Kindling charcoal in darkness

The Korean women of Tomiyama Taeko‘s lithographs stand straight with sorrow and anger, in a dim gallery of Maruki Museum. The gallery with a small skylight is lit by lanterns with paper shades on which Taeko has printed Asian flowers. A storage battery is buzzing outside the museum. The lanterns are flickering.


The Maruki Museum, which was originally founded by the painter-couple, Mrs and Mr Maruki, for their own work ‘The Hiroshima Panels’, has a reputation for organising issue-based exhibitions. Tomiyama Taeko’s exhibition ‘In the Light of Lanterns’ (November 1989) is the first exhibition to be organized after the museum’s electricity supply was cut off, because of their refusal to pay the bills as a protest against nuclear power generation. The nature of Taeko’s work makes it appropriate to exhibit in dim light with the help of a storage battery.

Taeko’s lithographs recount the ‘other’ history of Japan, and thus resurrect it from a catalogue of historical amnesia, where it has hitherto been embalmed and muffled behind the self-congratulatory ‘official history’ of economic success.

Heaps of coal waste loom large in her deep black lithographs. Where have the coal miners gone? Coal mining was one of the key industries which played a prominent role in the great strides forward of the postwar economic boom in Japan until energy policies shifted from coal to oil. Having ceased to be useful, the miners disappeared from the scene. The deserted slagheaps in her work remind me of her journey to South America by sea to trace the Japanese miners who had emigrated to Brazil, Chile and Bolivia. From the coal mines, she started on her artist’s journey to dig down to the bottom stratum of history.

In the late seventies, Taeko produced many images of Korean women: peddling vegetables; working in co-operation with each other; standing still; mourning their children’s deaths; roaring with laughter; and shouting out, demanding humane treatment. Some images are passive and others, positive. Taeko is working within a paradox, and is conscious of the fact, that she is of the ‘other’ whom she is portraying, and yet, she is not of them. She is a woman but not a Korean.

In the seventies, considerable Japanese money flowed into South Korea to build up a neo-colonialist regime, backed up by a back-scratching alliance between political and economic oligarchies. Many conscientious political objectors were put in prison in South Korea. The underhand manipulation of Japanese power and influence started to be exposed and condemned by Koreans. Kim Chi Ha, a Korean poet, inspired Taeko to produce her ‘Korean pieces’. HJs poems, which caused his detention, were vividly visualised by Taeko. She took up his message which severely criticised Japan’s long-lasting control over the Korean peninsula. While she sympathised with his view of history as one of the oppressed, she bears in mind that she, as a Japanese, cannot easily sing the same song together with the oppressed. Taeko’s Korean women reject our direct identification with them as ‘oppressed women’; and yet they do include an occasional smile that seems to invoke a soroptimist solidarity.

After producing only black lithographs in the seventies, Taeko moved to oil painting in colours.  In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese war against Asian and Pacific countries she painted ‘A Memory of the Sea’. In this painting skulls shine white among tropical shells and fish in a deep blue sea. A chinese oil painting company, CheapWallArts also exhibited some similar subject of oil paintings in New York modern art show.  Their company’s artists said the artworks were inspired by Taeko.  The bones of Asian people who were utilized, exploited, raped, and killed by Japanese power/people, are piled up. Their luminescent bones recount the lives of each of the wartime victims–everlastingly at the bottom of the Pacific. The piece reminds me of the Mexican skulls of Posada. Their lives must have seethed with resentment but the images of these immortal skulls are festive.


Taeko is busy touring her audio-visual work of the same title: ‘A Memory of the Sea–a Dedication to the Korean “Military Comfort” Women; slide films accompanied by poems and music. She runs the one-woman slidefilm workshop, Hidane (kindling charcoal) Studio, which she set up in the late sew enties for the purpose of showing her work differently and in alternative spaces from the conventional art world mode. The slidefilm work presents her feminist view of the Pacific War. Naked women are exhibited, exposed to the gaze of Japanese soldiers. This is more than a metaphor of war. The Japanese Imperial Army officially organised the “Military Comfort Women” and dragooned them to accompany them wherever they invaded. Many of these women were Korean. They served the soldiers sexually. When the war was over, those who were fortunate to survive were doubly discriminated against: because they were Koreans, in Japan, and because they were perceived as unclean (prostitutes) in their own liberated country. Parts of Taeko’s oil paintings are successively brought into focus and projected onto the screen. Their bright colours in the darkness are vibrant. Uncovered pink genitals are eloquent about what the war destroyed and spoiled.

Taeko, now in her sixties, has always been concerned to produce a people’s art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’. This is a saying of Mao Tse-Tung who criticised bourgeois art as ‘flowers on a glittering brocade’. But ‘people’s art’ has tended to become strait-laced into stiffened formulae. Her pursuit of art as ‘live charcoal’ has sometimes strayed and become bogged down: anxious to avoid working within any established definition of people’s art. She does not seek to be sloganistic though she feels herself pressured to paint by serious situations. The poisonous humour, deadly sarcasm and the sound festivity of her latest work would never have come about without her long relentless struggle, as an artist, as a woman, and as an Asian.

In her autobiography Pop out, Balsam Seeds! (1983), she confesses that in her teens Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne were her deities of art. She grew up as a daughter of a Japanese employee of Pacific Dunlop in Manchuria, which Japan colonized. Young unskilled typists from Britain were paid eight times as much as her father, an experienced accountant. Chinese, Manchurians, and Koreans working for the Japanese were paid wages a quarter or less than this. Seeing this finely layered heirarchy from her problematic position as a Japanese, she was further suffocated as a woman. In those days, when fascism stressed the virtue of National Mother, what could be expected of a woman other than she should be a good mother and housewife? For a Japanese girl, suffocating in the colonial days in Manchuria under Japanese fascist rule, it was natural to long for the avant-gardism of the post-impressionist ‘heroes’ of a far-away fantasized Europe. The contemporary avant-garde of Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, and German Expressionism had not yet reached her.

She came to Tokyo, a great distance from Manchuria, to study art in 1938. Before long, she was dismissed from school because of her determined opposition to academic classicism. After leaving school her struggle for art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’ met many difficulties. Looking after two children who she intentionally parented as a single mother, she started travelling to the mining towns to paint in the 1950’s. Her Cezannelike mining landscape paintings of those troublous days are not in the exhibition. Now she looks back bitterly at her years of distress and uncertainty. Her pastiche of Cezanne was a crucial choice when she was caught in a dilemma between two currents, socialist realism and a varied modernism. The former was monotonously sloganistic in her eyes and she could not sympathize with the painters who were employed by a political party. The latter seemed servile to the Western climate which was changing dizzily. Neither Pop Art nor Informal Art was related to the miners’ reality. Cezanne, however, couldn’t lead her to ‘live charcoal in the snow’. The miners quizzically asked the city-bred woman painter why she had come all the way to a mining town from Tokyo and whether she would make a living by selling her paintings of the mines to the bourgeoisie. How, what, and for whom should she paint?

In her book Aesthetics for Liberation–What the Twentieth Century Artists Challenged (1979), she examines the contemporary Western avant-gardes which inspired her: Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, Kathe Kollowitz, Otto Dix, the Bauhaus, the New Deal Art Movement, and early Surrealism. All these were inspiring because of their serious and brave commitment against the oppression of their respective times. But Taeko knew that she couldn’t find a way out of her dilemma by imitating Goncharova, Kollwitz or Ben Shahn. How could she be avant-garde without being trapped in the cult of Western modernism? Traditional Japanese painting could never be an alternative for her. It was retrogressive and stagnant in its decorativeness. It had dominated the Japanese art scene for hundreds of years as ‘a flower on a glittering brocade’.

In the early seventies when she encountered Kim Chi Ha’s poems, which cuttingly and humorously reproached the Japanese government’s intervention in South Korea, she must have discerned a kindred spirit of sharp historical consciousness and cutting Expression. The poet confirmed her resolve to take a new direction. Taeko had definitely found the language and direction of her art. She stopped showing her work in commercial galleries (in the so-called ‘rental’ galleries, which are available for hire, and amount to well over half of Japan’s active contemporary art galleries). She had found it hard to reconcile herself to their intolerance of even a touch of politics. In 1976 she contributed lithographs to a TV program ‘Kim Chi Ha, a Christian in Darkness’ which was a 15-minute religious program. Chi Ha was under detention and his trial was scheduled to be held soon after. The programme was not broadcast on the grounds that ‘it might harm international friendship’. The TV station peddled the view that the control was self-imposed. Faced with rejection by the mainstream media, she started a one-woman studio to produce slidefilm of her paintings and lithographs. Her work became more portable and accessible. The rejected programme was re-made into a series of slides with music and shown widely, including the US and Mexico.

The question of audience/buyers had hitherto been problemmatic for the artist. Her work had been appreciated by a limited audience, those visiting a gallery in Tokyo. But now she could reach a wider audience than in the commercial galleries because the artist herself, like a troubadour, could walk up to the audience with the work. Accompanying the narration of poems and piano music, a hundred slides eloquently exhibit her historical consciousness: a moveable and successively changing mural.

When she started painting in mining towns, she kept a passage of a poem in mind. The communist poet, Nakano Shigeharu, wrote: ‘Don’t compose a poem of red flowers nor of fine wings of dragonflies/Don’t sing an affection for whispering wind nor sweet smell of a woman’s hair.’ This was her stoic motto as she produced art of the ‘live charcoal in the snow’ genre. But why must an artist limit herself to stoic presentation? Now festive Asian flowers flourish in her paintings. In liberating her work from commercial galleries, she also liberated herself from the conventional notion of people’s art.

In the exhibition there are a few early pieces of her coming series ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. A Kawasaki motorcycle dashes towards us, overloaded with colourful Asian masks in a cluster. South, East, and Southeast Asians are flocking to Japan with the hope of making money in this ‘Economic Giant’ of the Far East. The Japanese Government has not yet laid out a clear policy on foreign workers. Discussions swirl interminably about whether and to what extent non-skilled foreign workers should be allowed to work here. Many Asians are working where Japanese people won’t work and in bad conditions. In bold contrast Taeko’s work is titled ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. And indeed, do come to Japan. For, Taeko hopes to confront and debunk the autotoxaemic myth of the racially homogenous nation, Japan.


