Boundless Sculpting

Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Conway Street

Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Conway Street

It’s a pillar-box red and soft grey space, which over the last few weeks has been home to colourful canvases from the Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike. Now the flowing lines and frenetic dots have been replaced by something entirely different. For our Year of the Horse exhibition, the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery on Conway Street, Fitzrovia has been turned into a stable of artists, paying homage to all things equine in conjunction with Chinese New Year. The exhibition explores the horse through a diverse portfolio of media. Towering over my desk for the next month as I intern is one particular example of that diversity which is not to be missed: Robert Bradford’s life-sized sculpture made entirely from soft toys, complete with gemstone eyes and leopard print hoofs fixed mid-frolic.

Robert Bradford, Soft Horse, 2014, soft toys, 220 x 320 x 95 cm

Robert Bradford, Soft Horse, 2014, soft toys, 220 x 320 x 95 cm

Bradford is an artist who pays scrupulous attention to form, but loosens the limits of that form. He challenges its building blocks, manipulating how it comes into shape. As he has said himself, the materials with which he brings together each piece take on the value of miniature sculptures in their own right. Just as with his dogs, crafted from plastic ‘My Little Ponies’ in candy shop shades, his horse cleverly plays with our perception. Majestically large from afar and intricate up close, the scale of his work is as small as it is grand, the horse’s body a composite of tie-dye beanie babies and plush nursery teddies. Bradford is a sculptor without bounds.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest objective, ‘Phoenix Rising’. This ephemeral display of pyrotechnical sculpture is the second fire-driven effort by Bradford to be funded by the Arts Council for England. It sees him craft huge wooden works on the beaches of Kent, which he then sets alight and floats out to the sea come nightfall. It will form part of the Herne Bay Festival, Bradford’s display taking place on the 23rd August. As his sculptures begin to burn, ash will spurt up in sudden animation, its undulation evocative of the saltwater waves each piece is soon to embark upon. Solid and static will become lithe and fluid, as destruction is recast as creation. Through this project, Bradford asserts himself once more as a sculptor who challenges the very foundations of sculpting, interrogating frontiers and shapes in the process of making them real. And this is why his work must not be missed.

 phoenixrising A3 (1)

Current exhibitions at Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery:

Jimmy Pike: A Desert Cowboy in London- 25 June to 30 August

Year of the Horse- 30 July to 30 August

Coming soon:

Yvonne Mills-Stanley: Grass- 6 to 30 August (Private View 7 August 6.30-8.30 pm)

 

 

 

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Writing on the Wall

The pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Berlin, now creased and frayed at the corners from heavy leafing, are helpfully demarcated by a spectrum of colour. Each district of the city has been allocated its own shade. This colour-coding proved invaluable for my recent trip to the city, as my boyfriend and I attempted to soak up every area (and, of course, multiple beer steins) within the confines of a long weekend.

Yet, however pragmatic Lonely Planet’s layout decisions may have been, presenting the city as a collection of colours, as a fragmented whole, seems to me entirely appropriate for a place that is so kaleidoscopic. As we enjoyed the famous Burgermeister burgers served from a disused toilet block under a railway bridge in Kreuzberg, it was as if we were in an entirely different city to that of humming Potsdamer Platz and KaDeWe’s glitter, which only that morning had put the best of the West on display.

Burgers from a toilet

Burgers from a toilet

Despite the fall of the Wall, Berlin remains a dynamic hodgepodge. Socialism meets neo-classicism, slick steel meets graffiti, sushi meets sausages. The city appears to sit snugly in a state of in-between, all physical barriers between East and West crumbled away, but the essential character of each still remarkably traceable to the flow of dwellers and tourists moving at liberty between the two. Total amalgamation cannot be felt, but this vibrant state of broken togetherness seems to be the desired condition. And nothing epitomises this more than the East Side Gallery.

Stretching 1.3km parallel to the Spree river, the East Side Gallery is the world’s largest open-air mural collection, with over 100 paintings decorating the last standing chunk of the Wall. From psychedelic faces to kissing politicians, dragons to the faces of Germany’s greatest intelligentsia, the Gallery showcases the translation of global optimism into art by a gathering of international artists. In the blinding midday sun, the Wall’s shade provided for us a space of retreat. Once a symbol of oppression, the last remaining bricks have been transmuted into a source of free thinking by a mere brush of paint.

