Friday 30 July 2010

Familiar territory

I’m not in the office today; decided to work four-day weeks for the rest of the summer, since the summer school fiasco used up all my spare money and I can’t afford to go away again. So today I’m going to the Alice Neel show at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Whitechapel, where I worked for a while in the 1990s, in a hot, square, converted cloth warehouse now the head office of a drugs and mental health charity. Whitechapel, home to the largest British-Bangladeshi community, where every morning more and more of the young mothers taking their kids to school were wearing the niqab – black ghosts on the tidy, sterile streets of the public housing estates. Whitechapel Gallery, where I often had lunch with my friend C, where one day in the café she confided something that stunned me and quite changed my image of her. I thought of calling her about the exhibition. My friend who died a few months ago. Whitechapel, where I never go these days. 

I’m pathologically defended with people – probably the result of a mother who bared her (not very  nice) soul to me, as messy, damaged adult souls should not be bared to young children who don’t have a context for the pain, who held me close, too close, her little acolyte. You can’t be pathologically defended against everything and remain alive and sane, so perhaps I give my heart too readily to places, let them bathe me in all the love and hate and fear that make up their auras, and when it all becomes too much I leave and can’t go back.  My little world is full of ordinary places that were once familiar, daily territory, that grew so loaded with feelings, good and bad, that when life moved on they stayed there, vivid ‘hot spots’ in my mental landscape, places to be avoided for fear of getting burned.  

Norwich proved, after all these years, to be a hot spot. Yorkshire, where I used to live, is definitely one – I didn’t go back for more than twenty years. London has its hot spots too. In such a big city you can easily avoid large areas. Holloway, where I lived for nearly a decade with friends I no longer see – I don’t go there. Kings Cross, where I worked in the job that brought me to London, was off my map for the longest time, until the opening of the lovely Kings Place arts centre brought it back into ‘my’ London. I recall consciously trying not to fall into this syndrome when I left the job I did for nearly fifteen years, in a backstreet office in Clapham from where politicians and their acolytes came and went to destinations all over the world (mmm, still an acolyte). It was strange indeed to realise that office would no longer be the magnetic pole that everything whirled around. I didn’t want a hot spot just three miles from my house, so I made an effort to keep in touch, call in from time to time, and bit by bit the place began to lose its charge – better: these ‘hot spots’ are not very healthy.

 So, anyway: Whitechapel, Alice Neel - I think that’s another blogpost.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Reflections and parentheses

Reflections in the River Yare, in the centre of Norwich. Stuck at the railway station for an hour before leaving, with my backpack and my laptop (not a light-weight model) and the railway station having no Left Luggage office (most UK stations don't - they were closed at the height of the IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s and never reopened), I was delighted to find the riverside right across the street and to spend an hour gazing into the water. In fact, I could have spent much longer. It is a lovely city, in a lovely county (as the river link shows a little), whose flat, open, watery landscape is much to my taste  Having exorcised my nasty memories a bit, I do hope really not to feel I have to avoid it for ever!

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Fifty-five thoughts

So many thoughts, so often the same ones.

Monday 26 July 2010

Bad vibrations?

Well, is there anything that I can say about this past week that won't seem like the wildly disproportionate ravings of a sad, mad mind? 

I splurged rather a lot of money on a highly reputed week-long summer school in an activity very close to my heart (I'm not putting a link - they deserve only good publicity).  The working method was anathema to me. I hated it, and hated myself for hating it. That's all, really. Attacked with sharp knives in a precious part of me, a small skill that usually makes me feel competent, confident and centred.

The people were lovely, the food and drink quite excellent. I took it one breath at a time like a good buddhist, and so somehow did not run screaming from the place leaving behind me the sour taste such exhibitions tend to leave; survived it and got home only a bit shell-shocked, wondering: what the hell was that about? 

