MILES ALDRIDGE

L1020645

Miles Aldridge, fashion photographer and artist, on his copy of The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MA This is a copy of ‘The Garrick Year’ by Margaret Drabble. It’s one of many paperback books my father created the cover for during his tenure as art-director of Penguin Books between 1965 and 67. I’ve grown up with these books. As a child I remember them piled up in my father’s studio while I’d sit on his lap, inhaling the smoke from his cigar, watching him draw. When he was at Penguin there was this colour-coding scheme for the spines of the books with orange for Fiction, green for Crime, blue for Classics and black for Science-Fiction. So across his bookshelf and stacked up on the floor I remember these kaleidoscopic towers of literature – and as I turned from a child into a young man these books remained a curiosity to me because if you could be bothered to open them you might find something remarkable like the opening sentence to Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ or a description of the conquest of the Aztecs. However I chose this one as an object rather than a book because I have to confess, I’ve never read one word of it. Looking inside it states it was published in 1966, which is when I was 2 years old. Strangely it also states it is Penguin number 2549 which has a sinister feel to it like a prisoner’s number. On the cover is a photograph of my mother taken by my father at the family home. I know that my father took this picture with a Nikon F, which was the camera that he then passed on to me when I became interested in photography as a teenager. He wasn’t a professional photographer, he was an art-director who then became an illustrator in the 1970s. Like a lot of people from swinging London, after the psychedelic late 60’s he moved to the countryside where he lived a bucolic life of cloudy beer and lazy days. There in a Georgian rectory he drew Hieronymus Bosch-like images of giant insects waltzing and dinning at a Victorian banquet, all meticulously airbrushed in Pop-Art colours.

GB Tell me about your mother as well because it’s a picture of her.

MA She was a very young and beautiful mother as can be seen on the cover. The synopsis on the back of the book states that the story is about infidelity and divorce, which is incredibly ironic and poignant. Five years after posing with this impenetrable Mona Lisa smile and an apron as the beautiful housewife for a novel about fictional infidelities her own wrecking-ball of a divorce would smash her and her home to pieces. So this old dusty and battered book is a souvenir from my childhood and works almost like a ‘memento mori’ reminding me about the transience of all things; this marriage, these children, this house, these people can all just vanish overnight. My father’s still alive but my mother died very young, at forty-nine. She never recovered from the shock of the losing everything and my sister and I had to watch her hide her sense of failure behind a mask of beauty. But the chasm was too deep for her to climb out of and that endless sadness turned into cancer and then she died. The end of the marriage had left her with a lack of self-esteem and emptiness. For me, as an artist, the wounded mother figure who wears a mask to conceal her wounds is an archetype in my work. Like my mother on this book cover, staring blankly out of the frame she is not just a Stepford-Wife, but a complex woman, who through some kind of shock has outwardly turned to stone. That’s the way I remember my mother and I feel that it’s often the case: there is a child, the child has their dreams, they grow up into a person and suddenly the dreams aren’t there any more and the face forms a mask to hide the disappointment. That was certainly my mother’s story. I think that’s why my work resonates with so many people. It’s not fashion photography. They see through the veneer of the beauty and the style and all this rather faddish stuff, to humans who are questioning their lives. Like my mother on this cover, having attained the home and the husband, it can vanish in an instant. Marriages don’t always fall apart but this happens to be the experience of my childhood. So here is my mother frozen in time as a young woman awaiting the promise of a happy marriage and not ravaged by cancer. I still feel incredibly connected to the child I was of seven or eight years old, holding this book in my hands and realising for the first time that it’s my mum on the cover.

Also, one of the first things I felt when I saw my father’s book covers was a realization that this is how you can live as an artist; you create a picture, put it on a book cover and you’ll get paid. Back in the 1960’s when my father was an artist most people were much squarer and came to pick up their children from school in pin-stripe suits. The differences between the cool people and the very square people were really profound. My father would dress in a very flamboyant, psychedelic way. He had long hair, which he dyed platinum blonde and fashioned into a slightly weird comb-over because he’d started to go bald quite young. He wore these incredible flared orange tweed suits over shirts covered in hand-embroidered butterflies with a jewelled dragonfly broach. He was a rockstar father: I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

Long before I’d been given any career advice at grammar school, I had made the calculation in my head that if I could design thirty or forty book covers a year like my dad I would make £100 per book cover. And so when I went to art-school I became an illustrator just like my father. At art-school, surrounded by new influences I began to question my father’s aesthetic. By that time he was in Los Angeles and he had left me all his books.

GB You’ve said in the past that you use beauty in your work so you can pull people in and then unsettle them somehow. Are you trying to give people a warning? That they can be surrounded by beauty but it hides this darkness?

MA Yes I think so. I don’t know if it’s a warning or just a fact. That is what I’m trying to convey because it’s something that I’ve seen through my mother and my sister. My sister surprised me by becoming a model when she was fourteen. We had that kind of relationship where we literally fought every day. There must have been something in our astrological charts that meant we were like oil and water. Now, we get on very well but when she became a model I couldn’t believe that this was possible. I didn’t see her as beautiful at all, I saw her as this monster that always pissed me off. Then I’d visit her on Bruce Weber shoots as her career exploded and I saw her transformed like the Pygmalion story into a lady. She was, I believe, the first model to be given a Ralph Lauren contract, which meant that she was paid a huge amount of money to do a very small amount of modeling and legally forbidden to do any other work. It was a really bizarre time for her. She was in her teens and she had to just sit around waiting for the next ad campaign in the next exotic location. So my sister presented me with this contrary image of a woman seemingly with everything but actually with nothing. Success and discontent simultaneously.

GB So that’s where you get this feeling of emptiness in your pictures?

