Thursday, 30 August 2012

Pauline Boty


54321 from 1963 refers both to the TV pop music show and to the Manfred Mann song which was its theme tune, the countdown to the live studio broadcast. The numbers running across the red band at the top of the painting have a gay fairground design, giving them a celebratory feel. Below, a Cathy MacGowan figure (the fashionable presenter of 54321) in dark glasses is painted reclining diagonally across the bottom left, her mouth open in mid-laugh. She looks like she is collapsing with the weight of mirth. Above her, and seemingly partially emanating from the red band at the top, the pulsating heart of a rose hovers like a coalescence of coloured smoke. Boty often uses red flowers as symbols of female sexuality and attraction, and here the woman’s thoughts are made clear by the scrap of a yellow banner on the right hand side of the frame, a free-floating thought bubble whose jumbled and partially obscured pink letters read ‘oh for a fu..’. This represents a frank admission of the undercurrent of desire running close beneath the surface of even the relatively chaste pop of the early 60s. Boty was an enthusiastic participant in the London pop scene herself. She and Derek Boshier successfully passed the auditions for 54321 and appeared as dancers on one of the shows. Boty is definitely the star of the party with which Ken Russell ends his Monitor film, expertly doing the twist with Boshier, later going sole and dancing with unalloyed pleasure, campily glamming it up with an old fur stole and giving the camera a broad, saucy wink.

As 54321 demonstrates, Boty had a frank and open attitude towards female sexuality. In the Dunn book, she talks about it as being a potentially liberating and expressive force. ‘I think it can be as varied as being alive can be varied’, she said. ‘I think it has all the variations of being alive and feelings and things like that’. She differentiates between this natural sexuality, expressive of individual personality, and sex as represented in pornography or sensationalist literature (she cites Harold Robbins’ 60s blockbuster The Carpetbaggers, which combines the allure of instant, disposable wealth and readily available sex). She doesn’t find them offensive so much as completely unrealistic and essentially ridiculous. Such representations are the subject of her 1965 painting It’s a Man’s Man’s World II (the title, taken from the James Brown song, once more reflecting her love of pop music), a collation of images of the naked female body taken from porn mags, with a triangle of pubic hair as its focal point. The central body, around which the others are arranged, has its head and lower legs edited out, a decapitation and dismemberment which erases any hint of personality beyond the sexual charactistics. The arms hang limply at the side, offering no sense of invitation. This is a body presented as a passive object, a locus of anonymous masturbatory lust. Most of the surrounding women are granted faces, although these mainly convey expressions of boredom, weariness and distraction, when they’re not attempting standard ‘sultry’ looks. This pornographic collage is set against a landscape in which a lake leads to an island with a classical temple set within a grove, all beneath skies of azure, summery blue. Perhaps there is an allusion to Diana or Artemis here, the chastely untouchable Goddess of the moon and the hunt. It is also a very calming, meditative scene, its effect counterbalancing the inflammatory intent of the collage it enfolds. The refraction of images intended for the male gaze through the perspective of a female artist well aware of their power gives them a quizzical air, and goes some way towards reclaiming these women’s bodies, restoring the tarnished innocence of their sensual selves. Boty is very direct and uninhibited in her use of sexual language to talk about her own sense of her self and her sexuality in her conversation with Nell Dunn (whose own book of short stories, Up The Junction, published in 1963, was similarly frank in its attitude towards sex). Talking about being hit on in an obvious way by a man, she notes that ‘once they start doing it you think “oh you, you just want a quick fuck” or something’. She also recalls growing up as a girl in a house full of boys and, with startling, self-revealing honesty, says ‘I felt guilty about having an ugly cunt’, detailing her efforts to pull it out of shape to be more like a boy. She uses the words in their literal, descriptive sense in the name of openness and honesty, banishing shame by denying them their shocking power, and reclaiming them from their use as aggressive and abusive profanities. Germaine Greer also attempted to reclaim the ‘c’ word as a possessive and prideful word for women, enabling an informal and guilt-free sense of their own sexuality, in the 60s and 70s. But as she reveals in the 2006 BBC lexicographical programme Balderdash and Piffle, her attempts failed, and she confesses that she’s now rather glad that the word has retained its power to shock. Still, it seems a shame that the innocent usage to which Boty put it, and the guilt-free attitude which that usage embodies, has thus far failed to come to pass, the word continuing to be used as a verbal punch.

Pauline also talks in Dunn’s book about her 1963 marriage to Clive Goodwin, which took place only ten days after they’d first met. She makes anonymous reference to ‘the married man I got involved with’ (clearly Philip Saville) who ‘pursued me so violently, it was a fantastic surprise’. He never made any commitment to the relationship, however, despite his ‘terribly romantic point of view’ and the fact that ‘he talked in such a romantic language all the time’. Of Goodwin, on the other hand, for whom she dumped Saville by letter, she says ‘I just got on terribly well with him’. Friendship and companionability on an equal footing proved more attractive than the old fashioned romantic courtship which had previously impressed her, but whose theatrical gestures could disguise an underlying dishonesty and evasiveness. She further says about Goodwin that ‘he was the very first man I met who really liked women’, adding that this was ‘a terribly rare thing in a man’. Boty andGoodwin’s flat in Cromwell Road was at the heart of a bohemian artistic milieu in the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill area of London. David Mellor includes a map in his book The 60s Art Scene In London which plots the proximity of various artists and countercultural figures who lived in this part of town. These include Derek Boshier, the abstract artist Robyn Denny, artist, writer and activist Caroline Coon, Peter Blake, journalist and future bestselling writer Shirley Conran, pop artist Joe Tilson, author and literary editor Alexander Trocchi, and the photographer John Cowan, whose studio, just around the corner from Cromwell Road, was used as David Hemmings’ lair in Blow Up. The Royal College of Art was also a short stroll away across Kensington Gardens.

Boty’s version of pop art took into account figures from European culture as much as it did American popular and commercial imagery. She was a big film fan, and two of her paintings pay homage to contemporary stars of European ‘art’ cinema, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Monica Vitti. They go together to form a kind of diptych, male and female aspects of cool European cinematic glamour. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the talkative star of Jean-Luc Godard films such as A Bout de Souffle, Une Femme est Une Femme and Pierrot Le Fou is shown looking back over his shoulder, his gaze veiled by dark glasses, just as Cathy MacGowan’s was in 54321. He is set against a hot orange background, suggestive of sultry French Riviera climates, with a line of pink-outlined red and green hearts scrolling across the top of the frame. An efflorescence of red petals ripples out above his white hat, a symbol of female sexuality which both represents his attractiveness to women and his feminine side (the two perhaps not unrelated). For all his attempts to emulate Bogart and other exemplars of classic Hollywood masculinity, he is far too loquacious to fit in with their terse taciturnity, and his self-conscious imitations merely serve to mark the divide between American and Southern European ideas of film stardom (as far as the new wave directors thought of them, anyway). The face of Monica Vitti, the muse of Michaelangelo Antonioni and star of his films L’Avventura, L’Eclisse and Red Desert, is enclosed within another of Boty’s curvaceous red hearts. She’s nothing but heart, an embodiment of emotional generosity, albeit of an alienated, frequently directionless and existentially vexed variety. It’s a love looking for an object, a meaningful and worthy recipient for its brimful capacity. In the Dunn book, Boty talks about having ‘always sort of worshipped women in a funny sort of way. I’ve always thought they were terribly beautiful’. This sense of beauty, present in the Vitti icon, is also presented in an objectified form in her It’s A Man’s Man’s World II paintingits spirit captured in her best known work (largely due to its having been bought by the Tate) The Only Blonde In The World.

This is generally assumed to be a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, but could in fact be any Marilynesque blonde, full of self-delighting joy. The street in which she is placed is set against a green background, Boty’s favoured green. Boty’s bright, reddish orange forms vivid, kinetic swirls within the field of green, and the bluish grey of the pavement arcs out into an ox-bowed tributary through the green where the blonde’s foot makes a circling turn. This colour is also used, along with yellow, for the truncated diagonal stripes on the right hand side, which gives the illusion that the canvas is furling up in a tubular wave. Combined with the coloured swirls and the ‘leaking’ pavement, this makes the background seem like a crackling, shifting energy field, its source the blonde in the centre, contained within her own cropped band, the edit of the present moment she so fully inhabits. She wrapped in an armour of fur, a soft-edged blur of white paint, and her piled-up, flossy burr of blonde hair is a protective crown, her shimmering dress a shirt of chain-mail. She is in her own tightly-framed, self-contained world, the composition formed around her and taking its cues from her movements. The greens, yellows and oranges are her colours, the forms they take her shapes, the emanations of her spirit.