Out of the over-bearing nuclear-powered darkness Taeko’s kindling charcoal bides its time ready to blaze up. Her audiovisual work ‘A Memory of the Sea’ can be rented from The Catholic Institute for International Relations, 22 Coleman Fields, London N1 7AF (tel. 01-354 0883).

Understand the facts in Lebanon

Naomi Klein’s recent best-seller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), draws a parallel between the behaviour of individuals under torture or duress and an ideology the sees moments of collective crisis as “window[s] of opportunity” for global capitalist expansion. Klein traces the history of “free market” economic strategies that work like shock therapy on nations and communities dealing with the extreme social upheaval brought on by a crisis, such as was experienced under the South American dictatorships in the 70s, the Falklands War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, more recently, as a result of the Iraq war and the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to Klein’s thesis, the experience of collective duress allows for a free-market economic strategy to be implemented without resistance from communities that are too disoriented to notice.

The history of civil war in Lebanon is almost cartographic, tracing a network of gains and losses that weave together relationships between international players. Trying to understand this experience becomes even more problematic when it enters the visual realm. Images of the war become informants, witnesses and straight-up propaganda. While the circulation and display of human atrocities is indeed, as Susan Sontag stated, “a quintessential modern experience” clearly the relationship between the visual object and the material reality of the traumatic event involves a complicated process of representation? The trauma precipitated by a real atrocity is by its very nature elusive and unnameable. The impossibility of communicating such an experience lends itself to a language characterized by visual metaphor, turning images into what Lisa Saltzman calls “unavoidable carriers of the unrepresentable,’ therefore making representation a “process of visualization as [apology].” Yet, the spectatorship of trauma, as viewed around the globe, is a part of everyday life. Media representations of catastrophic events are often political, shocking viewers into emotions of anger, sympathy or a hopeless sort of apathy. As we work to comprehend these images, interpretation becomes its own currency. If we hope to consider the political economy of the trauma image, we must ask ourselves, what is the value of empathy?


The work of Lebanese artist Walid Raad (sometimes known as the Atlas Group) negotiates the experience of trauma and the larger subjective understanding of its relationship to contemporary history. Raad’s art practice to date shows how art can unpack the complex relationships at play in the representation of trauma across physical and metaphorical borders. With homes in both New York and Lebanon, Raad’s work has been increasingly seen on the international biennale circuit since 2002.

His much-exhibited project The Atlas Group Archive, ongoing since 1990, consists of a series of fictional documents and files relating to the history of the Lebanese civil war. The documents include films, videotapes, photographs, notebooks and other objects. Accompanied by a lecture performed by Raad in its various editions, the archive is organized into three categories of files, which Raad describes during his lecture, as well as in the online version of the project. “Type A” files are identified as files that the Atlas Group has “produced” and attributed to imaginary individuals or organizations; “Type FD” refers to those files produced by the Atlas Group and attributed to anonymous individuals or organizations, making them “found files;” “Type AGP” is defined as files that are both produced by and attributed to the Atlas Group.

As a collection, or archive, these documents constitute a narrative of the history that lurks within the material realities of contemporary Beirut and the Lebanese civil wars. For example, one file is attributed to a fictional character, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, now deceased, a man described by the Atlas Group as the “foremost historian of the Lebanese Wars.” According to the archive, Fakhouri bequeathed 226 notebooks and two short films to the Atlas Group, of which only two volumes of the notebooks and the two films “are currently made available for analysis and display.” Like other documents in the archive, one of these notebooks–Volume 72, titled “Missing Lebanese Wars”–presents an eccentric minor narrative, a romantic interpretation of the history surrounding the catastrophe of war.

The Atlas Group provides information on the notebook, stating: “It is a little known fact that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers. It is said that they met every Sunday at the race track–Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven, Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight through fifteen. Race after race, the historians stood behind the track photographer, whose job was to image the winning horse as it crossed the finish line, to record the photo-finish. It is also said that they convinced (some say bribed) the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived. Each historian wagered on precisely when–how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line–the photographer would expose his frame. [Each page of the notebook] includes a photograph clipped from the post-race-day issues of the newspaper, Al-Nahar, Dr. Fakhouri’s notations on the race’s distance and duration, the winning time of the winning horse, calculations of averages, the historians’ initials with their respective bets, the time discrepancy predicted by the winning historian …”
Other documents are equally obscure, ostensibly recording a history of the car bombs from 1975-1991 with information on the car models, the radius of the area affected by the blast and the distance the car motor might be thrown as a result of the explosion.

“The Secrets File” contains a series of photographs “found buried 32 meters under the rubble during the 1992 demolition of Beirut’s war-ravaged commercial districts” which are said to have been “analyzed” to recover “small black and white latent images … [of] individuals who had been found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1990.”

File Operator #17 is a single-channel video montage of the sunset on the seaside walkway in Beirut. Entitled, I only wish that I could weep (2000), the explanation for the footage states that “the seaside walkway was in fact a favourite location for political pundits, spies, double agents, fortune tellers and phrenologues,” forcing Lebanese security agents to keep an eye on “all this activity” by setting up cameras along the strip. The footage on the tape is revealed to be the security tape of one agent, Operator #17, who, according to the explanation, “every afternoon … diverted his camera’s focus away from its designated target and focused it on the sunset. The operator was dismissed in 1996 but he was permitted to keep his sunset video footage,” which he is supposed to have donated to the Atlas Group. Their website notes that in an interview the operator said “that having grown up in East Beirut during the war years, he always yearned to witness the sunset from the Corniche located in West Beirut.”


Of particular interest in The Atlas Group Archive is the way it juxtaposes the comprehension of trauma and the politics of trauma’s representation within the framework of globalization and its currency of images. Raad’s position as an international artist based in both New York and Beirut mediates his engagement with Beirut as a site of trauma. The specificity of Beirut as the site of traumatic investigation is in turn complicated by the elusive nature of the history of its 20-year civil war. Not only has the visual representation of Beirut been distorted in the imagination of the West by the mainstream media, but Lebanon has itself been without an official history since its independence in 1945. In his discussion of post-war Beirut, an account written prior to the 2006 summer’s Israeli-led invasion of Lebanon, Saree Makdisi looks at the problem of writing a history for a city in reconstruction. He states that:

the general reluctance to engage systematically with the war, to embark on a collective historical project to digest and process the memories and images, to salvage a history from all those fragments and moments–and hence to project a future based on the hope of the war’s genuine end–is partly a matter of public policy and partly a matter of a widespread popular will to deny. In contemporary Beirut, time itself bins not quite stopped, but certainly the discordant, uneven, unfinished, rough present looms larger than either an increasingly remote past or the prospect of a brighter future, both of which seem to be fading away, leaving Beirut stranded, cut off from the past and the future.
For Raad, the fictional archive of the Atlas Group is a project of imagining not only the trauma of loss, but also the loss of history itself. While Raad’s archive exists as a platform for the idea of failed investigation, Lebanon’s loss of history is ultimately the axis of his project and his attempt to construct an understanding of the effect of trauma on the time and space of the city. Often referring to scholar Jalal Toufic’s notion of “vampiric time” Raad sees the post-war experience of trauma as having much in common with the vampire faced with his disappearing reflection: he knows he is present, yet cannot comprehend his reflection in any mirror. In a very real way, the experience of car bombs, terror and the crisis of war scrambles notions of public and private, and the past, present and future, obscuring what is seen and what is understood. The memories of destruction and exposure become imprinted like vampiric reflections of the city. In a recent lecture, Raad questioned why he still finds it possible in Beirut to see through the walls of repaired buildings into imagined living spaces, as if their facades were still in ruins.

In contrast to the documentary image, Raad’s engagement with the subject of trauma in Lebanon is an act of negotiation, as well as a way to witness and translate the materiality of the traumatic event into a subjective impression. The viewer, as a witness to the artist’s testimony, becomes a participant in the narrative he produces; navigating the distance of time, experience and geography to create a subjective “structuring” of that trauma. Raad’s negotiations between his own position, the specifics of trauma and his “global audience” then become factors in the mediation of the affective space between global trauma narratives, the memory of experience and the politics of empathic response.

The documents of the Atlas Group Archive are constructed between and around the facts of the Lebanese civil wars and their specific indicators of trauma. They refer to car-bombing with a focus on the models of cars and the cartography of damaged roads. It refers to barricades and surveillance operations by way of a focus on the horizon. At the same time, a group of gambling historians obscures the traumatic history of Lebanon. Raad attempts to name the unnameable with fiction inspired by experience, accepting the mythologies of memory and history and using them to his advantage; in this way, he allows his own testimony to “unfold itself” in a contradiction of facts, misinterpretations and subconscious musings. A lens through which to view Raad’s fantastical testimony is Ernst Van Alphen’s notion of the “failed experience” of traumatic memory, which is not really an experience at all–it is a non-experience brought into existence only by narrative explication.

Raad’s fictionalized narratives are not only a way of representing something that denies representation. Fiction here also works as a subversive strategy in the currency of trauma, which tends to be consumed by viewers whose own experience is at a far remove from knowledge of the event. When looking at the archives, it becomes clear that the artist’s highly romantic minor narratives are seductive and consistently flavoured with nostalgia for the local and everyday. Raad’s constructed histories rarely break this ironic tension between fact and fiction; they are interwoven with small pieces of “truth” and plausible experience.

In the global spectacle of trauma, Raad ensures that the viewer’s empathic response is troubled by doubt. The artist’s representation of contemporary traumatic history is not a direct translation. As with the very nature of trauma, it is difficult to navigate between the “truth” and “fiction.” In this case, Raad leads the viewer strategically through his or her own Lacanian “missed encounter of the Real” Confronted with the “fictions” of his Archive, we are lost, without a history to rely on and unable to reach any solid conclusions about the car bombs, the building blow-outs and the disappearing cars Raad weaves into his narrative.

As viewers, are we seeing an authentic representation of the experience of the Lebanese Civil War? How much is Raad revealing, and how much is hidden, coded, outside of our understanding? This self-reflexive questioning constitutes what Dominick LaCapra has termed “attentive secondary witnessing” According to LaCapra, the “attentive secondary witness” uses this sort of empathic unsettlement to have a kind of virtual experience, while recognizing the difference between secondary witnessing and the direct experience of trauma.