MA The nicest way I can say it is that I’ve been married to, been the son of and the brother of three very beautiful women all of whom, just like many human beings, were complex, broken and flawed but coupled with beauty these secret wounds and scars seem more shocking. I believe in beauty and naively imagine that it should equate with happiness but it doesn’t. This idea was really brought home to me by the contrast between my shell-shocked post-divorce mother and the women I saw in her copies of Cosmopolitan where everyone was so bizarrely happy, excited and jumping for joy. I‘ve read that Richard Avedon had a beautiful sister who was locked away in a mental institution in her twenties. I sometimes wonder if this flawed beauty in his family closet was what drove his obsession with women and beauty.

GB Do you think that being surrounded by beauty is a consolation? Can it make you feel better?

MA Beautiful things or beautiful people?

GB I’d like to know how you feel about both.

MA I do think that beautiful things have a wonderful psychic energy. If you think that you can create the same art in a kind of fluorescent-lit windowless bunker as you can in a space where you feel very comfortable with some objects that are touchstones to things in your life, I think you’re wrong. I definitely need to have things of beauty around me. But people that are beautiful are far more tricky. A person who looks beautiful but is actually riddled with anxiety is not a beautiful thing. This is the contrast and the conflict that my work is really about. It’s wonderful for me being in the pages of Vogue Italia, in a way, passing comment on the fact that these objects, these things, even these hair-colours and lipsticks won’t bring you the happiness the advert on the next page proposes that they will.

GB I suppose being beautiful can only get you so far.

MA I know a lot of young beautiful girls and mostly that beauty means that they end up with some awful man. Beautiful people don’t always end up with beautiful people.

GB Are you influenced by classical art?

MA I am. I’m constantly on the lookout for old books with reproductions of Renaissance paintings. I seem to buy several a day at the moment. It’s a strange addiction and a new hero of mine is Kenneth Clark who was the director of The National Gallery through the 1930’s and 40’s. In these days of huge art fairs and super-galleries and auction houses that look like car-showrooms servicing a lot of rich people with wall space to fill, all the pomposity of the art world just seems to turn to dust when reading Kenneth Clark’s sharp and precise thoughts on Art. This is a man who loved and felt deeply about art and the message he shares again and again is always about a love of the beautiful and human in Art. I saw the recent Tate Britain exhibition on his personal art collection and then re-watched his famous television series ‘Civilization’ on repeat. The stories he recounts throughout the centuries of image making are peppered with truths we recognize as human behavior and I’d like to hope that’s what’s happening in my work too. I try to bring the grandeur and humanity that I find in Renaissance paintings to my work. Quite often it happens that I’ll be talking to journalists or collectors about my work and they’ll make this wonderful Freudian slip and refer to my photographs as paintings. I still shoot on film, which means I operate in an ‘old-school’ way to convert what’s in front of the lens into pure colour, which is much closer to painting than a digital capture of an image. Digital photography will never have that shock of colour. It’s just too flat. I always get a thrill opening my Kodak box of contact sheets, seeing what I’d only seen as a Polaroid now as pure chemical colour.

GB It is always possible to recognize your pictures from the colours in them.

MA It is remarkable to me that given how much visual garbage there is in the world that my pictures are somehow able to hold there own against this flood of images and I am sure this is a lot to do with my use of colour. Billboards full of stupid pictures make me fume because in my mind the world should be full of fabulous imagery. It’s a shame that beauty is so often sidelined in today’s magazines, film-posters and adverts.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MA I might have to pretend for a moment that I have my hair combed back with thick Brylcreem, rather bad dentistry and am wearing a 1940’s Harris Tweed suit. I’m now Kenneth Clark… and so can talk in perfect BBC RP about what he described as being… “transported by Art”. I think beauty in Art is a transporting quality that momentarily stops time and then returns you to the world more alive and sensitized to the sensations there. The women in my pictures seem to have stopped time in the way that they’re frozen in a moment of deep thought. Marilyn Manson wrote something about how the blankness of the figures in my photographs allow the viewer to enter their heads and see the world through their eyes. My work is something I take very seriously. It’s a deep meditation and a desire to tell my story. It’s an instinctive search for beauty and the strangeness behind the beauty and not as facile as ‘this image’ equals ‘this feeling’.

GB I love the way that people like you and David Hockney are so shamelessly into beauty.

MA My mother gave me David Hockney’s book on his early work [goes to find it]… Inscribed inside it says, “For Miles who may one day be just as successful, much love, mum.” That was Christmas 1988.

 

 

DAVID POEPPEL

Alberto Giacometti's Chariot

Alberto Giacometti’s Chariot

David Poeppel, Professor of Psychology and Neural Science, on Alberto Giacometti’s Chariot

GB Tell me why you chose this.

DP Although I have seen many pieces by Giacometti and admire many of them – perhaps because they incorporate for me something you might call the ‘elegance of simplicity’ – I had never seen this sculpture. It was recently on exhibit in New York, and I came around the corner – and found it immediately breathtaking. So I chose this because this is the most recent piece that I have seen that is just plain stunning, in a direct, sensory, unmediated way. And it stays amazing after looking at it for a long time: sustained beauty. The overall size (it is about as tall as I am) forces you to see the female figure eye-to-eye. The global, configural aspect (for example the large wheels – which cannot move) tell a very different story than the local, featural details (for example the nuanced painted face of the female figure). Every angle offers something unexpected, engaging, interesting, balanced, unbalanced, stimulating. This sculpture is crazy good! I kept looking at it, off and on, for an entire evening and found more to like, admire, and enjoy with every glance.

GB Does the existentialist philosophy associated with Giacometti’s sculptures affect your view of its beauty? Does it really convey alienation or despair to you? Can it provide us with any consolation for this bleak view of the human condition?

