bowie’s in space

Aliens, Art, Ballard, Modernity, Politics, Science Fiction

It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.

Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.

Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.

Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.

And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.

So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.

Bruce Pennington exhibition at the Atlantis Bookshop

Art, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Visionary

Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.

You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.

Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished –

I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!

Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him –

Bruce Pennington, secret hero of 70s Brit SF (mp3)

James Cameron meets Masaccio in Santa Maria Novella downtown

Art, Film, Human power, Humanism

I saw James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ over Christmas. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, injecting new possibilities for the creation of wholly artificial, wholly convincing dramatic worlds into cinema. In that, it reminded me of Masaccio’s masterpiece ‘The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and Two Donors’, in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church:

Masaccio’s work was the first painting to build on Brunelleschi’s understanding of the mathematics of perspective. It demonstrated new possibilities for the two dimensional representation of three dimensional space, creating an image that attempted to directly map, rather than indirectly represent, an imagined space. In that, much like Cameron’s film, it was at once radical, and revolutionary; in fact, it’s generally regarded as one of the key catalysts that triggered the Renaissance.

However, ‘The Holy Trinity’ was also a very conservative work. It was commissioned by the very wealthy Domenico Di Lenzi, who kneels at bottom left. He is dressed as a Gonfalonier of Justice, the titular head of the Florentine republic. His wife kneels opposite him; the tomb beneath them is a family tomb.

The surging structure of the image – leading the eye up from the tomb and its skeleton, past Domenico and his wife, and towards the Trinity, makes it clear that the way to Christ is through the pillars of Florentine society; its powerful families, its civic functionaries. Earthly political, judicial and financial structures are the first step on the way to divine structures. To question one is – by implication – to question the other. Wealth and power are divine properties, automatically deserved by those who hold them.

Much comment has been made on the supposedly subversive properties of ‘Avatar’. James Cameron’s film has been read as being deeply anti-corporate. Certainly, its narrative – proceeding in crude, black and white terms – shows those beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘bad’, and those not beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘good’.

However, when viewed from an economic and technical point of view, it becomes clear that ‘Avatar’ is in fact a ferocious corporate rearguard action, responding to the democratisation of film making and distribution that digital technology enables.

Budgetted at $500,000,000, it is an artefact whose cost is so huge that it – and others like it – can only be commissioned by corporate interests. Technically speaking, its central achievement – the 3D experience – can only be fully experienced in large or IMAX venues. Again, these are exclusively owned and operated by corporate interests.

‘Avatar’ masquerades as a radical critique of corporate power. Technically, it in fact reinforces that corporate power, attempting to reclaim peak cinematic experience (and, by implication, corporate resistance) as something that can only happen as a result of corporate mediation. In that, it is directly equivalent to Masaccio’s masterpiece which – for all its technical brilliance – preaches that the only way to enlightenment is through the state and its pillars. Both works are – in the final analysis – propaganda, surprisingly equivalent in their aims and achievements.

Pound 1, Brancusi 0

Abstraction, Art, Birds, Poetry, Poets

Just spent a lovely weekend in Venice, with H; great food, great boozing, lovely company (of course), much architectural beauty, and also of course much time spent looking at art and (as ever) following Ezra Pound around.

This year’s Ezra stalking was particularly successful; our hotel was just round the corner from his and Olga Rudge’s house, and just next door to the quayside where he’d considered throwing the proofs of his first book into the Grand Canal – and, with it, his sense of poetic vocation. He remembered the moment in Canto 76 thus, standing by the:

‘…soap smooth posts where San Vio
meets with il Grande Canale
between Salviati and the house that was of Don Carlos
shd I chuck the lot into the tide-water?
                 le bozze “A Lume Spento”’

I re-enacted the moment, to minimal dramatic effect. Anyway, from there we hit the Guggenheim Museum, amongst other things taking a look at the Brancusi ‘Bird in Space’ they have there. Here’s that:

And it is, of course, rather lovely. But I also found I had a bit of a problem with it.

My problem is that (this version of) ‘Bird in Space’ an entirely optimistic piece of art. It’s about positive, upward flight; a utopian sense of the possibilities of being; an expression of a desire for, and a faith in the possibility of, transcendence. Brancusi described it as a ‘project before being enlarged to fill the vault of the sky’.

That kind of thing used to inspire me, but now it unsettles me. If the 20th Century was about anything, it was about the problems of transcendence, about the way that transcendent thinking can so easily create an other that needs to be eradicated before paradise can come about.

