exhibitions, the epic


    October 12, 2021

    There was an obvious first question raised by this densely packed show at Mostyn: ‘What is an Anathemata?’ Notes reveal it to mean a solemn blaming from the church.

    To be met with an anathemata results in excommunication. And this show gathers three writers who were famous outsiders and a fourth known mostly to poetry insiders.

    Antonin Artaud, Sarah Kane and Pierre Guyotat have, between them, written some of the most visceral, confrontational and seditious texts in modern European literature.

    David Jones, on the other hands, a scholarly poet of Welsh origins, is easier to introduce to polite society. But like his peers Joyce and Elliot, he leaves polite society a little confused.

    These four figures are assembled as if in a museum. Vitrines contain a football strip, spell-letters burnt and scanned, and reproduction etchings that contrast the bucolic with the horrific.

    Presented in response are four contemporary artists: Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak, James Richards, and Paul-Alexandre Islas. Their work appears on slideshow and monitors.

    The slides are arresting: sensuous x-rays which, by their silver veneer, look to belong to the world of early photography. Even in this present, Anathemata comes to us from the past.

    Curator Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, who put this show together with collaborative partner Charles Teyssou, tells me that the guiding principle for their rich selection was the Epic genre.

    All four historic writers conjure up epic myth – be it ancient, folkloric, or local to Wales – as a way to create a space for the sacred in the wake of the cataclysms of the twentieth century.

    In the case of playwright Sarah Kane, she evoked a myth of gods fighting for possession of the sun, embodied here, on a third monitor screen, in an archived FA cup football game.

    On this occasion in 1996, Manchester United beat Chelsea to gain possession of the sun. The epic heroes who claimed goals were Andy Cole and David Beckham.

    Beckham would receive his own anathemata after a sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Imagine if, like Artaud, he had seen out his days an asylum.

    Anathemata is on display at Mostyn, Llandudno, until February 6 2022. See gallery website for more details.


    Book: After Lockdown – A Metamorphosis, by Bruno Latour

    October 1, 2021

    After Lockdown is a slim analysis of life under covid, against the ongoing backdrop of the climate emergency. Latour offers us the possibility that this experience of remote working and super spreading could all offer a lasting change in our mentalities. It could be so radical we swap our human outlook for that of a bug, more specifically the bug into which Gregor Samsa transformed in Kafka’s wildest story, Metamorphosis.

    It might not be appealing to wake up as a cockroach, but perhaps that overnight change is as defiant, in its way, as it is to wake up late and attend an online meeting in pyjamas. In Kafka’s story, Samsa’s boss sends the chief clerk to look for his employee; the roach fails to show up. His parents are at a similar loss; the roach is free to hide under the bed.

    If one cannot stomach the cockroach; perhaps we should draw inspiration from the termite. Latour notes that they live in their mounds, as we do in cities. They cannot really be thought of independently of these giant nests, which they build as they eat, encroach and excrete. We in turn may be considered connected at every turn with the human settlements we so relentlessly build and occupy. Termite and nest are one; human and human environment likewise.

    This seemed one of the book’s most important ideas: that like the termite, our entire habitat is artificial. We must therefore consider ourselves as existing with Earth, rather than on Earth, with a whole network of agents (human or otherwise) and not off them. Latour uses the word holobiont to describe the complex living systems to which each one of us plays host: with bacterial, viral, fungal guests. Likewise we form a chain of dependency with humans and animals near and far. Latour rejects the idea of discrete individuality.

    Unfortunately we live among some rampant individualists. Latour is no fan of the billionaire class and their childish obsession with space travel. It arises, he notes, from a desire to leave our wasted planet as the horizon of ecological collapse draws ever nearer. It’s a fantasy of course. But it indicates a total disregard for what might happen to the rest of us, were Musk, Bezos or Branson actually able to simply escape to a post-apocalyptic base on Mars.

    For Latour, space travel is a desperate, quasi-religious attempt to extend the shallow layer of habitable planet which humanity is currently able to occupy. This so-called critical zone, which extends from bunker to penthouse across the cities of the world, accounts for just 0.14 percent of the earth’s mass. From the point of view of a physicist, or when compared with the universe, we are as lichen to a boulder.