DP I have liked Giacometti’s sculptures since I was first dragged to museums by my parents, but I did not (and still do not) know much about his philosophy. I have always found his sculptures to be marvels of geometric intuition, but also examples of tension, and also examples of subtle humour. Maybe I have the advantage of the absence of knowledge, in this regard … I am unshackled from knowledge about his putative philosophical principles. Perhaps that reveals my naiveté as a viewer. But, in general (in my line of work, neuroscience, as well, by the way), philosophical principle does not always translate transparently into ‘form,’ be it artistic or scientific. Language is different in this regard. I can tell you my manifesto – but painting or composing it for you is not really possible. Visual rhetoric or musical expressiveness are amazing ways to stimulate thought, emotion, memory, and so on, but ideas proper are best conveyed with language, if that is one’s aim.

GB Giacometti went to great lengths to avoid specific characteristics, making his figures strangers. Do you even see this figure as female? Are there any characteristics that you think you have attributed to her through your own imagination, in spite of its creators wish to avoid associations?

DP This figure is very clearly female, most certainly from close up, but even from a distance. It is certainly true that these sculptures are ”de–individuated” and not obvious renditions of individuals. But I must say that I don’t find the anonymity of the stranger unpleasant in any way. I have always rather liked the expression that I believe I read somewhere in a book by Ernst Gombrich: the notion of “the beholder’s share.” The fact that the figure is a stranger does not leave me cold. The “filling-in” that one does as a viewer, that is to say the contribution one makes as the beholder, allows for even a very specific interpretation of this (or any) figure. Perception is extremely, even relentlessly, constructive, and whatever one brings along to the experience of viewing a piece (or anything else, for that matter) is as essential to the visual experience as the work of art itself. The ostensible goal to avoid stimulating particular associations is, from the point of view of perception, cognition, and neuroscience not really a plausible or coherent stance. One can surely avoid, as an artist, evincing a particular representation – this is not, say, a sculpture of Lady Gaga – but it is not possible to avoid the inevitable, automatic, constructive contribution that internal knowledge brings to every single perceptual experience. The beholders share…

GB Giacometti claimed to make these sculptures without thinking. But he has such great style. When you look at this work do you think about the craftsmanship involved?

DP Maybe the original plan for this was based purely on intuition. There exists a hurried-looking sketch of the sculpture that outlined the idea, and I’m certainly willing to accept that Giacometti himself believed that he worked without much conscious deliberation. But … introspection is a lousy guide when it comes to the analysis of complicated procedures, such as working on a multifaceted sculpture. In my view, the thought and craftsmanship that went into this piece become evident both in one’s immediate sensory, gut-level reaction as well as in the context of the more sustained, deliberative, slower appreciation of the sculpture. I find the tensions remarkable, starting with the base. On the one hand, you have these two big chariot wheels, about as compelling a visualisation of movement as you can get; on the other hand, the wheels are propped up on these two static holders, removing even the possibility of motion. Similarly, the elegant female figure looks both gracefully still and ready to walk, or perhaps to balance on the moving chariot. When you walk around the sculpture, each angle reveals new and unanticipated features and tensions, both at the scale of the entire piece and on the scale of small details, including the subtle paint. Maybe an artist can work on this without thinking too hard – but the thoughtful craftsmanship is visible from every vantage point.

GB Can you describe this – or any – aesthetic experience in terms of neuroscience?

DP In my view, we are not even close to describing such experiences in the language of neuroscience in a satisfactory way. I am, to be sure, committed to the view that the experience is a consequence of how your brain is organised. But even the most elementary aspects of human behaviour are amazingly complex – and we don’t understand those to any significant degree yet. Recognising a single word (one of my main areas of research)? Barely understood from a brain’s-eye-view, and the source of many controversies in the research literature. Apprehending a visual object such as this sculpture? Mediated by a few dozen interacting brain areas, on a millisecond timescale, and the centre of research programs all over the world for dozens of years. We have mature theories but no full account, in neurobiological terms. So even the perceptual tasks we consider ‘basic’ and ‘easy’ are actually quite complex, internally structured, and poorly understood. An aesthetic experience – such as mine when viewing this piece – is comprised of a suite of perceptual operations, a decision making stage which is itself internally complicated with many parts, an emotional response mediated by altogether different brain areas, retrieval of old and encoding of new memories, etc. That is to say, an aesthetic experience is not a “primitive” (or a basic lego block of the brain, if you will) but composed of many subparts (whether examined psychologically or neurobiologically). We have a long way to go to understand – in a mechanistic way – what we consider that simple-seeming experience of being moved by a piece of art or music. As you can tell, when it comes to scientific discourse and conceptual or experimental analysis, I am a splitter, not a lumper …

GB Do you think this is universally beautiful?

DP Yes, I do. I realise that such a view is not popular, but the structural and functional organisation of the mind/brain provides framework conditions for all of perception and cognition – and aesthetic experience and judgment are no exception. There exists remarkable individual variability in terms of preferences, to be sure, and all the usual effects of experience, culture, and frequency of exposure to a given piece of art obtain. That being said, I am willing to bet that there are universals in aesthetics, even if there are very few such principles. Whatever these underlying principles are, though, we can come to understand (part of) them with new ideas, clever experimentation, and fearless young students who pursue such approaches unbiased by prior feelings, opinions – and even results. The study of the neural basis of aesthetic experience merits new theories, and even the most unpopular views deserve to be reexamined.

GB Does the fact that this sculpture just sold for US$90 million indicate that it has an objective beauty? Do you think value influences our view of its beauty?

DP Yes, value influences our judgment of beauty. Of course. These framing effects show up everywhere. The question is whether such information is the main or only aspect underpinning the judgment of beauty – and I think not. The judgments one makes have multiple parts – for example fast, gut level, sensory judgments and slow, deliberative, normative judgments. These different aspects of an evaluation can be incongruent (“This hideous piece of junk cost $10,000?” or “This exquisite masterpiece was given away for $100?”) or congruent (“Good God, yes, I would have paid $10,000 for this magnificent performance.”) But the information about social and market value can only influence part of one’s judgment, but I am naively optimistic that there exists a ‘residue’ of a pure judgment of beauty separate from socially normative assessments.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

DP The ability to move me, to make me laugh, to show me something in unexpected ways, to evince an immediate emotion. I am most often moved by music, but some pieces, such as the one I selected, are just plain beautiful. Don’t you agree?