Boty also produced many collages from pictures cut out of art books or illustrated Victorian story books, sometimes also adding non-pictorial materials to add textural or associative detail – wallpaper or fragments of lace or doilies. Untitled (with Pink Lace and Curls of Hair) from 1960-62, included in Brandon Taylor’s Collage: The Making of Modern Art, sets a ‘swimsuit issue’ magazine cover against circles of delicate pink lace. Perhaps it was this picture which inspired Kim Gordon, herself a visual artist as well as a musician, to write the song Swimsuit Issue, included on the Sonic Youth album Dirty. Three made-up faces form an identikit row, differently coloured curls of artificial hair offering the promise of individualisation. A large hairy hand grasping a baby’s tiny one between its fingers adds an incongruously male element to the overdetermined femininity of the display. Below this composition, a seascape with clipper ships is inserted, rooting these ideals of femininity within a Victorian imperial past. This seascape also recasts the aspects of the feminine above in terms of Odyssean sirens or fairy tale mermaids, the swimsuit issue displaying consciously constructed temptresses of the waves. Pauline shows off more of her collages to Peter Blake in Pop Goes the Easel. They have the playful wit, delight in surreal juxtaposition, and irreverent use of images from art history and sober Victorian engravings found in Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python. Perhaps some influence was at play there. In Pop Goes the Easel, Ken Russell is clearly fascinated by Boty’s collages, his camera gliding over them in lingering close-up, focussing in on their detail.

The Titanic sinks below the horizon of a Constable landscape; A Victorian pin-up and a performing circus dog pose in front of ornamental fountains and the Orcus mouth marking the entrance to the underworld in the Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo, Italy; A boy and girl from a Victorian story book hover above a jungle canopy, a giant hand holding a pair of secateurs moving in to snip the girl’s head off as if it were a faded exotic bloom; Another giant woman’s hand rises behind a dome-capped rotunda of a Turkish cast with minarets to either side, a group of classical statues held casually between its fingers like a neglected cigarette; A glossily nail-varnished hand plucks a rose which emerges from the base of a pine cone, a Victorian mother and child drifting above it as if it were an irregularly shaped, blooming moon, with a cigar-shaped, Jules Verne-esque airship puttering past in the background (‘an occasional spaceship flying through the sky’, as Boty puts it to Blake); A landscape with lace, patterned wallpaper and catalogue flowers is irradiated by a doily sun; a Romantic lake and mountain scene has a lace church superimposed, the head of a Victorian lady placed at the apex of its spire, perhaps reflecting the Victorian notion of female sanctity; A naval seascape with ships anchored in a tropic bay, a military hussar standing proud in the foreground, is given a sky filled with jelly beans (immediately reminding me of Harlan Ellison’s story Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman, in which the trickster protagonist releases a shower of jellybeans onto a timebound city of the future from his flying sled). You can imagine them blazing with a riot of colour, a glorious, psychedelicized sunset of Empire.

There’s a cut-out photograph of a couple kissing, he holding a giant egg (an image with its own built-in surrealism), looking like they are newly married and playing their part in an ancient and now obscure fertility ritual. Behind them, soldiers parade with bayonets extended, a sharply erect masculine symbolism to contrast with the rounded smoothness of the egg. The possibility of trouble and conflict lies ahead, the picture seems to suggest, with the fragile egg liable to end up in fragments of shattered shell trampled by the passing parade – a de-romanticised view of marriage. Another picture has a striped-helmeted American footballer, a gun-toting GI, a serious-faced Cheetah and a starlet on the phone looming over what looks like an Imperial Indian palace. They tower over the building’s imposing facade like larger than life pop cultural icons, the colossal gods of American culture sweeping the British imperial past aside, the American footballer hopping over the walls with contemptuous ease. Above them, flower moon hangs in the sky. Elsewhere, Boty creates a composite art historical landscape linking north and south, with a Renaissance Italian scene leading on to a sheared off fragment of Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead, with a classical dome added to lighten its sepulchral gothic gloom. A flower bomb is plummeting from the sky, either to destroy the landscape or to carpet it with a hippy carpet of blooming colour. Boty gives Peter Blake a guide to the imagery in several of her collages, which blend high and pop art matter together, dissolving the perceived barriers which usually divided them. She points out the Goya portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel from the National Gallery, a group of 1930s debutantes, a row of badges with FDR’s face on, Beethoven’s pen, Rudee Valee (Blake recognises him), Brendan Behan captured like a genie in one of his own bottles of booze, Jerry Lewis and the Giant head of Somerset Maugham (which is very much like the head which Gilliam cracks open in the Monty Python titles). The iris of Maugham’s eye contains the face of a woman, the female hidden within the regard of the old artistic guard. It’s an image which brings to mind the face of Jorge Luis Borges shot through the layers of Mick Jagger’s brain on the head of a bullet at the hallucinatory denouement of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s film Performance – an image of mental penetration which Boty replicates here in less violent fashion. Her female image is beamed into the subconscious in a subtle and unobtrusive way, absorbed in the act of vision.

Boty’s early death casts a retrospectively tragic shadow over her life. Whilst it seems to have been lived to the full and was packed with excitement, colour and chaotic incident, there are hints of a more troubled side to the surface happiness of her personality, a penumbral aspect of the bright and vivacious woman seen in the Monitor film and in the photographs. In the conversation with Nell Dunn, she talks about having been ‘going through a terrible period of depression’, adding that ‘when you get very depressed everything goes along somewhere down there, on a sort of horrible level’. This certainly seems like an insight from someone who has known moments of darkness. She also suffered from depression when she was a young girl after her mother contracted TB, leaving her to take on the maternal duties, and resulting in the development of a terrible stammer. This complexity, the mixture of an outgoing sociability with introspection and self-doubt, dispels the image of the ‘dumb blonde’ which was imposed on her by some at the time. This can certainly be seen in the newspaper cutting included in David Mellor’s book The Sixties Art Scene in London, detailing her membership of the Anti-Ugly Action Society, a student body which opposed the widespread destruction of London’s architectural fabric and the rapid development of war-damaged sites in the name of instant, functional (and cheap) transformation which had more to do with real estate profiteering than the desire to create a bright, modernist future (the group were certainly not anti-modernist fogies). The journalist ignores any serious point which the group might have been making behind their playful gestures, instead choosing to remark that ’20-year-old Miss Boty, who is secretary of that very indignant organisation the Anti-Ugly Action Society, is, well, very pretty indeed. As you can see from my picture’. Barry Miles, in London Calling, his countercultural history of the capital, describes an Anti-Ugly demonstration against the new Kensington library building, led by Boty and her fellow Royal College of Art stained glass student Kenneth Baynes, whom she pushed in a bath chair in his fancy dress guise as Christopher Wren. He notes that a television interviewer approached her (and I picture him as one of Eric Idle’s smarmy, Whickerish take-offs from Monty Python) and asked her ‘what’s a pretty girl like you doing at an event like this?’ John Betjeman later turned up, smiled at her and gave the demonstrators his wholehearted blessing. Boty was, of course, well aware of the power of the happy-go-lucky dumb blonde role, and the ways in which it could be used. She comments on it in the Dunn book, showing an awareness of the attraction of such a simplistic, one-dimensional feminity to men. She tells her ‘I’ve been fairly lucky in that I’m pretty attractive to me because I have a – quite a sexual sort of quality but along with a thing that’s kind of like, oh a happy dumb blonde you see’. It’s an image she plays on in some of the photographs she posed for, always with an element of self-conscious parody. This is also evident in the scenes in the Monitor film where she brushes out her hair in the morning and pauses for a moment in front of the mirror with a shock-headed lion’s mane; and in her mimed rendition of Shirley Temple’s The Good Ship Lollypop.

Pauline does Shirley - on the Good Ship Lollypop

The tragic elements of Boty’s life where sadly echoed in the fates of her husband Clive Goodwin and her daughter Boty Goodwin, as Adam Curtis outlines in his typically wide-ranging and compelling article Dream On. Clive died in 1977 after suffering a brain haemorrhage in the lobby of an American hotel and having been thrown out and taken to a cell by police who immediately assumed he was drunk. Clive and Pauline’s daughter Boty Goodwin died in Los Angeles in 1995 of a heroin overdose. She’d been studying art there and, as Curtis reveals, had been plagued with anxieties about her body image, just as her mother had as a child. She’d been brought up after Clive’s death by the poet Adrian Mitchell and his wife Celia Hewitt. Mitchell wrote a moving poem reflecting on her death, Especially When It Snows, which you can hear him reading here (it's the second poem in).