    Once you’ve read about this, it surely increases your feelings of roachlikeness. And once you gather that we each carry around an ecosystem with our bodies, you realise how complex this life on earth is. It’s no wonder that our politics have become enmired in contradiction; naturally, climate change is a war, but who is the opponent? After Lockdown implicates us all in an imbroglio. I came away thinking of the finitude of our space on this planet and the rapid erasure of borders by coronavirus.

    He may invoke Gaia, but Latour is no new age thinker. He endlessly complicates our position with regards to a planet full of microbes and microchips, blue whales and oil refineries. But he offers the prospect of freedom, following a lockdown that resets our engagement with the planet. If we can consign The Economy to history, we can subsist he claims, together, in new ways, and also in new places, under the sun, or better still, under the moon: that poetic body which remains, as yet, unspoilt.

    After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis is published by Polity. (c) 2021. pp.148, available from all good bookshops.

    contemporary art

    Daniel Pryde-Jarman at Sidney Nolan Trust

    September 29, 2021

    Sidney Nolan Trust is a bucolic arts centre, which nestles in a valley carved out by a glacier. Along with acres of green land, the late Australian artist’s Herefordshire estate comprises a calmly ramshackle residential home, a preserved studio overstocked with spray paint, and an outlying barn which has become a gallery to show, largely, Nolan’s work. At time of visit, the show was dedicated to prints made in response to Auschwitz.

    Daniel Pryde-Jarman, whose exhibition intervenes economically in the surrounding grounds, has responded to lesser evils. But whereas the impossibility of representing the holocaust is a commonplace observation, Pryde-Jarman does make visible a number of otherwise hidden facets of imperialism: be that American, Soviet, pre-Soviet or post-British.

    His sculptural show is characterised by a simplicity of form and a broadly shared aesthetic where stark angularity contrasts with the vernacular architecture, and where the organic finish tends to blend in. His key motif is a doorway and, if you include an opening framing his installation in the Granary, one counts almost a dozen doorways across his four works in the show. Eight of these are in a state of collapse; two lead nowhere. And to step through the empty frame in the Granary would be to find yourself in mid air.

    Most of the doors are arranged in a small field by the Centre’s car park. Their charred wood frames, empty, lean left and right and invite the eye to navigate a grassy field enclosed with barbed wire, and they offer nowhere to rest. There is an aspect of horror to the emptiness of these doors: no interior; there is no shelter from the drizzling grey skies. Picking my way across the spongy grass, I break a cobweb to step through one of these portals and wonder what my participation means; because these frames are haunted by a dark, unlikely referent.

    This work is called Flood and all seven of these openings are based on images found online which showed the aftermath of a flood at a settlement made to train soldiers at Fort Irwin in the Californian desert. These doors look like doors which look like the doors of a generic street of a town in the Middle East. Until the 2013 monsoon, US military could hone their lethal abilities storming terrorist living rooms and smoking out bedroom snipers. Here the remains of this sophisticated folly are abstracted with little or no comment. In our remote corner of the Welsh borders, where the beautiful villages seem ever tranquil, the reality of the so-called war on terror is made obliquely tangible here, as is the weirdness.

    The Granary is a small, raised barn with swept flagstone floor and solid timber rafters. The space looks newly restored, but obsolete farm machinery, mounted on the wall, wears an orange patina of age. Equally antique are the three squat monoliths, prefabricated by the artist in his Hereford studio. Two of these taper, like obelisks; the other is stepped like the Cenotaph; and all three have a rough, aged concrete finish. But tap one with a knuckle and it returns a hollow knocking sound. They represent empty plinths and all three have the potential to return to that function. In this storage place for grain, they stand dormant.

    As before, this piece has a parallel in the outside world, which Pryde-Jarman came upon, online. Google Streetview meant that he could base these plinths on proportions seen on originals in Eastern Europe, which have fallen into disuse, having been designed to support statues of Lenin. Pryde-Jarman was working with plinths prior to events in Bristol in June last year. We know now statues can be toppled, but plinths are hard to destroy. Here they offer a sense of both hope and danger that these will be restored or repurposed. The three forms, arranged at irregular angles, fill this barn with potential and tension.

