A couple of film posts from me over at The Economist’s blogs.
One was on the Oscar nominations, to go with a very nice graphic by my colleagues Guy and Lloyd. While it is kinder than people close to me have been about American Hustle (or “that piece of shit”, as it is known in Orpington), it concludes that:
“Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” are both, in their ways, landmarks of film. “Gravity” is a tour de force that uses a well-executed B-movie peril-in-space plot to provide a transcendent visual and aural evocation of the vast, the empty and the intimate. “12 Years”, which if it wins Best Picture will be the first film by a black director to do so, navigates the landscapes of slavery with a poise that does nothing to diminish the horror of its story, or the audience’s empathy – indeed its consummate artistry magnifies them. For both of those films to lose to yet another likeable, comfortable story about the American government running con games in the 1970s — also the subject matter of last year’s winner, “Argo” — would be a travesty.
Second was on Tim’s Vermeer, a really wonderful film by Teller. For me, the key sentence in the piece is “‘Tim’s Vermeer’ is a film that those who see it will think about a lot over the years”. Which is to say that I’m not sure I have quite got the levels of revelations within revelations and reflections on reflections quite right in this first take. Ask me again in a few years time.
“SUNDAY in the Park with George”, by Stephen Sondheim, is a work of art about a work of art which takes place, in part, within a work of art. The life, or at least a life, of the painter Georges Seurat is imagined running through, around and past his magnificent “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. The musical is said to have a particular importance to Teller, an American stage magician. Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat”—in which a paean to the sublime rewards of creation triumphs, just, over an accounting of its costs—can reportedly move him to tears.
So it is hardly remarkable that Teller’s first film as a director is also about a work of art and its creation, seen from the inside. But that is one of the few things about “Tim’s Vermeer”, which opened in Britain this week, that is not remarkable. Simultaneously charming and challenging, it asks its viewers at the same time to celebrate art—in fact, on that front it does not merely ask, it demands—and to question it. [read the whole thing]
And whether I quite got it right or not, Teller liked the piece, which makes me happy.
Is this thing still on…
Apologies for a profound lack of blogging about the earth system and energy and climate and plants and the sun and geoengineering and stuff. I may try and catch up with some past product and do better in the future. I may not. In the meantime, here are my Oscar predictions, because that’s what I wanted to post today…
the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence
— Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Steven Poole.
“Are you going to move our stuff?”
“No, that’s the view. We’re in the picture”
— William Fox and Mark Klett, quoted in Fox’s Viewfinder, a book about Klett’s rephotography project
It struck me reading Poole’s review that an awful lot of the concerns in my writing, most recently in “Globe and Sphere, Cycles and Flows: How to See the World”, which is my essay in the Royal Society collection, Seeing Further, sit firmly in the space defined by those two quotations, the second one of which is the epigraph for Mapping Mars.
The ability to see the Earth as an astronomer would another planet marked a fundamental shift, the long-term effects of which we still cannot gauge. It has provided valuable new perspectives and treasure troves of data. But no image can reveal everything; and every revelation obscures something. For all that it is an image of the whole, the vision of the Earth from space is necessarily partial. By leaving things out, it makes the Earth too easy to objectify, too easy to hold at a distance, too easy to idealise. It needs to be offset by a deeper sense of the world as it is felt from the inside, and as it extends out of view into past and future. Because of the changes we are putting the planet through, we need as many ways of looking at and thinking about it as we can ﬁnd. We need ways to see it as a history, a system, and a set of choices, not just a thing of beauty – one which, from our astronomical perspective, we seem already to have left. There are other ways to see the beauty of the world than in the rear-view mirror of progress.
How better, though, can people see the world than as a fragile blue marble separated from their own experience, cut off from any cosmic continuity by a sharp 360º horizon? And why, given the objective truth of the world as revealed by Apollo, should we even try? To the second question, the answer is that there is more than one way of seeing, just as there is more than one way of speaking. There are times when seeing the Earth as a discrete object, a thing in a picture, is peculiarly helpful; there are times when something else is called for.
Not to be a tease, but if you want to get an answer to the first question you better get your hands on a copy of the book (Amazon UK), though it must be said that some of the ideas were worked through in a rather different way in my Earthrise piece a couple of years back.
Image from Mark Klett, permission sought used with kind permission, all rights reserved
The Forestry Commission has unknowingly thwarted a David Hockney project. Sometime in the past month or so the commission cut down a small stand of beech trees (at the private owners request) in Yorkshire. Here’s the before and after on that:
What the woodsmen didn’t know was that David Hockney had painted the copse twice, in winter and in summer, and had wanted to complete the whole four season set. As it is, that ain’t going to happen. He gave the whole story to the Guardian, including repro rights on the two pictures involved.
On the radio later I heard someone from the Forestry Commission apparently taking the fairly reasonable position that one couldn’t leave trees standing when people wanted to fell them on the off chance that a major artist was going to paint them. In retrospect it would probably have been a good idea if Hockney had let the owners know about his project. That’s not to blame him — but it’s worth remembering, in England, that most pretty stuff you see in the countryside is someone’s property and responsibility, and often their pride and joy too.
