Sunday, 27 June 2010

To blog or not to blog?

For a number of reasons, I'm having to press the "pause" button on The Invisible Province. I don't think this is a bad thing as I've been blogging now for about six months and it is time to take stock. I have enjoyed the experience as it has forced me to look and think about things a bit more deeply. It's also been an opportunity to try and articulate my ideas. But, of course, a blog is primarily for others and to stimulate their ideas...I'm not so sure how successful this blog has been at doing that. But, thank you to all those who have read my posts during these past months.

So, maybe you have comments - positive or negative - about The Invisible Province. Please feel free to share them. I'm sure they will help me to decide whether to press "play" or "stop" in the future.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson, the author of the 1952 crime thriller, The Killer Inside Me, was described as America's "dime-store Dostoevsky." Michael Winterbottom's new film adaptation has Dostoevsky stamped all over it. The British auteur references the film noir genre, the familiar landscapes of cops and broads moving in Hopperesque interiors. However, Winterbottom's real interest is in the moral void at the core of this world. From the outset, we are trapped inside the mind of the fictional sociopath, Lou Ford. He is a Texan Raskolnikov. The events we witness are interpreted from his point of view. He provides the narrative voice that rationalises his violence. As events unfold, it becomes apparent that his perspective is psychologically warped and wholly unreliable.

Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford as a clean shaven, clean living deputy sheriff. Tipping his stetson, he greets those around him with an hypnotic Southern drawl. He is the man that every young woman dreams of bringing home to their parents. "I've known you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper," says Sherrif Bob Maples, "and you ain't done anything wrong." However, Lou's seductive persona masks pathological tendencies that he cannot repress. When he tries to persuade a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland played by Jessica Alba, to leave town, she reacts by assaulting him. This violence triggers a disproportionate physical response which erupts in his whipping her raw with his belt. The film follows the sadistic chain reaction as leather is replaced by fists, fists by boots and finally, boots by a blade.

To add to the moral confusion, Lou and Joyce become lovers. She accepts the beatings and disturbingly, takes a masochistic pleasure in them. Joyce mistakes physical abuse and libidinous sex for love. Meanwhile, Lou's fiancee, a schoolteacher called Amy Stanton, accepts the lies and empty promises that Lou spins her. She knows that he is having an affair but even this knowledge is not enough for her to break from the vicious relationship with Lou. Yet, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson never turn these women into passive victims but expose their feisty and perceptive natures. At the same time, they skillfully capture Joyce and Amy's helplessness before the spiritual black hole in the man they love. They cannot escape his gravitational pull.

Casey Affleck's dead eyed, opaque performance is one of quiet intelligence. He does not offer a stock psycho creep, a Norman Bates pastiche. Instead, Affleck uses a rich emotional palate to create his psychopath. Lou's actions are monstrous but he is never reduced to a monster. He is always human, always identifiable as one of us and that makes him all the more chilling. After almost beating Joyce to death, Lou is jolted by regret and sobs "I'm sorry, I'm real sorry - I love you - goodbye." But authentic remorse, Affleck shows, remains outside Lou's psychic makeup. In an act of self-mutilation, Lou has removed from within himself anything that might be recognised as compassion, empathy or love. Ultimately, this is his most evil act, the one that destroys the truth of himself. Lou's sadism appals, but Affleck succeeds in ensuring that the primary response to this evil is not moral outrage, but pity. In Affleck's hands, Lou becomes a pitiful creature.

Winterbottom uses flashbacks to illustrate the supposed roots of Lou's psychosis. Although, it is not clear if this is an imaginary back story concocted by Lou as a psychological explanation for his behaviour. In his mind the distinctions between truth and deceit, reality and fantasy, good and evil have collapsed. Winterbottom challenges the viewer to uphold these moral distinctions or like Lou, to reject the idea that there is a moral order. If we choose the latter, Winterbottom suggests, then it is possible that the killer could exist in all of us.

Audiences have long become accustomed to the ironic violence of Quentin Tarantino and the grand guignol of torture porn. But when The Killer Inside Me was shown at film festivals, such as Sundance, there were protests about the gratuitous violence directed against the film's female characters. The film certainly includes some of the most graphic scenes of domestic abuse and cruelty. Winterbottom assaults a largely desensitized audience with images so brutal that we are awakened to the reality of violence. But, here lies the problem. The hyper-realism of the violence dominates everything else in the film. After a scene of forensically observed sadism, an audience is left reeling and incapable of engaging with character or narrative. Winterbottom cannot integrate the violence and in the end, this failure sucker punches his work.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Castles of Ulster: the photos of Jonathan Olley

During the 1970's, most of my childhood holidays were spent in the Republic of Ireland. My late uncle Patrick would drive to Belfast to meet my family. Driving westwards to Letterkenny in County Donegal, we would pass through Belfast and Derry on the way to the border. This was the height of "the Troubles" but those two words didn't mean much to me. I think I knew that there were "Catholics" and "Protestants" and that I was a Catholic but that would have been the extent of my sectarian awareness at the age of seven or eight. In my innocence, this little Catholic boy particularly looked forward to passing through those city areas where the pavement skirting was painted red, white and blue as if for a party.