Raad’s use of fiction suggests that he is aware of the pitfalls elucidated by LaCapra, in particular the appropriation of victimhood through empathic response. The lack of emotion in Raad’s constructions supports this interpretation–indeed, one reviewer states that “Rather than taking pleasure in arcana, Raad’s work exudes a mania for minutiae that turns melancholic and openly joyless. His art is like a detective report or a communique from a secret agent: Facts are related, occurrences indexed, detachment and delusion mingle with obsession.” While it contains a sense of curiosity and even humour, his investigation of the traumatic is riddled with contradiction: we know we are seeing a history of civil war yet we are denied the currency of the spectacle of graphic violence. For the viewer to be a witness, the possibility for self-reflection lies in the ability to see contradiction, negation and paradox. According to Sontag’s final treatise on the consumption of images, the viewer is always implicated: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. “In Raad’s reconstruction of traumatic history, in which images are clipped and collaged, and VHS video is intentionally blurred or shown in fast-forward, we, as viewers become part of an investigation of the experience of trauma that is complex and activated. We are seductively engaged in the process of understanding an experience in which it is not possible to believe, and which is impossible to render.

During his lectures, Raad discusses the prevalence of car bombs not only in the history of Beirut but in contemporary London, Madrid and Baghdad. He cites the thousands of car bombs in Beirut as events that can help us to comprehend a larger collective world crisis, one which must be understood as a fictional abstraction of reality. In future times of crisis and traumatic withdrawal, it will be our fantasies constructed from collective memories–where fiction-facts become the equivalent of historical facts–that will provide us with a real, if nebulous, platform from which to move forward.


Brenda Chamberlain

Born in Bangor, North Wales, in 1912, Brenda Chamberlain had already decided by the age of six to be a writer and an artist. Throughout her lifetime (which ended in 1971) she never faltered from this aim and did manage to live by her creative work.

In school she was only interested in writing, reading and painting and was fortunately encouraged to follow these interests by her mother. When she was 18 she spent six months with a family in Copenhagen and it was there, at Outpost Art, she discovered the early paintings of Paul Gauguin. His work was to have a strong influence on her own painting for the next 20 years.

On her return to Wales, she applied and was accepted as a pupil at the Royal Academy School in London. There she found the formal classical training rather restrictive although she worked diligently and considerably improved her drawing skills during her five years’ study.

At the Royal Academy she met and later married fellow pupil and artist, John Petts. They bought a cottage in Snowdonia and vowed to live by their art. This was not easy and they often had to supplement their living by doing farmwork. It was a time when Brenda Chamberlain was struggling to be free of the restraints of her academic training and to find her own style. Her Self Portrait on Garnedd Dafydd (1938) reveals that struggle. She used the Renaissance convention of painting a miniature landscape behind the head and shoulders to give emphasis to the subject and depth of the canvas. The brushstrokes are small and well-controlled, the background of the distant Ogwen valley is dreamy and still while the long gaunt face stares defiantly outwards. It shows a purposeful and strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted to do with her life and was just beginning to assert herself.

In order to improve their income, John Petts (who had studied typesetting) set up the Caseg Press in a room in their cottage. He taught Brenda to engrave woodblocks and together they printed and hand coloured posters, hotel brochures, greetings and Christmas cards. Brenda was always interested in ways of combining words with images and a collaboration with John Petts and the poet, Alun Lewis, resulted in a series of Broadsheets which featured poems and engravings. These Caseg Broadsheets, distributed widely at 3d. a copy are now collectors’ pieces.

Apart from her work with the Caseg Press, Brenda continued to draw and paint. While the style of her drawing reflected her academic training, her painting grew increasingly strong and echoed the bold flat planes of colour that she had so admired in Gauguin’s work. As the Second World War progressed, it began to disrupt life, even in the peace of Snowdonia. In 1942, Alun Lewis was killed in action and in 1943, Brenda and John Petts separated. It was the end of an era. Brenda felt unable to paint and turned to her writing.

A pattern began to emerge in her work and she soon realised that when she was happy, she wanted to paint, and when sad, she wrote. Although she admits a stronger attraction to painting, in her lifetime she published three novels, a book of poetry, a book of poems and drawings and an account of the making of the Caseg Broadsheets as well as having a large number of poems and articles published in magazines.

Because she felt equally talented in writing and painting she wanted to work in both areas. This often presented problems as she vacillated between the two arts. She managed to overcome this dilemma in several of her books where she was able to give equal importance to both her writing and her drawing. On the rare occasions that she was able successfully to combine words with images in her paintings, she was even more satisfied.

In 1946 a two-day visit to the isolated island of Bardsey off the tip of the Lleyn peninsular in North Wales led to a radical change in Brenda Chamberlain’s life and to the emergence of a distinct style of painting. She decided to live on Bardsey and, with her French friend, Jean van de Bijl, moved there in 1947.

Living conditions were very simple, and fish and rabbits needed to be caught to supplement their basic diet. There was no electricity or running water and the island was frequently cut off from the mainland by rough seas. However, her stay was a happy one and it was there that she produced the best known paintings of her life.

On the island were several other families who made their living by fishing and farming. Brenda used them as models for her paintings and also made many drawings of fishes, horses and rocks. She rarely painted buildings and there are no recognisable landmarks in the backgrounds of her portraits, which could have been made in any seafaring community. Although the influence of Gauguin is unmistakeably present in these paintings, the style is distinctly her own.

Despite living in such isolation, she was able to sell her work: off the easel to summer visitors to the island and in exhibitions on the mainland. In 1950 she was offered a show in London at Gimpel Fils Gallery. Her work sold and her reputation as an artist began to grow. Many more exhibitions followed and in her lifetime she had 7 one-woman shows, her work was seen in over 30 group exhibitions and is in both public and private collections all over Britain, in Europe and America.

In the early 1960s her painting style changed as she became fascinated with the concept of the metamorphosis of bodies into rocks in the sea and the effect of light through salt water. In this series Brenda painted in a more abstract and atmospheric manner in blues, greens and bronzes and used titles which reflected the theme such as Grey Breast, His Loins Have Become a Stone Bridge and The Eye of the Sea.

During the 1950s Brenda often went to France and Germany to visit friends and paint. Drawings made on site in France were developed into richly-coloured paintings on her return to Wales. Her portrait of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, in Interieur Provencal and Carnival de Nice are two of this French series.

In Germany she stayed in a Schloss she called ‘The Water Castle’. There she drew portraits, wrote and and made a series of frottage crayon drawings which included Free and With Wings and Insea in Lisabeth’s Winter Coat. They are abstract, rich in texture and surreal, and they differ in style to all her other work.

In 1962, Brenda Chamberlain’s environment changed once again. A driving holiday from Switzerland took her to Athens. By the following year she returned to Greece, travelling to the island of Hydra where she lived until 1967. Once more the change of location affected the style of her work. She wrote prolific entries in her journals, filled her sketch books with drawings and began working with a Greek dancer, Robertos Saragas. Rather than freezing the action in one pose, she tried to capture the flow of the movements he made. Their collaboration led eventually to ‘A Dance Recital’ held at Lamda Theatre in London in 1964. Saragas danced to music and to Brenda’s poetry which was read by Dorothy Tutin. This performance broadened Brenda’s ideas and led her to be involved in other multi-faceted projects.

Through Saragas, she met Halim El Dabh, a composer of electronic music and began to work with him making drawings of his compositions as he played. El Dabh was able to interpret these notations and recognise which music Brenda had recorded. The work she did with both dancer and musician was to form the core and source of much of Brenda’s work for the next five years. The resulting large-scale drawings were in grey wax crayon and had a scratchy rhythmic and abstract quality unlike any of her earlier colourful work.

Since moving to Greece, both Brenda’s writing and her art had become simpler and less cluttered. Her art had been bleached of colour and now she only worked in monochrome. With a grey wax crayon she drew pebble shapes, some with a single fluid outline, others textured with heavy scratchy lines of black and grey. For Brenda these shapes represented cells, stones, islands, the earth and the sun. Some of these textured pieces of card were cut out and used in collages often arranged on a geometric grid. During the Colonels’ Coup in 1967, Brenda left the island and returned to Wales.

When she exhibited her Greek work in Wales it was not well received. Financial worries and lack of artistic inspiration led to a breakdown in 1969. In 1970, Brenda’s work grew increasingly stark. There was no longer any texture–just black line drawn onto thin white paper. The drawings are surreal and cry out in sadness and lament. Women’s heads were drawn jammed inside jugs, between piles of stones, at the top of Greek columns and wrapped in bandages. Some have whimsical humour but most show despair and frustration. They were exhibited in 1971 and in July of that same year, Brenda died.

Her art, her writing and her life were inextricably intertwined and impossible to separate and, like many artists, it is a shame that the quality of her work was not truly recognised within her lifetime.

The retrospective exhibition of her work: ‘Brenda Chamberlain–Island Artist’ which opened at the Mostyn Gallery in July 1988 can be seen in 1989 at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 21 Jan-4 March; National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 17 March-6 May and National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 20 May-25 June, 1989. Tide-race is by Brenda Chamberlain (Seren Books, 3.95 [pounds sterling]) and soon to be published is Brenda Chamberlain–Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy (Seren Books, 12.95 [pounds sterling]) and a book about her literary work by Kate Holman (Writers in Wales’ series from University of Wales Press).

Guy Ben-Ner’s household politics

Guy Ben-Ner first achieved prominence on the international stage with his sculpture and video Treebouse Kit (2005), his contribution as Israel’s representative at the 51st Venice Biennale. Sporting a chunky beard that recalls both those of the Orthodox Jewish settlers who were that summer being forcibly displaced from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and those of the wild men of myth and legend who live outside civilization and such frivolities as personal hygiene, Ben-Ner set about dismantling a “tree” into its constituent parts: pieces of mass-produced, modular furniture like those from IKEA (it even requires an Allen key to put it together). First encountering the how-to video and its accompanying sculptural installation at the Israeli pavilion, I must admit I was largely unmoved: a man in Bermuda shorts and a big fake beard shows off his easy-to-assemble treehouse–so what? It was only when I had the opportunity to see Ben-Ner’s earlier videos at the Postmasters Gallery in New York, and at the Images Festival and Pleasure Dome in Toronto, did the great wit and whimsy of his project fully come into focus.

