Monthly Archives: August 2012

In the Time of the Rockets

Overall Aerial View of MISSILE ROW Looking North.
Launch site of American Astronauts.
NASA TOURS conducted by TWA, P.O. Box 21222, Kennedy Space Center, Fla.106486

This one seems appropriate for the month that Neil Armstrong and Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury used the rocket as an exuberant metaphor to get both his characters and his stories way from Earth, where both narrative and character could be free. Armstrong, a real actor in the drama of the space race was more prosaic and quite clear about his place in history: “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” While we like to talk about Armstrong as hero, he displayed few of the attributes that one might expect of a hero; indeed he was better exemplified the super-attenuated nullities that crewed the space craft in Kubrick’s 2001, a film where the villainous computer, the spaceship itself, displays more emotion than its victimised human passengers. Armstrong revealed the race to put a man on the moon for what it was; the engineered delivery of the organic guidance system of a three-stage missile to the surface of the moon. Armstrong was simply the tip of the nose-cone of a vast project that had only one goal, like a bullet has only one goal; to deliver itself to its final destination.

The moon landing was a ‘professional achievement’, not an epoch defining miricle, not the beginning of a new age, but an end in itself. The existential nature of the project places it more in the realm of, of course, one of my favourite writer, JG Ballard. In his Memories of The Space Age, astronauts wander confused amongst the deserted 60’s ramblers, swimming pools and abandoned launch gantries of a future Cape Canaveral, where the dream of space, of civilisation itself, has collapsed into a fugue state of languid meaninglessness. When asked about his favourite books, Ballard replied that the LA Phone directory would be all that he would need; the perfect amalgam of obsession, boredom, precision and C20 technology that both exemplifies Armstrong and Missile Row.

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All About Eve’s

Tony and Eve welcome you to Hector, Minnesota. Located on Main St (Highway 4), just 3 blocks north of US Highway 212, Tony and Eve’s Place offers the traveler a refreshing rest in his journey. 1969.

Hector is a small town to west of Minneapolis off, as the card says, Highway 212. Population 1151, according to the 2010 census, a considerable drop from 1969, even from 2000. No point in giving much more detail about Hector, since that’s all pretty easy to find if you’re thinking about moving there. So what to say about the card? The decline of the Mom and Pop lunch place and general store? The vernacluar architecture of rural Minnesota; yellow brick, glass block, and simple rebuilding of the wood fronted general store that we know from cowboy films? 1960’s advertising and how little this has changed, really, in these remote outposts; RC Cola, Coca Cola, Hamms’s beer? The RC Cola machine on the street; how all these services, as was predicted, has now gravitated to the gas station instead? The understated sexism of the male traveler, perhaps purchasing a card to mail to the family back home? Al these dull things, I suppose, but mainly what came to mind is the sub-genre of the Martin Parr boring postcard, of which this must surely rate highly. This is patronising in both a metropolitan and temporal way;  what exactly would be an interesting postcard, anyway? As images have now ceased to be physical, and can be taken and deleted at will, the boring postcard (of which, if i keep it up, there will be many on this blog), is often the only record of a place and a time. Tony and Eve’s is long gone, yet we still know them, their store, their town, and the series of decisions that lead them to purchase a small postcard of their business enterprise in 1969, published by the Hector Mirror. Point being is that everything is interesting: something can be drawn from seeming nothing.

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Talking Heads

Gabriel Orozco, Black Kites 1997. Philadelphia Museum of Art: gift (by exchange) of Mr. and Mrs. James P Magill.

Another card purchased at this year’s Documenta 13. Black Kites by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco.

You have to qualify Orozco with ‘Mexican’, for the first point of contact with this piece is always the decorated skulls of pre-Cortes Mexico, the ghoulish remnants of the Aztec death cult, or the crystal skulls of Arthur C Clark (and, sadly, Indiana Jones), the ones that you pick up in Glastonbury for a hundred quid or so, and that are always fakes (notwithstanding what your flatmate’s crazy tour manager might say).

