Archives for the month of: July, 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

This documentary film by the legendary exiled Chilean director Patricio Guzmán follows on from earlier work on his homeland, most notably The Battle of Chile, which focuses on Salvador Allende’s short period in office before the US-backed coup that put Pinochet in power. Guzmán’s cinematic legacy and vitalness is about not forgetting Chile’s history, most specifically Pinochet’s legacy.

Nostalgia for the Light is perhaps less overtly political than some of the director’s earlier work, yet the persecution of Pinochet’s regime, and the importance of remembering not forgetting the victims, strongly reverberates.

This is a beautifully meditative and melancholic piece. Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, is central, both physically and metaphorically. It is here that the world’s largest telescopes that study the cosmos are positioned. Perhaps surprisingly scientists remind us that when we look at the stars we are actually looking back in time, backwards, into the past.

Thus, astronomy has much in common with archaeology, both mining the past, looking for clues. We see the Chilean women of the desert, such as Victoria and Violetta, 30 years later, still digging and searching the dry dust for remains of their loved ones who disappeared under Pinochet’s regime. Isolated human remains, bones, have been recovered, mostly too fragmented to piece together as an identifiable whole… The victims of the regime can never be quantified, as so many have never been found. The word ‘disappeared’ echoes loudly in the vast arid infinite open space.

The film underpins the myth of the present. There is no such thing. Everything, including the letters I am currently typing, is instantly in the past. Looking upwards to the sky and the stars, and downwards to the earth, the dirt, the sand…all is from before, not now. The power of the past is that it can always be with us, it can mould today. What Guzmán has achieved for Pinochet’s victims is a collective memory, a remembered past that constitute a present.

The BFI is concurrently featuring Guzmán’s other work, including The Battle of Chile.

Tonight I saw The Pinochet Case (2001), the story of bringing the dictator to judgement. Again, I was struck by the tenderness and respect that Guzmán has for the sufferers of the regime. The camera lingers tenderly, often in silence, and the director is as always unobtrusive. I found the film almost unbearably tragic and moving, desperately hoping for a positive outcome. But there can never be a resolution for Pinochet’s victims. As one commented:

‘People tell us it’s better to forget, but you can only forgive someone who has asked you for forgiveness.’

Guzmán states that The Pinochet Case is all about suffering and pain. Clearly yes, but what he has achieved with this, and with Nostalgia for the Light and his other work, and which is in itself uplifting, are works of art that signify the collective witnessing of a past that can be remembered today, and tomorrow.


Saturday July 21, 2012

This French film has just opened in London. I was drawn to it for a few reasons, but particularly as I admire Kristin Scott Thomas, and I was also intrigued as to how the film would deal with Stockholm syndrome.

Following on from real life events, Stockholm syndrome has been much done, even overdone, in the world of fiction. In Your Hands is not implausible, yet for me it did not feel authentic, and as a result I struggled to connect with both the plot and the protagonists.

There are two protagonists. Anna Cooper (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a surgeon who performed a caesarean section on a young woman who subsequently died from a hospital acquired infection. The widower (Pio Marmai) seeks revenge two years later, and kidnaps Anna, although with no apparent plan as to what he would do next. It would be unfair to reveal the plot, but it is not unpredictable.

When Anna checks her voicemail after she has ‘disappeared’ for a few days, there are just five messages, two from her mother. Much emphasis is placed on her aloneness, her solitary life, and I, uncomfortably, sensed that some kind of association was being presented between Stockholm syndrome and the repressed needs of a lonely middle aged woman.

Notwithstanding, the performances of both actors are sensitive and at times compelling, even if empathy for either did not happen for me.


Friday, July 20, 2012

When I first typed in this title, I made an error and wrote ‘Long Day’s Suffering Into Night’…. Perhaps not so surprising. Eugene O Neill’s play, currently at the Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue, is an unrelenting depiction of a dysfunctional and suffering family.

Yet, this does not necessarily make for tortured or traumatic viewing. It is a portrayal of what it is to be human, and thereby vulnerable, impotent in the face of suffering, a portrayal that feels real and authentic, with a relevance and universality that has transcended time.

Written in the early 1940s, the play was not published until 1956. O’Neill requested that it was not published until 25 years after his death. However, just three years after he died, his third wife transferred the copyright to Yale University, who proceeded to publish the play. The playwright received a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1957 for what is generally believed to be his greatest work.

Set in Connecticut, the play, which is semi-autobiographical, follows one day in the life of the Tyrone family, parents James (David Suchet) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf), and their sons Jamie (Trevor White) and Edmund (Kyle Soller). From the opening moments, there is a sense of foreboding that emanates both from the highly anxious Mary and the anxiety her behaviour generates in the family. Only later do we realise that she is a morphine addict, and that she is on the verge of restarting the habit. The tension escalates, yet Mary’s is not the only tragedy. James Tyrone is an alcoholic, Edmund appears to be dying from consumption, and Jamie is eaten by hatred and jealousy.