Norwich is an ancient, cultured city. I'd been there only once before and that was more than thirty years ago, but sharp as yesterday, because it was traumatic. I went there to visit my love, who was inexplicably doing his teaching practice as far as possible from our home in Yorkshire. While there I found out why he'd grabbed the opportunity to absent himself for a while. I mentioned that I'd been to the house where we used to live. S and her new baby were flourishing. No, I hadn't seen T, who'd been ill in bed. At this my love went white and rushed to the phone, and thus it was that I found out he and T had been sleeping together and she'd recently had an abortion. I hadn't seen it coming, not at all. There had been clues, but I'd ignored them because I knew my friend T was only attracted to women. Not bisexual. Not even ever so slightly ambivalent. Lovely, adorable T who was very fond of him, but would never desire him - I guess she was the ultimate challenge to a womaniser. I don't suppose she'd ever given a thought in her life to contraception.  What were they thinking? Whatever did we all think we were doing with each other's hearts and minds, never mind each other's bodies, back in the 1970s? I should have fled screaming at once from Norwich and from that relationship. It took me much longer to leave it.

I hadn't thought of this for many years until I found myself going to the city last week. On the bus from the railway station to the university, a sharp burst of recognition hit me. I think we must have passed the street where my love was living all those years ago. Norwich is a lovely city with a truly wonderful art gallery, but perhaps it's somewhere I'd do better to avoid.  I don't really believe in such things, but, well, what if that need to run screaming remains inside me to be triggered every time I re-enter this bit of the ether? This might not be completely hokey - much about cells and energy that we still don't know...

Sunday 25 July 2010

Black and white

Nope, I can't write about last week. It was a bad week. No one's fault. It's over. 

More photos are here. It's kind of funny that I read and wrote about the resonance and comfort of images shortly before such a heightened awareness of this in the past few days.

Friday 23 July 2010

Deep green deep

The university campus is outside the city, fringed by countryside, steaming softly in the humid heat. Yesterday I took the wooded path around the small lake. A whispery, deep-green place with only a few fishermen for company. 

In the parched scrub beyond the woods, mullein plants flourish: the soothing herb.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Losing face and finding faces

So, well, I'm in the middle of a very challenging week away. The most positive thing I can say is that I'm finding out a lot about myself, both good and bad, the ways in which I've grown kinder or more resilient with age and the ways in which, oh dear, I haven't grown at all. Getting to know yourself better is never wasted, I suppose.

Amidst this difficult time, a break for art. The balm of beauty, of aesthetic pleasure and surprise. A welcome move away from the domain of words - for the challenging stuff is all about words. The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts is a dream come true. Based on the collection of wealthy patrons of the arts Robert and Lisa Sainsbury and encompassing ancient and modern works from most parts of the world, what unites it is a clear aesthetic. " of art", Robert Sainsbury once said, "...have appealed to me irrespective of period or style... my personal reaction to any work of art is mainly sensual. Intuition largely taking the place of intellect."  This is very evident in the collection, and I love it! It gives permission to look first at form and colour, to compare, contrast and connect first on that basis. It doesn't make you less interested in facts, in history or context, but it does open the field of perception in hugely satisfying ways.  

Though it feels like a refuge from the horror words have been opening up for me, none of this seems irrelevant to the rest of the week's experience because the collection is overwhelmingly figurative and, feeling at such a loss, so undermined, I find myself drinking in human shapes, depictions of the personhood I have felt slipping away in a situation where I just don't know what to do. I look and look at all these figures, all these faces, from near and far, from down the ages and much closer to my own time, faces in every state of peace and war, private and public, broken and whole, decaying and only half born, and I recognise myself and am strangely comforted.

Wednesday 14 July 2010


It’s almost a month since I saw the current photography exhibition at Tate Modern. A month of continuing exhaustion, escalating heat and humidity and consequent inability to do much in the way of writing. But seeing this exhibition, and especially the thoughts I had in response to it, felt significant and I still want to try and record those thoughts.

