so utterly incredible that I feel an appendix of pictures and documents are necessary in this particular work. The pictures I took personally …” To my knowledge, this was the first work of fiction published in the United States to include photographs. Needless to say, copies of the 1932 edition are exceedingly hard to find these days.
Stoner, Jess. I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. Ann Arbor: Short Flight/Long Drive Books. Numerous illustrations, many altered, some photographic.
Wilson, James. All the Colours Fade. Miami: Neverland Publishing. Prose poems inspired by the band the Stone Roses, illustrated with forty photographs.
November 30, 2012
Shove your hands in your pockets and set out. In London in winter it’s nearly pitch at half-past-four. By six, you’re in the night city, and in backstreets you can be alone for a long time.
A reader of Vertigo recently suggested that I might want to get my hands on a copy of China Miéville’s new book called London’s Overthrow, so I ordered a copy without giving it much thought. I’m glad I did. London’s Overthrow turns out to be a slim paperback from the newly formed Westbourne Press, but it shoehorns many things into a small package. Miéville’s essay is an anti-corporate and anti-government polemic, a brutal autopsy on Britain’s body politic, an activist’s commentary on the recent London riots and that city’s version of the Occupy movement, and a brick through the plate-glass window of modern urban planning. But it’s also a bit of a love letter to a dying version of London. Much like his fellow writer Iain Sinclair (who makes a guest appearance in London’s Overthrow, leading “a morose sewage pilgrimage” through the underbelly of some of London’s more rundown sections), Miéville rues the way in which “the neurotically planned and policed” London is rapidly erasing the sprawling, messy, organic city that took centuries of shifting human interactions to evolve.
Miéville’s essay originally appeared in March 2012 in the New York Times, where it was rather tamely titled “Oh, London, You Drama Queen” (a title presumably provided by the Times). Miéville’s writing was intended to be a counterpunch to the official, optimistic boosterism of pre-Olympic London, but the essay was unfortunately paired with a rather slick color photoessay by a professional photojournalist. The photographs, through no fault of the photographer, struck entirely the wrong note and served only to undermine the rawness of Miéville’s message.
Phase Two of London’s Overthrow was a website of the same name (it’s still up), where a revised version of the essay was smartly joined by photographs considerably more in keeping with Miéville’s noir pessimism. Miéville, who has a PhD in International Relations, is best known as a writer of fantasy fiction, and in London’s Overthrow, he writes with a liberating, non-academic, emotional, but nevertheless precise voice. He great at coining verbal mashups that deftly describe contemporary life. When protesters interrupt the Mayor of London by loudly proclaiming their love for him, Miéville pulls the term “crush-heckle” out of his hat. Any book that uses words and phrases include “soulectomy,” “sado-monetarism,” “pedestrian brandscape” (for a street of indistinguishable brand-name stores) has got to be a fun read – and London’s Overthrow doesn’t disappoint. My favorite is his definition of parkour as “a tough ruin ballet.” Here, language is a kind of dagger, lunging in one direction and pulling back, then lunging in another direction.
What so interests me about London’s Overthrow, though, is the photography. This book quietly echoes Robert Frank’s 1958 book of photographs The Americans in the way in which it uses a fresh, subjective aesthetic to serve as cultural criticism and, I would argue, a kind of ethical stance. In the absence of any photo credit, I can only assume that Miéville himself is the author of the photographs. But regardless of source, these photographs match his essay tone for tone. They are often badly lit, hastily composed, blurry images filled with bleeding colors and impenetrable shadows. They speak of our experience of things, not of things in and of themselves. In these photographs, light becomes gestural and the city can’t seem to sit still – even for a hundredth of a second. The way in which Miéville’s photographs describe the world – or, more accurately, fail to describe and catalog the world in full and utter detail – suggests that the highest authenticity is located within his gut reaction. This is documentary photography as polemic, an imagery born of new technologies that, ironically, make it possible to turn back the clock in terms of the history of image-making. As Miéville says near the start of London’s Overthrow:
There’s been a revolution in remembrance. Digital photography’s democratised the night-shoot. One touch at the end of a sleepy phone call on your way home, you can freeze the halo from streetlamps, the occluded moon, night buses, cocoons shaking through brick cuts, past all-night shops. Right there in your pocket, a little memory of now.
But wait, there’s more! In August, along came iteration three of London’s Overthrow, and it’s the best version of the lot. It’s a small softcover publication on paper that is just a step up from newsprint. It suggests the production values of a religious or political tract, which it is. The reproduction quality is wonderfully downmarket and suitably degraded from the luscious saturation and sheen of their bright, glowing cousins on the web version as viewed on a monitor. The photographs now have a slightly bleached-out look that feels completely right for Miéville’s “diagnostic snapshots.” As we see daily, the cellphone camera is the new weapon of choice. In the Westbourne Press version, the text and the photographs are totally in synch, offering an alternative vision more aligned with the “CGI end-times porn”that Miéville sees all around. And unlike the website, the book ends with a new photo-coda, a a final, new sequence of five pale, almost mono-colored, indistinct images that sends the reader off wordlessly on an indefinable journey. This is a book you can jam into your pocket as you head out into the night.
The book’s title, by the way, comes from an eponymous pen and ink drawing by Jonathan Martin, the brother of the British artist John Martin. “In 1829, obeying the Godly edict he could hear clearly, Jonathan set York Minster alight and watched it burn” and spent the rest of his life in Bedlam, London’s hospital for the insane.