Challenging art …

I took the opportunity of a trip to London to slip into the Hayward Gallery to have a look at the Andreas Gursky retrospective.   I’ve been interested in Gursky for some time as, like fellow German Anselm Kiefer, he is someone who uses his art to ask big questions (see “The fine art of asking big questions” and “Anselm Kiefer and the art of algae”).  Gursky is principally a photographer rather than painter or sculptor though, like Kiefer, he works at large scales.  The Rhine II, the picture at the top of this post, is 3.5 m long and 2 metres high, for example.   Taking a picture on a mobile phone doesn’t really do it justice, particularly as Gursky’s works, though they look naturalistic, are the result of extensive digital manipulation.   In this case, he has turned a landscape of the River Rhine near Dusseldorf into a near-abstract composition.   This involved digital manipulation to remove all evidence of buildings on the far side of the river.

The next picture I’ve included is the type of image for which Gursky is best-known: monumental images taken from a high viewpoint and teeming with activities associated with global capitalism.   In this case, he has photographed a factory in Vietnam that is making cane furniture for IKEA.   I look at this work as a descendent of Bruegel’s busy pictures from the sixteenth century except that Gursky’s narrative is very different to anything that Bruegel tried to portray.   Here, the sea of identically-attired individuals all performing variations of the same basic processes merge into a repetitive abstract pattern.   It is the antithesis of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” not just because there is no single “moment” that is being captured but also because the impression of spontaneity is also false: these large images are, in fact, composed from many different images.  It is not always apparent on first viewing but close examination reveals the images to be uniformly in focus from front to back and, in the case of the panoramic views, to have no issues with distortion at the edges.   So Gursky also takes us to that ambiguous territory where images look like they are depicting an actual point in space and time but they are not yet, at the same time, they are conveying truths about the modern world.   We approach his work with an expectation that photographs represent reality.  But they don’t.  Or do they?

Andreas Gursky, 2004, Nha Trang.   295 x 207 cm

Les Mées is another example of a superficially simple image of an enormous solar farm in southern France, with the Alps as a backdrop.  Once again, however, there is post-production manipulation of the image but also, in part a consequence of scale, the invitation for the viewer to contemplate and meditate on what is portrayed.  Here we have the juxtaposition between the regular, angular solar panels completely covering the hillsides in the foreground, and the natural beauty of the Alps behind.   The manmade looks that much more artificial through the juxtaposition with the grandeur of the mountains.   One of the ironies of the image is that solar panels represent a sustainable future yet are, in this location, as much of a visual pollutant as an oil refinery.   This solar farm covers 200 hectares and generates enough electricity to power 12,000 households.  How many more of these would be needed to break the West’s dependence on oil and how many more landscapes would be changed as a result?   Energy always has comes at a price.

Gursky’s talent is to simultaneously draw viewers in to inspect the details whilst forcing them to step back and absorb the whole.  As you realise from the details that the image may not be exactly what first impressions suggest, so your mind is opened to other readings.   We look at these images both as technical creations in their own right but also as commentaries on the state of the world.   Gursky manages to simultaneously challenge our eyes and our thinking.

Andreas Gursky (2016) Les Mées.  221 x 367 cm.

Coda: A week after visiting the Gursky retrospective, I saw The Square at the Tyneside cinema.  If you have not heard of this film, it is a film about a contemporary art gallery directed by Ruben Őstland.   The plot focuses on the curator of a contemporary art gallery who is trying to present high-minded conceptual art with a moral message relevant to our times so it was hard not to escape the parallels with the Gursky retrospective.   Much of the dark humour in the film arises from the curator’s inability to reconcile these high ideals with his own private life (one of the key sequences involves a one night stand with a journalist – played by Elisabeth Moss – whose name he subsequently cannot remember).   One gets a sense when seeing art in the hushed sepulchres that are contemporary art galleries that these have a quasi-spiritual role in a largely secular age.   I have no problem with this, especially if the art makes people think about their place in the modern world.  But that does place a great responsibility on the artists and curators, in turn creating the potential for storylines such as that in The Square.   Ruben Őstland has done for contemporary art what Graham Greene was so good at doing for the Roman Catholic church: highlighting the paradoxes that are inevitable when fallible humans struggle to address the biggest questions of all.