A car with a Republic of Ireland number plate must have been an automatic cause for suspicion and, at checkpoints, we would be pulled over by the constabulary. Rolling down the car window, my uncle would hand over his driving licence to some officer whose shoulders and head were cropped by the frame of the window. The licence would be casually examined, handed back through the window and we would be waved on. On one occasion, I remember uncle Patrick was asked to open the boot of the car. As he made to get out, I felt an involuntary spasm of anxiety. But my most vivid memory, sitting in the back of the car, was the sight of an automatic weapon, held snug against an officer's hip with a meaty hand. The sten-gun looked so heavy and serious, so unlike the plastic guns that I had played with. But there was no playtime in Ulster in the 1970's. "Next to the fresh grave of my beloved grandmother," wrote Paul Durcan in his poem Ireland 1972, "The grave of my firstlove murdered by my brother." Yet little boys on their holidays knew nothing of such internecine realities.

What I had become familiar with on these car journeys were the police stations and barracks that we passed. Of course, I had no idea at the time what function these buildings served but I sensed that their purpose could only be sinister. A building that had to protected by a carapace of wire mesh and razor wire was no ordinary domicile. I had never seen anything like these buildings before. With their tiaras of radio masts and satellite dish jewellery, they were other worldly creations set in the "terrible beauty" of Northern Ireland.

It was these buildings, their presence ideologically transgressing the landscape and streets, that the photographer, Jonathan Olley, took a professional interest in. His work is a conscious move away from photo-journalism, the recording of an historical event as a documentary imperative, to a more contemplative consideration of subject matter. Images are used in a metaphorical manner, where an immediate narrative is eschewed in favour of the slow release of ideas and associations. In this way, no ideological positions are imposed on the work, but images are allowed to give up their meaning. This aesthetic stance raises Olley's work above the kitsch where emotions are faked and the photograph becomes no more than a circus of technical effects. His preoccupation is not with concept, propaganda or novelty but with something more nuanced and complex: the truth of what he sees.

The Castles of Ulster photographs find their truth in an historical continuity with the past, thus the collection's title. In an essay, Everything Changes, Everything Stays the Same, the architectural historian, David Brett, argues that Jonathan Olley's photographs "bring out the primeval conditions under which such structures are built, and how they are compelled, by hideous necessity, to follow certain rules, which were laid down hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago...rules of brutish utility."

Brett traces the evolution of these buildings beginning with Norman motes and baileys. These were enclosed camps that could man a platoon and withstand the attack of slung boulders or flaming faggots. "The mote and bailey reached Ulster with John de Courcy and has never quite left, " writes Brett, "De Courcy and his successors quartered the countryside with a network of connecting motes." With time, these morphed into castles, those architectural statements of power and resistance written in stone. During the Troubles, the bastard children of mote, bailey and castle were the police station, barracks and watchtower. The architectural styling may have changed but their ancestral purpose and significance remained stubbornly embedded in these buildings. By situating his photographs in this historical context, Olley allows his work and the viewer to chew, in Seamus Heaney's words, "the cud of memory."

The silent drama of the photograph, Golf Five Zero watchtower, Crossmaglen, provides a repertoire of visual gestures that recur in many of the images in the collection. This particular photograph is of an urban landscape - a street with a scattering of cars - but one where only the vestigial traces of human activity and life are present. "Some images do contain individuals," remarks Olley, "but I found during the editing process that including them robbed the alien presence these structures exude and therefore, in my view, to include passers-by made less powerful imagery." Paradoxically, this absence allows the buildings to articulate in a non-verbal way the unspoken truths that human testimonies struggle to describe. Where human beings have a tendency to rationalise and excuse, especially in conflict situations, these buildings speak directly without obfuscation. It is the viewer alone who is left to dialogue with the photograph in an uneasy face to face.