    Back outside, another vacant concrete monument rises more than three metres above the Sidney Nolan apple orchard. It is rendered to look solid with a finish as stony as that of the plinths. And, as a narrow, terraced house, it encases an open doorway, with an unglazed window on the floor above. But this structure is askew, like the ghostly doors of Fort Irwin. And since the window opens onto the sky, this structure fools no one. One can pass behind the standing stone to inspect the plywood frame and admire its workmanlike artifice.

    That said, this piece puts us briefly in the slippers of Catherine the Great. She is said to have gazed from her carriage upon entire villages erected in this way, like theatre scenery, to give the false impression her subjects were living well. This elaborate subterfuge was the work of her closest advisor, friend and lover, Grigori Potemkin, who has since given his name to any device, from flashmob to state news broadcast, which portrays a happy and contented population for propaganda purposes. This piece too goes by the title Potemkin.

    Two final doorways which open onto closed space are to be found in a pair of sentry boxes stationed at the entrances to the centre and to the car park. Whereas the previous works embody ideas, and have been finished by charring, rendering, or concrete, the paintwork on the final piece is the concept itself. The sentry box is put together like a garden shed with gable roof and slats. But it is painted with interlocking, dynamic black, white and grey shapes, which draw the attention and disturb the vision. The military don’t really go in for decoration (aside from medals), so this piece of loud, bright, albeit monochrome, security infrastructure is a wry oddity.

    Dazzle camouflage, of which this is an example, was first used by ships in WWI, intended to confuse an opponent as to direction and speed. Its deployment here on a static sentry post, which no one is likely to shoot at, at a remote arts centre, rather than a working barracks is pleasantly baffling. One also wonders about the structure, why do sentries require boxes? With their benches, near redundant, inside, these two guardhouses are dwellings so small as to be pointless. This is toy-like architecture that lampoons its occupant.

    This keen sense of the ridiculous reverberates strongly: from the vainglory of 18th century Russia through to the 21st century war games of the most powerful army on earth. In a world gone proverbially mad, these extreme follies – Arab villages in the Mojave desert; temporary towns in the Crimea; the wholesale decommissioning of plinths; self-conscious sentries – well belong. But their appearance here at Sidney Nolan, where the pace is slow and the setting idyllic, makes visible a threat to all.

    It brings to mind of Poussin’s classically classical painting, Et in Arcadia Ego. So reads a stone inscription, on a tomb, found by some shepherds: ‘death is in Arcadia too’. Pryde-Jarman delivers a similar warning, but with a light touch in keeping with our absurd times.

    Daniel Pryde-Jarman was exhibiting at Sidney Nolan Trust, Presteigne, Herefordshire: May-September 2021.

    art history

    Book: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection, by Tom Jeffreys

    September 27, 2021

    Somewhere between nature writing, cultural history and travel writing sits Tom Jeffreys’ companionable guide to Russia, The White Birch.

    His point of departure is a single species of tree. There are white birches in palatial gardens, botanical gardens, and protected forest; in nineteenth century landscape paintings, realist novels, dissident poetry and contemporary artworks. It emerges as a very Russian tree, but the Ukraine and the Nordic lands also lay claim to it. This ramble across time and space in a distant land frequently finds itself in political territory.

    The birch is a symbol of national identity, in a nation where so many millions died to protect the land from Nazi invasion. The narrative in which Communism defeated Fascism may offer hope. But Jeffreys disturbs this by recalling Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, Russia’s landgrabbing behaviour in the subsequent months, and labour camps in Siberia so vast and distant they didn’t even require barbed wire fences. A virulent anti-semitic strain to Russian cultural life in the previous century is also shocking.

    So the patriotic birch is never neutral, at least its ownership remains in question. In 2011 Russians came together to defy government plans for a motorway to slice through Khimki birch forest outside Moscow. Protestors met with the police and at times the secret police. Leading voice for the resistance, journalist Mikhail Beketov, was particularly unfortunate; his dog was killed, his car was torched, and he was left with brain damage after a physical attack. These injuries finally killed him in 2013.

    The author of this book is aware of the dangers of controversial opinions here; his travel adventures are tinged with paranoia. Near Krasnoyarsk, he gets anxious about the publication of his most recent art story, which describes a gallery visit against the backdrop of the Moscow mayoral elections. Bad dreams haunt his train ride. On Russky Island he totally loses his bearings, and wanders into equally spooky territory, and a feeling he does not belong. “I am not a brave person,” he claims, although he is brave enough to travel Russia and publish books.