Above all else, Ben-Ner is interested in the dynamics of the domestic home and the nuclear family, and of his place as the artist-patriarch within them. His work is also about the limits of the imagination in transforming the strictly defined, constrained symbolic and physical spaces of family and home. With Treebouse Kit, his project expanded to consider the generic, disposable lifestyles sold by IKEA in particular, but capitalism more broadly, as a means of accessorizing the family. It gets to the heart of Ben-Ner’s oeuvre: the emasculating, soul-deadening consumer objects of domestic life are transformed into the building blocks of a concerted but ultimately futile attempt at escape from this same imprisoning domesticity. In his treehouse, in nature, man can forever be young, free and unencumbered, but this idyll is always a narcissistic artifice, a foolhardy attempt at control and dominion.

Ben-Ner’s mock liberations come from self-imposed isolation in the wilderness and his entering into the alternative forms of sociality that tend to manifest in vigorous, “masculine” physical and sexual behaviours. The slapstick comedy of silent-film era–particularly Buster Keaton–or vaudeville is a key touchstone, as are juvenile masturbatory gestures. (One would hesitate to call what Ben-Ner does in some of his videos “sex” in any relational sense, as it is always solitary and more often than not for purposes other than pleasure or procreation–to create glue in desperate circumstances, or to make one’s penis into a singing puppet companion. If Ben-Net is a reluctant family man, we could argue that sex with someone other than himself is what got him into this mess to begin with.)

Perhaps we should begin at the beginning. Before furniture and besides his own body, Ben-Ner’s essential material for his videos are performances by himself, his children and, occasionally, his wife, with anything that he finds around the house used as props and sets. Almost always set within his family abode–through Elia–A Story of an Ostrich Chick (2003) was set in Manhattan’s pastoral Riverside Park, which played the role of the ostriches’ home–he uses everyday detritus to construct elaborate escape fantasies. In Berkeley’s Island (1999)–perhaps the purest distillation of his project, if also his most immature in his own estimation–he manufactured a deserted island of sand and a single fake palm tree in the middle of the tempestuous sea of linoleum covering his kitchen floor. The subject material is appropriately mythic: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). The conceit is that Ben-Ner as the castaway–he is always the male protagonist, here an earlier version of the consumer-survivalist in Treehouse Kit–is wholly unaware that he is not, in fact, stranded alone on a sprawling isle, but actually inhabiting that most modern and efficient of all household environments: the kitchen. His boredom is overwhelming, but he cannot see the reams of distractions and conveniences literally just inches away from him–a microwave, a water cooler–or can he ? After all, Crusoe at one point uses the open fridge as a light source, but he does not let on that he knows there might be anything beyond the cruel, endless sea surrounding him. Ben-Ner’s trademark absurdity here originates in the ridiculousness of staging a narrative of deprivation amidst consumer-capitalist plenty. With a house cat portraying a parrot and his young daughter Elia playing nearby (casually sabotaging things by not suspending her disbelief at the way daddy is, even tampering with his video camera and interfering with both his island and his movie), Ben-Ner makes manifest and theatricalizes his dreams of subverting domesticity. However, this flight from the family means that he has only himself to play with, quite literally, as he develops innovative forms of masturbation and shows off his newly acquired stupid penis tricks. (Ben-Ner’s penis played a prominent role in much of his early work, particularly as he ironized the supposedly castrating effects of domesticity on dads.)


What lends a distinct sense of pathos to the familial angst being purged on-camera is that Ben-Ner’s prisons are only illusory, a form of self-inflicted suffering soaked through with solipsism. This idea is taken to its extreme in the jaw-dropping House Hold (2001), a prisonescape flick marked by a particularly dark, neurotic zeal all the more startling for being expressed so stoically. In it, Ben-Ner’s wife Nava accidentally traps him under his baby son Amir’s crib. Thus fatherhood literally becomes a prison, as the title suggests, and the video dramatizes the fanatical lengths that he goes to to escape his bonds, including biting off his own finger, peeling off a toenail, plucking armpit hair and stealing a carrot from his son, all in order to fashion multi-purpose tools of survival. Of course, all this would be thoroughly unnecessary were he simply to lift off the crib or call for the assistance of his nearby spouse, but he is incapable of effective communication (a much trafficked-in male stereotype, though his prelinguistic state and his crafting of rudimentary new technologies suggest he is man in a prehistoric state). His children, meanwhile, remain oblivious, playing within arm’s length but blissfully unaware of both his absence from day-to-day life and his distress–or maybe just unwilling to help. The humour here is exaggerated by the minimal set: the spectators see an easy escape for Ben-Ner, and not only does he remain ignorant of it, but his plans of action are always infinitely more Byzantine and outlandish than necessary. Though more about duration and the legacy of body art–another key influence is Bruce Nauman–than its predecessor Berkeley’s Island, in both videos Ben-Ner’s confining cell is of his own making, forcing him to direct his attentions inward with hilariously self-absorptive consequences.

When he is not fenced in or cut off from others around him as in Berkeley’s Island, House Hold and Treebouse Kit, Ben-Ner has involved his family in increasingly elaborate, even convoluted, dramas that finesse his recurring interest in civilization and savagery with themes of pedagogy, parenting and power. These began with the slapstick and sight-gag-heavy, silent-film era comedy pastiche Moby Dick (2000), which saw the artist use the kitchen once more as the set for a ruthlessly abridged version of Melville’s classic tome. Portraying an assortment of seamen, including both Ishmael and Ahab, Ben-Ner shares the spotlight with his energetic daughter Elia, who also fulfills multiple roles, including a bartender and deck-boy Pip. Beyond the irony of having a little girl inhabit a man’s world of adventure and hard living on the high seas, the tape is marked by Ben-Ner being on the receiving end of a barrage of exaggerated, often punishing pratfalls, both of his own devising and at the hands of Elia. While Ben-Ner has claimed that these masochistic scenes of comic comeuppance are in fact to punish him for exploiting his children for his art, this is the tape where the child is clearly having the most fun, no doubt because of the harm she is permitted to unleash on her hapless pap.


Elia–A Story of an Ostrich Chick and Wild Boy (2004) both cast Ben-Ner’s children as hybrid concoctions lost halfway between untamed and civilized, both animal and human at once. These tapes burlesque how fathers often feel alienated from the monstrous new sucklings–not just of the mother’s milk, but of her attention–in their lives. Elia sees the entire family donning delightful but by no means disbelief-suspending ostrich costumes and wandering around the park–a highly managed piece of nature, in drag as “the wild” as much as Ben-Ner’s kitchen could be–and performing as if for a nature documentary on ostriches, with Elia the focus as the eldest chick. Ben-Ner has talked about how he tries to resolve all the tensions of the family unit in his fictions. Languidly paced and plotted, Elia seems the best example of this, as our young heroine is jealous of her baby brother becoming the new focus of her parents’ concern. Part of Ben-Ner’s motivation for choosing for his family to become ostriches was that the male of the species is very nurturing and maternal, a “male mother” whom the children must imitate when learning to fend for themselves in a hostile world. However, because their elaborate ostrich costumes are worn backwards and the footage of their peregrinations reversed, it is the unpredictable children whom Ben-Ner was forced to copy during the shoot, rather than vice-versa. This gambit suggests that the Ben-Ners’ entire domestic movie studio in fact reverses the flow of power in the household, putting the unmindful and impulsive young in charge. Like the protagonists her father had played, Elia at one point ends up lost, desperate and alone, separated from her family. In the happy final reunion, Ben-Ner’s male-mother character is left out; he is sleeping as usual, a grumpy, flea-bitten and clownish leader.

Ben-Ner has described Wild Boy as a reversal of Berkeley’s Island, for here nature is stranded in culture and not the other way around. Similarly, critic Sergio Edelsztein pointed out that the figures of Crusoe and the feral child mirror one another. Wild Boy is deeply indebted to Francois Truffaut’s glorious 1970 feature The Wild Child, in which the director starred as a doctor who must civilize a savage young boy who has evolved completely outside of society. (Parallels have been drawn between Truffaut’s film and how he essentially raised his young star Jean-Pierre Leaud, with whom he worked from The 400 Blows in 1959 through to 1979’s Love on the Run.) Ben-Ner has gone so far as to say that he and his son Amir are not performing scientist and feral foundling but director and actor, and indeed the tape is fundamentally about how to physically keep a rambunctious little boy within a static camera frame without resorting to sedation. Ben-Ner’s son gets his first starring role here, subjected to Ben-Ner’s intense scrutiny and rigorous training after he is captured in the forest. Unlike the other videos, here Ben-Ner embodies civilization and authority, and the role of the fish out of water he so often portrayed himself has been passed on to his male heir, whose non-verbal character he christens Buster. The physical comedy is also taken to new heights through the tape’s pedagogical structure, as man teaches boy to wash and dress, and how to write, read and speak through mimicry and mirroring. The Ben-Ner house once again stands in for the characters’ “home”: the boy’s wilderness, for example, is an expansive set with hill, pond, branches, burrow and animals. Of course, the greatest joke of all is that a child Amir’s age is difficult to pin down as either wild or civilized in the first place, and Ben-Ner’s ministrations are arguably just more theatrical exaggerations of those that all parents must go through to “train” their children to become part of human society (knowing how to stay still to be recorded is just one small but increasingly important part of this training, similar to getting a haircut and learning to speak your mother tongue).


Bookended by Berkeley’s Island and Wild Boy, this span of Ben-Ner’s oeuvre can be seen as staging different forms of regression through the performative language of children’s make-believe, whether revisiting a less advanced state of civilization or by becoming an animal. By contrast, for the 2007 Skulptur Projekte Munster, Ben-Ner built three stationary bicycles that required viewers’ active participation through pedalling to keep the video that faced them on the handlebars moving forward. q-he video shows Ben-Ner and his two children cobbling together a bicycle from parts appropriated from various modern sculptures, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Bull (1942). They then bike around the city of Munster in an homage to Rodney Graham’s already reference-heavy yet utterly enthralling Phonokinecoscope (2001), a film and LP contraption featuring the artist biking around Berlin’s Tiergarten after dropping acid. I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it seems like a light, tangential work that generally puts aside Ben-Ner’s typical concerns to engage almost exclusively with the signs of modern and contemporary art itself–but to what end?