Boty continues to inspire artists of her generation to this day. Derek Boshier’s 2011 painting Pauline’s Gone Digital summons her spirit into the modern era via its all-pervasive technologies, images of her works and moments from her life captured within the frames of mobile phones. Childlike portraits of Derek and Pauline appearing at the edges of the picture, which is laid out like a digital diptych, as if it were a votive offering, an act of remembrance. Marianne Faithfull also included The Only Blonde In The World in the Innocence and Experience exhibition at the Tate Liverpool which she curated, where it kept company with portraits of her, Patti Smith and William Burroughs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray’s Indestructible Object, his metronome bearing the watchful eye of Lee Miller, and paintings by Odilon Redon, William Blake, Richard Dadd and Aubrey Beardsley – an interesting gathering, who would no doubt have found much in common. Pauline’s spirit is captured for all time in its reflective and bright aspects in the spoken rhythms and linguistic idiosynracies of the transcribed Dunn conversation and in the Monitor film. In the latter we can see her doing her mimed routine to Shirley Temple’s On The Good Ship Lollypop in top hat and tails; follow her wandering around the fun fair with her artistic compadres, riding the dodgems and taking pot shots alongside the boys on the rifle range; hear chatting with her soulmate Peter Blake (they seem inseparable in the film) in a relaxed and open manner, her voice refined by without any trace of hauteur; admire her expert twisting with Derek Boshier on the dancefloor, and enjoy her shimmying solo with an old stole and giving the camera a broad wink. Russell’s camera seems to be in love with her throughout, and it is with her that the film ends – sitting quietly, an inward look on her face as she contemplates one of her canvases.

Perhaps a fitting image on which to end would be Pauline’s last painting, made in 1966, a cheeky little picture called Bum. This was created for her friend Kenneth Tynan’s theatrical revue O! Calcutta, a show which included contributions from John Lennon, Edna O’Brien, Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett (although Beckett’s Breath was not, in the end, used), and which featured on-stage nudity. It would be another four years before it reached the London stage, opening in July 1970 at the Roundhouse. The titular buttocks of Boty’s painting proudly display themselves against a royal blue background within a theatrical proscenium arch glowing with vivid reds and magentas, with curlicued mouldings of lemon yellow and her favoured green. Underneath the stage, the word bum is written with gleeful childishness in loud red, outlined in cheerful coloured stripes and op-art zig-zags. It’s an innocent celebration of the body and its pleasures, and is imbued with a raspberry-blowing vulgarity which has always been at the heart of British popular culture. George Harrison displayed a similarly sophisticated wit when he deliberately mispronounced Pauline’s surname as Botty when he was on a radio programme with her. Bum shows that her work could be both provocative, political, celebratory and just plain fun, often all at the same time. It’s a fine rear with which to sign off, a well-rounded backside presented to the world to say goodbye.


Friday, 24 August 2012

Pauline Boty


I picked up a postcard at the Oxfam Music and Art shop in Exeter the other week of the artist Pauline Boty, posing in her studio for a photograph by Michael Ward taken on 29th October 1963. It feels full of the optimism and excitement of the times. Pauline sits in deliberate imitation of the famous seated pose which Christine Keeler had struck for the photograper Lewis Morley earlier in the year, a picture which became the emblem of the scandal which led to the fall of Harold MacMillan and ushered in a new, more liberal decade (it took a few years for the ‘sixties’ of official fable to get going). It was also an image which she incorporated into one of her own paintings, Scandal ’63, as you can see in another of Michael Ward’s portraits, shot in 1964. Boty was indeed herself the subject of a series of portraits by Morley in 1963, standing or sitting in various costumes in front of her paintings, shot formally in a studio or caught in a spontaneous, offhand moment at home, and made the centre of a more unusual, artistic composition, peering around the frayed edge of a flat length of fibreglass which looks like a sheet of ice lifted from a pond. In Ward’s photograph, the early morning autumn sun shines through the window, casting her silhouette, with check-hat perching on her untamed tangle of blonde hair, onto the corner of the wall behind her and across the large canvasses, finished and unfinished, which are propped up around her. A half-formed Proust from an early version of her painting It’s A Man’s World 1 peers over her shoulder, and Fidel Castro gazes up at her from the other side from one of her pictures collating images of the Cuban revolution. Torn out photos and small art books (the materials for her collages), and a folder with the edges of pictures tantalisingly peeping out litter the floor alongside spent matches, discarded cigarette packets and butts, the debris of last night’s work or revels. She holds a Cornish Blue mug, presumably filled with hot coffee to pick her up. The hazy, happily blurred look on her face suggests a long night which has carried her through till dawn. It’s a picture which evokes a magical sense of possibility, of a new, confident artistic generation both defining and reflecting the moment and in doing so forming a new and optimistic London bohemia.

I first came across Boty’s work when I picked up a copy of Latest Art magazine in the Brighton Museum and Gallery in 2006. It was a special women’s issue which had an article on her drawing on Adam Smith’s as yet unpublished biography Now You See Her: Pauline Boty, First Lady of British Pop, and featured her paintings It’s A Man’s World II (1963) on the cover, and the hilarious and somehow very British Bum (1966) on the rear (appropriately enough). Happily, you can read this yourself as the magazine has been put online as a pdf over here. More recently I saw her in Ken Russell’s 1963 BBC Monitor film on pop art, Pop Goes the Easel, in which she was one of the four artists chosen to represent the new movement. The others were Derek Boshier, her partner at the time, Peter Blake, who long nurtured an unrequited flame for her, and Peter Phillips. Searching for further information on her, it’s remarkable how completely she has disappeared from the official histories of the period which came to be written some years after the fact, particularly considering her considerable impact at the time. She isn’t mentioned in any of the books on pop art down at my local library (and there are a fair few of these), and the brief passage she merits in Brandon Taylor’s Collage: The Making of Modern Art is a masterpiece of condescension which, in its casual assumption of her subordination to her well-known husband’s influence, belittles her talent and intellect. It further propagates the ‘dumb blonde’ myth that beauty and social vivacity are automatically accompanied by blank vacuity. ‘Pauline Boty…married the left-wing literary agent Clive Goodwin in 1963’, he writes, ‘and immediately produced a series of ‘political’ paintings (note the superiority of those dismissive inverted commas) in which collage-like composition contained easily recognisable symbols of power and pleasure amidst selected icons of commercial modernity’. He then goes on to criticise her abandonment of cut-out collage for ‘fine-art’ painting as being indicative of a retreat into conservatism and comfortable conformity. This attitude, which seems to rob her of any individuality or creative autonomy, suggests one reason why her work fell into such obscurity.

Pauline's Nightmare - Pop Goes the Easel

A quick dry clean - Enticing Alfie
She was certainly an extraordinarily beautiful woman, with an unaffected sense of playfully bohemian, thrown-together style and an air of joyful ebullience which suggested a love of and intense interest in life and the people she encountered in its course. It was natural for photographers, journalists and film-makers to use her as the glamorous ‘face’ of the new pop art generation. This objectification could work against the serious appreciation of her art, however. Those who create media images tend to want to use them to convey their own messages, and impose their own stories upon them. Boty was quite aware of this, and manipulated and self-reflexively commented upon the use of her image in the photographs of Morley and Ward and in Ken Russell’s film, and upon the representation of women in popular media in her paintings. It’s illuminating, however, that the Tate Gallery has only one of her paintings in its collection, The Only Blonde in the World (acquired fairly recently, in 1999), in comparison to 10 by Derek Boshier (mostly bought in the 70s), 31 by Peter Phillips, 35 by Peter Blake, and 113 by David Hockney (who also appears in the Pop Goes the Easel film). But in the National Portrait Gallery, there are 28 portraits of her by Michael Ward, Michael Seymour, John Aston and Lewis Morley, several with the works which are so conspicuously absent from galleries today prominently displayed. Her segment in Ken Russell’s film opens with a nightmare dream sequence in which she is pursued through the curving corridors of the BBC TV centre by a stern-looking woman in black, her eyes turned into skull-like pits by the black lenses of her dark glasses, who propels herself after the fleeing Boty with implacable strength and implacable purpose in a wheelchair. Pauline manages to escape into the lift just before the woman catches up with her, only to turn around and see…. This performance precipitated a secondary career as an actress, both on stage and on television. In fact, she had already starred in an episode of Armchair Theatre in 1962, North City Traffic Straight Ahead, which was directed by Philip Saville, her lover for some time until she married Clive Goodwin, also an actor, director and media person. She auditioned for the lead in Darling, which some believed was based on her affair with Saville, but lost out to Julie Christie, in many ways her alter ego on and off screen. She was the co-star in a 1965 thriller series called Contract to Kill, and had a small role in another of Ken Russell’s Monitor musical portraits, this one of Bartok. She plays the duplicitous prostitute setting up her client for murder in the composer’s savage (both musically and thematically) ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. You can see her small part in Russell's interpretation in a clip included a little way into Adam Curtis' typically wide-ranging and thought-provoking article Dream On, which incorporates the story of Pauline and Clive into its analysis of the co-option and decline of sixties idealism. Her final appearance was an uncredited cameo in Alfie, (9 minutes 15 seconds into this clip) as the manager of a dry cleaners whose notice promising ‘prompt service within’ offers brief moments of uncomplicated pleasure with Michael Caine, who comments that ‘I was getting the suit cleaned in the bargain’. ‘Well, you can’t turn something like that down’, he adds.