 

FRANÇOIS JONQUET

Am image from the website, 25000paintings.com

Am image from the website, 25000paintings.com

François Jonquet, writer and art critic, on Christophe Berhault’s 25000paintings.com

GB Tell me why you chose this website.

FJ Because it gives a sense of the course of life. 25000 photos found in Berlin flea markets by a French artist, Christophe Berhault, have been digitalised, edited, put online. Like a long loop that runs infinitely somewhere out in the web-space. This piece assembles so many instants, lost moments – of joy, epiphanies and dramas. It has saved them, brought them back to life. It seems to me like a heart that beats. The rhythm of its pulse is a beat every ten seconds, the time that the photos are visible. You never know what to expect when you connect. One is immediately plunged into the intimacy of strangers, the very heart of existence, its very being. Ten seconds; it’s nothing, an impression, but it’s enough for me to sketch the start of a story: what do these eyes, this face, this body tell me about this person, the situations in which I find him or her? Sometimes Christophe Berhault does a close-up on a portion of the photo, underlines a characteristic that might have escaped me: I discover a woman and a man who, in a group, discreetly exchange a tender glance, a scared cat, a well-worn pair of shoes, a gloved hand, an ambiguous gesture…It is always tender. The landscapes, in the way in which they are framed, casual, traditional or artistic, reveal something of he or she who is behind the lens. It’s unbelievable, really, all that one can think of in ten seconds. And then it is a piece that is universally accessible, everyone can relate to it. It is fundamentally an “Art for all”, to use the slogan of Gilbert & George.

GB What drew you to the particular image you chose to represent it?

FJ On the back of the photo is written, in a clumsy, trembling hand, perhaps of someone who is crying – the ink of the last word is diluted in a liquid – “Last photo with Else February 1941” and “Damaged by bombs”. Else is the young woman with the beautiful sad gaze. This photo was found by Christophe Berhault in a box in which the history of Else and her family had been tossed, along with others. In isolating this family from the others, he noticed that she was the person who is missing from the post-war. Why did the hand, which, I imagine, is that of her mother, to Else’s left, feel the need to add: “Damaged by bombs”? Perhaps because the young woman was too, at the same time as the photo. This final image is a relic. I chose for it’s terrible beauty, its tragic beauty. Alfred N. Whitehead wrote: “ The Adventure of the Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic beauty” (Adventures of Ideas, 1933). There is tragic beauty in the emergence of a new life from the death of the old. It is that of Mozart’s Requiem. Of crucifixions. Of the opening shots of Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, with its panoramas of Berlin in ruins. That of The Diary of Anne Frank. Or again of Missing House, a work by Christian Boltanski from 1990. In 1945 in the heart of Berlin, in Mitte, at 15, Grosse Hamburger Strasse, a pretty building was sliced in two by an Allied bomb. The left and right-hand sections remain and there is a void in the centre. Boltanski went looking for the people who had lived there, from 1930 to 1945. On the walls that surround the void, on the floors where the families lived, he placed plaques with the names of the Jewish inhabitants deported and exterminated, then of those who occupied their requisitioned apartments hidden under the bombs.

GB There is so much sadness here – as well as guilt and shame from people who gave away their whole family histories in pictures from the Nazi era. Does this make the project less beautiful?

FJ One finds, in the Berlin flea-markets, sometimes even in dustbins, at antique-dealers, a vast quantity of family photos. Contrary to Naples, for example, where it is ill-considered to ask an antique-dealer if he has any albums. Here when the new generations inherit of their heavy past – the Nazi era, the Wall which encumbers them, they get rid of it. The 25000paintings cover about a century of photos, from 1895 to 1995. Their subject-matter, travel shots set aside, is Berlin. Germany and its great question mark. With another country, the piece would have been less interesting. Because looking at these people having fun, embracing, looking after their children, reading, working – and how can one not identify with them? – one cannot help but ask the inevitable question: what megalomaniac madness caught hold of these people? How did they become so fascinated with evil, sealed into a Faustian pact, inevitably suicidal? Post war, another history begins: on the ruins a wall is built. It’s astonishing to see one people go in two different directions, even to different ways of dressing, doing their hair and make-up. By his editing, Christophe Berhault affirms his artist’s eye: he shows without avoidance or judgement. This is what makes the work so open, so moving, and beautiful.

GB Do you believe that everyone is an artist? Do you think that any picture can be art?

FJ Out of the 25000, some are magnificent. Sometimes I see ones that could be the work of great photographers: August Sander, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr. Certain group scenes remind me of Frans Hals, his family portrait in a landscape, the group of children, his officers’ banquets. Many have that pictorial dimension that gave the work its name. This is even more true when the 25000 paintings are projected. These tiny prints, apparently banal, enlarged, and shot through with light, take on a new dimension: it’s a revelation.

That said, I don’t adhere to Beuys’ notion that ‘Everyone is an artist’. Even if I love his utopian project in which education would allow everyone to discover the part of creativity that sleeps within. An artist is he who manages to transfigure mental images, ideas or sensations, and make of them an oeuvre. And that is valid for art brut, and for those such as Eugène Atget, Cartier Bresson, or Serge Gainsbourg, who do not know themselves, or consider themselves, as artists, for various reasons.

GB The photographs here are rephotographed by Christophe Berhault, so that two separate moments in time are preserved, the original picture and the moment when Christophe photographed the picture, sometimes with his reflection in it. Is this part of the appeal or would a scan of the picture be as good?