It’s titled Exposed and deals with photography as a tool of surveillance, of voyeurism, of potential violation of privacy. It brings together a odd range of stuff:

“250 works by celebrated artists and photographers including Brassaï's erotic Secret Paris of the 1930s images; Weegee's iconic photograph of Marilyn Monroe; and Nick Ut's reportage image of children escaping napalm attacks in the Vietnam War. Sex and celebrity is an important part of the exhibition, presenting photographs of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Paris Hilton on her way to prison and the assassination of JFK. Other renowned photographers represented in the show include Guy Bourdin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Philip Lorca DiCorcia, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Lee Miller, Helmut Newton and Man Ray”, along with “works by both amateur and press photographers, and images produced using automatic technology such as CCTV”.
The list of famous photographers is impressive, but there wasn’t much to appeal to me aesthetically. A shiver of excitement at seeing one famous and particularly wondrous picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson. A shot by Harry Callahan which I can’t find online, a backview of a woman in a red dress: no head, no arms and legs, just the dress in close-up, it’s colour and its folds and shadows as the wearer moves – a photo which I’d never seen, but which must stand at the beginning of a line that has influenced me deeply. Not a lot, though, to gave me pleasure, and quite a bit to give the opposite. The ‘candid’ shot that verges on nasty, like some of Walker Evans’ street photos of blind, disabled or just plain odd people. Nan Goldin’s intimate photos of her friends had nothing distasteful in themselves, but the slide-show in a small dark side-room full of sweaty, staring men (yup, all men) did rather shock me. The press and surveillance photographs which made up much of the exhibition I mostly found merely boring.

Expecting to have a lot of feelings about this show, I found myself remarkably unengaged by it. That very lack of engagement, though, led me to some realisations about what I like to look at, what I like to photograph, and why. Photography and voyeurism is a topic that concerns and troubles me deeply. Just recently I took down a photo I had posted here. It showed a young woman quietly smoking and talking on her mobile phone in an empty alley, quite unexpectedly spontaneous and beautiful. I took it down with heavy heart because I loved that photo and felt intense joy in taking it, but with conviction, on reflection, that I should, because the essence of the image was that she had thought herself unobserved.

I have an ongoing disagreement with a friend who feels I am too blasé about taking photos of people in public places without their permission. I deeply respect this friend’s views and instincts, many of which I share. So this disagreement troubles me – as it should. It’s not just an intellectual disagreement. Our deepest feelings about this clearly differ. She has a gut-felt objection to being such a subject, whilst I couldn’t care less if someone photographs me on the street – if I’m in a public place, I can be seen: so what? I can heed the views and feelings of others and modify my actions accordingly. I should, and I will. But my instinct remains different from my friend’s. It just isn’t a feeling I can identify with. I might well object to being the subject of state or institutional surveillance, but I really don’t care if I’m the subject of an individual’s voyeurism, or curiosity, or visual manipulation. Of course, I probably don’t care because I have such strong voyeuristic tendencies myself. I love to look, and that is why I love taking photographs. I would contend that my looking is essentially benign. I look with love and admiration and interest and my look does no harm, unless it is harm to myself when I content myself with looking though I bleed inside for lack of touching, interaction. I loved photographing the young woman in the alley because she made such an artlessly beautiful picture.