Her primary art - Pauline painting
Boty’s acting career was always a secondary concern for her. In Nell Dunn’s 1965 book Talking To Women, a series of transcribed conversations with women from all backgrounds, she is asked which, out of painting and acting, ‘you actually get the most out of doing’. ‘Painting’, she unhesitatingly replies. She then goes on to describe the compensations of acting, its social and collaborative nature, as opposed to the solitary act of creating a work of art. As she puts it (and the directly transcribed nature of the interview really brings her voice to life), ‘painting you do alone, you know, and you sit there and its your own terrible fight or your own lovely bit, whichever sort of phase it’s in but it’s really terribly alone and you make the whole thing yourself’. Creation was evidently an effortful and intensely felt process for her. The acting may have been a release, but she was also encouraged into it by both Philip Saville, with whom she was having an affair in the early 60s, and Clive Goodwin, whom she married in 1963. Saville was a well-known director of stage and screen and Goodwin an influential media figure and sometime actor himself (he played John Ruskin in Ken Russell’s Monitor film on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, again included as a clip in Adam Curtis' article). There is a sense that they felt they could better direct and shape her persona as an actress, recreating her to conform to their own perceived image of what she could be. Being at the centre of the media which she portrayed in her work (TV and film in particular) and gaining experience of the way in which actors self-consciously adapt alternate personae on stage can’t have failed to feed back into her painting, however, giving it a further and more personal reflective layer.

Perhaps the major reason for Boty’s neglect lies in her tragic early death at the age of 28. She discovered that she had lymphatic cancer in 1965 when she went for the scan which confirmed her pregnancy. She refused a course of chemotherapy for fear of harming the baby, trusting instead to less invasive radiotherapy treatments. Her daughter was born in February 1966, but Pauline continued to decline, and died on 1st July 1966. Her husband, Clive Goodwin, and her family were left in a state of shock, and all of her paintings were packed away and stored in a barn on a farm in Kent owned by one of her brothers. There they remained for decades. It’s quite remarkable that nobody took an interest in all those years, that no-one made the effort to seek her work out. It’s not as if she wasn’t a highly visible and charismatic figure on the sixties scene, and the decade, particularly in its colourful pop aspects, has exerted a continuous fascination up until the present day. Finally, the art historian and critic David Mellor brought them back to light, the paintings fortunately none the worse for wear after having lain dormant in rustic storage for so long. He included several in the exhibition The Sixties Art Scene In London which he curated at The Barbican in London in 1993, and she was also prominently featured in the accompanying book in a way which she hadn’t been (and still isn’t) in other surveys of the period. As Mellor puts it in the introduction to the book, the ‘process of re-seeing and revising the recent past also brings forward neglected individuals, and the contexts in which they worked, during the period. (This is particularly so in the case of Pauline Boty.)’ It was this exhibition, and its resurrection of Boty’s work, which led to the Tate buying The Only Blonde in the World. Although why did they not make up for neglect and the passage of lost time by buying the lot?

Pensive window - Looking out at the world
Boty came from a pretty conventional suburban middle-class background, growing up in Carshalton in Surrey. Her father was an accountant, her mother a housewife whose own artistic interests had been quietly but firmly discouraged in her youth as being inappropriate for one of her position and sex. Pauline’s own pursuit of art was hardly encouraged, either by her parents or by the educational system of the time. Responding to Nell Dunn’s question about the extent to which she was bound by the conventions of her upbringing, she talks of her father’s ‘Victorian ideas’, and the fact that ‘he didn’t even want me to work when I left school’, However, when her mother contracted TB, ‘the whole family became chaotic and we really had a fantastic amount of freedom’. Pauline had to take on her mother’s role in the household for a while, and learned to stand on her own two feet at an early age (she was about 12 at the time). Her father still had strictly limited hopes and expectations of her even after she had left home, gone to college and was beginning to establish herself as an artist. ‘I used to get fed up when I went home’, she tells Dunn, ‘and my father would be playing with his grandson or something and if I held it he’d say “That’s what I want to see” and I’d think “you silly old fool”’. She went to the Wimbledon Art School in 1954 on a scholarship and was soon christened the ‘Wimbledon Bardot’. She progressed from there to the Royal College of Art, where she opted to study stained glass, something she’d not shown any particular interest in up until that point. She would have preferred painting, but it was made clear to her that places for women on the college’s painting courses were limited and it was more or less accepted that male students were given preference. It may be that the study of stained glass, compromised choice though it might have been, influenced her in the creation of her collages, and in the bright colours, compartmentalised images and decorative border and background designs of her paintings. In 1961, she was part of what can lay claim to be the first major Pop Art exhibition in Britain, the Blake, Boty, Porter and Reeve show at the AIA Gallery in Lisle Street, off Leicester Square.

Boty’s paintings were imbued with a feeling for pop music to a far greater extent than her fellow pop artists, for whom the musical side of pop initially went little further than the inclusion of Elvis amongst their American icons. Pauline looked closer to home and incorporated the lyrics of the Kander and Ebb song My Colouring Book, the b-side to Dusty Springfield’s top 10 hit I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (also included on her debut solo LP A Girl Called Dusty) into her 1964 painting of that name. The different objects, moods and glances signifying the end of an affair (Boty’s with Saville?) are coloured in according the scheme of the song’s lyrical instructions: ‘These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away/
Colour them grey’; ‘This is the heart that thought he would always be true/
Colour it blue’; ‘These are the arms that held him and touched him, lost him somehow/
Colour them empty now’; ‘These are the beads I wore until she came between/
Colour them green’; ‘This is the room that I sleep in and walk in and weep in and hide in, that nobody sees/ Colour it lonely, please’; ‘This is the boy, the one I depended upon/ Colour him gone’. It all amounts to an oblique, fragmentary portrait, displaying her collagist tendencies and perhaps showing that her studies of stained glass paid off after all. There’s also something rather cinematic about its focussing in on the telling detail, its combination of close up and middle distance ‘shots’ and its depiction of an empty room, which looks like a set waiting for its actors. The absences referred to in the lyrics are conveyed with a greyish china white which gives a spectral aspect to figures whose features are already starting to fade. Boty’s characteristic mossy, verdigris greens, marmalade oranges and bleeding reds are much in evidence, and the rainbow arcs (another characteristic) which bridge the otherwise disconnected images temper the melancholy resignation of the lyrics and suggest the possibility of a bright new beginning as much as an ending.


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Sound British Adventure

The Unit Delta Plus studio

A Sound British Adventure, broadcast at the very domestic hour of 11.30 in the morning on Radio 4, the optimum time for the unwitting absorption of deceptively experimental sound, was a brief scan of the development of electronic music in these isles in the 50s and 60s. It was presented by the comedian Stewart Lee, who introduced himself as ‘the only friendly e-list celebrity they could find who’d been to a Stockhausen concert’. In fact, he’s eminently qualified for the gig, having displayed a long-term, wide-ranging and well-informed interest in the esoteric borderlands of music. He wrote the Wire Primer on The Fall, won Celebrity Mastermind with a specialist round on the free improvisation guitarist Derek Bailey, produces short reviews for the Observer of albums by the likes of Matana Roberts, Boris, Trembling Bells, Epic 45, Muhal Richard Abrahams alongside the Fingerbobs soundtrack, wrote the introduction to a biography of free improvisation saxophonist Evan Parker, who he also included in an evening of free improv he curated for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and took part in a performance of John Cage’s chance-based composition Indeterminacy (he read the texts which form part of the piece). His recent shows, in which he played a Krautrock selection including Kraftwerk, Neu and Amon Duul as interval music, ended with a Carpet Remnant World transformed into a model utopia, the tubular discards becoming dream towers shining with cheerful points of light, all set to the gorgeous, deliquescent electronic melodies of Ghost Box artist The Advisory Circle’s Now Ends the Beginning, the opening track from their brilliant recent album As The Crow Flies (also reviewed by Lee in The Observer).

The programmed anchored the early development of British electronic music in the experiences of war, making the point that much of the technology used was army or navy surplus equipment. Tristram Cary, whom we hear in an archive interview from 1972, was an ex-navy man who perceived the musical possibilities of electronic sound whilst listening to the whistling undulations of short wave radio signals. Desmond Leslie (a collection of whose eccentric experiments was released on Trunk Records a while back), another electronic music ‘hobbyist’, was an ex-Spitfire pilot and UFO enthusiast who, like Cary, cobbled together his apparatus from redundant forces’ equipment and whatever else could be put to use. The amateur status of these early pioneers is emphasised, and comparison made with the electronic composers on the continent, who received state funding to make ‘serious’ works of art at the studios of French station ORTF (the Office of French National Radio-Television) and West German National Radio in Cologne. Over here, Daphne Oram was producing electronic music to sell washing machines and OMO washing powder, and the largely unsung Fred Judd (whose very name conjures up an unpretentious, artisanal approach to sound creation) was producing the first all electronic score for the ITV puppet-based children’s science fiction series Space Patrol in 1963 – the same year that Dr Who first appeared on the nation’s screens with its Radiophonic Workshop produced theme music and sound effects. The story of the Radiophonic Workshop and its involvement has been told on several occasions already, and this programme, after an essential acknowledgment of its massive contribution, turns its attention elsewhere.