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The River Wear in January

The series of events that eventually gave birth to this blog started with a visit to the River Wear at Wolsingham on the first day of 2009.  I had visited on a whim, intending to blow away the cobwebs after lunch on New Year’s Day, but with no real plan.  But I thought it would be interesting to pull on my waders and have a look at the river bed and, while I was there, I may as well collect a sample too.   Those observations and that sample must have triggered something in my mind, because I returned every month after that and, on each occasion, the samples and observations generated sketches which, in turn, made me curious about the factors that drove the algal communities in our rivers.

I thought it would be interesting to repeat that exercise during 2018 as my thinking has moved on over the past nine years.  I’m essentially visiting the same site and making the same observations but, this time, filtering them through deeper beds of experience.   The River Wear at this point is about 30 metres wide, a broad, shallow, riffled stretch, skirting the small town of Wolsingham roughly at the point where Weardale broadens out from a narrow Pennine valley to the gentler landscape of the Durham coalfield.  There are a couple of small towns upstream but the ecological condition of the river is still good.  Although there are still concerns about concentrations of heavy metals arising from the mines that are scattered around the upper parts of the valleys, I can see no serious effects of toxic pollution when I look at the plants and animals that live at Wolsingham.

If you follow this blog you will not be surprised to hear that, even in the depths of winter, algal communities in the River Wear are thriving Most of the larger stone surfaces are covered with a discernible brown film, up to a couple of millimetres thick.   The very top layer is dark brown in colour, with a lighter brown layer beneath this.   When I put a sample of this under my microscope, I saw that it was dominated by gliding cells of Navicula lanceolata, though other diatoms were also present (described in more detail in “The ecology of cold days”) and there were also a few thin filaments of a blue-green alga.

A submerged cobble photographed in situ in the River Wear at Wolsingham, January 2018, covered with a thick diatom-dominated biofilm.

I’ve included a picture of the view down my microscope because one of the questions that I’ve been trying to answer over the past few years is how we construct an understanding of the microscopic world using microscopy (see “The central dilemma of microscopy” and “Do we see through a microscope?”).   Of course, a single view field of view does not convey all the information I require, so my understanding is actually built up from observations of a large number of separate fields.  The boat-shaped cells of Navicula lanceolata were almost ubiquitous in these, as were patches of amorphous organic matter (“fine particulate organic matter” – see “A very dilute compost heap …”).  In total, I found 15 different species of algae in my preliminary analysis, of which Navicula lanceolata comprised about half of the total, with thin filaments of the cyanobacterium Phormidium and the diatom Achnanthidium minutissimum each constituting about 15 per cent.

A view of the biofilm from the River Wear, Wolsingham in January 2018.

However, my earlier comment about the biofilms having distinct layers means that simply observing what organisms are present will not tell us the whole story about how those organisms are organised within the biofilm (see “The multiple dimensions of submerged biofilms …”) so the next step is to hypothesise how these organisms might be arranged in the biofilm before I disrupted their microhabitat with my sampling.   The schematic diagram below attempts to capture this, but with a few provisos.  First, I said that the biofilm was a couple of millimetres thick but my portrayal only shows about a tenth of a millimetre; second, there is considerable spatial and temporal variation in biofilms and my depiction amalgamates my direct observations in January 2018 with information gleaned from a number of other visits.   Gomphonema olivaceum (probably a complex of two or three species in this particular case), for example, is often more prominent than it was last week, and I have also omitted Achnanthidium minutissimum altogether.   I suspect that this is less abundant in the mature biofilms but that the cobble surface is a patchwork of different thicknesses, reflecting different types of disturbance.   That raises another issue: the scale at which we generally collect samples is greater than the scales at which the forces which shape biofilms operate.   The whole image below, for context, occupies about the same width as a single bristle on the toothbrush that I used to collect the sample.