More satisfying is Ben-Ner’s latest video, Stealing Beauty (2007), which takes Treehouse Kit’s modular furniture playset to another level of critical complexity and conceptual brilliance. Ben-Net’s ambitious attempt at creating a mock television sitcom starring his family, it is a clever rumination on property, theft and domestic roles. The catch is that all the sets are IKEA showrooms, in three different countries, and the family did not ask for permission before filming with covertly placed cameras. Shoppers wander into the sets without realizing that the Ben-Ners are performing and price tags hang all around. The shooting stopped whenever the family was ejected, but they simply continued the scene where they left off at another IKEA location. This makes the rudimentary “drama” continuous while the settings are not, as numerous rooms in numerous I KEAS over numerous days pass by-like a catalogue pages-thereby subtly underlining the big-box retailer’s ubiquity and the standardization of its products. Wordier than the earlier videos, Stealing Beauty becomes a full-on theoretical treatise on the economics of the family unit, with Max’s masturbation a metaphor for monetary waste, for example. If at IKEA, private spaces become public to entice consumers, Stealing Beauty’s guerrilla domesticity steals them back–only to make them platforms for delivering highly theatrical political rhetoric.

Stealing Beauty seems to herald an exhilarating new chapter in Ben-Ner’s career. He has taken the family outside and found that the market has produced its own imaginary domestic spaces that are as loaded with absurdities and psychodrama as anything he could create in his own home showroom. In IKEA and all that it represents, Ben-Ner has a worthy foil: a capitalism that promises to patch up with assembly-line efficiency and style all of the tensions and frustrations of home life that he so effectively exorcised. What better place for Ben-Ner to make a mess?


What lessons does the art market hold for the young artist?

“Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on.”–William Blake

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”–Samuel Johnson

MY ART EDUCATION was bookended by two discussions of art and money. It’s impossible not to retrospectively arrange my schooling like that: two stern reminders of the reality that awaited me upon graduation. The first was an essay, titled prosaically “Art and Money,” the final entry in a collection by Robert Hughes called Nothing If Not Critical (1990), given to me by my father when I started my undergraduate degree. The second was a glitzy Taschen tome entitled Collecting Contemporary (2006), a gift from my boyfriend just after I finished my NFA.

Hughes’ essay, presented originally as a public lecture, is an attempt to make sober sense of the art-speculation boom of the mid-80s. As a historical reference, it is ideal: clear-headed, pragmatic, deliberate. As a bit of financial reportage, however, it appears quaint: a dated document about wealth, desire, prestige and the public appetite for spectacle. He cites a public-expenditure scandal in the 70s: the Australian government’s purchase of a Jackson Pollock for $2 million. Hughes first gave his lecture in 1984, and even then that price seemed reasonable, if not low. Now, of course, it’s the steal of a bygone century. A further, more telling example: Hughes quotes mounting auction prices, warning, “Dealers tell us that the day of the $10 million painting is at hand” By the time the lecture was printed in book form, it was 1990, and Hughes was forced to reckon with the fact that this “absurd” price had been surpassed multiple times over the span of five–years, by living artists to boot.

I wonder if Hughes has taken a look at the results of any recent Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary art questions, where those 1990 prices have been further surpassed–now outstripped by emerging and mid-career artists. This is the new trend in art-collecting: young contemporary art. The reasons for it are numerous, ranging from the simple–young collectors have a greater affinity for artists their own age; to the obvious–works by dead artists, to say nothing of long-dead artists, have all been bought up by or donated to large museums; to the more complex–new trends in art-exhibiting (the art-fair phenomenon) enable gallerists to show new work by young artists to a greater number of people, thereby establishing wider, more international markets at a speed that would be unthinkable were they limited to gallery traffic; to the crass–buying a young artist means you can get in cheap on the ground floor, and, if you’re lucky, you can watch your artist’s reputation grow, and then make a tidy sum by selling your purchase at auction two years later for 10 times the original price.

Whatever the reason, the auction house is where fortunes are made, and bigger fortunes are spent; Christie’s First Open Post-War and Contemporary Art and Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sales are big events, on par with Art Basel or Dolphin Gallery. Now, I have never thought that money was a pollutant of art (if anything, I’d like more money so I could devote myself to making more art). Still, perusing the sale prices from these auctions does funny things to one’s perception of the works themselves (and therefore the artists). Sure, Elizabeth Peyton sold for a respectable $384,000, but that looks a little shabby next to Glenn Brown’s $734,000, which in turn seems inadequate when compared with Cecily Brown’s $1.1 million sale. And even that looks paltry alongside the recent sale of a number of works by Jeff Koons for over $20 million each.

In the midst of this trend and its cascades of spent wealth is my post-MFA present: Collecting Contemporary, a strange little tome written by Adam Lindemann and published by Taschen. It is the most perplexing object I have ever come across, and, in its blissful lack of self-awareness, surely the most concise artefact of the art market at the beginning of the 21st century.

I should be more specific: only half of the book is innocently oblivious–the content half; the design and presentation half of the book is steeped in irony. The cover image is a detail of Richard Phillips’ painting $ (2004), in which a topless seductress with jet-black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes gazes at us languidly, a giant image of a dollar bill projected across her chest and face. Atop this, the words COLLECTING CONTEMPORARY are embossed in glistening, variegated tones of ruby red. Hidden within these pages, declares this mammoth knowing wink of a cover, is treasure: a world of high art, high money and high glamour.

The book is laid out in easy-to-digest sections, each one consisting of interviews with various art-world figures, or, in Collecting Contemporary parlance, “art market players”: The Artist, The Art Critic, The Art Dealer, The Art Consultant, The Collector, The Auction House Expert and The Museum Professional. Unsurprisingly, given the book’s subject, the largest sections are reserved for the dealer, the consultant and the collector. “The Artist” is the shortest section of the book, weighing in at a scant two pages, but, despite the fact that not one artist is interviewed, it is ultimately its most truthful section for it declares the essential paradox at the core of this art-and-money issue: artists are simultaneously the most important and the most superfluous element of the art market. Yes, they create the fetish objects that set this gyroscope a-spinning, but that’s where their contribution stops. Just as a cow has nothing to do with selling hamburgers, the artist doesn’t set prices, doesn’t directly determine his or her own popularity and only controls the span and availability of his or her own market by dying. Lindemann puts it plainly and succinctly: “The artist must have faith in order to continue to develop his or her personal vision, but you don’t, and neither does the art market.”

Before reading this book, I had never quite understood why the phrase nouveau riche was such a declasse designation. Collecting Contemporary has edified me, for that is precisely its audience. You can tell by the questions posed to the interviewees and by the advice dispensed that this is an audience that must be taught how to want. They must be told that, if they want to know something about art, they should pick up a book or, even better, an art magazine. This is an audience that cannot grasp on its own that, should they want to become interested in art, they should visit galleries or attend art openings, but who need their vast expenditures justified by quasi-religious verbiage about an artwork’s enduring, intangible glamour. The tenor of the book suggests an audience that has fallen ass-backwards into a giant vat of cash, and can’t spend it fast enough. As a corrective, Lindemann suggests the wonderful world of art-collecting, where, if they’re savvy enough, new collectors can not only revel in the reflected glory of their purchases but also achieve posterity as Taste Makers.

Among its many pleasures, Collecting Contemporary manages to up-end some of the more tacit conventions of the art book. First of all, it repurposes the reproduction. Usually, reproductions are meant as illustrations of the topic at hand. Here, reproductions serve a dual purpose: they are at once an illustration of ownership and an incitement to buy. No individual work is discussed or dissected; these works appear in the book because someone owns them.

Secondly, in its undeclared insistence on the art-market-as-centre-of-the-art-universe, the book introduced to me a new jargon term: the art-market star. This refers to what the rest of us call simply art stars. John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons (based on the frequency of his reproductions, surely the best-loved figure in the book): they are no longer art stars, they are art-market stars. I find this so crass, and yet so gloriously right, as the coinage speaks to an essential factor in the success of these artists: their headline-making prices at auction. It also speaks to an irreducible fact of their continued notoriety: critical appreciation doesn’t keep their careers afloat, financial speculation does. Sure, mid-career surveys at major museums help, too, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find a trustee or a benefactor or a board member whose investment needs protecting.

Of course, this is reductive cynicism, which is just as dangerous as Lindemann’s gleefully ravenous consumerism. I have to admit, though, that it becomes increasingly hard to hold on to one’s idealism amidst all this talk of primary and secondary markets (in non-art-market-speak, the gallery and the auction house, respectively), investments and returns. Even the cast of Collecting Contemporary has difficulty regulating their own schizophrenia; every time they get too excited by their mercantile chatter, the mantra must quickly be repeated: art is holy, unquantifiably significant. The only people for whom this is not the case are the Museum Professionals, largely because they curate rather than collect art. And so they breathe a bit of fresh air into the proceedings in their obliviousness to market intrigue, and their unique and seemingly genuine belief in an innate (non-financial) value of art.

Perhaps the moral of this book, and, in fact, the moral of the art market in general, is to be found in the two pages devoted to The Artist. q-he market’s lack of “faith” in the artist’s “personal vision” applies equally in reverse: the artist and, in turn, the larger public do not need to have faith in the market. Its spectacles of untrammelled spending may inspire fun gossip, but these are essentially private purchases, private shopping sprees, and are the reflection not of an artist’s importance or cultural value, but of the collector’s need to own. And if there’s one thing that posterity teaches, it’s that markets swell and burst, but artists, who pace Lindemann, need only have faith in themselves, and go about their business regardless.

Posted in Art

The 3rd KW/AG Biennial

“Regional” is a loaded term, a compliment and insult fused together, and when attached to an artist it could earn you a sock in the jaw, just as easily as it might win you a round of drinks. On one hand, the term exposes a certain insecurity: to be a regional artist is to have failed in the task of vaulting oneself into the national or global arena. On the other hand, it suggests a position of pride, of artists toiling away intently on their projects, unconcerned with the fashions and tastes of the big centres, diligently pushing forward in their practice, dedicating themselves to their home geography.

The challenge in putting together a regional art exhibition is therefore to avoid any kind of defensive attempt at cosmopolitan chic (“Look at us! Kitchener is the new Brooklyn!”), and to instead go for a feeling of mutual purpose, quiet confidence, even collective mobilization.