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I was struck by the variety of images that we met. Some artists were able to correlate their artwork to what the original Wall had stood for, with murals offering clear political commentary or aphorisms hoping for a better mankind. One read ‘Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen’, and through painted representatives of diverse nations, stressed the importance of dismantling barriers. Others were less straightforward to interpret: a grinning chimp, a herd of crawling babies. At first, these cryptic illustrations tempt the viewer to try to disentangle some hidden political aspect from beneath their colourful surfaces. But the further down the Wall I wandered, the more they seemed to reflect upon the problems of representation itself.

Germany's big thinkers

Germany’s big thinkers

 

The unprecedented politics of the Wall and its brutal, blank facade makes aesthetic responses to it particularly knotty. How is one to place it within a value system that can communicate to those beyond its confines what it really stood for, when there is nothing to which it can really be compared? The arbitrary cartoons scattered along the stretch demonstrate that using political structures to respond to Berlin’s past is not always satisfactory or appropriate. Indeed, perhaps interacting with the Wall through such language and insignia perpetuates its dark, historic identity, reminding us of division and tyranny. Arguably, however, the very existence of the East Side Gallery in the first place keeps that stony divide alive.

On closer view, the surfaces of the murals are etched with graffiti from passers-by. Restoration efforts in 2009 indicate that for some, these autographs and scribbles were regarded as acts of vandalism. And yet, as viewers and residents continue to leave their marks, the Wall is clearly still undergoing an important global interpretative process and is yet to be relegated to the pages of library books. As Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has argued, the self is produced by its own history. The moment we try to do without the past, we deny an important element of our identity. Berlin’s history is still very much a part of its present. As the dark bricks of the Wall were torn down in 1989, man’s relationship with it became one of freedom. It is the aestheticisation of the final remaining stretch by the Spree which indicates that this freedom continues. To interact with the Wall in this artistic way is to truly tear it down. Bulldozers and sledgehammers are obsolete now.

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Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

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108 I-WE-INFINITY: Rich Mix Reviewed

Here is a sample of my review work, written in response to Gaynor O’Flynn’s Being Human 108 I-WE-INFINITY event at Rich Mix London, a celebration of cross discipline  art and creativity, which took place on 19th October 2013. I would love to review anything artsy and cultural; please get in touch via Twitter for any commissions .

 

In the red and black space of Rich Mix’s main space on the edgy strip of Bethnal Green Road, a cluster of aesthetes, culture-vultures and music-makers gathered together for what was billed to be ‘a day of music art film debate’. Cross discipline artist Gaynor O’Flynn, director of the Being Human collective, had drawn this crowd together to celebrate the launch of her latest project 108 I-WE-INFINITY, an event comprised of screenings, debates, conversations, displays and live performances from a range of media.

The venue

The venue

This was not simply an exhibition, but a thought-provoking analysis of the processes that contribute to the production of art, on both commercial and creative axes. And true to its title, everything was shaped by the number 108. The Royal Society of British Artists exhibited 108 portraits by its members, played out in a powerpoint accompanying a discussion of how art and business can work in powerful tandem. And as a gentle break following a controversial discussion on the derogatory nature of the term ‘world music’, we were spoilt with a display of 108 design samples from the East London Design Show. Hipster rucksacks, trendy desk lamps and gemstone jewellery were some of the images fading dreamily in and out on the black painted façade.

On my arrival, the dark auditorium obscured the majority of my fellow attendees faces. Only the bright stage illuminated the guest speakers, and crimson light bounced off the table-tops, filling the room with a subtle energy. This dingy anonymity was not to last for long. The buzzword resounding throughout the day was ‘collaboration’, a term not only discussed in relation to the ways in which different arts can work together, inform and improve one another, but a word resonant in the relationship between the audience and the speakers. After hearing from an expert panel, questions were extended out to those listening, creating an interactive community. And of course, the panels themselves were a collaboration of representatives from all areas of the arts.

I arrived as the room pondered the development of ‘Interactive Sound and Art’.  The discussion twisted and turned, demonstrating the intellectual worth of the day’s mission. With democratic access to the technology, the music market has become somewhat saturated, but this sense of participation is something to be celebrated if we consider music as a tool of personal expression. On the other hand, as more and more is produced, the sense of the craftedness of music diminishes, just as money loses its gleam with hyperinflation. One speaker suggested we ought to go on a sort of ‘media diet’, consuming a spoonful of data a day, an allotted amount of audio to help us appreciate once more the uniqueness of  individual compositions.  Or, as another suggested, perhaps we need not worry about the genesis of modern music, as a backlash against technology has been felt in the return to folk sounds. This to-ing and fro-ing of perspectives set the mood for the rest of the day, and it was here where O’Flynn’s event triumphed. More dynamic than an internet forum or blog, we were not just receptive to art in a passive, static position, but able to probe, question and altercate as well as spectate.