Would early British electronic music be so well-loved were it not for its utilitarian, semi-amateur status? Probably not. It certainly wouldn’t have been heard by so many people had it taken the European route to subsidised art music. After all, the likes of Stockhausen became a byword for unlistenability amongst the general public in the late 60s and 70s, even turning up as the butt of jokes in Man About the House. Some of the British composers did feel frustrated at the limitations imposed upon them by commercial or soundtrack requirements, however, and yearned for the artistic freedom afforded their continental counterparts. Peter Zinovieff, the co-founder of EMS (Electronic Music Systems) and inventor of one of the earliest successful models of synthesiser in the 60s, admits that he was ‘rather snobbish’ and was far more interested in the possibility of Stockhausen visiting his Putney studios than in Paul McCartney and all the other pop stars parading through in the late 60s, wanting try out his new instruments. Tristram Cary is cited as being another of the real progenitors of British electronic music, and he was capable of producing both abstruse modern classical music and popular, accessible film soundtracks. His music for the 1955 radio play The Japanese Fisherman, a little of which is played on the programme, was the first electronic score to be commissioned by the BBC, and evoked the solar burst of the first atomic bomb. In the same year, he produced his darkly sardonic score for the Ealing comedy of post-war seediness and decline The Ladykillers, which seemingly had little in common with such electronic experimentation. Although it could be argued (at a considerable stretch) that the sounds of the trains which are a constant sonic presence in the film call to mind Pierre Schaeffer’s early work of musique concrete Etude Aux Chemins de Fer, built up from the recorded sounds of steam locomotive. Trunk Records have released an excellent compilation of Cary’s music, It’s Time for Tristram Cary, which includes the collage-style soundtrack, mixing electronic, jazz and light styles, that he produced for Don Levy’s fascinating 1967 promotional short Opus (which you can find on the bfi COI – that’s Central Office of Information - collection A Portrait of a People).

Peter Zinovieff is one of a number of people interviewed for the programme, others including Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson, Portishead’s Adrian Uttley (who also featured in the BBC4 Radiophonic Workshop documentary Alchemists of Sound), Radiophonic Workshop archivist, historian and composer Mark Ayres, and senior lecturer Dr Michael Grierson, the director of the creative computing course at Goldsmiths College who also looks after the Daphne Oram archive held there. Zinovieff is brusquely frank about the productions of his past, dismissing his alliance with Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire in Unit Delta Plus as having created ‘terrible music’. His offhand manner, which displays a disinclination to temper raw opinion with tact or politeness, leads to refreshingly unvarnished recollections. He makes no pretence at having liked Daphne Oram, or of having enjoyed any kind of professional relationship or sense of shared artistic principles or interests. ‘I found her rather dull’, he says, ‘a bit schoolmarmish’. There’s a hint of disgruntlement at the attention she has received recently, and the central position that she and her Oramics machine have been granted in the story of British electronic music as told in the Science Museum’s Oramics to Electronica exhibition. He dismisses the Oramics machine (which derived its sounds from photographically reading waveform shapes drawn onto slides) as a ‘completely wild idea from someone who wasn’t very scientific’. Zinovieff was evidently a musician for whom science and electronic music creation were inseparable, with composition taking on the quality of semi-mathematical, machine-aided calculus favoured by his idol Stockhausen. He liked nothing more than to retreat into his EMS studios in Putney to work, playing with the possibilities of sound generation and developing the next generation of synthesisers. He proudly pointed out that the money from the sales of EMS synths, which became very popular with the likes of The Beatles (he even sold one to Ringo and gave him a few lessons) and Pink Floyd, was all channelled back into the studio.

Brian Hodgson’s view of Daphne Oram was a little more generous. He described her as ‘a lovely lady, completely eccentric’, and praised the Oramics machine as being a revolutionary idea, with potential ‘unmatched ‘til the Fairlight’ (the first real fully integrated computer music system), and an idea which worked on a practical level at that. Michael Grierson played an unnamed piece from the Oram archives which documents her first attempts at producing sound from her newly constructed synthesiser – the first tentative steps towards a new music. Hodgson is also a little kinder on the brief lifespan of Unit Delta Plus, citing the music which they created for two Shakespearean productions at Stratford (Macbeth and King Lear) and for a production of Medea at Greenwich Theatre. Electronic music was evidently better suited for tragedies. He also recalls the White Noise LP An Electric Storm in Hell which he made with Delia Derbyshire and David Vorhaus, and the 1967 multi-media ‘happening’ the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at the Roundhouse (which predated the better known 14-Hour Technicolor Daydream at Alexandra Palace by three months) to which Unit Delta Plus contributed, along with Paul McCartney. His Carnival of Light, a 13minute improvisation with tape effects produced with input from the rest of the Beatles, was made especially for the event. McCartney had paid several visits to Zinovieff’s Putney studio, once more demonstrating that he was the Beatle most interested in avant-garde and experimental art and music beyond the comforting bounds of rock at this time.

The adoption of electronic music, and the EMSVCS3 synthesiser in particular, by rock and pop musicians in Britain really rounds the programme off. By this time, it had entered the musical mainstream, adding interesting new colours and providing expanded possibilities for sound creation. The pioneers’ work was done. As Lee points out, electronic music is now ubiquitous, its means of production accessible to a far wider range of people via PCs and laptops. New tools tend to lead to new music, as Adrian Uttley points out. But, as Zinovieff adds, making good music still ‘depends on your imagination’. The tools may change and become more sophisticated and easier to use, with a bewilderingly vast palette of potential sounds, but the roots of inspiration remain the same. The programme is available to listen to for another week or so over here.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Nowhereisland in Jennicliff Bay, Plymouth

A new outcrop of barren rock appeared off the coast of Plymouth last weekend, alien to the geology of the region. It was a floating island created by artist Alex Hartley and his collaborative team, which had been pulled around the headland from Torquay and moored just off the inlet of Jennicliff bay. Hartley’s sculpture is modelled on a small island off the coast of the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, inside the Artic Circle, which was revealed after many millennia by the retreat of the glacial ice which had enveloped it. Hartley had been the first to step onto this new, or very old basaltic splinter in 2004 when he travelled to the far north with the Cape Farewell organisation, a group set up to provide the means for artists, scientists and media folk to directly experience the effects of climate change in the polar regions and enable informed artistic and cultural responses. Other artists involved have included Laurie Anderson, Ian McEwan (whose novel Solar was a result of his trip), DJ Spooky, Jarvis Cocker, sound artist and sculptor Max Eastley, the poet Lemn Sissay, comedian Marcus Brigstocke, the singers Feist and Martha Wainwright, Ryuchi Sakamoto and the sculptors Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley. Hartley had wanted to name the island Nymark, or new land but in the end it was christened with the Nordic variant Nyskjaeret by the Norwegian Polar Institute.

In 2011, Hartley sailed back to Svalbard with a diverse group of companions including legal scholars, environmentalists, feminists, film makers, linguists and film makers. They recorded their impressions and experiences of their journeys and explorations, and brought back some loose material from Nyskjaeret, with the blessing of the Governor of Svalbard, to include in the island which would be newly formed back in England (the original having already begun to be eroded away by the surrounding artic seas to which it had been exposed). It’s moulded form would be scattered with the loose material gathered and shipped back to lend a sense of realism to its sculpted topography, and create a genuine sense that this was a floating fragment of Artic land being towed around the British coastline. Nowhereisland, as it was called, was moved in its nascent state into international waters just north of Svalbard, 80º14N, 10º30SE, on 20th September where it was declared a new nation. This summer, formed into a convincing facsimile of Nyskjaeret as Hartley had first come across it, it began its migration around the South West coast, arriving in Weymouth on 25th July in time for the beginning of the Olympic sailing events (it is part of the associated Cultural Olympiad programme of events). It was anchored in Jennicliff Bay on Thursday August 9th, where its arrival was celebrated with a pageant including music, storytelling, a football match between a team from the local Nowhere Inn and a Nowhereisland eleven (the pub team won), and kayak tours around the island.

The idea behind building a portable, migrating island replicating the one Hartley had found revealed by the retreating glacier was to create a new nation state from scratch in a collaborative fashion. The island is accompanied on its travels around the South West peninsula by an embassy, its modest mobile headquarters an old van, adapted and decorated for the purpose. The van was parked on the down above the bay, and its three approachable, friendly and readily informative ambassadors were on hand to explain the history of their country, its philosophy and aims, and to sign up new citizens wishing to become a part of nowhere. They each wore orange and grey checked shirts and olive khaki caps, evidently the adopted national costume. Over on the other side of the Plymouth Sound, a short ferry ride away from Mount Batten in the old Barbican area of the city, the Nowhereisland Citizens Advice Bureau was set up in the Plymouth Arts Centre. Here you could find information about the newly arrived land online, look at pictures of the Artic expedition and the journey thus far and consult a world map outlining the current global dispersal of citizens and listen to the Nowhereisland radio station, run by local people and at the time of our visit hosted by some enthusiastic children. In common with the Embassy, you could also sign up to become a citizen and offer your suggestion for a clause to be included in the collectively drawn up Nowhereisland constitution, voting for those you approved of (those so far selected were posted in a list on the wall) and giving the thumbs down for those you objected to. Ideas put forward ranged from the serious (declarations of principles of equality, pacifism, ecological awareness and action, and both religious tolerance and freedom from religious bigotry) to the playful, and perhaps more easily attainable, such as free ice cream for all on Fridays, the adoption of A-Ha’s Take On Me as the national anthem, and the compulsory wearing of hats. The issue of whether or not to allow dogs on the island seems to have been the one to spark the most heated debate, with one person driven to describe those failing to display sufficient adoration of our canine friends as ‘pig-humans’. If this collectively drawn up constitution draws some inspiration from Mark Thomas’ People’s Manifesto, the debt is acknowledged by including his book in the Embassy’s collection.