This malign structure, like something escaped from the imagination of H G Wells, has shouldered its way between family homes and chemist. The watchtower is a construction of unforgiving, jagged edges that mirrors the sectarian divide it watches over. There is no attempt to have this building sympathise with the surroundings or disguise the fact that it exists as an instrument of surveillance. The real purpose of such buildings is symbolic. They exist as a symbols of control. To work, symbols need to be seen and speak in a direct manner. The fact that this building is protected with a cage of mesh and CCTV shows that it is a fully operational symbol, hated and feared in equal measures by the local community.

Juxtaposing the domestic and the military creates stark tensions, but it also reveals the resilience of the quotidian. Olley describes these domestic buildings as "being 'politically invisible,' part of the non-violent resistance..." The daily rhythms of life defiantly continue through their presence. They will not be altered by the occupation of a squatter force. The chemist will remain open. Prescriptions will be handed over and medicines collected. Gardens with manicured lawns and plaster ornaments will continue to be cared for. Though communities are forced to live under the shadow of uncertainty and brutality, the front doorstep and backyard remain pockets of domestic resistance. They will not surrender.

Many of these photographs have a ghostly frame, soiled edges. This has occurred in the development process where the Type 55 Polaroid film stock has met a backing frame and not produced a clear, consistent image. The photographs are left with a smudged border. Jonathan Olley has chosen not to crop these photographs but to leave them with their lesions and liquid blemishes. "I think most of all I'm not attempting to hide the medium. Some would say it is not "professional practice"," Olley admits, "Though that sort of criticism tends to come from individuals who, in my humble opinion, "have bought the wrong ticket" and misunderstand the message behind the work. I suppose [this is] the difference between art and documentary."

These borders also point to the way that political realities bleed in unpredictable ways into the crevices of ordinary life. They cannot be easily framed or cropped. Depending on your viewpoint, they slip in and out of focus. At the very margins of vision and understanding, the present is brought into chafing proximity with the past, the political with the domestic, religion with the state. "Provided that the police and judiciary do not treat people from all sides of the sectarian, religious, class and racial divide with equality there will always be the opportunity for unrest," warns Olley. It is for this reason that the margins are an essential component of this artistic project.

In his photographs, Jonathan Olley attempts to order the historically contingent and endow it with a significance beyond itself. These photographs are more than documents of a time and place, but indicate wider concerns, historically and socially. The camera, Jonathan Olley suggests, can speak the truth.

Some of the Castles of Ulster photographs can be seen in the Tate Modern Exhibition, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera which will travel later this year to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and in 2011, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Castles of Ulster, Jonathan Olley, Factotum Books ( 2007

With thanks to Jonathan Olley for giving permission to use some of his photographs in this blog post.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Michael Clark: come, been and gone

In the 1980's Michael Clark was lazily christened the enfant terrible of British dance. To the pounding post-punk rhythms of The Fall (who the late, disc jockey, John Peel pithily described as "always different, always the same"), the Scottish dancer, Michael Clark, and his embryonic company flashed their bums to the dance establishment. Their work was subversive, jettisoning the cliché-ridden forms and styles of what was commonly accepted as canonically "proper". Yet this was far from being an act of iconoclasm. Clark had trained at the Royal Ballet School which provided a technical seed bed for many of his future ideas and experiments. "Classicism is definitely part of my vocabulary," Clark admitted in a recent interview, "I was trained very well by Richard Glasstone at the Royal Ballet School, in a way that made absolute physical sense to me. I think maybe at one point in my teens I tried to reject that, but it's really just a part of the way I think and move, the notion of "line" being a continuous thread through a phrase of movement." Far from wanting to repudiate the tradition, Clark sought to revitalise it and allow it to express personal and contemporary concerns. In dance terms, this was to be his hermeneutic of continuity.

Michael Clark has returned to London this week with a new piece entitled, come, been and gone. The familiar hallmarks are stamped all over the work. The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and David Bowie provide a soundtrack that's all swaggering glam and delirium tremens. The production achieves a visual coherence with costumes, video and paintings by Peter Doig finding an emotional synchronicity with the movement of the dancers. There are ludic intervals whith bare faced buttock cheeks and the striking of pantomime attitudes. Yet, it is in the bold and surprising geometries of Clark's choreography that we witness an attempt to retrieve the beautiful from the futile and prosaic.

Modern man is alienated from his body. The body has become a thing or object and the real me exists elsewhere. There is a disconnect between body and soul or body and mind. It's common to hear people talk about not being comfortable in their skins as if our skins, our bodies, were add ons to who we are. In part, this notion has arisen due to the widespread influence of the philosopher, René Descartes and his cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am) proposition. "The Cartesian picture," writes Roger Scruton, "tempts us to believe that we go through life dragging an animal on a lead, forcing it to do our bidding until, at the last, it collapses and dies. I am a subject; my body an object: I am I, it is it." In his work, Michael Clark rebels against this philosophical hegemony and seeks to overthrow it.