    But Jeffreys is a self-deprecating wit. In the Russian Forest Museum, Moscow he points out a hedgehog in a painting, and tries to impress a sombre curator by suddenly recalling the word “Yeshik!”, which is Russian for this creature. He says of an oft painted estate north of Moscow: “Abramtsevo feels sometimes like a place built for children – or even by children.” And he notes the “comic villainy” of another dog owner, who watches his pet chase a cat, while calmly peeling an apple with a knife.

    He may not be fully fluent in Russian, but the author’s greatest strengths are observational. These pages abound with close descriptions of the Russian countryside, which chime with descriptions of nineteenth century landscape paintings. He cites a wonderful description of Ivan Shishkin, a realist painter so detailed he was called ‘the accountant of leaves’. And when Jeffreys encounters the Russian public’s favourite painting, The Rooks Have Returned, by Alexei Savrasov, he notes, a bit snippily, the poor behaviour of foreign tour parties in the Tretyakov Museum. One guide not only touches the art, she rubs the painted canvas to illustrate her spiel.

    But in 1986 the Russian countryside changed, invisibly, forever, and Jeffreys’ descriptions of the flora and fauna come up against their limit when he visits Chernobyl. The explosion of a nuclear reactor, which shook the world, has been said to have led directly to Glasnost, then Perestroika, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the current mood of Russian nationalism. Visiting the site at the time, a newspaper editor reported a sensation of tingling on his face and a metallic taste in the mouth. Ants and bees were reported as retreating to their nests.

    On his excursion to Chernobyl and visits to gardens like those at Gatchina Palace, Jeffreys is among tourists and this gives him pause. His book culminates with a very fun-sounding trip on the Trans-Siberian express. In places, Jeffreys seems aware he could stray into a tourist role. He is most at home talking about art and literature, yet this book takes several detours around history, international relations, architecture and folklore.

    The White Birch may be an ostensible study of a single species of tree. But as shown, it’s a lot more ambitious. Jeffreys positions himself as an obsessive slavophile and a blundering botanist, rather than a world authority on Russia. Who could be such a thing!? As a result one is very happy to enjoy this self-reflexive journey, some most erudite travel writing about a most fascinating land.

    The White Birch: A Russian Reflection is published by Corsair, pp. 337, ©2021. Available from the Portobello Bookshop among others.

    artist talks

    Eimear Walshe, The Land Question: Where the fuck am I supposed to have sex? (2021)

    July 23, 2021

    History, says Eimear Walshe, with a look that could kill, is interesting. And the history of Ireland, related in her film, is a sorry one in which the poorest have always suffered the worst.

    So once, as landlords expanded their estates, you had the eviction of tenant farmers in Ireland’s west, you now have 10,000 people across the land in emergency accommodation.

    These people have problems, one of which is finding a safe place to have sex. What do you mean you don’t think homeless people have a right to an active sex life!?

    Walshe states she owns a car and a van. But she’s of the generation who face having to rent for the rest of their lives. And this film is the most fierce millennial protest I have seen.

    But it is also very funny. As the film’s title might imply, the history lesson is never boring, thanks to props, interstitial titles, music and edits which allow the artist to interact with herself.

    Walshe’s persona is by turns didactic, sardonic, witty incredulous and, obviously, profane. She speculates about the legal risks of sex outdoors and then cradles and comforts a map of Ireland.

    It’s a 40 minute talk, which introduces a cast of characters who include rapist earls, fenian priests, Irish reformers and their more radical wives, and nuns who flout planning restrictions.

    This being rural Ireland, we also encounter cattle in a field, sheep perched on walls and a famous racehorse who enters the picture having assumed the most unlikely of roles.

    I come away from this film with the sad realisation that, unless you are a global corporation looking for a tax break, Ireland remains a difficult place to grow and thrive.

    A film like this frames the problem, digs up the roots of it, and ultimately proposes a wild solution that brings the house down, wherever you manage to live during late capitalism.

