From art

diane arbus and susan sontag: America seen through photographs, darkly

Susan Sontag wrote on Diane Arbus in her seminal essay America, seen through photographs, darkly, in which Arbus’ vision is forcefully and evocatively examined. Below are excerpts from Sontag’s masterful and unparalleled analysis, exhibiting Arbus as a complicatedly humanist, voyeuristic, privileged, artist, admirer and documenter of “freaks”, children, couples, performers, disability and nonconformity.

 

Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer.  Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one.” The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. There is not as much difference between these messages as one might suppose.

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.17.55
Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.19.34
Blaze Starr in her living room, Baltimore, Md., 1964
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.20.55
Triplets in Their Bedroom, 1963

The most striking aspect of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most vigorous enterprises—concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate—but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve. Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings. For what would be more correctly described as their dissociated point of view, the photographs have been praised for their candor and for an unsentimental empathy with their subjects. What is actually their aggressiveness toward the public has been treated as a moral accomplishment: that the photographs don’t allow the viewer to be distant from the subject. More plausibly, Arbus’s photographs—with their acceptance of the appalling—suggest a naïveté which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. Buñuel, when asked once why he made movies, said that it was “to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds.” Arbus took photographs to show something simpler—that there is another world.

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.50.09
A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y., 1968
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.23.32
Untitled 7, 1970-1971
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.40.53
Four people at a gallery opening, N.Y.C., 1968
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.33.11
National Junior Interstate Dance Champions of 1963, Yonkers, N. Y.

The photographs of deviates and real freaks do not accent their pain but, rather, their detachment and autonomy. The female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan hotel room, the Russian midgets in a living room on 100th Street, and their kin are mostly shown as cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact. Pain is more legible in the portraits of the normals: the quarreling elderly couple on a park bench, the New Orleans lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog, the boy in Central Park clenching his toy hand grenade.

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.29.06
Transvestite at her birthday party, 1969
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.29.54
Seated female impersonator with arms crossed on her bare chest, N.Y.C., 1960
diane-arbus-1008x1024
Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962

 

For Arbus, the camera photographs the unknown. But unknown to whom? Unknown to someone who is protected, who has been schooled in moralistic and in prudent responses. Like Nathanael West, another artist fascinated by the deformed and mutilated, Arbus came from a verbally skilled, compulsively health-minded, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, for whom minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid,” Arbus wrote, “was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality…. And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” Feeling much the same discontent, West in 1927 took a job as a night clerk in a seedy Manhattan hotel. Arbus’s way of procuring experience, and thereby acquiring a sense of reality, was the camera. By experience was meant, if not material adversity, at least psychological adversity—the shock of immersion in experiences that cannot be beautified, the encounter with what is taboo, perverse, evil. Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe. Apart from West, the 1930s yield few examples of this kind of distress. More typically, it is the sensibility of someone educated and middle-class who came of age between 1945 and 1955—a sensibility that was to flourish precisely in the 1960s….

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.27.23
A Flower Girl at a Wedding, Connecticut, 1964
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.40.06
Teenage boy on a bench in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.44.12
Untitled (8), 1970-1971
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.47.23
South Bay Singles Club, couple on a chaise lounge 1970
Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 15.26.30
Albino sword swallower at a carnival, M.D., 1970

Arbus is an auteur in the most limiting sense, as special a case in the history of photography as is Giorgio Morandi, who spent a half century doing still lifes of bottles, in the history of modern European painting. She does not, like most ambitious photographers, play the field of subject matter—even a little. On the contrary, all her subjects are equivalent. And making equivalences between freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and nudists is a very powerful judgment, one in complicity with a recognizable political mood shared by many educated, left-liberal Americans. The subjects of Arbus’s photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different, everybody is shown to look the same.

Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ 1973, electronic edition published 2005 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York

Full essay available here

 

 

american dream and nightmare: suburbia in film

 

‘Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,  

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

And they all look just the same.’

                                                                             – Malvina Reynolds, 1962

As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.

William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.

IMG_1431 (2)
A neighbourhood of Jubilee models, Levittown, Pennsylvania, c. 1953

However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.

IMG_1438
The suburban landscape of Levittown, New York, c. 1952

The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.

In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 22.49.44
Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)
Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 22.50.08
Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 23.45.33
Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)
Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 23.46.50
Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.

pasado1
The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)
Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 23.13.40
The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.

halloween-119530l
Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter)
Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 00.49.33
Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele)

American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:

‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 00.11.03
American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes)

Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 00.28.09
Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton)
960_virgin_suicides__x03_blu-ray_blu-ray
The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola)