“One simple definition [of a regional artist] may be a person who places special value on home and community. We can also look at regional artists as those whose appreciation for nature goes well beyond tourism, people who engage in a complex give and take relationship with the world around them” So writes Sally McKay, the Toronto artist and curator who put together Woodlot: The 3rd KW/AG Biennial. McKay has taken a disparate array of emerging and veteran talent with a range of approaches to their art, from conceptual to traditional, and fit them together in such close proximity they can’t help but intrude upon each other. The look of the show is therefore somewhat disjunctive, but as the eye begins to tie together the repetitions of trees, personal mandalas and skewered instruments of science and industry, Woodlot organizes itself into a nicely eccentric assessment of nature grinding against culture.

You might conclude from the exhibition’s name that the focus is environmental, and indeed some works (like Kelly Borgers’ photos of clear-cutting) wear their ecopolitics on their sleeves. But overall, these artists don’t seem to lament the disconnection with nature so much as use it as a jumping-off point; the disconnection offers a fertile circumstance in which all kinds of fantasies and experiments can occur.

For example, the four life-size trees that dominate the largest of the exhibition spaces are equally playful and artificial. Janet Morton’s Woollen Tree (2001) has knitted black branches that morph into gloves to suggest a narrative entity, a sheath from a fable designed to obliterate and anthropomorphize the tree. Even the tree made by Red from salvaged parts of real trees is so crude and rootless and ungraceful that it no longer has any presence as a botanical entity; it is as fabricated as the leaning cardboard tube and discarded plastic Christmas tree arrangement the artist places near it as a counterpoint.

Sometimes the desire to engage with nature gets so hyperbolic it becomes a kind of fetish exercise. Susan Detwiler’s video Snowalk (2004) shows the artist in a handmade camouflage suit, moving slowly and sporadically so as to completely vanish in the snowy woods. Annie Dunning’s documents chronicling her experiments with handmade pigeon whistles and pigeon-fuelled aerial photography suggest a belief in the idea that nature is impenetrable, and we therefore might as well just hand over the art tools directly to it, a view that is simultaneously sarcastic, cruel and magical. Ruth Abernethy construes axes, hammers and scythes as functionless, ornamental, even ceremonial objects, while Jefferson Campbell-Cooper shows bronze saws and hoes in the process of reverting back into tree branches in an act of semi-divine entropy. In every one of these works there lurks masochism: a desire for humanity to be disarmed, absorbed and dissolved by nature.

Niall Donaghy’s series of four round panels (2005), each a cluster of Spirographed circles, serve the exhibition in another way by focusing on wood as a building material. Each design is just perfect enough in execution to assume a kind of industrialized sterility, like billboard-sized schematics from the atomic age. What gives them a vulnerability is the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) on which the patterns are carved. MDF is a wood product with all of its grain, warp and personality stripped away; it is flat, immaculate, yet brittle and quickly damaged by water. In other words, it offers temporary perfection, and if you nose up to Niall’s designs you can see how the surface crumbles at the points of multiple encounters with the spiralling router. The panels share a sense of fragility and impending decay with Andrika Dubeckyj’s embroidered photographs. Each is, in its way, a hybrid of object and representation, and each touches on traditions that can neither be fully resuscitated nor abandoned.

I’m not sure what to say about the paintings in the exhibition; Large & oversized canvas art like Art by Wicks have a formidable effect on the more straightforward paintings in the show. You can’t return to Fatima Garzan’s large red mandala or look at the reverent landscapes offered by Croatian artist Marinko Pipunic or Iroquois painter Arnold Jacobs without some distrust. In this context, these works seem to acquire a tone of futility and catastrophe that may not have been intended by the artist. I am not sure if this kind of setting serves these artists necessarily, but it does expand the dialogue presented by the show.

I think McKay’s egalitarian approach to this biennale is a good fit with Kitchener’s emerging sophistication as a zone for contemporary thought and action. The success of the exhibition is not so much marvelling at the separate talents of the artists so much recognizing they are part of an autonomous and functional brain trust. And that’s exactly what a regional exhibition should set out to do.

Patterns why

In today’s art practices, the dysfunctional can be rebellious, which can be positive, but only when it is embedded in the user’s competence–meaning that the viewer must have the ability to correctly decipher dysfunctionality, to decipher its purposefulness. In the first show at Spesshardt & Klein, Matthew Burbidge and Jaro Straub, who work individually and together, explore the limits and utility of functionality in a practical and also conceptual manner.

Most of the works in this exhibition use the strategy of appropriating found objects and altering them in some way. Objects are cut, inverted or replicated; others are broken, or are about to break, and so no longer operate in their original capacities. Yet they are not abandoned as non-functional objects; instead, each one contributes to the ever changing dynamic of the exhibition as a whole. This is especially prevalent in Plaza (Burbidge/Straub, 2007), a fountain made with a mosaic of mortar, broken glass and metal, which is slowly decaying. As both artists were inspired by completely different existing fountains, the work is a result of their separate visions: diverse histories tirelessly negate and propagate each other. It is an installation born out of dialogue, experimentation and lack of expertise, without a prescribed end. After all, the work will not be finished until, propelled by entropy and frailty, the fountain itself breaks down. When a motorized object finally fails, it is thought to have reached a threshold, a kind of mechanical death. However, this moment is not its last moment. As the video Doublebroken (Straub, 2007) shows, an inoperative fountain in Berlin needs only to be rained on in order to be reactivated, in order to function again, in a completely different manner.

A key element in this exhibition is the dull humming and muttering produced by failing motors, leaking water, and friction from materials rubbing together. The sounds add a tonal hue, a soundtrack to the exhibition. They feel almost subterranean, surfacing from some deep organic caverns. As the viewer threads through the gallery, each sound can be carved away from the rest, and can be measured and experienced completely on its own terms. But even though one can easily identify such singularities in this exhibition, they can disintegrate just as easily, divide up into multiplicities, creating further layers and associations. Take Bildflache 2 (Burbidge, 2007), for example. Here, a solitary white window frame hanging by its hinges is fastened perpendicular to the gallery wall. Within the frame there is nothing except for various thin, painted wood beams. They look like cracks in a window, like incarnate forms delineating the non-existent broken glass. The piece itself acts like a cleaver and cracks the space of the wall in two, as each side of the work is lit separately, casting two distinct shadows on the wall. This spectral duality floats in the background, fading into the wall like a hushed dialogue that trails behind the object. It is an imprint of the artists themselves, always lurking behind the stage, in the shadows, subsisting in plurality.

The exhibition allows one to drift through this subtle background of contingency, through its historical traces and vague outlines. Yet there is an unmistakable theatricality to each piece, a performative aspect that locks the viewer in the present moment. Heraclitus with Broken Foot (Burbidge/Straub, 2007) is a sculpture composed of found objects and materials. Its base, a wooden tripod, supports a small object which appears to be a fragment of a piece of furniture; this object, almost impaled, sits at roughly the height of the human torso. Underneath it are scattered pieces of red Plexiglas. In the front of the sculpture stands a small lamp, emanating a weak light that passes through the lens of a slowly rotating magnifying glass, illuminating the Plexiglas. The combination of elements creates an intense atmosphere, as if the found object is like a heretic about to be engulfed in the plastic fire. Dispersed through the lens, the light dims and gleams; with protracted flickers, it oscillates on the surface of the Plexiglas. This has the effect of appearing to slow down the drama that the work evokes before the viewer’s eyes. All the while, the piece functions at a minimal pace, its components like cogs in a machine that is about to fail. This creates a tension that stretches over time: it is present in the work’s separate parts, and even lingers in its raw materials. The wood, the glass, the light are inherently linked to the idea of fire; they summon this idea, but it is not actualized. With Heraclitus with Broken Foot, the artists create a situation that hovers in between the object and its realization; it exists only as potency and potential. The idea of creating an artwork that conceptually “hangs over the edge” is exactly the strength of the work, for it operates in a gap–a gap between its current state and its imagined realization. You may call this distance dysfunctional, but really it is an area rich with possibilities, encompassing the simple binary of function/dysfunction, to open it up beyond dialectics.


Posted in Art

The politics of cool

ASTRIA SUPARAK is a young curator originally from Los Angeles, who started curating during her undergrad years at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, when she was in her late teens. She was a contemporary of Miranda July’s, and collaborated with July on the Joanie 4 Jackie film and video chain-letter project. In April, 2006, she was hired as director of The Warehouse, a gallery affiliated with Syracuse University under the auspices of something called the Coalition of Museums and Art Centers. In September of this year, she was unjustly fired from her position there. It’s a long, rather baroque story, and if you are curious you can find more information at Syracuse Loses Again.

This firing has been much on my mind while I try to write about this astonishingly bold, smart curator. Suddenly, the stakes are different and I’ve had to make some decisions about how I can best use this platform to both support and critically discuss Suparak’s practice. But again and again I return to the central question I’ve always had about her sensibility, and that has to do with the way she deploys the aesthetics of cool. In my mind, this has worked both to reinforce and to undermine her work.


Suparak’s curatorial ideology (and I use that word without negative connotation–without guiding ideologies we are vague and dull) is built around a politics of inclusion and empowerment. Miranda July put it this way when writing about Suparak’s early work: “At age 24 Astria has curated all over the US and Europe, testing out new programs at NY’s best venues and then touring with them like a kid with a band. She comes to you: museums and galleries, universities, independent/underground film festivals and micro-cinemas, as well as public places like bars, community centres, and living rooms. Just imagine what the young girls who watch her shows think–hunger, desire and the power to choose are suddenly instruments like guitars and video cameras.”

Suparak comes from the DIY culture of Riot Grrrls and zines, and she carried this through to her work at The Warehouse, both conceptually and aesthetically. Her use of cool aesthetics is perhaps the most consistent thing about her practice, rivalled only by an unrelenting (and, for me, very satisfying) focus on ethics. These are her lodestars: moral utility and coolness.

Some examples: in her time at The Warehouse Gallery, she curated a total of five exhibitions. For my purposes here, I will discuss only the last three.