Seeing this exhibition deeply confirmed this for me. I felt no interest whatsoever in most of the photographs on view, photographs which were not imagined, not composed, not experienced emotionally or aesthetically as they were taken, whose only purpose lay in surveillance, exposure. I have no interest, I realised, in photos that are not conceived or intended as art. I didn’t think I could ever come up with an ‘artist’s statement’ about my photographs. But perhaps I could (though I don’t know that I’d want to. Isn’t it superfluous, pretentious?) If I did want to make such a statement, I would say that I take photos to make patterns, to evoke moods, to ‘paint’, to ‘draw’ - because I cannot paint or draw - what I see, the games my mind’s eye plays, which will never be quite the same games as those of another mind. And that this is what all the great photographers I love are doing.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Keep it simple

One day at a time, one thing at a time, essential things first, with no need, when times are hard, to look any further – this really is so simple, but more than half a lifetime in a society like ours has rendered it the opposite of intuitive. Such strong impulses arise to rumination, complication, proliferation of painful thoughts, suppositions and conclusions. So every day it's relearning over and over again to keep things simple. And every day lived slowly and patiently and as best I can – however poorly best may seem – has a value just because it is. Like laying hands, eyes, mind repeatedly on the wall’s plain surface: white, black, light, shade, real, present, something.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Contemplation of images

For more than a week now there's been an intermittent problem with Blogger - only possible to post with the old post editor that doesn't allow images any larger than this. This leaves me deeply aggrieved and I realise that I've grown used to and satisfied by the larger images, that they serve some kind of purpose for me, a therapeutic externalisation of something. The detail from Velazquez's The Waterseller of Seville features in a new book by one of my very favourite writers, Tim Parks. Teach us to Sit Still is the account by this immensely talented, versatile and prolific novelist, essayist, critic, translator of how he slowly recovered from chronic pain through learning to be quiet, be still and reinhabit his body. The text is interspersed with images - photographs, drawings, illustrations from medical textbooks and websites, reproductions of paintings. In a frontispiece note, the author writes:
"Over the period when I wasn't well, and again when I was writing this book, I found myself spending more and more time looking at images. It began with a need for clarity, the desire to see my physicial problem represented, but more and more the contemplation of images of any kind... seemed to offer relief from the language-driven anxieties inside my head."

Friday 9 July 2010

Thursday 8 July 2010


The orchid on my windowsill has bloomed for a whole year. Recently joined by a second orchid, rich in blossoms, it at once began to drop its own, as if it knew. The dropped and dying blooms are as compelling in their own way as the fresh ones, as evoked much better than I can by Janice Tieken (whose photographic art, which I absolutely love, I discovered via Persist, Peter Clothier's terrific book and associated blog, of which more soon) .

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Friday 2 July 2010

Into the trees...

... with the utterly fabulous Zoe Keating, whose new album of that name reached me today. I'm alone in the office, so I'm playing it LOUD, and will no doubt continue to play it obsessively for weeks, as I did with her last album.

The CD is gorgeously packaged with photos (like the one above) by her partner Jeffrey Rusch of Zoe in the forest north of San Francisco, where they now live with their young baby, make and record music. "Before moving here", she writes, "I never thought much about trees. I saw them as attractive greenery - nice to look at, but potentially full of spiders... It was a while before I began to see them as living beings, and then as part of a larger entity - The Forest. Eventually, on my walks, I began to notice signs of the Ghost Forest - the giant redwoods that used to be here, cut down 100 years ago to build and rebuild San Francisco."  You can hear the giant trees and see them in the music, which is even deeper and more resonant than her last album, while remaining just as pared down. Other-worldly. By turns haunting, gut-grasping, beguiling and mesmerising. Wonderful. And wonderful, too, of course, that she's built her huge and deserved success entirely independently - no record company; music made by one person, a cello and a laptop and promoted on line.

Hear some of the new album, download it for very little money or order the CD on her website.

Watch and hear Zoe Keating talk about and demonstrate her personal fusion of classical cello and computer technology.

Watch and hear her play some more of a piece called 'Escape Artist'  - which she certainly has been for me today.

"Every sound on this recording was played on an acoustic cello,
including percussive parts.
On 'Hello Night' I whistled into the f-holes."

Thursday 1 July 2010

One good thing

One good thing about being a particularly sorry, helpless type, about having taken a now-longish lifetime to even start learning the basics, is that you can be doing really badly and still feel quite considerably encouraged because you're doing better.