FJ This is also one of the reasons the piece is entitled 25000paintings. He considers that the act of rephotographing a photo is that of a painter. In the desire to do a close-up, to get closer to a shot, to isolate a detail, we sense him, in movement, attracted, intrigued, moved. Getting closer: it’s what we all do with a painting in a museum. We can sometimes make out Christophe’s reflection or that of his camera on the image. And then also, when he rephotographs all day long, let’s say 600 photos, the morning light isn’t the same as that in the evening. The moment of the shot adds to the moment when the photograph was taken. It gives the whole its texture, density, depth. More life still. All of that would not exist with a scanner. The result would be cold.

GB  Is this variety important to you in terms of looking for beauty? We’re seeing the pictures digitally and the speed and choice is dictated to us. Is this preferable to being able to leaf through them on paper, going backwards and forwards at will?

FJ The flux in the 25000paintings reminds me of Heraclitus’ “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. It’s always the same thing and never the same thing. And its the opposite of zapping, because the whole order of these 25000 images has been thought out. It is a whole. The sense of the fleetingness of time is also born from the fact that the flux is continuous, that it escapes, that we are powerless to stop it. We feel the work to be alive when we watch it at length. It was projected in its entirety in the window of a shop in a busy street in Berlin, the Torstrasse. The window, repainted in a transparent white, became a screen where the passers-by saw the photos file past. It started on a Friday, ran night and day until the following Monday at about midday when the last of the 25000paintings appeared. And what also makes it hypnotic, addictive, is also the very idea of abundance. Such a mass of states, attitudes, situations give the illusion that we have almost gone through the whole of life. Soon, the piece will be renamed 125000paintings, the artist having felt the need to go even further. Because all this mass is vertiginous and makes sense at the same time. There is, in Christophe Berhault’s obsessive project – one can only imagine the human experience of these three years, of work in which he was traversed by so many gazes, lives, stories – the necessity to make his own the people and the city he moved to six years ago now.

GB Do you prefer the colour or the black and white images? Berhault makes an interesting point about people not paying so much attention to the composition of colour images.

FJ What I like particularly, is the passage from black and white to colour, from colour to black and white: these shortcuts project me into another sense of time. So, yes, overall the photos in black and white have globally more strength than those in colour. Perhaps also because the colour arrives with the post-war, and that the history broken by fascism and the war has an impact on the way of self-representing. “Finally, with colour, he writes, we realise more clearly that what the photos restitutes is not real, that we’re in two dimensions, flat. There are depths with black and white, an illusion of perspective, that don’t survive with colour”.

GB Do you think that beauty was one of the intentions of the artist here?

FJ Yes, most certainly. The desire to enlarge small photos, to magnify them, clearly shows a desire for beauty. Whether the photo is a good one or not is unimportant. The evocation of the mysterious past of strangers, unknown moments, unknown places: devoting all this time to the search for unknown and lost times, is to be on a quest for beauty.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

FJ It’s a question I often ask myself. What, in the final instance, links the desire that is stirred by human beauty and the jubilation sparked by a masterpiece? Or by contemplating the beauty of the world? There are so many forms of beauty, which each give rise to a whole range of thought and emotion, that I am totally incapable of saying in what way they are related. If not by my own subjectivity. And the pleasure they immediately provoke.
Beauty is something, I hope, that is found in my books.

 

PIERS ATKINSON

Piers Atkinson's Chinese headdress

Piers Atkinson’s Chinese headdress

Piers Atkinson, milliner, on his Chinese headdress.

GB Tell me what this is and why you chose this.

PA The object is a headdress from either a Chinese opera or wedding. It’s the most incredible head decoration. I’ll tell you how it came into my life. I used to work for the artist, Andrew Logan, who’s a fascinating man and artist and creative thinker. I worked with him for years and years while he lived and worked in a beautiful building called the Glasshouse, which he’s just about to move out of – and on the ground floor is a storage space for all his sculptures – which are made out of glass and mirror and resin, but also lots of found objects. So people give Andrew buckets of stuff; broken Christmas decorations, interesting this, interesting that, even clothes. And this was one of the things he was given. I used to get quite frustrated rummaging through all this stuff, trying to find this for his work, so every now and then we’d go through the garage and tidy everything up. This was great for me because firstly, it was paid work and secondly, I got first dibs on all the things he was getting rid of. So he pulled this thing out and it was the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen. It’s very faded so it must be quite old. The tassels would have been a very strong pink. I guessed it was Chinese but I didn’t really know what it was. I was so thrilled to be given it that I went and bought a book about Chinese opera and saw this picture of one that’s almost exactly the same, worn by the bride character. There’s also a layer of wig that goes underneath the headdress.

GB Have you ever worn it?

PA Oh yes I have.

GB What did you wear it with?

PA I think it was one of Zandra Rhodes’s kaftans. I wore it at one of Andrews parties so I would have been helping him and doing the washing up in that headdress. You can see that it’s made from layers of things on springs and hinges. There’s a lot of card and stuck on paper so you can pull it around a bit when it wilts. It’s come around with me for about twenty years.

GB So you had it even before you thought of making hats?

PA Yes. My mum makes hats, so I’ve always loved hats and headdresses and always made them for myself to go partying at clubs like Kinky Gerlinky and a bit later on, Kashpoint. So Andrew would have seen me wearing the hats I made at his parties and the Alternative Miss World, so that’s why he would have given me this.

GB Have you ever made anything like it?

PA Not quite like it, but I did make a huge pink wig based on another Chinese character. It has some of Andrew’s jewellery in it and it was a project for Zandra. I did a lot of portraits of her because she’s a fascinating character.

GB have you seen any Chinese operas?

PA Only on Youtube and I’m not sure it’s for my Western ears!

GB Oh no, did it put you off?