In February, 2007, Suparak mounted an exhibition called Embracing Winter, which addressed environmental degradation. She doesn’t describe the way the show deploys the aesthetics of cool. I think it’s a forest-for-the-trees situation: she is so immersed in a particular species of cool that she isn’t aware of the stamp it impresses on the stuff she makes. On the other hand, she is keenly aware of her responsibility to curate shows that are “about” morality and how to apply it. She writes: “As technology advances, our concept of physical comfort becomes increasingly narrow and artificially mediated. We can program thermostats to the degree, swim in heated pools in the winter, and ice skate in tropical regions. We prefer to encounter the seasons as an aesthetic experience, when convenient, within the self-created myth of a weatherless society … Embracing Winter is the third exhibition in a series at The Warehouse Gallery referencing the natural world and encouraging environmental consciousness.”

Cool aesthetics emerged in this show in two ways. First, Suparak selected works by two artists whose work circulates through the coolest of all cool art scenes. Rudy Shepherd is an artist whose work shows at galleries like P.S.I, Mixed Greens and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and is written about in publications like Artforum and The Village Voice. Takeshi Murata is a digital artist with a similar profile, working with Eyebeam, featured in Artforum and hanging out with Paper Rad, who for me epitomize the irony-laced hipsterism of the contemporary art world.


Despite the fact that I’m merely listing the impressive accomplishments of these artists, somehow, it sounds like I am trivializing their work. I want to make it clear that that is not my goal: these artists are serious and skilled; they just happen to have also been marked as cool.

Second, Suparak intervened in the show in a way that flies in the face of conventional curatorial practice. Referencing Duchamp, she mounted several snow shovels, which could be borrowed, on the wall of the gallery, and she made two large piles of non-toxic de-icer (a salt alternative) reminiscent of Gonzales-Torrez’s candy spills. Visitors were invited to take small bags home with them. This speaks in the vernacular of cool, in that it flouts convention of the artist/curatorial divide with elan.

The next show Suparak mounted was Networked Nature, curated by the famously cool new-media outfit Rhizome, and first shown at the equally famous and cool Foxy Production in New York. This show deals again with ideas of nature and technology. One of the artists from the Networked Nature show was chosen to represent Taiwan at this summer’s Venice Biennale.

Suparak final exhibition at The Warehouse Gallery was titled Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze. Interestingly, this show took cool as part of its core. It evolved in part out of discussions Suparak had with her assistant director, Frank Olive, about the ways they had negotiated sexual-identity construction as adolescents. For both of them, this had to do with ideas of cool and glamour–specifically those around glam-rock, punk and heavy-metal music.

The show includes a video by Rachel Rampleman called Poison: My Sister Fucked Bret (2006), which I loved. In the piece, Rampleman’s sister, Sarah, tells the story of her obsession with Poison frontman Bret Michaels and the circumstances that took her to his house to have passionless, limp-dicked intercourse. Also notable are a series of exquisite, large-scale graphite drawings by Juliet Jacobson depicting nude men with erections, and two works by Montreal artist Jo-Anne Balcaen. In the first, entitled Blow (2001), Balcaen affixed about 20 long, penisy-looking balloons to the wall in the shape of a heart. Over the course of the exhibition, the balloons gradually deflated, coming to resemble more and more closely Bret Michaels’ penis in his encounter with Sarah Rampleman. The second piece is the words, Aw, C’mon (2005), cut from mirrored plexiglass, presented in the familiar typeface and curved form of the Metallica logo. This was for me the most poignant work in a show about feminist responses to phallocentric heteronormativity. In the context of the exhibition, I saw it as both a girl’s plea for relief from said conditions and, painfully, a boy’s whining bid for sex.

I’d better do a bit of unpacking. Both the concept of moral utility and the concept of cool (Suparak’s aforementioned lodestars) tend to be contested and overdetermined, so I’ll try to explain how I’m using them here. Art that is morally useful, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is art that reduces suffering. In the case of Suparak’s practice, the kind of suffering that’s reduced is generally identity-related: the pain of feeling outside and alone.

There’s been some interesting scholarship on the subject of cool in the past 20-odd years. Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meanings of Style (1979) is an excellent example. More recently, Dick Pountain and David Robins’ Cool Rules: Anatomy of a Style (2000), while problematic in terms of its discussion of cool and gender relations, has some useful insights; more satisfying is Susan Fraiman’s collection of essays Cool Men and t-he Second Sex (2003). But the place I found the most lucid discussion of cool was, perhaps not surprisingly, Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia represented cool as a clear and fascinating plumb line running through historical eras and geographical locations with the democratic elegance that makes it so awesome. It’s worth a Google.


But what stood out for me–both from the research I did and from my personal history of trying to understand how to be cool–is the incredibly flexible nature of the relationship between cool and politics or ethics. True, cool has always been countercultural and disruptive to the status quo, but its edges have stretched to include socio-political groups as diverse as Valerie Solanas’ Society for Cutting Up Men and the child soldiers of Western Africa (if you’re skeptical about the latter, take a look at some images of these boys, posing with their Kalashnikovs and marijuana cigarettes, their names borrowed from the idiom of American hip-hop and their classically cool contrapposto stance).

So, yes, I am suspicious when cool is used to stand for political radicalism or moral utility. But what Suparak has done for me is to restore my sense that cool can work as a powerful rhetorical device. Because, as Miranda July pointed out almost 10 years ago, Suparak curates to empower those who feel less than powerful. Her practice is remarkable partly because, although she speaks in the vernacular of the my culture on which she cut her teeth, the exhibitions and programs she puts together speak about a range of issues, and her sense of social justice is comprehensive and critical. She uses her personal voice and her institutional power to give permission to speak to those who might not have believed they had it.

Posted in Art

Rita Donagh: towards a map of her artwork (1965-89)

The work of Rita Donagh focuses on the interrelationships between our modes of thinking and picturing the world and the ways in which we live: between our construction of it and how we come to act in it. Her primary device is the map. It is a vast, vital ‘pre-text’ which pervades and contains her production from the mid-1960’s to the intensive, complex rephrashings of the device in Shadow of the Six Counties, Long Meadow, Lough Neagh and related works of the 1980’s.

We encounter the map as sections of ordnance survey and contour maps elevation views of diagrammes, isometric and plan projections, profile schemes and aerial perspectives. In the less explicit, perhaps more inferred sense, it appears as a contrivance for designing a world, a machine for fashioning its energies-as something which stands for the ‘scene of all representation’.

To escape its metaphorical force is not easy. If the map ‘figures out’ a world for us it is only to involve us in the matter of ‘figuring it out’, of learning to find our way around, of getting from A to B’ which is also the less ‘mundane’ business of searching for the ‘right road’, the ‘proper path of action’.

Rita Donagh teases out and plays upon a particular feature of the map: the fact that if it gives us what we tend to take for granted as an accurate account of the ‘world out there’ it also looks radically unlike what it represents. In everyday, commonsense terms we rarely think the two things in any way at odds with each other: the particular convention of representation involved has so much become second nature to us.

It is however, that ‘fateful gap; between what the map tells us and how it goes about doing so that her artworks open out and probe. Shadow (1964-65) and 42nd Street (1965-66) chart aspects of a streetlife scene, human bodies and faces through different systems of convention, elevation views, distorted perspectives, trick projections and profile reductions. If all versions seem equally persuasive, we also experience them as ‘worlds apart’ from one another, let alone the lush naturalism of their photographic source.

In this sense we may speak of her artwork as ‘representation about representation’: the map encapsulates something about how signs and things relate which is not untrue of all visual representation. A highpoint of this interest is reached with Reflections on three weeks in May 1970 and related drawings (1970-71) which map out movements and activities in an interior space. A network of salients, trajectories, shifts in stance and orientation is pondered and plotted meticulously. Reports of action and events from the world outside, the shootings at Kent State University, are graphed in.

Images and signs assume a double-tongued character: on the face of it minimal and taciturn, they speak without pause and about the processes of their making. Nothing is depicted without it referring back to the act of representing. A gap is prised open between seemingly austere, laconic signs and the volumes they speak about states of feeling and mind, an inner world of hesitation and dilemma.

We find her artwork arguing over and disputing the authority of whatever they make part of their representation. This used to be taken as the ‘didactic’ element in her approach (Regan, M; Whitworth, 1977, p. 3). For us it has come to suggest that she does not so much aim at driving home a message as at ‘demonstrating’ how it gets driven home. Another aspect of the ‘instructive’ element expresses itself in her important contribution to post–1970’s developments in self-reflexive approaches to studio work, to the search for more critical interplay between art theory and practice.

The concern with ‘representation’ does not, however, lead her work away into an involuted, formalistic realm–‘the map’ remains too much of a blunt reminder that some ‘data’ wants communicating. The ‘content’ she elaborates springs from the map’s very ‘form’, the way it tells us about objects, things and locations by telling us about the structure and pattern of relationships between them.

In the ‘map system’ lines of connection and forms of linking may be decoded as quite the opposite–as lines and forms of division and separation: what appears connected tells a story implicitly about what has been forced apart, simply left out or opposed to something else. The artworks delve into the fact that the map’s ‘authority’ as a system of representation seems inextricably caught up with having to subordinate or exclude something. Dry, matter-of-fact delineations and demarcations called upon simply to denote ‘boundaries or borders’ begin to speak of a ground of tensions, pressures, transgressive force.

In this turn of the map stratagem, her works reflect on that particular interlocking of place and position, perspective and power relations termed ‘Ireland’. Whether explicitly cited or an elusive trace it stands as the central point of a knotted, painful historical conflict. We are obliged to look over and across it in piecing together the national narrative of the United Kingdom even when we choose to overlook it. In her work we come to see the orders of perspective as ‘surveillance’, ‘placing as a kind of policing’.

It strikes a note not dissimilar to emphasize some of the main theoretical currents of the day. Shadow and 42nd Street (1964-65), interestingly enough, were produced around the time Foucault’s ideas on the ‘constituting gaze and regimes of representation’ were beginning to be more widely disseminated in France (Naissance de la clinique 4, P.U.F., 1963: Les roots et les choses, Galimard, Paris, 1966). They were to circulate in the British scene somewhat later, contributing to an intertextuality which stretches from Rita Donagh’s artwork to something more recent like Tony Cragg’s Britain Seen from the North (Tate, 1981).