    The Land Question: Where the fuck am I supposed to have sex? Is at EVA International, in and around Limerick, until August 22.

    contemporary installation

    Karla Black, Waiver for Shade (2021)

    July 10, 2021

    Taking a break from her hallmark candy-coloured sculptures, Karla Black has responded to a former warehouse at Fruitmarket with an installation comprising a ton or so of black soil.

    The light is low, here, in the gallery’s new space. But the minimal illumination is amplified by the introduction of gold and copper leaf, a multitude of seeming confectionery wrappers.

    Most of the work is on the floor or walls. The crumpled leaf is scattered; the soil creates an effect of paving. But the conventions around installation art proscribe actually walking here.

    At the back of this stage, a mound of this dark earth looms. Foil wraps decorate it, row upon row like contour lines. They seem to armour this indistinct form. They certainly aestheticize it.

    And the whole scene is first viewed through a barely visible veil of thread. All one sees are raining points of illumination where the ambient light catches the filaments’ gilding.

    It’s enchanted, but also filthy. Soil is a base material. Art is alchemical. Those who seriously collect it might also be interested in this pill that lets you shit glitter.

    Or they may be intrigued by the prospect that mining companies could soon be able to extract minimal amounts of gold, vanadium and copper from human waste.

    They would almost certainly enjoy a gold toilet, and of these there have been more than one. Lost in a gold-toilet rabbithole on Wikipedia I came across this quote from Vladimir Lenin:

    “When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world.” 

    The revolutionary point here is that gold is too often the cause of war, and Lenin hoped such toilets might educate people about the 10 million lives lost in WWI.

    There are plenty of ways that great art might hold what glitters in tension with the earthly, but few examples quite as theatrical and artful as this one by Karla Black.

    This piece can be seen at Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until 24 October 2021. See gallery website for more details.


    Book: The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

    May 26, 2021
    (c) 1955; pp. 933; publisher: The New York Review of Books

    “My dear fellow, the priest is the guardian of mysteries. The artist is driven to expose them.”

    At 70 shy of 1,000 pages, this difficult 1953 novel is the most exhaustive tale of fakery, art, and religion one could hope for. Through the activities of forger Wyatt Gwyon, and his shadowy agent Recktall Brown, we discover how straightforward it could be to: adopt an old Dutch Master; create a composite scene from earlier works found in books; then to paint this new work; chemically age it; and identify a likely attic in which it may be turned up and then sold for big money.

    Forged banknotes and passports also find their way onto these pages. The scenes in which these are created and exhibited smoulder with Faustian hellfire. And a cast of more of less bohemian characters drift in and out of rooms, foreign lands and extended parties as they discuss matters both existential and low brow, in lively pages of dialogue which can run on for pages at a time. Hanging over all the events the threat of damnation; Wyatt is the son of a church minister and atmosphere of 1950s Spain, the piety and the poverty, together with the godless bars downtown Manhattan are just two of the precisely evoked milieu.

    Because the most remarkable thing about this epic novel is the precision with which Gaddis writes. His prose is like razor wire: angular, cutting, at times dangerous – given the satirical approach to Christianity and the art world. The American author has an unsentimental view of his characters, moving them in and out of scenes like sacrificial chess pieces; I find no one to root for, but plenty to laugh about given Gaddis’s comic regard for human life.

    Yet all of the above is an aside. The elephantine tome in the room is the complexity of this book, described by Jonathan Franzen, saga merchant for the present age, as the most difficult he has every voluntarily read. I admit I was lost for passages at a time and points of narrative were lost on me. But the reading experience was consistently rewarding; the book is full of set pieces, witty observations, and evocative allusion, enjoyment of which allayed my anxieties about plot.

    Regulars to this blog may wonder at the inclusion of this book review in the context of the PhD I’m working on. Well, since imitation is central to my thesis, I thought I might find an epigraph or two. There was the comment at the top of this post, from dealer-character Basil Valentine on p.257, which I’m sharing by way of a taster. If you like bon mots, you will find much to like here.


    Book: See/Saw – Looking at Photographs; by Geoff Dyer

    April 16, 2021

    The eye, and the mind, of author Geoff Dyer are easily sparked and perpetually active. That appears as true if he finds himself encountering a billboard shot by Dayanita Singh, at Delhi airport in 2006, or at home poring over Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas, or even Googling photos by Luigi Ghirri. All three ‘exhibits’ are greeted with an infectious love of the medium of photography, just as previous books have succeeded through a love of, say, DH Lawrence, or mid-20th-century American Jazz.