PA Not at all. It makes it even more extraordinary. I’ll tell you what that kind of thing does for me. It comes from the Imperial part of Chinese history so it’s steeped in thousands of years of tradition. So you have this style of music, these very stylized gestures, make up and characters that are so far from a Western sensibility. But the personalities are the same. So however different it seems, you’ve always got the bride, the thwarted lover, the villain, the possessive father. It shows that as much as our humanity is the same,we can express it in these incredibly different ways. It made me love the headdress more, that it can tell the same old story of a bride in such a different way. Some of them have Reeves’s pheasant tails attached that are six feet long. Those come from the most boring brown bird but it has this beautiful tail. Then when you see these headdresses worn, all the springs wobble and they come to life.

GB It’s funny that people think Lady Gaga is original.

PA Well that’s why I love hats, or headpieces I should say. They’re displays of who you are in any culture – whether you’re the priest or the chief or the wife and in a position to display who you are, it’s a crown. And we all live in our heads so much. That’s where we feel we exist and we decorate that with hats and hair and everything else to exaggerate it, to exaggerate the self.

GB So when you saw this in your book on Chinese opera, was it more beautiful? Had it been more of a camp thing until then?

PA It does all depend on context, doesn’t it? It’s an exotic thing. When I was first given this, fifteen or twenty years ago there was no internet. It was easier for things to be exotic. Now you can research things so easily on the internet, it’s almost as though we’re overfed. I look at these beautifully edited, refined and cropped photographs in this book but now we feel we have the whole story in this endless unedited online library. I don’t have the same passion for fashion imagery anymore because nothing feels as special. I think the future lies in editing all this down to something that you want to keep.

GB I guess that’s where beauty can stand out.

PA Yes. We’ve got ahead of our competitors by putting an awful lot of effort into the beauty of our imagery and the way we present the work. We’ve always photographed the hats on models, even just for sales publications. I think there’s a huge market for a specialist interest in beauty. We look at so much low common denominator imagery that says ‘come in and join us’ rather than ‘don’t you wish you could be like us.’ I’m fascinated by this idea. In the eighties, kids didn’t try to look sexy, they wanted to shake things up and upset people. Then they were sexy if they could pull that off and shake things up. That was beautiful to us. Now people want a gym body and a spray tan. It’s all very normal and it takes dedication, but is it creative? The way we look is a way of communication and that seems like a very narrow channel of communication. I’ve always been interested in looking back through history books and seeing things like the way people used to pad their bellies to look fatter so they could appear to be rich, or the wide shoulders in the eighties as a show of strength, being sewn into a dress as a way of communicating that you didn’t need to dress yourself. Ancient Egyptians used to bind their heads. We alter ourselves to tell a story and that’s why I love hats. There’s a lot of information in this Chinese headdress that I can’t even read. Maybe the knots mean eternity or the pearls stand for something. All these things would tell a story to the Chinese audience.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

PA I would say that it has to be unusual or remarkable and then good. Nature is beautiful in itself but in a person it’s related to morality. You can see a photograph of a person and say that they’re beautiful visually, as a part of nature, but when it comes to looking at the person as a whole it’s also related to their behaviour, their morals, how they fit into society. A beautiful experience has goodness attached to it.

GILDED BIRDS PAPER

Apologies for the lack of post this week. We took a little holiday. We’ll be back with something new next week, which is also when the third edition of GILDED BIRDS PAPER will be out.

issue three

In the mean time here’s an early post you may have missed. It’s one of our favourites and is included in the new paper.

l1030186

Ned Block, philosopher, on his pair of pliers

GB Tell me why you chose your pliers.

NB The main aesthetic aspect is the feel of the pliers in your hand. They feel like an extension of your hand. I bought them at Allied Radio, a precursor of Radio Shack, in the 1950s in Chicago when I was in high school. They were heavily used even then but they still function perfectly. They are lineman pliers made by Klein and Sons, a company that started in the mid-19th century and was known in the 1950s for the best lineman’s tools. The logo is a picture of a lineman on a pole. They’re very good for stripping or bending wire. Long after I bought this tool, foolproof tools for stripping wires were produced but using this tool is more satisfying, partly because using it is an exercise of a skill from the past.

GB Do you think about the beauty of everyday objects a lot?

NB Not explicitly but of course everybody wants beauty in their lives. The beauty of the pliers is highly personal and certainly not any kind of natural beauty. With many things we find beautiful there is a strong dependency on cultural and personal context. Your porcelains for example resonate with one culture but not another. No one would appreciate the pliers who has no idea how to use them. You need to be able to imagine them in your hand, to integrate motor and visual imagery in envisioning using them. Their visual appeal to me is a matter of their affordances. “Affordance” is a term introduced by the psychologist James J. Gibson for the latent possibilities of action in the environment. To experience affordances of an object it needs to be close enough to you to grasp—in what is called peripersonal space. The photo won’t work very well since the part of your visual system that is concerned with affordances does not categorize the picture as a real three-dimensional object. That is one reason that photographs of sculptures are so disappointing. The affordance dimension is missing in many kinds of art.

I think the topic of affordances is scanted in most art criticism. Amazingly, we have two pretty much separate visual systems. One of them (the “ventral” system that starts in the visual areas in the back of the head and feeds into the sides of the head) is conscious and the one that most art exploits – but there is another one (the “dorsal” system that feeds to the top of the head) that is mainly unconscious and governs action. That is the visual system that dominates in dogs, which is why they see moving objects better than stationary objects. The dorsal system probably dominates affordances, certainly any affordances that have to do with shape or motion. My guess is that many of our more subtle aesthetic reactions are dominated by that affordance system.

GB Does beauty ever come up in your work?

NB Every philosopher would like to be able to write and think beautifully. Many philosophers value simplicity – I certainly do – and simplicity is a kind of theoretical beauty.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

NB There are some aesthetic values that derive from human universal perceptual capacities, such as symmetry. But this object is beautiful mainly because of its personal meaning. I’ve used this tool, I made a Tesla coil with it. It fitted into my life at a certain time and reminds me of that time. I have noticed that physical universal beauty doesn’t seem to play as big a role on your site as one might have thought. I haven’t noticed anyone picking a famous painting that means nothing to them personally.