iTunes- one way that music has proliferated

iTunes- one way that music has proliferated

One fascinating, and for me, novel element of the day was the focus on the importance of the word ‘gatekeepers’ for the future of media and the arts. Perhaps a strange term to some, the talks continually stressed the role of human curators to control point of view and allow arty types with niche tastes to pursue their particular interests. Independent media magazines, such as Songlines, It’s Nice That, and Huck magazine are crucial in this field, ensuring that what people want to see is out there to be enjoyed. The premise of this particular discussion set up many interesting points about the diversification of media. Sadly however, too frequently attention was deflected from these pertinent questions, as the discussion meandered into more mainstream chat of matching content to display.

It was in one moment during the later interview with the artist Karl Hyde that the real value of Being Human’s intent shone through.  He is a synaesthetic artist, apt for an event that mixed media in a heady whirl of colour, sound, film and words. As he showcased a snippet of his film Life on the Outer Edges, Hyde stressed that there was beauty to be found in decay, art present in the outer edges of urban sprawl.  O’Flynn retorted that we seem to spend our lives rushing through to something more beautiful and that the film’s success lay in revealing the things we might overlook by giving us more time to think about what makes art art. And this, of course, was the point of the event, a chance to see things differently, to look at art more slowly and deliberately.

 

Collaborations, as Hyde argued, provide artists with reactions from others, allowing them to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. Anyone who considers themselves a lover of the arts should step into the world of Being Human. They may find themselves not only learning more about art, but about themselves as people, themselves being human.

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The Choice is Yours

Reflecting on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, many of us may have indulged in a last-minute artsy pilgrimage to taste the final dregs of whisky and catch the rounds of applause as the sprawling carnival drew to a close. My sister was one of those pilgrims. With a brochure rivalling the Yellow Pages in its dimensions, a website smattered in alluring adverts for shows and a drop-down menu of 10 different performance genres, those planning a Scottish adventure might have found themselves overwhelmed. 2013 was a record year for the world’s largest arts festival, with 2,871 different shows in 273 venues involving 24,107 performers. Of course, we should celebrate that such diversity gives lots of different artists exposure. But all this choice can soon become over-exposure for the eager visitor wading through the gargantuan catalogue.

Choice was once a word that promised freedom. When the Pill was first marketed in the 1960s, it was all about that little word ‘choice’. Able to say no to pregnancy, women’s bodies were liberated, their personal aspirations prioritised. And that kind of choice was powerful. In a world where convenience is king, fast-moving consumer goods are becoming increasingly prominent in our daily lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking that when we thoughtfully select the spice level for our Nandos chicken, we are in a position of power. We might for a moment get a heady rush of authority as we optimise every chicken-eating experience.

The right to choose

The right to choose

Yet, when the American coffee chain Starbucks first crossed the Atlantic in 1998, we were bamboozled by a menu that required expert navigation. We dithered between coffee and crème blended frappucinos, macchiatos and ristrettos in three different Italian sizes and grappled with the dilemma of drinking in or out. Such a bewildering portfolio of beverages can only be expected from America, a nation whose individuals are known to make an average of 70 choices a day. Indeed, I remember all too well a moment from a childhood visit to Florida when my mother struggled in the heat to organise a picnic lunch for a young family of five. I remember her anguished journey through the bagel creating process- did she want onion/sesame/poppy/granary/multiseed/rye or walnut bagel? Lettuce/rocket/watercress/spinach/mixed salad? Jack cheese/pepper jack/blue jack/herb jack? Far from being liberated, she’d been robbed of right to re-fuel with what was supposed to be a meal on the move. And what was then, is now. I find myself having to do mental gymnastics just to work out what qualifies in the Boots ‘meal-deal’.

bagels

A multitude of sandwich experiences

Perhaps what is most interesting is that the vast choice that businesses lay on for us can drive consumers away rather than lure them in. The famous study conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar, a Professor at Colombia Business School and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’ (2010) presented shoppers with two different sample booths of Wilkins and Sons jams. Whilst more passers-by were drawn to the glistening appeal of 24 different flavours to taste, the other stall secured more sales despite being decorated with a mere 6 jars. Faced with less choice, the busy shopper was much more likely to commit. Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us, ‘no longer liberates, but deliberates. It can even be said to tyrannise’. There are 216 brands of facial wash in Superdrug. This is no good to the angsty teenager combing the crammed shelves for a discreet solution. In these moments, old-fashioned soap and water become all too tempting, suddenly transformed into a luxury simply because they are easy.