Black Kite might also remind the reader of the Cheel Gaar of the Indian Parsi and Dakhma of  the ancient Persian Zoroastrians, the sky burials of Tibetan Buddhism, where kites and other birds of prey wheel over the towers of silence. All these things a skull can tell us: so far, so Damien.

But of this sculpture, produced by Orozco for Catherine David’s curation of Documenta X in 1997, is explicitly none of those things. If the skull is the ultimate ready-made, the structure that lurks, a la Ray Bradbury, below the skin, then Orozco’s intimate encounter with the skull is his attempt to understand and map that inner geography. Pencil, ink, bone; these are the tools for our understanding for millennia. The black inked squares do not decorate the skull, they map it, the distorting into kites as the graphite pencil diamonds fall across the complex surface of the skull. The Chuck Close distortion in the postcard image reads this an object that cannot be mapped in 2 dimensions, I am a sculpture that can only be experienced as real, the skull smiles grimly.  Black Kites operates in the most effective mode of artistic expression; ambiguity. While the work speaks to me of the gothic and the memento mori of the decorated skull, it also tells of art’s attempt to map and understand what it is to be human: the desperation of Patrick Bateman as he plunges his hands into the corpse of another hooker, the childish decoration of found bone, or the waving checkered flag that signals the end of the final race. As a child, my parents once bought me a gift from Italy, a small bag of crudely decorated coloured balls, painted in modeling enamels with the colours of the Sienese Palio, basic, simple, tourist knick-knack, yet each marked with hand of the artist. Black Kites connects these impulses, producing a folk-art digital map of the structure that lies below all humans; simple, direct and supremely subtle.

The obvious connect, exactly tens from Black Kites years on, would be with Damien Hirst’s For The Love Of God (2007); and again, the comparison between the works can only be instructive. The usefulness of Hirst as a visual culture construct is that he is a truly bad artist, trite, un-imaginative, deeply conservative, and so his incredible success is both unsurprising and an illumination of the poverty of creative expression of our times. His genius is his approach to mirroring those times. Hirst’s diamond encrusted platinum gee jaw tells us how we live now, but contrasting his carbon gemstones with the graphite diamonds of Black Kites (and how can we say that one work did not influence the other? I can imagine Hirst standing in front of Orozco’s work and thinking, surely I can say this better?), we can see how Orozco asks how we live at all. If you want to know understand the visual culture of the early C21 (a noble and usual impulse, but easily satisfied) look at Hirst, if you want seek to consider our human existence, look at Gabriel Orozco. One is temporal, the other eternal.

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Oh So Pretty

State Capitol Bank, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
This beautiful and modernistic designed bank located at 3900 No. Lincoln Boulevard is called “Bank of the Future.” It is equipped with a floating air lobby from the main floor to the lower floor, and cashier to customer TV drive-in window.

‘Saw this from the hwy. Feb 1970’, written in pencil on the rear of this card. The Bank of the Future had been at 3900 N Lincoln since 1964, and is still there today. Designed by Robert Roloff of Bailey, Bozalis, Dickinson & Roloff, it was designed for State Capitol Bank. BBDR where quite modernist trail blazers and were responsible for some of Oklahoma’s most memorably ‘lounge-core’ buildings, including the Buckminster Fuller inspired ‘Gold Dome‘ (1958) off Route 66 for Classen State Bank. The State Capitol Bank building has changed considerably since it was photographed by modernist documentarian Julius Schulman. Now an outpost of the Arvest banking group (chaired by Jim Walton, youngest son of Sam Walton and the 9th richest man in the world) solid concrete walls replaced the glass curtain walls that linked the 17 ‘saucers’ to the ground, taking into account safety and HVAC issues. While from Google satellite the saucers are clear landmarks, from the street it looks like this today.