SIMON COSTIN

Simon Costin's bronze satyr

Simon Costin’s bronze satyr

Simon Costin, art director and curator, on his bronze satyr.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

SC It’s often hard to explain why a certain object has a unique fascination. Is it the design or form of manufacture? Perhaps its rarity or the fact that the creator was a person of note? Maybe the object has a history, a wonderful story woven through time, which lends it an aura, like a religious relic? Or sometimes, just once in a while, something comes along that hits you in a place you never knew you even had. A place in both the mind and the heart. My satyr is one such object.

Twenty years ago I was strolling along Columbia Road flower market in London on a sunny Sunday morning. I was with friends and they had wandered ahead a little. The crowds of people in the market make it easy to lose people temporarily. I stopped to see if I could see them and my eyes turned towards a shop window. Sitting there was a small bronze figure clasping his knees, his face turned in contemplation and eyes cast down. As I stared at him I noticed that he had the shaggy flanks and cloven hooves of a satyr or faun. This was no mere mortal but a representation of a God. In ancient Greek Mythology a satyr was the companion of Dionysus. Early representations have them with horse like features, a tail, ears and well, other parts… The Greek God Pan has goat legs and horns and Romans later used the term saturos when speaking of the Latin faunus, so the two aspects combined. Later representations of satyrs feature the more familiar aspects of Pan with goat’s legs and horns. Pan was known for his wild, lusty, untamed nature, a God of the fields and shepherds and known for his music played on the pipes. The worship of Pan began in Arcadia and being a creature of nature, his temples were simple natural places, groves and caves. A true lover of life and the natural world. But here in a shop window was an alternative representation. Thoughtful, perhaps melancholic, pondering the unknowable but reminding us that he’s still here and still has things to teach us.

At the time I didn’t have enough money to buy him but I put down a deposit and returned a week later with the cash. The most surprising thing about the piece is how much it weighs, its almost supernaturally heavy. The one thing I remember from the dealer who sold him to me was the instruction to stroke him. Bronze reacts well to the oils in our hands. Over the last twenty years I have helped to build up whatever patina he has by regularly stroking him and making sure he’s loved. He has repaid me by opening my eyes to a different way of looking at deity and our kinship with nature.

GB You seem drawn to the macabre. Can something be both macabre and beautiful?

SC Absolutely! But then its all down to an individual’s perception of beauty, surely? Eye of the beholder and all that? Modernism showed us that ideals of classical beauty are there to be challenged and we should embrace all forms of existence. I enjoy the transgressive nature of the macabre. The disturbing or off-kilter has always held a fascination for me because its always been something lurking on the edge of my vision. I’ve a sunny disposition by nature but there’s always been the feeling that everything could just go up in flames at any minute. I was born in London and have lived here all my life. I’ve been here when riots have erupted and when terrorists have bombed. I went to see the buildings in the city directly after the 1993 IRA bombing. It was all so surreal. I had been past the exact same spot the day before on a bus but here it was in ruins. And the strangest thing of all was how beautiful it looked. The scale of transformation was breath taking. Horror and beauty combined.

GB You seem so involved in telling stories through your work. Does the story of the satyr appeal to you?

SC I think what the satyr represents is appealing, yes. I’m the director of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. The museum houses the largest collection of witchcraft-related artifacts in the world. We not only look at witchcraft but also magical practice. Britain has an enormously rich history of magical practice, from Anglo-Saxon Sorcerers to the stories of Merlin and on to Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s magician. Robert Fludd in the seventeenth century to Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Ithell Collquhoun and so many others in the twentieth. The figure of the half man-half goat was demonised by the early church and became their Satan. I’ve always thought this such a damaging thing. A satyr represents our kinship with the natural world. The church saw humanity as being above nature and that legacy is what we are now having to live with as our planet struggles to support us and all the damage we inflict on it. Pan reminds us that we are not removed from the natural world. I’ve often thought that my wistful satyr seems to be sad with the knowledge of this dislocation.

GB You collaborate a lot in your work. Do you ever discuss beauty specifically? Your work with Tim Walker is incredibly beautiful.

SC You know I can’t ever recall having had a single conversation about the nature of beauty with anyone within the fashion world. I’ve talked to artists about it certainly, but not people in the fashion industry. Tim has a very particular aesthetic, which is why he is so successful. He has a singular vision of the world and has been able to play that out in the pages of the worlds most looked at magazines. Like any great artist he has tried to stick to his guns and fight for what he wants and how he sees things, but what makes him remarkable, I think, is how he can collaborate and listen to others. He’s not a dictator. On a shoot with Tim we are all wrapped within his vision and everyone has their role to play in helping to create that vision. It’s the same with all fashion photographers but Tim always acknowledges it.

GB How do you work around clashes of taste when you’re collaborating with someone?

SC That rarely happens to me thankfully. If someone chooses to work with me it’s usually because they like the worlds I create, so we are already half way there. The only time it has happened is when  moneymen, they are usually men, don’t understand the vision, lack any kind of aesthetic or cultural understanding and are totally visually illiterate. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does… a deep breath and a lot of explaining, trying all the while not to be patronising, is the order of the day. Painful!

GB You set up the Museum of British Folklore. Are these artefacts more interesting to you than anything in the contemporary art world?

SC The museum world and the contemporary art world are two very different things. One deals with the impulsive, intuitive experiences of groups of human beings and the other deals with the rarified and usually intensively meditated-on work of a single individual. Very different things. For me the museum is so important, so broad and so revolutionary in terms of current museum practice that there’s not an hour passes that I’m not thinking of it. Setting up a national museum for the UK is such an insane project after all. But, folklore has been so long overlooked, misunderstood and marginalised, that I almost feel like a lone voice desperate to bring all our wonderfully rich folkloric culture to the fore. But I’m far from being alone. It runs through our lives in ways people don’t recognise, from street slang to urban myths. We construct ritual and give it meaning everyday in response to fundamental human desires. We have constructed wayside shrines ever since the first traveller was killed on a road and we still do it when a bicycle is painted white and chained to the railings close to where a cyclist was killed. The Museum of British Folklore will reflect what it means to be human in the 21st century and will draw on the customs and traditions of the UK to show the world the things we hold dear and how they resonate in the wider community and the commonality we all have as human beings.