    Indeed, Dyer is as comfortable with the complexity of a street photograph by Helen Levitt, as he is with the exhaustive vision of Andreas Gursky, or even the war reportage of Gary Knight. Photography is no monolith, and perhaps that is why contemporary art photographs lend themselves so well to the monkey brain of a polymath such as the author of this book.

    Dyer’s wide learning is apparent throughout See/Saw. He demonstrates a solid grasp of the history of the artform and appears to hold Walker Evans as the touchstone for many of his observations and ideas. And he variously quotes former MoMA curator John Szarkowski, or draws on the grave comedy of novelist Don Delillo in order to spice up his own accounts of the images which are shared here in more than 50 colour plates.

    If anything, the texts collected here are a little too allusive. During a 10-page discussion of Alex Webb’s fractured respresentations of streetlife in Haiti, Dyer conjures with the names of Lévi-Strauss, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Rebecca Norris Webb, Lee Friedlander, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Max Kozloff, Samuel Johnson, John Donne, de Chirico, Pico Iyer, DH Lawrence, Brett Weston, Aimé Césaire, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison, Ryszard Kapuściński, Martin Parr, David Alan Harvey, Harry Gruyaert, Dorothea Lange, André Kertész, Jane Jacobs and finally, naturally, Walker Evans.

    It is enviable to have such a roster of artists and writers to hand, and it is also true that Dyer has a word pool as richly stocked as his library. Although he is always readable, he is often florid, and is frequently idiomatic. He asks whether, in a confused shot of a Favela, we can see the limb of photographer, Bullit Marquez: ‘Or am I just pulling your leg?’ Or whether, in an image with two dogs, by Philip-Lorca Dicorcia, we are being ‘sold a pup’? At times this reader wondered whether the allusions and the wordplay ever get in the way of the photos. But it remains the case that each of these essays deepens our relationship with the works in question.

    See/Saw is an essay collection given over to 40 photographers, 10 photographs, and three writers. It was not originally conceived as a book. And the author says, in his introduction, that his writing about photography is only a sideline. Having said that, Dyer adds, everything is a sideline as he is completely without a main line. It’s a modest admission, and it accounts for the fact that in terms of these myriad citations and clever puns, Dyer uses every weapon to hand. The result is a series of quite companionable discourses on photos which comprise a selective history. You will learn a lot, but you might lose sight of the originals.

    See/Saw: Looking at Photographs is published by Canongate and available now from wherever you get your books.


    Book: Mimesis: culture – art – society by Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf

    March 29, 2021

    Whereas the word has its ancient Greek roots in ‘mime’ and is related to ‘mimicry’, mimesis is not mere imitation. As this book shows, there is enough meaning in the term to have kept philosophers chewing it over for the last two millennia.

    But the discussion remains vital because the stakes are high. Facts, Gebauer and Wulf recall (via Nelson Goodman and later Mary Douglas,) have no autonomous existence and depend on people for their presentation. And it is the presentation of facts which brings into being the worlds we inhabit. The presentation of this artefactual reality, in which people work, vote, and go to war, cannot be neutral and so, whether they know it or not, all those who make descriptions or representations are working with agendas.

    The authors discuss a range of philosophers –  from the ancient world to the postmodern academy – and mimesis emerges as a confusing word to conjure with. It is perhaps fitting that in one of its recent resting points, within the writings of Jacques Derrida, the term is compared with the hymen, with différence, the supplement, the pharmakon, and all the many slippery quasi concepts which offer a way in to understanding deconstruction.

    More helpful for my research is the discussion of Walter Benjamin. The authors find that his notion of aura is diminished as mimesis gives way to language. The aura of an artwork stems from a magical mimetic relation of image and world, but it is language which slowly petrifies our relation to that real world. In the wake of this theory comes the (I think) connected idea that regression is a universal human goal, as people attempt to reconnect with pre-linguistic images and forms.

