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Contemporary Visual Art

Bad Retail: A Romantic Fiction (preamble)

[…] these quilted snatches are viewed as past moments – of clarity, beauty, civilization, and spiritual elation – that must somehow be retained and restitched in a sense, spliced onto the present, […] as if they were alive, as if they were types of intelligent, deathless energy, and this so as to allow the past, with a nourishing insistence, to feed the present.

(Oppenheimer 1998: 84, ‘Goethe and modernism’) Read more →

About ‘The Great Macguffin’

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Laurence Figgis, The Great Macguffin (detail), 2005-12, ink, crayon, watercolour on paper, 160 x 350 cm

I first stumbled on the (great) MacGuffin in 2005, when I was searching for a title for a piece of work that was then in production, a large scale ink and watercolour drawing that had occupied my attention for some months. I was still in the throes of making this work when I read Alfred Hitchcock’s account of the term in his seminal interview with François Truffaut. And I knew straight away that I had found not only the title for the work but also the name for its protagonist, the imaginary character (part human, part animal, part machine) with whose fortunes the drawing is principally concerned. The word itself struck me with its amusing lyric – or rather non-lyric -quality; I liked the heavy, cumbersome, down-to-earth sound. But the explanation behind the word was just as captivating.

‘MacGuffin’ is Hitchcock’s term for a pretext or plot device that in its typical and most intellectually satisfying form must always be radically under-explained within the diegetic narrative.  In many cases it would not hold up to rational scrutiny if the audience subjected it to any attention.  Thus in Hitchcock’s film Notorious (1946) we are led to assume  that particles of uranium (viable for atomic capability) can be stored in wine bottles in the form of a crystalline black dust, hidden in the chief antagonist’s cellar. Read more →

By My Voice I Shall Be Known

According to the Hellenic mythology, the Sybil of Cumae attracted the attentions of Apollo a god of various jurisdictions, who offered to grant her anything she desired if only she would sleep with him. Holding up a fistful of sand, she asked for as many years as there were grains of sand running through her fingers. But the deity had the last laugh (as deities usually do). The Sybil of Cumae had failed to ask for eternal youth and was subject to extremes of degeneration in her later life. She eventually subsided into a wrinkled husk contained in a jar, but the Fates allowed her to retain her voice long after her body had disintegrated completely.  As MarinaWarner writes, quoting the Sybil:

‘By my voice I shall be known’: that’s no bad epitaph for a storyteller. (Warner, 1994: 11).

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The Head of Barbie Antoinette

Cover of American Vogue, September 2006

The American artist Karen Kilimnik, who depicts bourgeois fantasies of aristocratic ‘decadence,’ has been hailed as ‘frothy, fun and the antithesis of everything great art should be’ (Neal, 2007: 100).  Her portraits of movie-stars and celebrities posed as fairy tale characters and ancien-regime aristocrats include an image of the global heiress Paris Hilton in the guise of Marie Antoinette – ‘the teen queen who rocked versailles’ according to American Vogue (Vogue ed., 2006), though history knows her as a monstrous figure of decadence (a profligate spendthrift at a time of national bankruptcy) or a tragic scapegoat for the failures of the pre-revolution monarchy.  Clichés both malevolent and tragic fade from Kilimnik’s and Sophia Coppola’s respective interpretations in which extravagance appears as a form of creative rebellion—‘the party that started the revolution’ as the poster-art for Coppola’s film exclaimed! The latter unfolds like an epic-scaled pop-video (the life of an 18th century ‘It Girl’); with not a severed head in sight and little allusion to the hardships of the peasant class. Whatever we might say about these historical blind-spots (Coppola’s Antoinette, though, appeared prior to the global economic crisis), there is no denying their negation of dramatic interest, suggesting that unchecked frivolity is as fatal to art’s powers of absorption as it is to its ethics.  A similar candy-coated torpor infects Kilimnik’s practice which Donald Kuspit described as ‘hand-me down populism, a populism that has become so routine, even art-slumming populists find it boring’ (Kuspit, 2008: 8-9). Read more →

Pearlescence and Patience: some thoughts on writing for ‘The Flight of O’

I’ll start by introducing the background of my general approach to art-writing, prior to addressing how I dealt with the specific challenge of writing about Zoe Williams’ work. I came to creative and fictional writing from a background of writing criticism, and to critical writing from a background of making visual art, which I continue to do alongside my literary practice. I’m an unusual example of a visual artist who doesn’t mind writing and talking about art.  But whilst this is an advantage in some respects it can also be a challenge. The attraction to language in the context of visual art can, because of it’s association with explanation or interpretation, threaten to circumscribe the autonomous development of the visual outside functional or rational parameters. It can be hard to avoid making work that simply illustrates a preconceived idea or theory. One of the ways that I dealt with this conflict in my own practice was to subject language itself to an irrational transformation, drawing inspiration from literary and concrete poetry, as well as dadaist and surrealist experiments with language.  This approach has also informed my role as an art-writer when responding to other practices. Read more →