Brand overload

Brand overload

Choice is suppose to set us free, but instead it leaves us shackled at the counter. We find ourselves drawn in by ‘you want it, you got it’ promises and yet more and more frequently I’m losing sight of what I originally wanted, going along with anything just to move the process forward. ‘The choice is yours’. Or is it?

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Serial Thrillers

1990s culture had lots of perks. Some of us remember the music, the rise of the Pokemon card, the questionable fashion. For me, the 90s was defined by two must-have brands, the Beanie Baby and that ever so slightly creepy, chirping bird-doll-hybrid Furby creature. We might look back on these fads with a fondly nostalgic eye, whilst being quietly grateful that we have moved on to greater things, to smoothies, to micropigs, to kindles. However, in terms of the world of fiction, there is one 90s trend that is still influencing the way we read today, and that is the serial novel.

Furby friend of the 90s

Furby friend of the 90s

In spite of its 1996 publication date, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, first in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is still topping Waterstones’ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror bestseller list. In fact, the list is dominated by other books from the series, the formulaic titles chiming together repetitively, like a meditative chant of words from another world; swords, dragons, kings, thrones. Unsurprisingly, the neat sense of continuity in the A Song of Ice and Fire collection makes it perfectly adaptable to television. Not wanting to miss out on the next link in the chain, the recent third season finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers, making it HBO’s second most-watched programme of all time. Indeed, just as we wait in a reverently carb-free limbo for the next episode of The Great British Bake-Off and relish in re-entering the parlour of Downton once more this autumn, the book-in -a-series format is a sure way to create a classic page turner that has readers suffering from a heady addiction. Let’s not forget the queues and hysteria surrounding the latest J K Rowling effort, as eager buyers grappled to get their hands on the latest contribution to story-time for the children, their Sunday night read or their lunch break.

Game_of_Thrones_title_card

The popularity of 1990s oeuvres such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire and His Dark Materials heralded a new movement in the world of fiction that continues to be felt. Indeed, in cinemas recently was the first installment of the The Mortal Instruments, a series of six young adult fantasy novels no doubt following in the wake of their 1990s antecedents.  And it’s not just limited to fantasy, to a world of mythical battles and politics. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy entranced readers with a slightly different power game. In parallel to our TV routines, as we loyally follow episode after episode of docudramas, talent shows and cookery series, the way we read has been transformed into a question of ‘what comes next?’. As we journey breathlessly through novel after novel to the imaginative parameters of the epic whole, it seems that every-day entertainment now comes in bulletin format. It’s about getting your hand on the latest, the next in line. Reading has become a bit like watching a soap opera.

And yet, delving into the past reveals that enjoying books in episodic format is something that we have a much older figure than George R R Martin to thank for.  Due to the rise of literacy and advances in print technology, as well as efficiency and improved economics of distribution, the serialisation of novels became voguish in the Victorian era. And this was all due to Charles Dickens’ 1836 serialised work The Pickwick Papers. Following that huge success, Dickens’ subsequent works were published in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers, giving the inquisitive reader regular bulletins of another world and heightening their appetite as the latest chapter went to print. In fact, Dickens’ method of serial publication proved to enliven his readership so greatly that he developed an editorial relationship with them, modifying his stories and characters over the weeks and months in tune with their reactions.

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

Say the words ‘Charles Dickens’ to a reluctant reader and they might wince at the thought of a hefty, starchy tome. Yet in reality, his epic character studies were broken down into tantalizing tit-bits, each structured internally like a miniature serial novel of today, with climaxes, twists and turns but just enough of a cliff-hanger to leave us yearning for the next installment. Dickens is credited with creating the caricature, a figure whose quirks are exaggerated to a larger-than-life extent, so that we cannot help being captivated. And that is much the same in today’s serial novels. So no matter how much weird and wonderful characters like Edward Cullen have become icons of 21st century global popular culture and our obsession with serial storytelling and fantastical escapism, they are the products of a literary form rooted firmly in a tradition that is much closer to home. Perhaps when we lose ourselves in a sequence of novels, we are actually finding our way back to the beginning.

