Monday, August 08, 2016

Meme and Mythos

Yesterday, popping into the artist-curated show at Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price Curates, I quickly slipped below the slightly obvious themes - Sleeping, Working, Mourning, Dancing - and spent my time with some of the original works. Unlike so many shows like this, there were few works that I was previously that aware of, always a joy, but what was particularly interesting was seeing three pieces; a short film extract from Charles Laughton's mesmeric "The Night of the Hunter" in "Sleeping", and a sculpture of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, in Mourning; and in Dancing, some photographic stills of Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions' Cosey Fanni Tutti. I don't know much about Elizabeth Price's work, but I do know her work - an ex-member of C86 band Talulah Gosh - and a near contemporary (she was born the year before me.)

Only a couple of weeks ago I'd revisited "The Night of the Hunter" for a "cover star" (Robert Mitchum) for my new E.P. "Test Pressing #1" whilst I recently read a series of poems about that other "She Wolf" of English history, the Empress Matilda; and with Hull as city of culture next year I've been reading up on and talking about Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions and in particular their notorious ICA show "Prostitution." There was something pleasing but also a little unsettling at coming across a few of my personal reference points in such close proximity in this exhibition. None of these are the most obvious of touchstones - so finding out that Price is a near contemporary gives a bit more rationale to what otherwise might be a sense of coincidence.

In our current age of quickly spread "memes", its a reminder that we should be less concerned with these shared ideas, than with the hotch potch of ideas, influences and references that come together in our own personal mythos. The (younger) poet Luke Kennard has surprisingly resurrected the Biblical Cain in his latest book, the useful example of Cain - forced to wander the world - as a personal guide/avatar. Biblical precursors remain potent - though it was the unlucky dead brother "Abel" I referenced in my 2008 song "The Undefined."

I find there are certain historical and literary precursors I do come back to in my songs, poetry and music - less memes than a personal mythos; and seeing some of that mythos collected together by Price was actually a reassurance that the things that matter to me aren't necessarily just affectations but are important parts of the weave of my cultural life. Not to make too much of it of course, but I think its important that as a writer that we are more attuned to the mythos than the meme - the latter can come of course - but in reality its as interesting for us to explore our own obsessions as our own life. Sometimes that comes out explicitly in our art, other times its much more at a tangent.

Out in the mainstream of course, we see the bookshops selling out of a Harry Potter playscript, and not to denigrate popular art, but I've never been that comfortable with the shared love of the ubiquitous. Its 50 years since the Beatles "Revolver" and remarkable as that record is, I would probably choose "The Who Sell Out", "Da Capo", "Daydream" or "Aftermath" from 1966 - they are not necessarily better records, but they haven't quite the ubiquity of the Beatles. The plethora of characters in Beatles songs, like Harry Potter, seem to be closed archetypes rather than open ones. Even Father Mackenzie or Eleanor Rigby (a nod to her of Aquitaine!) seem like finished works that close off further investigation. Not so with Bryan Maclean's "Orange Skies" or even "Nowhere Man" from the previous year's "Rubber Soul."

I think what I find interesting about popular art at its best is where it feels open to interpretation and re-interpretation. With Harry Potter like Dr. Who or Star Wars there seems to be the canonical; that no amount of fan fiction can move us away from. A character like Count Dracula on the other hand enables endless interpretation.

More recently you find that there is so much writing that acts a little bit as a reinterpretation rather than an original. Think of all those books that plunder Henry James or Jane Austen  or Joseph Conrad. Our own mythos enables us, I think, to begin to imagine something newly formed, that doesn't owe its existence to an obvious predecessor. 

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