For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

breaking the fourth wall: a brief and visual history through cinema

the great train robbery (1903)

great train robbery

metropolis (1927)

metropolis

napoleon (1927)

napoleon

steamboat bill jr. (1928)

steamboat bill jr

rebecca (1940)

rebecca

lady in the lake (1946)

lady in the lake

black narcissus (1947)

black narcissus

the red shoes (1948)

the red shoes

roshomon (1950)

roshomon

rear window (1954)

rear window

vertigo (1958)

vertigo

the 400 blows (1959)

the 400 blows

eyes without a face (1960)

eyes without a face

psycho (1960)

psycho

the graduate (1967)

the graduate

le samouraï (1967)

le samouraï

once upon a time in the west (1968)

once-upon-a-time-in-the-west.png

a clockwork orange (1971)

clockwork orange

jaws (1975)

jaws

saturday night fever (1977)

saturday night fever

annie hall (1977)

annie hall

apocalypse now (1979)

apocalypse now

raging bull (1980)

raging bull

the shining (1980)

the shining

ferris bueller’s day off (1986)

ferris buellers day off

married to the mob (1988)

married to the mob

do the right thing (1989)

do the right thing

goodfellas (1990)

goodfellas

misery (1990)

misery-kathy-bates-20007654-1280x0

home alone (1990)

home alone

the silence of the lambs (1991)

silence of the lambs

singles (1992)

singles

age of innocence (1993)

age-of-innocence-winona-ryder-e1532371532228

pulp fiction (1994)

pulp fiction

romeo and juliet (1996)

romeo and juliet

titanic (1997)

titanic

the truman show (1998)

truman show

fear and loathing in las vegas (1998)

Fear-and-Loathing-Hero

the big lebowski (1998)

hero_Big-Lebowski-image

fight club (1999)

fight club

the virgin suicides (1999)

virgin suicides

magnolia (1999)

magnolia

american beauty (1999)

american beauty

lord of the rings: the fellowship of the ring (2001)

fellowship-of-the-ring

the secretary (2002)

YNA2KPW

kill bill vol 1 (2003)

kill bill

a girl with a pearl earring (2003)

girl with a pearl earring

donnie darko (2001)

donnie darko

amelie (2001)

Amélie-Poulain-flickr

black swan (2010)

black swan

the artist (2011)

p01xv2r7

boyhood (2014)

XLjS8u

get out (2017)

lead_720_405

call me by your name (2017)

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 00.10.16

a star is born (2018)

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 00.11.43

synecdoche, new love: modern couples exhibition review

Modern Couples presents a different way of looking at Modernism in art, as seen through the artist ‘couple’, an elastic term encompassing all manner of intimate relationships that the artists themselves grappled with, expanded, embraced or refuted.’

– Exhibition Guide

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the newest exhibition at the Barbican Centre. Organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the exhibition draws on a wide range of original paintings, handwritten letters, sculptures, artist manifestos, and furniture. The idea of the solitary artistic genius is done away with, giving attention to the muses, rivals, lovers and companions whose consideration seems long overdue.

Including the likes of Vanessa Bell & Roger Fry, Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin, Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore, Eileen Gray & Jean Badovici, and over forty more- the exhibit considers more than just romantic or sexual couplings but platonic, familial, professional and competitive ones. It also steers away from a heteronormative model, including couples such as Lili Elbe & Gerda Wegener.

D. Tanning and M. Ernst with his sculpture ‘Capricorn’, 1947, @John Kasnetsis

Sprawling across two levels and filling twenty-three rooms, the exhibition is comprehensive to say the least. Each couple is given a section of wall on which their names, artistic output and biography of relationship are printed. Oddly, the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ dates of the relationship are also supplied, each one coming together on one wall to produce a timeline: ‘from the liaison to the life-long’. The works of art are exclusively framed within the rhetoric of the ‘modern couple’. Little evidence and reference is given to work beyond the timeline of the relationship, as if that artistic output is deemed unworthy of mention.

But this is not to say the exhibition does not have its successes. For example the sheer variety of material is extremely impressive- a testament to the effort and rigour of the curators involved. From Marcel Duchamp’s Erotic Objects (1950-1) which are based on the moulds of female genitalia, to the harrowing handwritten communications between Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin: “please don’t be unfaithful to me anymore”. Upstairs the exhibition also features examples of Aino & Alvar Aalto furniture and a selection of designs from the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, 1933. Houghton Library, Harvard University

‘Liberated, Radical, Obsessional!’ is the tagline emblazoned across the promotional tote-bags and posters, but throughout the exhibition I asked myself: where? Where is this obsession that inspired, enabled and empowered the artists behind these wonderful works of art? The fervour that supposedly fuelled these works of passion are displayed in a format that quickly becomes repetitive and mechanical. It is like one has stepped into the physical manifestation of each artists’ dictionary entry and we are unable to delve further beyond their opening sentences. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions of representing the overshadowed partner, the exhibition does little to advocate their genius and brilliance.  If one compares Modern Couples to the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibit which ran last year, the former seems entirely soulless. Whilst Boom for Real celebrated Basquiat as a multifaceted and energetic creative, Modern Couples is a straightjacket to those it includes. It does little to relieve the more unknown partners of their obscurity as their work is only presented as the output of a ‘couple’.