Many of the idealistic statements of belief or declarations of faith in the constitution point to the strong utopian strand to this exercise state building. One inspiration behind the creation of a new, floating nation might be Aldous Huxley’s 1962 utopian novel Island, written when the utopia had become a largely redundant literary form due to the evident failures of attempts to realise utopian ideas in the real world. This explores, through the traditional visitor to utopia protagonist, a utopian island which quietly exists beyond the political and economic boundaries of the wider world, its values based on an eastern spirituality which also informs its small-scale, low-tech and self-sufficient industrial base. Its doom is written when oil is discovered in its territories, ensuring the close attentions of surrounding nations and multinational corporations. Island is not included in the Embassy’s selection of books, but William Morris’ 1890 post-industrial utopia News From Nowhere is. This dreams of a future Britain divided into small, self-organising communities, a pastoral paradise with no central government. The Houses of Parliament still stand, but have been adapted for a new purpose, as a series of sheds for the storage of fertilizing dung. The word utopia, as first used by Thomas More in his 1516 depiction of an ‘ideal’ city state, derives from the Greek ou and topos, or no place – nowhere. Ambiguity was built into the concept from the start, as a close linguistic cousin would be eu topos, or the good place. More seemed to be making it clear that the utopian plan could only ever exist as a thought experiment. Attempt to transpose the map onto territory in the real world and the founding ideals swiftly vanish into the aether. This ambiguity is built into Nowhereisland, a portable territory which appears and disappears again before anyone has a chance to claim it as their own, and whose citizens never actually set foot upon its rocky shores. It also has a built in limit to its physical existence, a year from its creation as an idea on the 20th September 2011 until its dismantling and dispersal in September 2012, when it will once more return to an ideal form in the minds of the many people who have seen it or followed its progress. As one of the ambassadors helpfully pointed out to me (I can be a bit slow on the uptake at times), the name Nowhereisland can be divided up in several ways, announcing now here is land, or nowhere is land, or perhaps both. To stretch such word play to its limits, and probably beyond, with a little added punctuation, Now, Here – island provides a banner to trumpet its temporary residence at various locations.

The embassy, which from a distance looked like a particularly cornucopian ice cream van with its brightly coloured lettering and propped up awning, carries with it a rich gallimaufry of objects united by the common themes of the Arctic, islands and utopias. These are housed cabinet of curiosity-style in glass fronted compartments, and can also be found in various scavenged filing draws, cupboards and storage cases. Uncovering these nooks and hidey-holes gives a sense of personal exploration and discovery, making the act of looking more actively participatory. The collection includes both artefacts brought back by the team from the Arctic, and widely varied objects which reflect the long-held fascination with the polar regions, with exploration of unknown territories, and with the idea of utopia and the possibility of starting afresh elsewhere – of finding a place beyond the entrenched political, cultural and historical patterns of force in which we are enmeshed. A number of books are gathered which include the word island in the title and which offer the prospect of adventure and escape, starting with the obvious, Treasure Island, and including Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands, Enid Blyton’s The Island of Adventure, and, appropriately enough, Jules Verne’s The Floating Island. Verne emerges as a key figure in the creation of the modern myths of island escape and the small, isolated island state separate from the dominant historical currents. A handsome hardback of his The Mysterious Island is displayed elsewhere, as is a copy of the film adaptation (complete with giant crabs and prehistoric birds animated in Ray Harryhausen’s inimitable stop motion style), a plate depicting a scene from the novel in which the explorers’ balloon careens over the Arctic landscape, and some circular viewfinder slides showing stills from the 1974 Disney picture The Island At the Top of the World, which was certainly inspired by Verne, even if it didn’t directly draw on his work. The nowhere library features William Morris’ News from Nowhere as its key book, along with A Map of Nowhere by Gillian Cross, and a representative population including The Man from Nowhere by Joan Fleming, The Nowhere Boy by Sandra Glover, and Nowhere Girl by Angela Huth. The Italian artist, designer and writer Bruno Munari’s 1971 children’s book From Afar It Is An Island is also prominently displayed. Munari was a contemporary of the Futurists and the Surrealists, and was acquainted with members of both groups. His charming book takes a close look at the patterns contained in the rocks and pebbles he has found, creates figures and landscapes from them and incorporates the results into stories. The metal filing drawers contain a number of films and albums which draw further cultural connections with the nowhereisland themes. There’s The Mouse That Roared, the British comedy about a small, anachronistic state adrift in the harsh world of the twentieth century (but no Passport to Pimlico, perhaps the definitive British comedy of micro-statehood); Bob and Bing’s Road to Utopia; a Roxy Music single on Island Records, and Grace Jones’ Island Life LP; and, of course, Talking Heads’ single Road to Nowhere. Lost Horizon might have been there, with its depiction of the hidden land of Shangri-La, guardian of humanity’s noblest hopes and ideals, or I might just have dreamt it.

The allure of the Polar regions, and the notion of purity and an ice wilderness unspoiled by human presence with which they are associated, is found in the marketing of various products whose packaging is included here: a Fox’s Glacier Mint tin and a Dentyne Ice gum wrapper, both selling the idea of cool freshness through Arctic imagery. The Arctic as abstract metaphor for mental states or sensory feelings. Svalbard, Spitsbergen and Longyearbyen, the two major towns in the island group, produce the usual range of tourist gewgaws, too, some of which are displayed here: souvenir mugs, decorated plates, ‘I was here’ patches, postcards, guidebooks and, of course, snowstorms. There are also leaflets and badges which seek to warn against a touristic fantasy of a wonderland lit by auroral fairy lights through which visitors might dreamily wander in a magically inviolable state. Gory pictures of red pools of blood splashed across snow alert people to the dangers of polar bear attack, and make it clear that nature in the Polar regions is not a tamed, picturesque backdrop but a presence which must be reckoned with in a harsh and unforgiving environment. More old-fashioned collectible ephemera are found in the form of carefully mounted cigarette and PG Tips cards, each series displaying illustrated tales of derring do from Polar pioneers and, with flags of conquest having been planted in these far corners of the Earth, of the Russian and American pioneers of space exploration who have taken the need to find new elsewheres beyond the bounds of the planet. The voyagers from the Nowhereisland crew have brought back there own representative expeditionary objects, too: A plastic gallon container of glacial meltwater, a sturdy Wellington smeared with Arctic mud, a thick glove, a pickaxe and a selection of small mineral specimens. Souvenirs from closer to home have been added as well. The rubber duck sitting smugly on the shelf is presumably the same one photographed by the group of Plymouth swimmers who ‘invaded’ the island.

Some of the objects in the cabinet of curiosities are the products of redundant or old-fashioned technologies: the Atari Utopia game locked in its blue floppy disc; the array of slides neatly slotted into their storage box, the Polar locales they frame carefully indexed; and the circular cardboard carousel of slides designed to be inserted into the Viewfinder ‘binoculars’, one picture giving way to the next at the press of a plastic lever. An increasing number of people would add the books to this list, of course. This parade of obsolescence gives the impression of historical and cultural change, of the contingent nature of material things, their solidity belying an inherent impermanence, subject as they are to the increasing velocity of technological advance. The appeal of the ideas and stories carried by these redundant technologies persists, however. The ideal form is imbued with more power and endurance than any material manifestation. This is really at the heart of the Nowhereisland project, with the island, the physical manifestation of the many ideas involved, deliberately designed to be impermanent. At the end of its year of existence, it will be torn apart, and the various fragments sent to citizens as souvenirs. By the end of this year, 52 resident thinkers (one for each week) will have set forth their ideas, exploring the concepts underlying the creation of Nowhereisland or responding to it as a work of art. These include well-known figures such as Tim Smit (founder of the Eden Project), the late Vidal Sassoon, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Yoko Ono, the poet Ruth Padel, the author and artist Tim Etchells, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and broadcaster John Tusa. Less well known contributors include: Zohra Moosa, a women’s rights advisor for Action Aid, Tim Cresswell and Doreen Massay, geography professors, Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation and Tamsin Omond of the Climate Rush environmental campaigning group, disability rights advocate Tom Shakespeare, and psychologist Sam Thompson. They all provide insightful comments, not always favouring the idea of a new nowhere (as witness Guardian columnist Giles Fraser’s piece).