GB You take very local stories and use them to influence shows with global appeal – such as your recent work with Gareth Pugh. Do you think the references get lost in translation – or is that part of the beauty of it for you – the creation of something fresh and mysterious from this obscure beginning?

SC I was delighted when Gareth said that he was using British Folk customs as a source of inspiration. I don’t think it particularly matters that not everyone will understand the references. A new audience has heard that there is relevance to folklore that they may never have thought about before. I love the fact that the Minehead Hobby Horse and Mummers tatter jackets have been reinterpreted. It won’t affect those particular events in any way I imagine but it may bring a handful of people to explore them in some way and learn more about them. Of course if we had a museum of folklore people could visit it and learn so much more.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

SC Beauty can literally take the breath away. I think the experience of beauty is always intensely personal. Many years ago I was in Rome and got up early to go for a walk. I turned a corner and there was a small square. A fountain played in the centre, lazy birds strutted around and the light was so beautiful. I stood there and tears streamed down my face and I was shocked at myself. Where the hell did that come from? That’s what beauty can do, take you by surprise and fill you with a vision of life that floods you with happiness so intense it’s almost too hard to bear.

ANTHONY SNODGRASS

The Temple of Concordia from ancient Akragas

The Temple of Concordia from ancient Akragas

Anthony Snodgrass, Professor of Classical Archaeology, on the Temple of Concordia at Agrigento.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

AS Because I’ve had a long time to look at it. It’s nearly sixty years since I first visited the temple, and I haven’t been back that many times; but year in, year out, I look at pictures of it (especially this photo) and I never get tired of looking. It’s a huge slice of luck, too, that the temple is so well preserved.

GB Can you visualise it in its original state, with stucco and decorations? If so, do you prefer the ruin – or the temple in your imagination?

AS Yes, the materials are important. Here in Sicily, the Greek builders and sculptors mostly worked in local limestone: they had no easy access to white marble, but I guess that stucco was reasonably successful in reproducing its effect, which we can see in dozens of buildings in mainland Greece. In this case, however, it seems that there was little or no sculptural decoration (painting is another matter), so the difference from its appearance today won’t have been all that great, I would be happy with either, but I’m not trying all the time to imagine the original state.

GB Do you believe that this is a higher form of beauty than nature? Do you think that the master builders who created it believed it was?

AS No, I believe that nature excels anything we can do (that’s why I’ve re-visited the Scottish Highlands every year of my adult life). But you asked me to ‘choose one object’, and I took this to mean an artefact. With the second part of your question, I’m not so sure. Greek literature is notoriously reticent in praising natural beauty, by comparison with perfect craftsmanship, and these builders could have felt the same. But if the Greek temple was really based on nature (see below), then we’re back where we started.

GB For you personally, to what extent does the beauty come from the building’s perfect proportions – and to what extent from its particular associations for you, your visits to it, your knowledge of its historical context?

AS one per cent from personal associations, one per cent from the context (of which little or nothing is known) and 98 per cent from the building itself and its proportions.

GB To what extent do you subscribe to classical conceptions of objective beauty through order, symmetry, proportion etc.?

AS I think you have to believe that there was something in their conceptions. If you think of a perfectly proportioned man or woman, you don’t want to alter anything, and the columns of a Greek temple are said to have been based on human proportions. Whether or not that is true, everything was clearly scrutinised in obsessive detail. Take this particular Doric temple (Doric was seen as the ‘male’ alternative). The Greeks fiddled and experimented with their temples for centuries on end, changing this or that tiny detail. For technical reasons which we needn’t go into, builders in the Doric order soon found that they had to move the outer columns of the façade slightly inwards, in order to get the upper works right. They clearly liked the result in aesthetic terms too, perhaps because it made the building look less sprawling. Sometimes they shifted the end columns quite abruptly inwards (by two feet in the case of the Parthenon). Here in Sicily, they thought of a different solution: move not just the two outer columns (#1 and #6) very slightly inwards, but the next two also (#2 and #5), so that the central gap, between #3 and #4, will be the widest, making a natural entrance way. You have to look very hard to see that they’ve done it at all. But in all their centuries of searching, I feel that this is the moment when they got it right. Plenty of experts would disagree: the word ‘provincial’ is freely thrown around when the art and architecture of Greek Sicily are discussed.

GB The Greeks were masters of creating optical illusions such as tapering columns, to give the illusion of a perfect form. Does this make it less perfect?

AS No, I think that it’s precisely the manipulation of optical effects that creates the feeling of perfection. Without them, these temples would risk looking like provincial stock exchanges.

GB What is your personal view of Plato’s idea of beauty as an ultimate value?

AS Well, it’s lasted pretty well, hasn’t it ? Plato of course used ‘beauty’ in many other contexts besides the visual (character and thought, for instance). But if we confine ourselves to visual beauty, there is a surprisingly wide consensus: I don’t think it is time-specific, though culture-specific it may be. Fashions and tastes change at bewildering speed, but some things just last. Look at any book or gallery of portraits of women who were judged beautiful in their own time: people’s preferences today may differ, but no one ever says “Yuk !”. There must be something ‘ultimate’ behind this.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

AS Shape, proportion and colour. I look around and see beauty everywhere, natural and man-made, often side by side with ugliness. I don’t think most people find it hard to decide which is which, and there will be a wider measure of agreement than on most topics. I would expect that posterity, too, will share the consensus.