Contradictions and inconsistencies abound in the family. The parents love each other, yet Mary also despises James. She blames her addiction on his meanness, which resulted in a ‘cheap quack doctor’ supplying her with her first taste of morphine after Edmund’s birth. Mary wants to both live and to die:

‘I hope, sometime, without meaning it, I will take an overdose.’

Jamie blames Edmund for his mother’s addiction, as its origin coincided with the younger son’s birth. Yet Jamie also states: ‘I love you more than I hate you.’

For Mary, the drugs, which she both denies taking and alludes to frequently, ‘kill the pain’, and allow her to ‘go back until you’re beyond reach’, to ‘only the past when you were happy is real.’ Her home is her prison, and her loneliness is palpable: ‘in a real home one is never lonely.’

James is a tragic figure. He refuses to accept that his meanness has been at the root of their suffering, yet, when challenged by Edmund, who accuses him of sacrificing his health and life for the sake of a cheaper state sanatorium, there is a fleeting sense that something has registered, and he crumbles. but fleetingly. He regains composure, reaches for alcohol, and blames his upbringing. Mary colludes with this, ‘life has made him like that’, but it is not a convincing story, or excuse.

The fog that envelopes the house, that ‘hides you from the world’ is also where Edmund wants to be: ‘to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.’

The acting is convincing and impressive. The play ends with all four facing the audience. Mary has the last word, speaking of the time when she first met her husband:

‘I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.’

The happiness appears to have long dissipated. This is a family that speaks and shouts, yet cannot communicate or share their pain. They can only attempt to relieve it, alone, through a solitary path of self destruction.


July 11, 2012

The Timothy Taylor Gallery in London is currently hosting an exhibition of 32 of Diane Arbus’s photographs, many of which have never been seen in the UK before. The title, Affinities, alludes to Arbus’s continual exploration throughout her life and through her work of what it is that people share, or do not, and what may or may not connect them.

Diane Arbus was born in New York City in 1923, and rarely left her home city throughout her relatively short life. Whenever she did, she yearned to return. She discovered photography in the 1940s, which became her all-consuming passion. She believed that photography was ‘born perfect’ (Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography, London: Vintage, 2005, p.189), and she was tenacious, and often reckless, in her pursuit of the ultimate image. Everything she saw, and captured through her lens, was extraordinary to her. Photographs allowed choices, and an exploration of aspects of life, and lives, that were usually considered taboo, forbidden, distasteful: ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ (Bosworth, p.130). Reprimanded as a child for staring at those who were different, ‘freaks’, as an artist she chose to unscrupulously focus on those on the periphery of society, demanding in turn that we also bear witness.

Arbus too was on the periphery, continually feeling alone and separate, and terrified by an unshakeable sense of aloneness. She suffered from recurring bouts of depression, as did her mother and brother. She committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. A year after her death, her work was selected for the Venice Biennale, the first American photographer to have been so honoured.

I have seen Arbus’s work before, but this current exhibition encapsulates an intriguing thematic approach to a significant body of her work. The accompanying notes quote Arbus:

‘…Every difference is a likeness too.’

Thus, affinities here means not just what is shared or similar, but also that which differentiates.

Take for example, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. (1963), which shows identical sisters sitting in a row. At first glance, they look ‘the same’, but on closer viewing, the photograph subtly differentiates the girls, so that the image we see challenges the notion of identical. Arbus herself described this image as both ‘flat and extraordinary’, the sisters reminding her of her own adolescence – daughter, sister and bad girl (Bosworth, p.217).

Arbus’s great skill was that of creating something real in her photographic representations. Of A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens, N.Y . (1971), Arbus spoke of the relative ease when photographing the blind – there is no mask (Bosworth, p.164). Many of her photographs, not just that of the blind couple, do seem to unmask the subject, to present an image of something authentic. This was not an accident.  Arbus was known for her dogged persistence, her perfectionism when it came to her art, as she relentlessly and tirelessly pursued and froze each image just as it really was.

The exhibition includes photographs of ‘look-alikes’, for example Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor, two girls in matching bathing suits, two girls in identical raincoats…we are told that they are look-alikes, yet the photographs leave you with the sense that the same can also be very different.

The exhibition also includes Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. (1963), part of her ‘freaks’ series, which was much inspired by Tod Browning’s film of the same name.

There are moments of sublime tenderness, as portrayed in Girl sitting in bed with her boyfriend, N.Y.C. (1966). The series of photographs where Arbus captured her subjects through their mirror reflections are also very moving. I have wondered since why this is. Perhaps, as I looked at the subject looking at the subject, it felt as if Arbus had somehow positioned me where she had been, so that I had an acute sense of her original perspective being frozen in time.

In Arbus’s own personal life, there was an extraordinary symbiotic closeness, and affinity, between the artist and her husband Allan, who she met as a teenager. The couple were often described as resembling a sister and brother, even twins, even in physical appearance: ‘same mournful, watchful expression.’ (Bosworth, p.158). For Allan, the connection did not last, and although they continued to be friends throughout her life, Arbus never appeared to recover from the failure of the marriage and its consequent loneliness.

