Tag Archives: travel

Be a rambler

In the late 90s, Diesel ran an ad campaign promoting tourism. It was the age of cultural missions in advertising, and the fashion brand encouraged you to “Be a tourist”. Diesel’s target audience were taking gap years and backpacking in the Far East with a dog eared copy of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. They were self-avowed travellers not just sight seers. But hey, the ads were too funny.

20 years later, we are still falling over ourselves to eschew tourism. But why? For my PhD I’ve been reading a bit about tourism and discovered the theory that tourism is the quintessential human condition, for post-industrial westerners. Dean MacCannell, who founded the discipline of tourism studies, has argued that we assert our modernity by gazing on evidence of the past. We do this because we cannot allow ourselves to identify with our oft tyrannical ancestors.

Ironically, travel (not tourism) is one aspect of our premodern past. Tourism evolved from travel, and not vice versa. With roots in the 16th century notion one could complete one’s classical education with a Grand Tour of classical Europe. The world’s first travel package, from Thomas Cook as it happens, was a chartered train to a rally in support of temperance. Why would you want to go back to either of those travel propositions.

So I was stopped in my tracks, in my hometown, on the beach, where I was neither tourist nor traveller by the exhortation on the side of BTN Bike Share hire bikes. You can read it in the photograph above. Unlike the most iconic Diesel campaigns from the nineties, it was not clear to me who was being addressed here. Surely no one living in Brighton. Day trippers are most likely, but it’s incredibly pretentious to consider yourself a traveller in a town set up to cater for hedonistic Londoners.

Of course, Brighton does have its fair share of travellers. But most of those are parked up on the edge of Preston Park in converted horse trucks. I’m not sure they’re the corporate, app-driven, bike hire types.

Michael Craig-Martin, Untitled (travel adaptor), 2014


The Instruction Manual by John Ashbery is a poem of some 74 lines, which mentions more than 30 colours. And these colours evoke Guadalajara, Mexico, a place the speaker hasn’t even seen.

But having said that, he pictures it well. His senses appear to have been sharpened by the deadline for a technical writing gig, and they soon take flight through an imaginary window.

Michael Craig-Martin is, in his turn, something of a technical illustrator who makes a lively escape into colour. Here you see a sherwood green adaptor with sunny yellow tines and a blood-red interior.

There is nothing naturalistic about this; it is as oneiric as the journey to Mexico in the poem we’ve already seen. But the pleasure is anchored in the familiar form of a travel appliance.

What is it about precision, in writing or draftsmanship, that sets off the imagination? Is it the fact that in both these disciplines, colour is proscribed, a banned and hallucinatory substance.

What with the smoke alarm. the memory stick and the hotel door handle (all of which feature alongside this adaptor), Craig-Martin never makes it out of his room. No en plein air for him.

And so, much of the show suggests the paraphernalia of travel, and this survey reads a little like the difficult third album of a rock band who only write about life on the road. I jest.

There is a case to call this pop art. And I think a more difficult case to compare it with photorealism. Certainly it shares some of the powers of observation, some of the decision making.

Craig-Martin talks about this with artist Liam Gillick. He plays down the role of invention in art, in favour of observation. Gillick meanwhile downgrades inspiration in favour of visual choices.

It is a fascinating discussion and well worth a look if you pick up the catalogue. If nothing else the beautiful 120 page book will give you something to cling to. Like a plug socket in Guadalajara.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience can be seen at Serpentine Gallery, London, until February 14 2016.