Brancusi’s work rejects the gross and earthly; in art perhaps laudable, but when that same impulse is translated into politics, and used to image a new, purer reality, one that can be real if only the dross of this world is destroyed – well, you know where that leads.

Which lead me back to Pound. He spent World War II in Italy, broadcasting to America on behalf of the Fascists. After the war, he was locked up in a prison camp near Pisa, and only spared execution by a plea of insanity, which led to 12 years in an asylum in Washington DC.

He then returned to Venice, where he lived out the rest of his life – along the way apologising to a visiting Allen Ginsberg for the ‘stupid, suburban sin of anti-semitism’. The last years of his life were characterised by an almost unbroken silence.

His sense of regret also found expression in one of the final sections of ‘The Cantos’ –

 ‘I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
      Let the wind speak
                   that is paradise

Let the Gods forgive what I
                have made
Let those I love try to forgive
                what I have made.’

Begun as a transcendent project, in the full bloom of High Modernism, ‘The Cantos’ came to embody a rejection of that sense of transcendence. Pound lived the mistakes of the 20th Century, and learned from them.

Brancusi sought to purify; Pound understood what that purification could lead to, and pointed his reader back to direct, passive engagement with what’s already there (‘Do not move / Let the wind speak’) rather than an active attempt to create Paradise by carving away and discarding everything that doesn’t deserve to be part of it.

Remembering Tim Page

Art, Horror, Photography, War

I’ve just been set thinking about Tim Page by an introduction to one of the stories in this year’s ‘Year’s Best Horror’. He was one of my teenage heroes, perhaps the best photographer to cover the Vietnam War. So, I’ve been rooting round on the web to take another look at his pictures.

What’s striking about them is their combination of formal precision and emotional immediacy. Page was always an artist as much as a journalist, creating images that both described the historical moment and spoke more broadly of the shock, disruption and terrible waste inherent in war.

Aestheticising responses to war, to tragedy in general, have been criticised, but I think they’re terribly important. They distance the shock from the moment, helping to move it from the particular to the universal. Page’s photographs were taken almost forty years ago; but they still function as a powerful and effective comment on events of today.

To use Pound’s formulation (given that he’s been such a strong presence this week), ‘art is news that stays news’. Making art from the moment is a process of distancing meaning from the temporary – making sure that the core is preserved, and that the work created will have all the immediacy of the moment 50, 100, 1,000 years from the moment of its creation.

Non-realist writing of any kind makes that distance as overt as possible. In the current critical climate, that openness lays it open (at least if you’re writing prose fiction) to much negative commentary. For me, the most constructive response to that kind of negativity is not to point to the quality of the work itself but rather to the aesthetics that underlie its relationship with reality.

But back to Tim Page. Arguments about aesthetics are really secondary to the quality and impact of the work itself. Here’s a link to his online gallery, well worth checking out.

I tend to over-intellectualise things; looking at his pictures after writing the above has reminded me that sometimes you’ve just got to step back from all of that, and just look at the work, and take it in, and let it go to work on you. His pictures do that; they’re just fantastic. Enjoy!

Mondrian in New York

Abstraction, America, Art

Rushing around today, so here’s a notebook entry from when I was lurking in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was a very exciting wander – and particularly exciting was seeing Mondrian’s various late New York paintings. So, I sat in front of them and pondered.

Composition in Oval with Colour Planes

‘The geometry of this composition is partially based on sketches of partially demolished buildings.’ The artist as a maker of partially demolished buildings – paring back to the fundamental structures, destroying as he / she goes, creating something that explains and defines but can never be lived in – or at least, occupied only by the mind, the imagination, the viewer recreating a personal whole from the objective part and then moving into it as an inhabitant. ‘What would it be like if I lived there?’ The great question of the viewer / reader of art. The impossibility of ever finding out.

Coal sculptures

Art, Fantasy, Film, Gigs, Horror, Sculpture, Surrealism

Last Friday night’s excursion was a trip to see compellingly strange French SF animation ‘La Planete Sauvage’, plus a pre-film performance of some groovy improvised music from The Stargazer’s Assistant. The film was fantastic; the music was marvellous; but what really made the evening for me were David Smith’s coal sculptures, forming his exhibition ‘The Other Side of the Island’.

No words, for once; I took some pictures on the phone, so I’m going to let the work speak for itself.