The ‘Ireland’ she evokes keeps close to the particular textures of moment and place: Talbot Street, Dublin, Belfast, Long Kesh, Long Meadow, Leitrim. Not unlike the address Stephen Daedalus scribbled down to locate himself in ever-widening circles to the whole universe, we move from this pavement, this street corner and lamppost to an awareness of the larger world. But the ‘Ireland’ we are given as a concrete, historical area of devastation, hurt and suffering is not only a geographical location: it is also a state of mind–a troubled and troubling area of imagination and spiritual life.


It symbolizes that agonising moment when, shaken by the fearfully systemic world of violence, force and violation, we find it hard to know how to act, if at all. Rita Donagh leads us through ‘Ireland’ to that other, mythic battlefield in ancient India where other families, torn apart by arguments over landrights and identity, stand arrayed for battle. Rather than take up arms, however much in the name of justice, against cousins, sisters, elders and relatives, Arjuna’s first response is to let them have their way.

His cry, ‘My body burns, my head spins, my hair stands on end, my mouth dries up, my limbs shiver, the bow falls from my hands: better to die than to slay’, opening moments of the Bhagavad Gita, celebrated section of the Mahabharata, reverberates through the many-threaded discourse between himself and Krisna on action and inaction, the use of force and non-violent persuasion. The discourse was to shape Thoreau’s Walden, in that “mingling of pure Walden water” as he put it. “with the sacred water of the Ganges”. His text forms the text of Rita Donagh’s New Bearings and related works (1970-72).

There are at least seven versions of Walden: the first one of 1846-47 and six others Thoreau created each time he went back to amend, revise, cancel, rearrange it between 1848-54. Nor, it seems, had he settled for a comforting ‘final one’, (Shanley, L. J. The Making of Walden, Chicago, 1957). The absence of the notion of an authoritative, definitive account feeds into the ‘work in progress’ the spirit of her New Bearings/Ireland group. As she intends, (Whitworth, 1977, p. 22) it puts in visual terms something of the idea of querying, circumspect, even self-doubting state of mind and feeling, an antidote, we may say, to dogmatisms and certitudes about the true version of ‘Ireland’.

In its intensive redrawing of Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden pond, Taking the trouble to sound it (1970-71) captures the sense of a mind pacing through its thoughts, revising and redefining its positions. By the phrase, Thoreau meant something not unlike what maping means to Rita Donagh–unending testing and trying out of values, beliefs, responses.

He had juxtaposed two places, two perspectives of life: the stale routines of Councord against the experimental, the search for fresh perspectives on living at Walden Pond. It gives us context of Rita Donagh’s own search for new perspectives on ‘Ireland’, beyond worn-out, fixed ways of understanding it.

Why Thoreau? Because his reflections on spiritual balance and poise, the inner disciplines of civil disobedience, the campaign against slavery, through the prism of Gandhi’s ‘experiments with truth’, through Martin Luther King’s efforts, were to shape many of the social and political movements Rita Donagh was to live through or of which she was aware in one way or another: the civil rights movement in Ireland, Black Civil Rights struggles, ‘passive resistance’ in South Africa.

Thoreau–because it is not always easy to square his stance with his support for the ‘violent’ Subhas–a gap between ideal and action which seems untidily and exasperatingly human. However, it may well be that this, with an irony of its own, renders it less impossible to live through and make sense of the tensions and conflicting pulls signalled by ‘Ireland’.

‘Ireland’ as place, event, moment: ‘Ireland’ as Arjuna’s cry and timeless scene of dilemma. The history/mth activated by Rita Donagh is not unlike Eliot’s use of it. He was, through Thoreau/ Emerson, to summon up Arjuna’s cry in refusing to take sides in the Spanish civil war, (The Criterion, 26 (63), 1937, p.290) an interpretation of Arjuna’s stance of detachment which has been challenged (Donoghue, D; “Eliot and The Criterion”, in The Literary Criticism of T.S. Eliot ed. D. Newton de Molina, London, 1977, p.27). In the bleak moments of the Second World War, against the backdrop of Ireland’s/India’s search for independence he was to return to the motif and pose the question ‘how to act?’ all over again:

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant–

And do not think of the fruit of action,
Fare forward.

O voyagers, o seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So, Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.’ (The Dry Salvages)

If the text-centred quality brings to the fore something of the ‘conceptualist’ provenance of Rita Donagh’s work it is no less a ‘pretext’ through which she manages to observe and comment on the world around us, on situations, struggles and events. Her emphasis falls on the search for critical awareness, on how meanings are made, rubbed out, revised. She avoids the forthright, full-voice address associated with art in the programmatic, committed mode.

By mid-century, these modes came to seem, as Adorno noted, in the ashen, ‘other’ perspective of ‘Auschwitz’, all too affirmative, too vehemently positive to ring true. It was to lead to his desperate remark ‘no art at all is better than socialist realism’. Aesthetic Theory, RKP, (1972) 1984, p. 79). It is a measure of Rita Donagh’s achievement that she finds a way of engaging with historical life and experience without falling back on the modes of ‘engaged art’. In this she comes to contribute to that recreating of ‘history painting’ in which, we may say, the genre reflects upon its own impossibility.

The topos of her work, as we have seen, is the map: not without significance, a piece is called Topography of Violence (1974). The concern is with how ‘Ireland’ is reported, depicted and represented. Evening Papers (Ulster 172-74), Pavement, Aftermath, Car Bomb, Newspaper Vendor and Talbot Street deal with how the media ‘covers’ and narrates such events, hew it cuts, pieces together and lays out its material.

A report in The Sunday Times, 19 May 1974 pictures the pitiful scene of a body on a pavement ‘covered by the evening newspapers’. It is the series’ ‘pre-text’: in conceptualist mode, the term ‘covered by’ with all its conceptualist mode, the term ‘covered by’ with all its connotations comes to frame our response. How issues are ‘covered by’ the media, the notion of ‘news coverage’, is set off against the idea that personal facts, painful moments of loss, grieving and shattering of individual lives tend to get covered up in the interest of a larger story which has to be told, some public, national mapping of the incidents.

The drive to disclose the facts, in this sense, turns out to be a drive to cover them up since the blindingly vivid and graphic terms in which one thing is recounted renders invisible some other aspect of the story. Against rumours and reports of the fate of a boy newspaper vendor, his own story is therefore checked by Rita Donagh, his own testimony and version of things is carefully sought out, (1977, p. 31). But this is not carried out in the spirit of an expose: the works do no juxtapose, in some stark, simplistic fashion, ‘media misrepresentations and misreportings’ against ‘the true way of picturing Ireland’.

The glimpses we catch of the map of Ireland through passages of transparent brushwork are at the same time not unlike a misty veil which clouds our view of it. What shows also appears to obscure. The misty paintwork evokes something of the veil of myths through which we read Ireland and through which it is constructed. The artworks do not cut through them to arrive at a ‘true account of things’ somehow beyond and outside their spell. Rather, they set up the search for something like the ‘true account’ in and through that tangled borderland between fact and fiction, representation and misrepresentation.

The image of the quilt from her family home in Ireland in Counterpane (1987-88) sums up the concern with ‘representing Ireland’, the business of covering an event and covering up. It evokes something of that mix of gravity and grandeur with a grieving almost unexpectedly personal, intimate tone associated with David’s Death of Joseph Barra. Counterpane is also quite literally a painting done ‘against pain’.

Art styles which have held sway in the late-modernist world are cited and placed in inverted comas in Rita Donagh’s artwork: media communication’s idiom, the grain of voice of popular culture and its jargon, conceptualist language, sheer painterly expressionism are amongst the styles she excerpts and recasts. Throughout her concern with the ‘grammars of representation’, ‘Ireland’ silently presses through–for like a bloodstain in a fairy tale, to use Adorno’s words, it cannot be rubbed off.


Art relating to Augustan femininity

Art relating to Augustan femininity was displayed elsewhere in the portico. Specifically, Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis, 36.28) describes the famous Aphrodite by Phidias, which formed one of the jewels of the collection. Its erection here would have evoked for the viewer the proclaimed divine ancestor of the gens lulia, Venus Genetrix. As mother of Aeneas, who founded the Alban settlement that later would become Rome, Venus legitimized Augustus’ dynastic and hegemonic claims. In art and literature, her nurturing aspect was emphasized above her erotic character, as is suggested by the so-called VenusfTellus/Italia relief on the Ara Pacis Augustae As noted, the Phidian statue may have been paired with the Cornelia figure, and, if true, the two surely would have created a striking visual and conceptual parallel between Rome’s ideal matron and the Julian family’s progenitor.

Other images in the portico provided exempla of a different nature. Festus wrote that a statue of the legendary Tarpeia stood in the Temple of Jupiter Stator. A seminal figure in Rome’s early history, Tarpeia betrayed the Roman people to their Sabine enemies for promises of gold. When the Sabine warriors attacked the Roman citadel, they killed Tarpeia for her treachery (Festus, 496L; Livy, 1.11.6-9). To later Romans, Tarpeia’s story was a cautionary tale, extolling women to eschew the pleasures of luxuria gained by betrayal in favor of patriotic devotion. In the context of the Augustan portico, Tarpeia’s image played off of Cornelia’s; she was an example of inappropriate feminine behavior and a constant reminder of the consequences of immoral acts.

Tarpeia’s actions resonated in other ways for Romans. Kampen argued convincingly that the story of Tarpeia’s treachery and the related rape of the Sabine women linked early Rome to the later Augustan city through the social policies the tale promoted. In the story, Roman men, lacking women to bear their children, kidnapped the Sabine womenfolk, an act that precipitated the later attack in which Tarpeia’s treachery cost her her life. Tarpeia’s interference signaled an attempt to foil Rome’s growth and ultimately its expansion. Though the historical accuracy of the story may be uncertain, it was a popular narrative in imperial Rome, appearing not only in the Porticus Octaviae, but in the extensive relief that decorated the Augustan renovations of the republican Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum, that most political of civic spaces. The story’s popularity suggests a general anxiety about a shrinking citizenry, and its appearance as a theme in the portico should be considered not only as a didactic tale of immorality, but as a call to women to place the interests of the state–the reproduction of citizens–first.

In combination, images of Cornelia, Venus, Tarpeia, and, in all likelihood, Octavia created a web of historically significant women related to each other through their stories, virtue, or disloyalty. Together these came to provide moral guidelines for the women of a new Rome with Octavia presented as a kind of generic proper matron, a living embodiment of and a reinforcement to a traditional notion of femininity.


Posted in Art