There is a real sense that his company are not just bodies in movement but that they are acting as embodied persons. As a dancer, with steely concentration, balances on one leg and slowly pivots round, you sense that they are not only earthed to the floor but that they are earthed to the reality of themselves. The explosive jump, jig and torque cannot be reduced to involuntary or mechanical actions of the body, but articulate the truth that the human person is a unity. In the dance, all destructive dualisms are erased and we experience a true freedom.

One cannot look at bodies so lithe, strong and youthful and not experience some erotic charge. Yet, for all its sensual static, this performance does not allow the audience to become pornographers, desiring the body as an instrument of arousal. Through the grace and sustained poise of the dancers, we are invited to venerate embodied persons. It is not enough to admire the discipline, stamina and technique of the dancers, what we long for is to actualise in ourselves the dancers' creative presentation of what it means to be a person. Through them, we see ourselves in full flight. In this way, the desires of the viewer are simultaneously chastened and liberated. In fact, the dancers veil their bodies (literally, in the case of one section of come, been and gone)through their movements so that the observer's desires are sublimated and purified of any sullying passions. This is what distinguishes the art of come, been and gone from the sleazy gyrations of some lap dancing club.

come, been and gone is more informed by constraint than by rock 'n' roll wildness. As the dancers walk forward with their backs arched backwards, their arms rigid timbers, you sense a Protestant commitment to the intensity of the movement. The angular silhouettes and physical tics expressed in cleanly etched lines become revelations of sublime beauty. Dancers moving together with military precision and then subverting conventional movement to create some origami effect with their limbs keeps the audience en pointe.

come, been and gone is not without indulgent moments. Kate Coyne dressed in a costume perforated with syringes and dancing to the Velvet Underground's Heroin was one such moment. But such lapses are outweighed by the youthful playfulness and beauty of come, been and gone that, once again, shows Michael Clark to be "always different, always the same."

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera

It has become commonplace for people to talk about the "Big Brother" society. This coded short hand pulls in two directions. On the one hand, it refers to celebrity culture and the successful television franchise, Big Brother, that has helped fetishise this phenomenon. The celebrity is the one who uses the media to advance his or her idea of their own celebrity. At the same time, the media's carnivorous appetite for the designer or degenerate lifestyle is satiated by the constant stream of wannabees. From Hello/Ok magazine spreads to pap shots of inebriated celebs rolling out of Chinawhite nightclub, the idea of celebrity has become a contemporary contagion that few (either as participant or consumer) are immune from. It appears to take only fifteen minutes of gratuitous exhibitionism to become famous these days.

The "Big Brother" society also indicates the common anxiety that we are being watched by unseen forces. CCTV. The mobile phone camera. The zoom lens. Hidden banks of television screens monitoring our every movement. Some argue that the private life, that sphere where we are most truly, nakedly ourselves, is being eroded by these intrusive technologies. "He shifted position in his chair and watched the surveillance camera adjust," writes Don Delillo of the billionaire asset manager, Eric Packer, in his novel, Cosmopolis, "His image used to be accessible nearly all the time, videostreamed worldwide from the car, the plane, the office and selected sites in his apartment. But there were security issues to address and now the camera operated on a closed circuit. A nurse and two armed guards were on constant watch at three monitors in a windowless room at the office. The word office was outdated now. It had zero saturation." Delillo deftly captures the paranoia and claustrophobia of a life under visual interrogation.

The latest exhibition at Tate Modern, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, provides a photographic exploration of these Big Brother themes. Stripped of any sensationalist veneer, this exhibition is morally challenging and disturbing. We are all, to some extent, voyeurs, watching others without their express permission or knowledge. We do this all the time. But placing the single eye of a camera lens between us and the object of our desire or curiosity and taking a photo, adds a moral density to our actions. When this is achieved without the knowledge or consent of a person and made public, then we instinctively sense that some indefinable act of violation has occurred.

However, these photographic acts of violation are also opportunities for creativity and art. In the opening section of the exhibition, The Unseen Photographer, the lives of others are presented to us with an immediacy and authenticity that circumvents the posed, "say, cheese" fabrications of the studio or family snapshot. The photos of Jacob Riis held a gunpowder and magnesium flare to the darkness of poverty in 19th century New York. It was no longer necessary for the public to rely on their imaginations in order to picture this slum-dwelling underclass, these photos allowed them to see their naked suffering. Riis was a social reformer and his photos could be read as an aspect of his moral crusade, but, there remains the suspicion that those photographed - asleep, drunk, depressed - were being exploited to further an aesthetic enterprise. This suspicion arises because these photos are more than documentary material. In terms of content and form they are visual art works.