This being a publicly funded piece of art, with money provided by the Arts Council as part of its grant for the Cultural Olympiad, there have been predictable fulminations from Tory MPs (Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon), conservative pressure groups (the Tax Payers Alliance), generally disgruntled members of the public and, less predictably, the Guardian environment correspondent Leo Hickman. Most of these seem to have been triggered by a BBC News report, and were launched without the benefit of having actually visited the work in question. The island itself is a small part of the whole, with community involvement being at the heart of things. Plymouth schools have been involved all along, helping to run the Nowhereisland radio station and taking part in numerous associated events, and High View Primary School produced an excellent short animation as an accompaniment to the Jennicliff Bay visitation. Dissent is an essential part of the process of building a state, however, and the objections of these groups and individuals could almost be incorporated into the general constitutional to and fro which questions the principles of statehood and even the value of art itself. There are dissenting voices writing on the collective constitutional walls, both in the real world and online, after all – one proposing a ban on ‘arty farty people who think they’re better than everyone else’. In this context (and probably this context alone), they could be seen as the proud bearers of the Anti-Nowhere League badge displayed in the embassy collection. Claire Doherty, representing the Bristol based arts organisation Situations which produced the Nowhereisland project, sets forth the ideas behind it with great clarity in the 5th October entry in the logbook section of the website. There were many people from all backgrounds gathered around the embassy while I was there, all of whom seemed to be thoroughly enjoying looking around, signing up at the citizens’ desk, adding their own constitutional suggestions or commenting on those already displayed. This was the kind of art which both celebrated and encouraged the kind of collective spirit which has been so much in evidence over the Olympic fortnight, a spirit which is self-creating and sustaining, transcending the sophisticated manipulations of marketing, political and media controllers to achieve its own sense of autonomy. Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, summed it up well in her Olympic poem Translating the British, published last weekend. As such, Nowhereisland and its embassy provided an effective, involving and enjoyable cultural corollary to the transitory utopian idealism of the Games, which in the end triumphed over its baser, materialist side.

The island set sail (or was towed away) from Jennicliff Bay on Sunday, moving on to Mevagissey in Cornwall. It’s now headed for Falmouth, where it will cast anchor on Thursday, and from there it will travel to Newquay (23rd-27th), Ilfracombe (1st-4th September), finally ending up in Bristol Harbour, where all will be brought to a conclusion over the weekend of 7-9th September.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Sans Soleil

I watched Chris Marker’s 1982 film Sans Soleil the other night in honour of the French director, photographer and writer who died last month. It’s a poetic documentary with an unseen narrator framing the images within a loose narrative, a discursive letter from an unnamed correspondent (although the credits at the end identify him as Sandor Krasna). As such, it’s a predecessor of the films of Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, and in particular the three Robinson films of Patrick Keiller, London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins. Marker’s film ranges across the world, from Guinea-Bissau to the Cape Verde Islands, Iceland to San Francisco. But its principal locale, the place which is the embodiment of its ideas and speculations, is Japan, and in particular Tokyo. The film is concerned with time and memory, history and dream, all of which coalesce and intermingle in the crowded, overlapping spaces of the city. Tokyo offers a direct refutation of the credo from TS Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday which is the film’s opening epigraph: ‘Because I know that time is always time/And place is always and only place…’.

Tower at the end of the world - the island of Sal
The female narrator, relating the contents of the letters which she’s received, tells us that different concepts of time now co-exist on the planet. There is African time, European time and Asian time. This is made explicit in a sequence which intercuts a colourfully masked carnival in Guinea with film of rocket stages being jettisoned in space above the blue curve of the world, Polaris missiles being fired into the sky, and bomber planes prowling through the cloud level. The barren island of Sal in the Cape Verdes is presented as an isolated interzone, a featureless plain fringed by the ocean which looks like the backdrop to a surrealist painting. Its lighthouse rises like a tower in a de Chirico picture, the letters KGB etched in large, faded graffiti on its walls as a mark of transient history which will pass while it remains standing sentinel. The narrator tells us it’s the last lighthouse in the world whose lamp is still lit by oil. It’s an edifice, and an island, which seems to mark a point of temporal collision, incorporating the pre-human, the primitive and the post-apocalyptic. Its airport stopover is a light tarmac footprint of the technological present which operates as stepping stone towards other zones of time. But it’s provisional, and easily assimilated into the primal void of the surrounding landscape.

Neighbourhood ceremonies
The film is frozen at various times, capturing moments, gestures and glances, and fixing them in memory. The narrator reads at the start of the film the correspondent’s declaration that ‘only banality still interests me’. This leads him to seek out the marginal and neglected, and to focus in on the incidental detail. He goes to the down at heels suburb of Namida-Bashi and observes the drunks and bums who exist outside the glittering bubble of the economic miracle. One of them appoints himself as a temporary traffic warden, imposing his order on this unglamorous part of the city, claiming it for his own. The narrator likes the neighbourhood celebrations, and films a parade of women in kimonos and high-platformed wooden sandals dancing in formation to clattering and tinkling percussion. The inevitable Coca-Cola sign glimpsed behind them is there as an incidentally captured detail, its symbolism now too banally obvious to warrant closer attention (and not banal in the sense which the narrator finds interesting). The ceremonial music is given a whispering electronic shadow on the soundtrack, blending past and future into a synthesised present. Other dancers are found in Shinjuku Square in the form of the youthful and colourfully costumed Takenoko-zoku, whose highly stylised moves are directed by a leader with a marshalling whistle. The narration describes them as inhabiting a ‘parallel time sphere’, or as visitors from another world. The camera focuses in on one young woman tentatively going through her motions with studied care, with the suggestion made that she is ‘learning the customs of the planet’. In keeping with the stated interest in the banal and the incidental, the camera also zooms in on a plastic bag incongruously decorated with a caricature of a raincoated Jean Gabin.

Lord of the dance - directing the Takenoko in Shinjuku Square

Escaping from the page - Manga City
Marker draws attention to the all-pervasive presence of manga and anime, suggesting that the Japanese invented wide-screen cinema hundreds of years before the fact. He regrets the way in which comic-strip heroines have become the ‘victims of heartless story writers and castrating censorship’, but loves the way that they’ve escaped beyond the pages and the confining screen and onto the walls and billboards of the city. Tokyo has become a comic-strip, he says, planet Mongo from the Flash Gordon stories. He’s also fascinated by the traditions of Japanese supernatural horror, which long predated its resurgence with the Ringu films. We see intercut clips featuring the characteristic concealing veil of long black hair (the long hair of death), eyes glowing blood red from dark faces contorted in evil gurns, and grinning heads floating free from their bodies like sinister balloons. This demonic parade is banished by the appearance of Natsume Masako, an embodiment of ‘absolute beauty’ and goodness. She was an actress best known in the West for playing the Buddhist monk Tripitaka (Sanzoukoushi in Japan) in the 1980s series Monkey, a role for which she shaved her head and played a boy. She was a huge star in Japan, a youth idol whose tragically early death from leukaemia in 1985 at the age of 27 almost raised her fame to the level of sanctification.

The long hair of death - collective dreaming

Traintime dreaming
Japanese TV is seen by Marker as a repository for collective dreaming. Trains, which thread the city’s interstices and whose tracks, along with its criss-crossing electric power lines, expose its inner connections and workings, move through their own traintime. They inhabit an inbetween zone which, with its regular rhythms and hypnotically familiar sounds, encourages a half-waking drift into dream states. Marker observes commuters lost in trancelike inner visions or nodding off into light sleep, the sounds of the train mixed in with their ghost electronic analogues, as with the street ceremony. We enter into the dream worlds and fantasies of the passengers via scenes from horror films (floating heads, wide staring eyes, and another head peering around a screen from the end of a long, sinuously uncoiling neck), samurai films (all impossibly kinetic, leaping action, flashing blades clashing with ringing, scintillant sound), and sex films (or a specific genre known as pinku eiga in Japan). The dream traintime is given its own visualisation in a scene from an anime film in which a train races up a steeply ascendant ramp to launch itself into the stars. In this media saturated city, there is also the sense that you are always being watched, something which Marker conveys with a shifting, kaleidoscopic collage of staring eyes taken from horror films and other TV shows of a sinister and paranoid cast.

Doll conflagration
Shinjuku Square once more provides the site for a collision of cultures and time zones, with Tokyo youth gazing up at hugely projected footage of Deep Purple playing in all their 70s pomp. Tokyo is the ideal locale for Marker’s philosophical traveller to explore, a place where even the incidental and throwaway is given a ritualistic and sacramental dignity. He witnesses a ceremony staged for the blessing of broken dolls, which ends with them being cast into a fiery pit at the centre of the sacred space, and a blessing for the animals at Tokyo Zoo which have died over the previous year. Everything, whether living creature or inanimate object, is seen as being possessed of its own particular spirit, an adaptation of the Shinto religion’s reverence for natural forms and places to incorporate the new technologised world of materialism and mass-manufacture. In the face of the seismic changes of the twentieth century, the borderlands of the sacred are adjusted accordingly. Even the dispersal of rubbish accumulated by these ceremonies is disposed of with an air of sober ritual. Here, exhibitions of art and sacred objects take place in the upper floors of department stores, with no sense of disjuncture between commercial and cultural display.