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Apocalypse 1160

Verdun, Bbl. de la ville, crd 66, Commentarius in Apocalpsin
Verduner Schule, wohl um 1160

This a photograph from my old Courtauld cache of a page from the Municipal library in Verdun, Northern France. It’s labelled as an image from the Commentary on the Apocalypse of St John the Divine; and there he is, John of Patmos being boiled in oil by the Emperor Domitian. Not only did the Saint miraculously survive, but the entire audience in the Coliseum were converted to Christianity. Still, he ended up being exiled to Patmos, anyway. I’m seeing the upper panel as the sinuous figure of John on his island, being divinely inspired to write his Apocalypse by an angel and a single trumpet.  This is page 1 after all. Unfortunately the online catalogue for the Verdun Library does not list this MS, and any search for Monasterio Sancti bitoni (from which this MS presumably came) only ends up with pages and pages of the pneumatic and distressingly hardcore Audrey Bitoni (ah, the internet!); which may mean that I’m mis-reading that lowercase b. It certainly seems that there is no Saint Bitoni; maybe a search of all x-itoni religious houses in Northern France?

Carl Nordenfalk, who took the photograph, helpfully indentifies it as School of Verdun, c 1160. It’s certainly early french, with beautiful sketchy style. I’d be surprised if the figures did not come from a musterbuch of some kind; though I’m equally surprised that Nordenfalk didn’t have a stab at identifying that himself. It’s clear that one of the books owners were similarly inspired to copy the figures and provide their own inscriptions; there may have been more, since it looks from the top edgge of the page that the book was cut down and rebound at some point.

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Hedge magic

80000 – AMIENS (Somme)
La cathedrale – Le labyrinthe au milieu du dallage de la nef
10 80 0065

On Sunday an art exhibition closed at The Soap Factory in Minneapolis. Entitled Hedge Magic, it was a survey show of The Soap Factory’s artistic submissions in 2011. One of the installations, by Minneapolis artist Jess Hirsch, re-purposed found and donated furniture in an interpretation of the Wiccan practice of using personal objects for magical effect. The work also co-opted a series of religious and magical objects, again to enhance the potential of the installation to gather super-natural power for itself. One of these was an interpretation in carpet of the sacred labyrinth in Amiens Cathedral in the Somme, Northern France. Built relatively quickly, over 50 years, Amiens is the one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in France and the labyrinth is part of the intricate Gothic paving of the nave. The purpose of such labyrinths is not certain; they may have been models or evocations of the heavenly Jerusalem, but by the C17th they had acquired a purpose of devotion, and would be paced as part of a meditation on prayer.

I bought this postcard on 1999 during a day trip to Northern France with Bob, Dave, Anne and my wife. It rained, and the Somme isn’t the most picturesque part of the world. But was fun being with friends on a road trip, and Amiens is a truly unforgettable structure, looming out of the autumnal gloom like a fortress of faith. To find it here in Minneapolis, on the floor of an art space was a like a little eddy in time and space, a meditation on things past.


Airbrush tempera, 1977. 36″ x 24″
Collection Tony May (Francis Kyle Gallery, London)

Did Any of You Guys See That? by Phillip Castle (1977) was one of the reasons that I picked on this particular method of generating blog posts. I love this image and have always thought it awesome, and, again bought this card from the little bookshop in the Covered Market in Oxford. Three McDonell-Douglas F15s soar though a cloud-bank, ready to engage a radar signal that is…is actually a giant topless angel, who looks like she’s really enjoying her new jeans…er…jeans that are actually Soviet jeans made of…aluminium? Aircraft fusilage? Something airbourne and awesome, anyway.

However try and find it on the internet: it’s not there…but now it is! Inspired by my friends at ROLU, one of the hopes for this blog (if I keep at it) is to present a resource of images that are not currently available via the WWW. The resource of the WWW only exists because we create it…it’s ours to make.

Castle was a prolific and successful commercial artist; one of the airbrush pioneers in the UK. He published two books Airflow (1980; introduction by Stephen Bayley, no less) and (confusingly) Airshow (1990). He taught at the Royal College and designed classic album covers for Wings, Bowie (Aladdin Sane 1973) and Pulp (His’n’Hers 1994). Working with pop artist Alan Jones he created the poster for the film adaptation of Michael Moorcocks’ The Final Programme (Robert Fuest 1973). (Fuest directed another of my favourite movies, The Abominable Doctor Phibes, perhaps the best slice of retro 1970’s film design). He’s perhaps most famous for art direction and poster design for A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick 1971); the ‘1970’s of the future’ look of Alex and his droogs is largely that of Castle. He’d work with Kubrick again on the poster for Barry Lyndon (1975) and for Full Metal Jacket (1987), another movie set to the devastating effect of men and institutionalised violence (set in 1967-8, just 3 years before A Clockwork Orange). Castle (it says here) is still working, had a gallery show back in 2000 (damn, missed that), and designed the covers for the Fairford (Glos) Air Tattoo, where, at last, his mad 1970’s airbrush skills designs start to look authentically dated…

