Saturday, November 28, 2009

"To fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

It's a wintry morning, after a cold night. There were specs of snow seen in Manchester, the sudden drop in temperature bringing with it a certain gloom. A friend on twitter sees a song thrush in the garden, and you realise it's exactly the kind of day that had Thomas Hardy thinking of "every spirit upon earth/seemed fervourless as I" until he heard the darkling thrush that had "chosen thus to fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

Travelling south I've been feeling a little Hardyesque myself this morning, the darkness of the daytime sky not helping my mood. I'm tired, I think, as the year draws in, yet haven't time for a rest - not a proper one anyway, with a full calendar, work, social, and work-social. I've been cramming in experience as well, and it tends to frazzle one's innocence sometimes. Amongst the books I found in Morecambe and Lancaster last week was one by Andre Malraux where he writes about "museums without walls" - which seemed so appropriate to the discussion at "The Art of With" at the Cornerhouse on Wednesday that one is amazed by the serendipity. Malraux, writing after the second world war, talks about our galleries and museums as a recent ordering of things. As an active participant in the French resistance he had more reason than most to think about these institutions as signs of our "civilisation", but also, to question a little, the patterns that are made from art without purpose other than to be shown, collected and preserved. At the Art of With, following up his thoughtful essay on curators as gatekeepers, Michael Connor spoke about the idea of curation from a non-collecting perspective; yet the art gallery as "keeper" of our cultural flame has another role, which is not only to preserve, but to commission, to show, to purchase, to collect, to value - and perhaps, finally to "judge", not in the present, but for the future.

What is it that we keep? What is it that we discard? And what's our reasoning behind each? The BBC famously wiped old Dr. Whos and Top of the Pops yet kept endless news broadcasts. Perhaps it was right - maybe as this archive becomes available on line we can see some new narratives emerging from a history that can be revisited as it was perceived at the time. The "lost music" or "lost performance" sometimes seems almost tangible. Yet, without the Man from Porlock, perhaps Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" would have ended not as a fragment but as an overwrought, overlong epic? The accident of history that somehow preserved Beowulf seems almost magical, like something from Borges, a document that is only partially there, its history obscure, a tantalising teaser of all the lost epics that we haven't found.

Back to Connor's essay, he made an interesting contrast between Clay Shirky's book "Here comes everybody" which hardly mentions art, and the Whitechapel's recent Manual for a 21st Century Arts Institution  - which rarely mentions the web. I'm struck by this. for its clear that the arts, at present, through events like Art of With, is wanting to bring in "thinkers" from other spheres like Shirky, like Charles Leadbetter, like Malcolm Gladwell, like Andrew Keen. Yet is this in itself a crisis of definition - where the discourse has to be filtered not just through other thinkers, but in a language which seems mutually exclusive? Its like the arts hasn't begun to have a language around which it can sensibly talk about the future - yet its deeply felt thoughts on praxis, on aesthetics, could surely colour the somewhat drab debating points of the flash 21st century thinkers? Perhaps its not Malraux and Walter Benjamin who we should be in dialogue with, but linguistic thinkers such as Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bordieu? "Here Comes Everybody" as I'm not sure everybody realises, is from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake", of course.

These thoughts of curation, collecting, saving, preserving, came to mind again on Thursday at the two excellent exhibitions I visited in Manchester. "Homegrown" at URBIS is a celebration of 30 years of UK Hip Hop. I realised, looking at the earliest exhibits that I was there near the beginning of UK Hip Hop, listening to my Streetsounds Crucial Electro albums, and obscure b-boy tracks heard late at night on John Peel. "Buffalo Gals" and "The Message" were like bombs sent from the future. That the few UK tracks at that time couldn't really find a way round the American slang language of hip hop, meant that it perhaps never had the same success as house music, another black American form, remember, which, being primarily instrumental, didn't cause the same tongue-twisting trouble for home counties homeboys. UK Hip Hop in many ways doesn't seem to be particular genre in itself, but some kind of wire looping back and forth across the Atlantic - and then further afield - and twisting itself around techno, house, triphop, drum 'n' bass, dubstep and grime - all of which, in one way or another owed a debt to hip hop culture. Walking round the gallery, shards of half remembered electro and rap interrupted one's flow, like some cultural hip hop jam.

Another cultural jam, melange, medley or melting pot, was there to be seen on the other side of the side in the hallowed halls of Manchester Art Gallery. "Angels of Anarchy", a look at 3 generations of female surrealists is a superb exhibition in every way but one; it showed art that I had never seen before, much of it good, some of it excellent; it was a long overdue retelling of a familiar story - surrealism through its women artists; and as a piece of art history/art research it was exemplary. I felt the space somehow didn't work that well - perhaps the small, delicate nature of many of the artworks became a little overawed in such a large hall. I wanted, I think some of the fun of surrealism recreated in the gallery space. The pictures of Dali at the International Surrealist exhibition in London in 1937, in a diving suit that almost suffocated him, had the playfulness that surrealism always seemed to have to me. Like Fluxus or situationism, a formal historical "walk through" seems a little wrong. It was only a shame I'd missed some of the events - talks, and films - that accompanied the exhibition.

Why did I like the "Angels of Anarchy" so much? Perhaps the same as with "Homegrown", it felt like it meant something to me. The reason there were so many surrealist women painters, even as the males remained as patriarchal as ever about it, was surely because the favoured subjects of surrealism; re-imagined still lifes, self-portraits; dream and fantasy; were subjects that hadn't been totally owned by male artists. By allowing art to be about domestic objects turned unreal, or about fantasy or dreams, surrealism allowed people to talk about things that in another context would be seen as negative, "hysterical" objects rather than art objects. One thing I noticed, which didn't seem to get a mention in the exhibition, was the strong use of colour in the paintings and particularly the exhibits. 20th century art sometimes seems a battle in extremis to control both form and colour; "Angels of Anarchy" revelled in both.

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