Cat shrine - prayers for protection
Marker begins his exploration of Tokyo with a couple at a temple shrine consecrated to cats, watching them give blessings in the rain for their lost cat Toro to provide it with protection wherever it might be. The shrine is surrounded by the statues of beckoning cats, known as maneki-neko, the white ceramic figurines which are such a popular symbol of good fortune in Japan. Poignantly, there is also an unopened, half-size can of cat food rusting in the rain. Cats (and owls) are a favourite motif (and creature) of Marker’s, and they are scattered throughout the film. He returns to the couple at the shrine towards the end, clearly seeing them as representative of something important. There is no sense of mockery or belittlement. He is genuinely touched by their gesture, and the calm and accepting way in which it is made. Indeed, Marker is refreshingly optimistic and open throughout. He is quizzical, interrogatory and always intent on seeing beyond the surface of things, but utterly lacking in the weary cynicism which sometimes marks the efforts of the grumpier British film essayists such as Keiller, Sinclair and Petit. He addresses the failures of 60s idealism and the revolutionary movements in places such as Guinea-Bissau, as well as in Japan. But he finds reason for hope in a persistence of the spirit which the dissidence and resistance to brute or unreasoning power of that era gave birth to. Marker himself became involved in radical politics at the time, but he avoided becoming doctrinaire in the bullying and tedious manner of the likes of Jean-Luc Godard. He sees the seeds of 60s idealism blossoming in acts of kindness, compassion and generosity towards others. The couple wishing their cat a safe passage wherever it has gone are a manifestation of this in their own way in their concern for their fellow creatures – those which need their protection and help. ‘Cat, wherever you are’, they say, ‘peace be with you’. It’s a very Buddhist outlook. Marker looks at the vicissitudes of the struggle for freedom and equality around the world with a similarly Buddhist equanimity, greeting setbacks with a philosophically resigned ‘things are never simple’, knowing that at some juncture, the wheel will turn and the balance shift once more.

Vertigo - the spiralling iris of time
The themes of time and memory which suffuse Sans Soleil are also found in Vertigo, as Marker observes, and he revisits some of the San Francisco locations used in the film on his own cinematic pilgrimage. These are shown as a series of comparative then and now stills. Hitchock’s masterpiece, voted number one in the recent Sight and Sound poll for the greatest film of all time (Sans Soleil came in at a respectable 69, equal with Blade Runner, Blue Velvet and Bresson’s A Man Escaped), is described as being about ‘impossible’ and ‘insane’ memory. The titles, with their spiralling patterns spinning out of and back into the iris of a red eye, are said to represent the outward radiation of time (and presumably its retraction into an inner time). Different levels or layers of time overlap in Hitchcock’s perception of the city - the personal, the historical and the geological, or extra-human. The ‘ghost’ of Madeleine points to one of the lines dividing the rings in the vertical cross-section of the giant redwood in the forest just beyond San Francisco and indicates that she has lived and died within that tiny span of the tree’s existence. Marker shows another arboreal cross-section in another place and another film – the Jardin des Plantes and his own La Jetée (although he is too modest to directly identify it as such). Here, the protagonist, in a deliberate echo of Madeline’s gesture, points beyond the concentric circles providing a long calendar of the trees growth to indicate where he has come from; beyond past and present, from the as yet unaccumulated layers of future time.

La Jetée - pointing beyond arboreal time

La Jetée - the mysterious beauty of the dreaming face
La Jetée shares Sans Soleil’s use of science fiction to convey a distanced, alien perspective of the world, seeing it anew, as if freshly discovered. Its experimental and at the same time simple and readily comprehensible form, telling its circular story through a series of stills, presents time as a sequence of frozen moments. Memories, if they are imprinted strongly enough, allow for time travel back into the past from a bleak, post-apocalyptic bunker-dwelling future. When the protagonist, having been subjected to experiments which amount to inducing a dream-state, goes back to the past which is our present, we see ordinary scenes which are introduced as ‘a peacetime meadow’, ‘a peacetime bedroom’, ‘a peacetime cat’. The unremarkable and the everyday is given a magical, otherworldly aura, our world a lost paradise which can only be dreamed of from the grim bunkers of the future. La Jetée also shares Sans Soleil’s fascination with the beauty and mystery of the sleeping state, and of dreaming faces. The woman, whom the protagonist has remembered glimpsing in childhood, a memory which has served as the fulcrum for his return to the past as a ‘ghost’ visitant, is seen in a series of sleeping stills. Then, unexpectedly, one of the stills comes to life, her eyes flickering open. It’s a breathtaking moment, time set into motion once more, or eyes opening into dream. The time traveller also leaps, or is drawn briefly into the future, where he encounters an advanced breed of humanity, jewels embedded in their foreheads like third eyes, whose minds have gained mastery over time and memory. Sans Soleil puts forward a similar idea, inspired by the volcanic plains of Iceland, seen as an otherworldly or futuristic science fiction landscape. Marker imagines a visitor from the far future, the year 4001, a time when humanity has once more attained the full use of mind, including perfect memory, and has ‘lost forgetting’. He travels back from the future out of curiosity and compassion for the broken minds of the people of the past – a buddha returning from the state of enlightenment to help those still mired in time and confusion. Marker suggests that the images and observations which he has collected and assembled are sketches for a film about this visitor’s impressions of our world which will never be made.

Synthesiser landscape - the EMS Spectre Image Synthesiser
The music in Sans Soleil provides a suitable ambience evoking the shadows of the future cast backwards into the past. The title of the film itself is taken from a musical source: Mussorgsky’s song-cycle Sunless. We first see the titles of the film in Russian (in red), then French (pink), then English (orange). One of Mussorgsky’s songs is given an electronic arrangement by Isao Tomita, who effects a similar transformation on a Sibelius piece, a Scandinavian link to the Icelandic sequences and a recasting of the classical past which gives it a futuristic, technological sheen. Aside from the Tomita pieces, the electronic music soundtrack is produced by Michel Krasna on EMS VCS3 and Moog Source synthesisers. It burbles and drones in the background throughout, sometimes adding a sonic corona to other music – the dancing, riverine percussion of the Tokyo street ceremony, the Zen Buddhist and Shinto chanting, or the romantic strains of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Sometimes it is metallic and mechanistic, at other times it effects an eerie, haunted pastoral, with beautiful, alien electronic birdsong, as in the passage accompanying an emu wandering about on the Ile de France in a disoriented fashion (as emus tend to do), as if it has just been teleported from its natural environment. The film also features an EMS Spectre Image Synthesiser, which the artist Hayao Yamaneko uses to create his transformative ‘Zone’, named after the mysterious area in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker which operates according to inexplicable, unearthly laws of nature, or supernature. This zone is a technological no-place which levels all difference and renders conflict and pain into edgeless blurs of semi-abstract colour and movement – an electronic nirvana. Inside it, the French singer and actress Arielle Dombasle (who was appearing in a couple of Eric Rohmer films at around this time) sings an Elizabethan lament as the camera pans slowly over the EMS synth patchboard, its pins casting long shadows as if they were standing stones on a barren plain. The synth is presented as a miniaturised, melancholy landscape of desolation. It is at once and ancient and technologically sophisticated (for the time) to the point where it is capable of creating a new synthesis of the old sacred magic. Marker talks of the way in which, in our present age, images have become a substitute for memory. ‘The new bible’, he suggests, ‘will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to re-read itself constantly just to know it existed’. The magnetic tape is an anachronism now, of course, but switch it to digital and the notion still holds true. The obsession with the recorded past, and with recasting and mixing it into different configurations, as outlined in Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania and elsewhere, is certainly an affirmation of this idea.

Heimaey - the working of time
The film draws to an end in the Icelandic town of Heimaey, which Marker’s protagonist (who has really been his own alter ego all along) tells us he had visited years ago, capturing his own image of paradisical happiness – three children walking together along a country road (the image with which the film opens). Now a friend has sent him back his own filmic postcard, depicting places he had known in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. The brightly coloured wooden buildings are almost entirely buried in black ash, roofs and sections of road emerging from the contours of a new landscape. It looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic, post-human world. As the narrator puts it, ‘the planet itself staged the working of time’. The camera operator includes a shot of a cat, knowing how much Marker loves them. It wanders across the asphalt of a road which is now an isolated bridge, with no point of origin or destination; A physical manifestation of disembodied memory. Cats always find their place, he says. Once more, we think of the couple at the shrine in Tokyo, to whom we return. Marker puts the Icelandic cat, and by extension Toro the Tokyo cat, into the electronic ‘zone’, the protective no-place situated outside of time, beyond the concentric bounds of the tree’s slow cross-section ripple in the continuum. Wherever you are, peace be with you.

Beyond time - in The Zone