Such moral uneasiness increases as you enter the Celebrity and the Public Gaze section of the exhibition. We have grown accustomed to the work of the paparazzi and how the celebrity must cannibalise their privacy in order to maintain their fleeting status. There is no area of a celebrity's life that the public cannot have access to thanks to the photograph. We want to see our celebrities ooze glamour on some red carpet and to see the cellulite, the imperfections. We want to see the magnums of Cristal champagne they drink in some VIP enclosure and to see them throw drunken punches at some street paparazzo. With each photo, an individual becomes more a celebrity and less a person and large numbers of us are implicated in this degrading process by being eager consumers of such images. Yet, we are also aware of the consequences. In Ron Galella's photo, What Makes Jackie Run?, we see Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis running away from the photographer in an attempt to escape the camera and hold on to some crumb of privacy. This is the celebrity as hunted animal, caught in the glare of camera flashes. In the catalogue to the exhibition, the curator, Sandra S. Philips, notes:

Onassis would invent ways to subvert Galella's pictures of her - she wold put a bunch of flowers in front of her face, for instance, or run away from him, he in hot pursuit - and this dialogue between the photographer and his prey became the subject of his pictures. Gallela even disguised himself and landed on the private island of Skorpios, owned by Aristotle Onassis, to take pictures on her holidays (including her honeymoon). He was finally forced by court order to desist pursuing her.

This lack of respect for the private contours of a human life becomes even more unsettling when one considers the relationship between the voyeuristic gaze and eroticism. "We can now see anything, virtually" states the notes to this section of the exhibition. With the internet and access to pornography, this has proved to be the case. The long held conviction that the sexual act is something private and intimate has been called into question. This has been achieved under the banner of "sexual liberation" and done so with the minimum of suspicion, doubt or hesitation. Any moral sensibility is sacrificed to justify depicting the most sordid demimonde of sexual expression: sado-masochism, bondage, prostitution, etc. "To photograph the voyeurs, I needed to be considered one of them," the Japanese photographer, Kohei Yoshiyuki, has argued to rationalise his images of dogging, "I behaved like I had the same interest as the voyeurs, but I was equipped with a small camera. My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real "voyeur" like them. But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer." This contorted logic reveals the emptiness of Yoshiyuki's moral position and cannot absolve him from his instrumentalisation of the human person. "Whatever I photograph, I always lose," remarks the serial killer, Mark Lewis, in Michael Powell's film Peeping Tom and what is lost in so many of the photographs here is the person's soul.

The final two sections of this exhibition ratchet up the moral dilemmas. Witnessing Violence includes images that have seared themselves on the collective imagination: the industrial charnel houses of Nazism, the immolation of a Buddhist monk, the shooting of a Viet Cong officer and a young, naked girl running towards the camera after being napalmed. Widely disseminated in the press, these images were a terrible testimony to man's cruelty to man. They were evidence of all that was vicious and violent in our world and gave the public permission to engage with the social and political issues of their day. That was the noble ideal, but in her critique, On Photography, Susan Sontag points out that "once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more - and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize." Familiarity with such violent images has the potential to cauterize the faculty of compassion within us. In this regard, the photos of William Willoughby Hooper chronicle the 1876-78 famine in Madras, India with an unflinching clarity. Yet, Hooper made no attempt to alleviate the suffering of those caught in his primitive view finder.

"Surveillance pictures are voyeuristic in anticipation, seeking deviance from what is there: the creeping presence of enemy activity; telling changes in the landscape below; evidence of incriminating behaviour, such as spying, crossing borders illegally, or accepting bribes," writes Sandra S. Philips in the catalogue to the final section of Exposed. These photographs capture the imperceptible movement of CCTV cameras and police photographers perched on high buildings. They are the blurred, grainy realities that exist at the periphery of our vision. Given the right circumstances, they confirm that we are all potential subjects for some government photo album. In my next post, I am going to return to this section and share some thoughts on the work of my friend, Jonathan Olley, who has some of his Castles of Ulster photographs in this exhibition.

Exposed is not for the faint hearted but it is for those who are prepared to wrestle with some of the most interesting questions of our age. This is the most stimulating exhibition in London at the moment. The historical breadth and artistic quality of the exhibits offer a convincing narrative that surrounds each individual idea with a halo of significance. In turn, each idea has a cumulative effect, forcing the viewer to consider a whole range of moral and philosophical possibilities and his response to them. When we might prefer to look away, Exposed helps us to see anew the challenges of being human in the twenty-first century.