    Theodor Adorno also speaks of mimesis in magical terms, but rather than displaying an anti-auratic excess of language, his magicians use reason to control their production of a work of mimetic art. To speak in a schema, mimicry plus reason equals mimesis. And it is this in turn offers the art work’s audience an aesthetic experience, a vital experience whereby a certain passivity allows the viewer makes themselves similar to the artwork. Or, I might add, aesthetic experience allows the viewer to make the artwork similar to themselves.

    By contrast to the artists discussed by these twentieth century Marxists, Gebauer and Wulf draw attention to the seventeenth century Dutch artists who went about capturing reality with minimal interference from reason. Dutch painting of the baroque era is said to be a near transparent medium, bringing an arsenal of optical instruments to bear on imitations of landscapes and still life, perhaps slavishly so. But the characterisation of these descriptive painters from the Lowlands, which holds particular interest for me, is the work of American art historian Svetlana Alpers, and I shall discuss her relevant book on these pages in due course.

    Mimesis: culture – art – society appears in a translation by Don Reneau, and is published by the University of California Press (1992).


    Book: The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, by Stephen Halliwell

    March 15, 2021

    In my work in progress on Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet it has not been easy to find a word with which to talk about the various representations of these painted caves. But, I was recently reminded of the word mimesis since it is one of the earliest art historical terms, and, as I learned from this erudite book, mimesis is best thought of as a familial framework of ideas, through which we might sometimes speak of imitation and copying, sometimes of representation or description, and sometimes of expression and interpretation.

    Plato’s ideas around mimesis, frequently thought of as a monolithic dismissal of poetry, are themselves shown to be complex here, and he allows for a way of rendering the real world, through poetry or painting, that is, in itself, not degenerate at all, but, rather, ethical and good. Later Aristotle took up this term mimesis and gave it a twofold definition: encompassing external reality and internal logic – the Greek tragedy, for instance, should offer a true sense of the world and an audience response governed by the artwork’s structure

    In the first two parts of The Aesthetics of Mimesis, Halliwell explodes this dusty academic term and offers a dazzling array of the varied thinking of the ancient world. From its beginnings, poetry, and by extension painting, was understood to deal in hypothetical yet emotive realities. As long we have recorded notions about art, art could be said to simulate the world, as much as to reflect it. Whereas Plato famously thought of poetry as a potential negative influence, he also looked for correctness, mental benefits and pleasurable qualities in the sphere of art. Plato did not equate mimesis to verisimilitude; instead he looked for the ‘what’, ‘how, and ‘what for’ of form and beauty: these questions remain relevant to any 21st attempt to write art criticism. He wasn’t convinced by visual illusion, so mimesis has in fact never been about simply mirroring external realities; confounding what I had assumed to be the case. Aristotle later saw the work, whether written or painted, as both a performance and an intention. (Mimesis is, of course, applicable to acting, human learning, and music.) He was to argue that likeness need not be literal minded and so I hope to show by these examples, of which there are many in the book, just how complex and lively the debates of Ancient Greece remain today.

    Having said that, mimesis is not what it used to be. Leonardo da Vinci criticises fidelity to appearances. The Romantics gave up all attempts to depict the world out there and made expressive pictures and poems about the inner life, and for the Moderns there was no going back to the aim of mirroring nature. But that had never been the primary aim of mimesis, after all. We now live in what has been called a post-mimetic era. And yet the impact of both romanticism and modernism is show in these pages to have been more gradual and inconsistent than you might imagine. In the third and final part of his book, Professor Halliwell shows that, although Plato and Aristotle had the most to say about mimesis, the idea did not spring up with their arrival, and nor did it vanish with the passing of neo-Platonism.

    Perhaps most interesting is the encounter between mimesis and a thinker frequently engaged with on this blog. Derrida is oft said to unsettle the foundations of Western civilisation by destabilising, among other of his tenets, Plato’s conception of truth in poetry/painting. But this idea can be destabilised in turn because 1) Western thought is perhaps equally indebted to Aristotle and owes a further debt to an array of philosophers from the ancient world; and 2) Plato himself takes up a number of evolving positions in his writings about mimesis beyond the most familiar passages in The Republic. Perhaps I have got this wrong, and I invite comments which qualify this short review. I have tried to represent The Aesthetics of Mimesis, but I don’t promise to show things as they (really) are.

    This title is from Princeton University Press (2002) and read via Kindle.