Anyway, the Guardian story quotes Hockney saying he may do some sort of follow up painting anyway.
Though he still mourns the lost trees [on returning yesterday he] was impressed by the patterns of the massive stacked trunks.
“I think now this is my next painting of the wood. It will be very different – but the piles of wood are quite beautiful in their own right, simply because wood can’t help being beautiful.”
I’d be big on that. I’m something of a Hockney fan; there was a time when he was occasionally visiting the gallery downstairs from our flat, and I wish I’d known that he had been. A retrospective in Paris that had some of the Grand Canyon pictures in it was quite an influence on one of the chapters of Mapping Mars. I’m sorry he won’t complete the set — but not too sorry, as he’ll surely use the time for something else. And his unfinished project provides scope for other eyes and hands to undertake a companion project he wouldn’t necessarily be able to see through to maturity. It seems to me that someone, or some collective, should adopt this little copse on the corner as a phenology/rephotography project, or more, and record what regrowth there is, or isn’t, as a tribute to Hockney. If I had visual skills and lived nearby I might even do it myself. Anyway, if anyone’s interested I’m pretty sure this is the spot in question in Google Maps.
Update: More on the story in the Mail.
All images except the Google one from David Hockney, used with great respect but no permission
There are many ways in which human activities now compete with or exceed comparable natural processes on the planet. The nitrogen cycle (Vitousek et at, 1997) is perhaps the most obvious, but there are others, such as erosion, where ploughs, in particular, play a spectacular role; we may not move the sediment all the way to the sea, but we move more of it, and from different places, than nature does (Wilkinson and McElroy, 2007). Whether we break up more limestone than natural processes do, I couldn’t say. But we do do it a lot, and we do do it spectacularly. I’d love to see this series by Naoya Hatakeyama in the C-print-on-aluminium flesh.
According to Pink Tentacle Japan alone produces 200m tnnes of calcium carbonate a year from its quarries, so I’d guess world figures might be on the order of a billion tonnes. If I had to hazard a further guess I would guess that the situation for limestone is the opposite of the situation for soil. There, as I understand it, agriculture moves more than nature, but doesn’t move it very far. For limestone I would guess that more falls off mountain sides unaided than is blow away by quarriers, but that the stuff that’s quarried travels further, quicker. It takes times for boulders to wander.
Tim Knowles (via Patrick Appel standing in on The Dish) is an artist who lets his trees do the drawing, and I wish I had known of him before, for example when he had an instillation at The Economist building earlier this year. Natural movements of the branches and well positioned canvases make the trees into devices that record movements of which they have no knowledge. Recursively, he photographs the set-up, too, apparently for parallel display. Here’s his online gallery.
I think I would absolutely love this work. It certainly sets my mind whirring about nature and the unintended and their connection. One thing it reminded me of was a microcosmic reprise of David Nash’s Wooden Boulder (documented on his gallery’s site, though you have to click around to find it), in which the eponymous object rolled down a Welsh river and into an estuary and out to sea over many years; the natural movement shapes the artform. That thought led me to Google and via Plinius’s Some landscapes (a great resource to which you may be sure I will be returning) I came to this comment by Nash in an interview in Sculpture magazine.
I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.
At one level you could see Knowles as continuing this process by enabling natural self portraits; not self portraits by the tree, but self portraits of the tree-wind process. But that obviously doesn’t really tell the story, because the invisible intervention of Knowles himself is obviously also part of the subject, in the way that it permits the powerful orthogonality in the display — the record of movement on one side, the captured-moment stillness of the photo on the other. (I’d put in a quote about the meaning of the space between frames here, but I seem to have leant my copy of Understanding Comics to someone…)
I suppose one way to read the works is as post-situationist “happenings” — very post, in that the set up, the game, is defined without any overt reference to society and then highly aestheticised, and I suspect from a position of very little knowledge that situationists would have disapproved of both those things. Another way in would be to see them in the context of Bruno Latour’s notion of the inscription device, nicely outlined by George Goodall on his blog Facetation — but here, this being art not science, the inscription device is not made invisible, but re-rendered in parallel.
I would, pretty obviously, love to see these pieces — and much of his other work, a lot of which also works on the basis of the unintended: movements of the wind, postal delivery services, etc. Here, for example, is a picture of the full moon reflected in the Serpentine on a long exposure.
Image by Tim Knowles used under “fair use” for purposes of review.
I’m more marginally martian than mainly martian these days, but my old enthusiasms are remembered in some interesting places — so I was happy to be invited to talk about the new “Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art” contemporary art show at the Barbican on Radio Four’s Front Row yesterday. I’m afraid I don’t have time to blog on it now, except to say a) the concept is a bit overdone, b) there’s good stuff and not so good stuff there and c) Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (pictured) is in the first of those classes. It reminds me hugely of Stranger in a Strange Land, and has the advantage of being a lot shorter (nb that’s a cheap jibe, not a serious diss). Here’s part of the artist’s accompanying text; if you want to imagine the Answerer as Michael Valentine Smith in order to grok it more fully, be my guest…
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.
Oak Tree image copyright Michael Craig-Martin — used with respect but without permission