Dickens

Dickens

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Picture Perfect

Some day I will go to the Aarus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eye-lids,

His pointed skin cap.       (The Tollund Man, Seamus Heaney)

‘Can you all get in a row please? Quickly, before the sun goes in!’. These words shape my family holidays. My mother has always had the photography bug and passed it on to my sister. As technology has advanced, so have the number of my mother’s cameras, and with that, the number of family poses, the number of print envelopes and the number of weary smiles. Every snapshot moment is recorded in three, fragmented across digital, film and mobile phone mediums with the latter resulting in a picture message sent to my brother so that at his office desk he too can partake in the moment as the shutter clicks. She is almost weighed down by her apparatus as various cameras clink together around her neck like a couple of Gok Wan ‘statement’ necklaces from a more futuristic age.

As we walked through the Terra Nostra botanical gardens on our family holiday on the island of San Miguel in the Azores last week, cameras were predictably clicking all around me, but the ways in which my sister and mother recorded each moment were startlingly different. As the latter arranged us in cereal-box, sunny, family poses in the tree ferns, my sister hurriedly frolicked from plant to plant. She was only interested in snapping forensically detailed pictures of moss, beetles and bark and crouching in the shrubbery with a high zoom to capture the skin of a strawberry.

strawberry

To me, both of these photographic tributes to the garden seemed to fragment its reality somewhat, either by glazing it with a layer of artificial neatness through my mother’s lens, or physically anatomising the garden into its composite pieces via my sister’s camera. The moment was no longer a whole, but remembered in parts. A photograph can never encapsulate the essence of a place or person in its entirety, but just a glimpse of an expression, the fall of light, the flick of a branch in the breeze, a put-on smile. In this way, can it ever truly immortalise an occasion? Does it just break apart the truth and emboss memories with a sense of something staged, printing one tiny moment onto fragile paper so that it is vulnerable to fade, to crinkle and to tear? Or are these papery traces of the past a fitting reminder of the way that time decays us? Just as material fragments dug up at archaeological sites become valuable jigsaw pieces to understand the past, perhaps photographs, even though they are constructs, can put back together a moment that time has decomposed.

On May 8th 1950 on the bogs near Silkeborg, Denmark, a peat digging family came upon the body of a man. Unearthed from under 2.5 metres of peat,  his dark, leathery frame was almost perfectly preserved, with the whites of his fingernails still visible, his chin still grizzled by stubble and his forehead creased and lined as if squashed up against a pillow in slumber. This remarkable find became known as the Tollund Man, a conserved relic of Iron Age life and practices that has fascinated not only archaeologists, but artists, writers and poets, inspiring Seamus Heaney’s words above for example. Snapped from every angle, we imaginatively and emotionally engage with his foetal fragility and lifelike expression, but in the same instance we cannot help but recoil. Around his delicate neck, a muddy noose is wound, and it severs us both temporally and culturally from him just as it severed his life.  The majority of photographs of the Tollund Man skim over this problem, instead working hard to emphasise his humanity and similarity to us, with the zoom angled towards his furrowed brow, his soft lip, the curve of his clenched fist and minute detail of his hand. Aestheticism and emotion shape the photographers’ purposes, as they soften the focus at any suggestions of trauma and torture, sacrifice or murder. Even Heaney’s poem, less dramatic in many respects than a raw photograph, processes the Tollund Man’s body in a series of fragments. Heaney breaks his face and frame into pieces to make it more manageable, emphasising the tiny human details rather than the alien and unnerving whole.

Tollund Man

The lifelike face of the Tollund Man man is remarkably preserved

tollund man 2

A very human detail

A very human detail

Does the eye’s desire to view this body in parts bring a sense of subtlety and delicacy to our curiosity, as we tentatively and respectfully approach a figure fossilised by mud in his dying moments? Or does it romanticise, creating an artificial image that inadequately represents the Tollund Man’s whole and skims over the darker potential of his death?  Karin Sanders’ book ‘Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination’ explores some of the ethics of photographing archaeological finds and convincingly argues that photographing specific body parts from various angles does create something falsely emotive, but still sets up a reverent distance in seeming to photograph the Tollund Man twice, regarding his whole face before shifting the focus to his lip, eye or leather cap. For her, just as the ‘age-old dark room of the bog’ has preserved him, so can our photographs. Now as I remember my groans and jaded smiles in the Botanical Gardens, I feel a little foolish. As the Tollund Man’s example has shown me, even if images are only pieces and parts of a greater whole, they can carry a past moment into the present. We are not simply trying to work against time’s passing in photography, but work with that passing, reflecting upon its powers of fragmentation and decay in the mere flickers and hints of moments that we manage to capture on film.

polaroid100909

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