Whilst I admire the variety of material, Modern Couples flatlines in the struggle between quantity and quality.  The art is used, not only to represent the whole relationship, but each artist’s entire oeuvre.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova in the workshop. (in front of Kino-phot magazine covers), 1923 Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde can be seen at the Barbican Centre, EC2Y 8DS, until 27 Jan 2019.

art and the everyday

If money were not object, my nursery would have been fitted with William Morris wallpaper. Strawberry Thief may have been chosen, or perhaps Seaweed or Honeysuckle. I’m sure their scrolling foliage and patterns of blossoming flowers, fruits and wildlife would have fascinated any young child. However, despite these designs not adorning my childhood walls, I came to know them very well. Compton embellished my dad’s favourite mug whilst Fruit existed as a tea towel in the kitchen. Larkspur, Wreath, Trellis and Pimpernel today still furnish our home in the form of aprons, trays, pillow covers and tote-bags. I even used a free sample of Golden Lily to cover my GCSE art sketchbook. For me, there is something so nostalgic about Morris and Co. designs. I grew up with their reproductions in my home and until recently thought nothing of it.

trellis
Trellis wallpaper, designed by William Morris and Phillip Webb, 1862, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Morris once wisely said,

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

Although our home is filled with many things one would struggle to claim as beautiful or useful, the mismatched junk of the family house has its own strange kind of beauty. The bowl filled with a jumble of pebbles, keys, coins, dog biscuits, hair clips and old receipts. The box of wires and cables never used and their functions long forgotten. I feel that I am starting to romanticise the mundane here, and one probably shouldn’t start to analyse the clutter of everyday life. Yet, I feel there is more to be gained from looking at interiors this way. I grew up with Morris and Co., not on my wall, but in the everyday objects I interacted with. So much has been written about Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement and interior design as a whole, but little considered into how this translates into the homes of ordinary people today.

wreath
Wreath wallpaper, designed by William Morris, 1876, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

So I suppose this acts as a brief prologue to a series of writings surrounding the topic of the everyday interior. To come will be further analysis into the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the interiors of the Bloomsbury group and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright across the pond. I’ll also be considering the importance of  reproductions and the accessibility of design. Perhaps by considering these renown designers alongside our ordinary furnishings, a reevaluation can take place, as Morris said,

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.’.

‘a nightmare fairytale etched in neon colour’: suspiria (1977) and its alternative film posters

 

An innocent American ballet dancer’s excitement at being accepted to a prestigious Berlin dance school turns to terror when she discovers that the institution is a cover for a murderous coven of witches. A nightmare fairytale etched in neon colour, Dario Argento’s witchy shocker Suspiria remains the most famous of all Italian horror movies. Suspiria is the horror movie as high art. Acclaimed for its febrile tone, experimental score by Italian band Goblin, garish lighting and baroque violence, it’s a barrage of primal terror, blood and guts, eardrum-piercing noise and dreamlike imagery.

Berlin Film Society

 

Luca Guadagnino’s highly anticipated remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) will be released within the following month (2nd November U.S, 16th November UK).

Following the exciting soundtrack release of Thom Yorke’s ‘Has Ended’ earlier this week (which you can listen to here), an abundance of alternative movie posters for the 1977 original have been brought to the internet’s attention.

 

 

identifying dialogues between japanese architecture and the rest of the world

Innovative quarterly architectural magazine JA (now rebranded with a focus on urbanism to ja+u (Japan Architecture + Urbanism) explores movements and conversation in Japanese architecture.
JA’s website describes the periodical:
“JA – the Japan Architect – was first published in June 1956 and was the only English language periodical that introduced Japanese architecture to an overseas audience. Since 1991 it has been published as a quarterly journal in both Japanese and English, expanding its readership both inside and outside of Japan. Today’s JA showcases contemporary Japanese architecture with in-depth commentary on the theoretical history and context of the projects. It is organized with an emphasis on developments originating in Japan. The magazine surveys the country’s diverse, ever-changing architectural scene, identifies important trends to convey to a wider audience outside Japan, takes up current, compelling issues and considers the latest architectural trends”
JA and its sister partners (a+u, Shinkenchiku, Jutakutokushu) place an importance on the dialogue created between reader and content. Published in English alongside Japanese (both languages are seen across the same spreads), JA directly distributes detailed ideas of Japanese urbanism to its residents and to the rest of the world. In its acknowledgement of its wide-spread readership and the dialogue its translation creates, JA also gathers and presents high-quality works from around the world in their publication. Beneath the surface of academia and information, there is conversation and collaboration.

 

 

A 2013 spread by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, entitled ‘New Approaches to Apartment Living in Japan’, is an example of JA’s commitment to distributing information through creative visions of Japan’s urban, contemporary architecture of living spaces. It can be seen in photographs below.

okurayama apartment

Okurayama-Apartment-Kazuyo-Sejima-and-Associates01

Okurayama-Apartment-Kazuyo-Sejima-and-Associates03

Yokohama-Apartment-by-Osamu-Nishida-Erika-Nakagawa-On-Design01

Yokohama-Apartment-by-Osamu-Nishida-Erika-Nakagawa-On-Design03

one roof apartment

One-Roof-Apartment-by-Akihisa-HIrata-Yoshihiko-Yoshihara01

One-Roof-Apartment-by-Akihisa-HIrata-Yoshihiko-Yoshihara02

shakujii apartment

Shakujii-Apartment-by-SANAA02

Shakujii-Apartment-by-SANAA01