It is difficult to convert what we “see” back to the original condition when working under such constraints and, inevitably, decisions are guided by what others before us have written.  That brings a different set of problems: Isaac Newton may have seen further by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but Leonardo da Vinci’s usually rigorous objectivity lapsed on at least one occasion when his eye was led by assumptions he had inherited from earlier generations (see “I am only trying to teach you to see …”).   What my picture is actually showing, in other words, is a mixture of what I saw and what I think I should have seen.   This two-way process in art extends from the very earliest drawings we make through to the most sophisticated Old Masters so I am in good company.  In truth, I am not trying to depict a particular point in space or time so much as to encapsulate the idea of a biofilm from that river that is more than a random aggregation of cells.

A schematic view of the vertical structure of a submerged biofilm from the River Wear, Wolsingham, January 2018.   a., Navicula lanceolata (valve view); b., N. lanceolata (girdle view); c. Navicula gregaria (valve view); d. N. gregaria (girdle view); e. Gomphonema olivaceum (valve view); f. G. olivaceum (girdle view); g. Phormidium; h. inorganic particles; i. fine particulate organic matter.  Scale bar: 20 micrometres (= 1/40th of a millimetre).

References

You can find out more about the condition of the River Wear (or any other river or lake) using the Environment Agency’s excellent Catchment Planning webpages

Three good books that discuss the relationship between pictorial representation and the mind are:

Cox, Maureen (1992).  Children’s Drawings.   Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Gombrich, E.H. (1977) Art and Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation.   5th Edition.  Phaidon, London.

Hamilton, James (2017).  Gainsborough: a Portrait.   Weidenfield & Nicholson, London.

 

 

Notes from Berlin

Whenever I pass though Liverpool Street Station on the eastern side of London, I always take a moment to pause beside “Kindertransport – the arrival” sculptures by Frank Meisler.   They show Jewish refugee children arriving in Britain with their small amounts of luggage, fleeing from Nazi persecution.   In this age of fear and distrust of migration, they remind me that these fluxes are nothing new, and remind me that we need to show generosity towards the helpless and dispossessed.  As I walked past Friedrichstrasse station during a visit to Berlin last week I saw a companion piece to the Liverpool Street sculptures.  However, the statue at Friedrichstrasse (“Züge in das leben, Züge in den tod, 1938 – 1945” – literally: “trains to life, trains to death”, also by Frank Meisler) differs in one important respect: the German children at the start of their journey are facing in two directions: some are awaiting the Kindertransports to the west but two are heading towards the death camps.

Züge in das leben, Züge in den tod, 1938 – 1945.  Bronze sculpture by Frank Meisler at Freidrichstrasse station, Berlin (photo taken in low light – apologies!).  The photograph at the top shows “Kindertransport – the arrival, also by Frank Meisler, at Liverpool Street Station, London.

Berlin does not flinch at confronting its recent past.   I spent the hour or so between the end of my meeting and my trip out to the airport at “Topographie des Terrors” – a museum on the site of the former Gestapo and SS Headquarters.  It was a reminder of what the children depicted in Meisler’s sculptures were fleeing from.  After a gruelling hour, I was ready for a change of atmosphere and turned towards the Martin Gropius Bau – one of Berlin’s best galleries, just a short distance away.  By coincidence, one of the exhibitions was a series of etchings by Lucien Freud, himself a Jewish refugee (though not part of the Kindertransport).   Freud’s portraits have an intensity that can be unsettling to a viewer; however, seen immediately after my immersion in Nazi atrocities, they had the opposite effect.  I was left wondering how my reactions would have differed had I seen the exhibition before, rather than after, Topographie des Terrors.  The irony of a Jewish refugee’s art being exhibited so close to the former headquarters of the powers that forced him to flee in the first place did not escape me either.