This exhibition coincides with a major touring exhibition of Arbus’s work, which has been in Paris, is currently in Berlin, and will end in Amsterdam in the autumn, where I hope to see it. I will report back…

Diane Arbus: Affinities

Timothy Taylor Gallery

15 Carlos Place

London W1K 2EX

26 June – 17 August 2012

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I first came across Jo Spence’s work a few years ago, while researching visual depictions of the suffering of illness.

Jo Spence (1934-92) was a key British photographer, particularly of the 1970s, a socialist and feminist, whose work has been central to issues and controversies in representation and photography. Later, self-portraits of her experience of illness, breast cancer initially followed by leukaemia from which she died, which were personal representations of a fight both against the onslaught of bodily illness and the medical system, in particular created a powerful record and legacy of her unflinching ability to shock and to provoke through her art.

Currently, the SPACE gallery and Studio Voltaire, London, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, are celebrating Spence’s life and work, with the latter exhibition (Part 11) focusing on her experience of illness. It is a comprehensive display, and deserves much time to dwell and to absorb, and includes photographs, collages, news clipping, video recordings, as well as many books by Spence, that require time to sit and to read, not merely to flick through. I gained most from seeing Jo Spence on the screen, softly spoken and thoughtful, and to some extent I was unprepared for this, as much of the surrounding images and self-portraits speak of anger and of outrage.

Spence was critical of the medical profession from the moment of her diagnosis, of the ‘young-coated doctor’, who, without introduction, inked the flesh of her left breast, preparing, without asking, for its removal. Spence returns again and again to the imbalance of power in the doctor/patient relationship, and how the medical profession infantilises the sufferer. Spence chose not to go down the mastectomy route, instead opting for a lumpectomy and alternative health strategies. She felt that she needed to regain control of herself, of her body, which became vulnerable and fragile and ‘other’ from the moment of diagnosis. Her photographs portray this, ‘property of Jo Spence’ vs. ‘Hospital property’, as she seeks to re-possess and regain control of her bodily self.

The alternative route that Spence chose included an exploration of veganism, iridology, TCM, and photo therapy, all of which helped her address her identity, namely that of a person with cancer, rather than one defined and labeled by a diagnosis and by illness.

In one frame she asks ‘How do I begin to take responsibility for my body?’ I am not sure we ever truly do. Our bodies are mostly silent, and ignored, until something goes wrong. The bodily breakdown that often accompanies illness is hard to ignore, and it must be even harder, I imagine, to ignore and to deny offers of medical treatment that might ‘restore’ the body to something more familiar. Spence’s decision was brave, as are the photographs that depict this journey, which was often, she acknowledges, a lonely one. The body of work The Picture of Health? clearly reveals Spence’s vulnerability, particularly when we see her undergoing a mammogram, her naked breasts imprisoned by a machine.

There is perhaps too much to see here and to absorb in a single visit. A profound sense of battle, of Spence’s fight against cancer, the medical establishment, cancer treatments, and her body presented to us as a war zone, makes the experience not an easy one for the observer. But then, why should it be otherwise… Spence was brave and humble enough to share her experience, and to leave a personal record of what it was like, with disarming honesty. The very least we can do is to bear witness, and to consider what is laid bare before us.

Jo Spence: Work (Part 1)

SPACE, London, to July 15

Jo Spence: Work (Part II)

Studio Voltaire, London, to August 11


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I am not sure what I experience when I look at Bacon’s self-portraits. On the one hand, I think I am initially repelled, yet on the other I also drawn and enthralled. If art succeeds by compelling and holding one’s gaze, then perhaps Bacon’s self-images have succeeded, experientially at least, in my case.

Some weeks ago I spoke about Munch’s The Scream, and the record sale of one of the four original versions at Sotheby’s New York. Two of Bacon’s works, both named Study for a Self-Portrait, but created 16 years apart, 1964 and 1980, have just been sold at auction.

The later canvas, 1980 work, sold at Sotheby’s for approximately 4.5 million pounds, having had an estimated label of 5 to 7 million pre-sale, the underwhelming final price perhaps reflecting a more cautious art buying scene just now. However, the earlier self-portrait from 1964 sold for the impressive sum of approximately 21.5 million pounds at Christie’s on June 27. The sale was no doubt boosted by the recent discovery that the work was in fact not just a self-portrait, but a moulding of the face of Bacon and his (at that point) friend Lucien Freud’s limbs and body.

Bacon obsessively created self-portraits throughout his career, often with a savagery that was disturbing, arriving at a ‘reality’ that at first appears wildly removed from what we see (or want to see). Yet, perhaps the vicious stripping away, the unmasking, the re-creating that his portraits (and not only the self-portraits, take for example, Study for the Head of George Dyer (1966)), portray are more real than what we want to believe and to acknowledge.

The screaming mouth is a recurring motif in Bacon’s work, from Head VI (1948) to Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of  Pope Innocent X (1953). Inspired, at least partly, by Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, which Bacon first saw in 1935, these feel like raw, unadulterated expressions of suffering, but whose distress is being expressed is unclear, and ambiguous.

I remain fascinated by Bacon, in an unknowing and ignorant way. He produced work that eludes me, but mostly speaks of an unfathomable distress, which may just in the end be mine.