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We Are The World


This card, Mappa (Map) by Alighiero Boetti, was sent in the last month; by me to my youngest child. I attended the Documenta13 art festival in Kassel, Germany, and like the good father that I am, sent postcards from Germany to my children. Obviously I am the kind of person for whom objects and images can be markers for important memories. I’ve no idea if my kids will turn out the same, but a postcard, for me, is a way of triggering those important mnemonics.

The card was purchased at the temporary bookshop in the Friedrichsplatz, the central square of Kassel, in front of the Fridericianum, the central exhibition venue for Documenta (which spreads across the whole city), where Mappa was one of the key exhibits. Documenta, which happens only every 5 years (this is the third that I have attended, missing 2007 – no money – and 1992 – no confidence), can be a daunting experience, not only for the visitor, but also for the curator, where the temptation is to represent overwhelming complexity with a counter of similar overwhelming complexity.

However, # 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was curated very carefully and accurately to negate that tendency, linking around a series of interlocking concepts and location, contextualised by another layer of interlocking art works and artists, a vibrant though map of geography, artist, time and artifact. Quite brilliant, with an overarching limpid ambiguity that answered the obscure and obscured the obvious.

One of the key works was Boetti’s Mappa. Alighiero Boetti, better known as Alighiero e Boetti (‘Alighiero and Boetti’), was an Italian artist, part of the Arte Povera movement. Mappa was created to be part of Documenta 5, (one of several that Boetti created through his career) but was never  exhibited, and the letters between Boetti and contemporary art eminence grise, Harald Szeeman, the curator of Documenta 5, formed part of its exhibition. Boetti had had these tapestry flags/maps made in Kabul, where he was intermittently resident during the city’s all too brief golden age in the 1970’s. An artist interested in concepts around chance and randomness, laziness and the non-production of work, and enjoying the culture and relaxed atmosphere of ‘70’s Kabul, he opened a guest house in Kabul, The One Hotel; and this too in Documenta 13 was the subject of an forensic photographic investigation by Californian artist Mario Garcia Torres (Have You Ever seen The Snow? 2010).

Boetti died of cancer in 1994, and like many creative people who die young and unexpectedly has become a subject of cultish mystery; and has a major retrospective at MoMA in New York.

The Mappa’s were collaborative works, produced by Afghan artisans, entirely within the precepts of Arte Povera; the One Hotel is a lost building in a city destroyed by 30 years of war: Afghanistan, war, art, destruction, the world, time, work, leisure and hospitality all circulate through this work, with its geographical source adding layers of poignancy, amplified in a material feedback loop through the rest of the exhibition. The absence of the artist, and the investigation of his location in vanished Kabul only adds further layers of resonance.

It’s a wonderful example of how, as this blog post too begins to break down, that sometimes art objects can create a thought dialogue that cannot be best expressed using words; like the resonating quantum particles of Prof Anton Zeilinger (in the next room to Mappa) art connects and entangles reality in ways that simultaneously entirely unpredictable and completely personal.

In the sense of the personal mnemonic, Boetti’s High Altitude Skies (1988) was the front cover image of the Swiss art magazine Parkett (#24) in 1990. When I started work in contemporary art in 1990, this magazine was one of the first objects I encountered, as I remember, on my first day. It’s book-like design, bilingual text and formal obscurity deeply intimidated me; I felt that I had stumbled into a world that would never make sense, that would always remain oblique and in a language that I could never understand. I declined the offer of a trip to Kassel for Documenta 9, and buried myself in the Middle Ages, a familiar world that I knew well. What I did not know 20 years ago, and what I know now, and Beotti knew then, is that art is not about knowing the right answer but asking the right questions.

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