A year ago, I was here on the night that Donald Trump was elected president of the USA (see “Remembrance in Berlin”).   This time, my visit started just a day after the AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) won 74 seats in the Bundestag at the federal elections, becoming the third largest party.   Anger at Germany’s own tolerant policy to refugees was one of the reasons that they did so well, particularly in the former eastern states.   As I write, I am not sure how this meshes with my statement about Berlin’s ability to confront the less savoury aspects of its past.  There is a willingness to do this within the Federal government, and the middle-class, well-educated Germans I meet share a desire to look back objectively.  The rise of AfD is worrying partly because it has happened in a country that has tried so hard to learn from its past.   Let’s hope that Germany does not forget to remember ….

The Martin Gropius Bau rising above a section of the Berlin wall.  Topographies des Terrors is behind the wall.  The right hand image shows the row of cobblestones marking the path of the wall in places where it is no longer standing.

The art of icons …

A week off from algae, as I travel around Bulgaria on holiday.  In between exploring mountains (and, I admit, pulling a toothbrush from my knapsack on a couple of occasions for a sneaky diatom sample), I have been learning about the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox icon painting, as a break from my normal scientific and artistic routines.  My interest was piqued by a visit to the superb icon gallery at the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest last year, though this mostly served to demonstrate how little I knew, either about icons or their context in Orthodox worship.

Context is important because, in our secular age, we are most likely to encounter religious art in a gallery rather than a church.  My initial response to an icon, such as that in the image below, is to place it into a Western art historical context.   I note the relatively simple modelling of the features, depicting archetypes of religious figures and the flat background.  There is no attempt to place the figure in three-dimensional space, as most religious painters from the Renaissance onwards would have tried to do.  They were trying to draw the viewers in, creating space inside the picture that encouraged them to engage with the subject matter.  Painters of the Counter-Reformation, such as Rubens, went further, painting the protagonists in their religious paintings life size and dressing them in contemporary clothes to encourage viewers sense of participation.

An icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Bankso school of icon painters (late 18th / early 19th century) in southern Bulgaria.  The image at the top of the post shows the iconostasis at Mānāstirea Stavropoleos, Bucharest, Romania.

By contrast, by flattening everything but the subject’s physiognomy, the Orthodox icon painter projects his subjects into our space, encouraging a different type of engagement.   Orthodox Christianity has a strong tradition of contemplative prayer, in which knowledge of God is attained through meditative practices such as repetition of a meaningful word or short phrase.  In this context, icons can serve as objects that help viewers to concentrate their minds while they step away from the everyday world and towards the divine realm.  One manifestation of this is that there is typically more activity in an Orthodox Church, compared to a Catholic or Protestant church, outside of organised services, as worshippers make their own private devotions in front of icons.

This use of repeated phrases suggests parallels with eastern religions – the Hindu incantation “Om mani padme hum” being the best-known example.  Look, too, at the right hand of Christ in the icon below.  That, too, resembles the symbolic hand gestures – mudras – found in Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices.   Whether there is more than a superficial resemblance, in this particular instance, is a moot point.  Christ’s hand is raised to confer a blessing on the viewer and the position of the fingers is related to this.  They spell out “ICXC” –  IhcoyC XpictoC, or “Jesus Christ”.   The confusion with eastern practices arises, I suspect, from the way that the fourth finger is bent over to touch the thumb, similar to the Chin Mudrā.

On the other hand, there would have been ample opportunity for exchange of ideas along the Silk Road.  Early Christianity extended much further east, and Buddhism further to the west before the rise of Islam. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that the principle of monasticism, for example, may have been brought into the church by early missionaries returning from the east and, if this is the case, then it is possible that practices associated with monasticism would also have flowed east.  And, equally, there is no reason to assume that the movement was entirely one-way or solely between Christianity and Buddhism.  Our first reaction on walking into Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria was to notice the physical similarities with the huge Madrassas that we saw in Uzbekistan earlier this year (see “Reaching for the stars …“).

What we can see an Orthodox icon, in other words, is a product of time and place, only if we also recognise that time and place are continua, that ideas can flow and that there is a ‘natural selection’, of sorts, that selects and shapes these to fit local circumstances.  Traveling broadens the mind, without a doubt, but sometimes you need to unload your preconceptions in order to free up the mind to see the world through fresh eyes.

The courtyard of Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria with the Church of the Nativity on the right.