M is for Mukhina

I promised myself that the next presentation in my alphabetical series would be one where I reminded you about ancient Egypt, where they had no word for art, and therefore no way of separating their lives from what was on their walls and in their statuary. If not to all people then at least to the denizens of the court and the temples, their deities were too much a part of their lives to be thought of in terms of mere representation. But here I have called up instead a sculpture by Soviet artist Vera Mukhina. If anything its Socialist Idealism* is deliberately alienating to its observers, maintaining a distance like a Brecht drama. It is didactic, metaphoric rather than depictive. No real life industrial and agricultural workers strode, hammer and sickle joined aloft, into the future, braving the strong but conquerable wind of counter-revolution. Mukhina’s work is monumental and gripping, the apparent construction lines on the figures echoing the concrete blocks of the plinth. It is an exercise in awe.

When Bolshevism faltered and fell, much of its iconography and monumental art fell too. A living sculptor mounted a solo protest in East Germany, as his statues of Lenin were dismantled. He held a placard with this phrase upon it: Wann brennen die Bücher? “When will the books burn?” This was especially pointed in Germany where, in living memory, Nazis had made bonfires out of printed works they considered racially and ideologically impure, hoping to blot them out of history.

Erasure and iconoclasm is nothing new. Akhenaten’s name was chiselled out of his cartouches when the cult of Amun re-established itself. People calling for purity and simplicity in churches smashed stained-glass windows in 17c England. An Ottoman bey in Cairo was so incensed at the smug face of the Sphinx of Gizeh that he had his soldiers fire cannonballs at it. The Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. At the fall of Saddam Hussein, his self-aggrandising statues were toppled. Little, if anything, remains of the public iconography Third Reich – there’s poetic justice for you, the erasers erased.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that people are pulling down statues now. The main difference is that it is not being done in the name of erasure, but of reclamation. There is no attempt being made to write British slavers or American slave-owners out of history. The object is to write into history the elements that have been lost and, worse, deliberately ignored.

Counter-protestors are guarding statues, complaining that the history of a people is being expunged. They have a point, but it’s an extremely weak one. The history that is being expunged is nothing more than a detail of extant archaeology. The only reservation that one can possibly have to the demolition of such statues is that this ‘hard copy’ element of archaeology will not remain. The interest is not in the culture that that the subjects of the statuary represent – the quondam acceptability of the slave trade, the ownership of human beings by other human beings, the regarding of someone as chattel by virtue of their skin colour and worthless once that concept of chattel had been removed – such a culture is vile in itself, as are the retentions and reverberations of that culture in our own time. The real interesting factor is the sub-culture, mainly of the 19c and early 20c, of erecting statues per se. That was a historical sub-period, particularly in bourgeois Western Europe and in European North America, that one might call The Age of Statues. It is so tied to that era that later statues commemorating, say Winston Churchill or Donald Dewar, seem almost anomalous.

In an age when the knock-on effects of slavery and colonialism are still felt clearly and deeply in people’s daily lives, it is understandable that things held to be symbols of those oppressions should be targeted. We are seeing a movement that does not want to erase or even revise history but rather to expand and augment it. The targeted statuary will, we know, be archived. It will not be forgotten like the face of the Sphinx. Books will not burn – just as you can still access the writing of Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and umpteen-hundred other problematical figures of controversial history, you will be able in the future to find photographs of statues of Robert E. Lee or Edward Colston standing right where they used to.

I don’t know, and haven’t bothered to find out, whether the statue of the industrial and agricultural workers by Vera Mukhina is still standing. If it is or if it isn’t, the fact remains that you and I are now looking at an image of it on a screen. To you it may represent naive socialist optimism, lost idealism, naked Bolshevist propaganda, Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” or Leon Trotsky’s “degenerated worker’s state.” It remains striking art in its own right, powerful, typical of the 20c. The operative word there being “remains.”

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* I don’t use the term “Socialist realism” for this style, which goes way beyond the realistic to the romantic.

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An iconic photo of the 20c: Mexico, October 1968

I have been unable to find any credit for this photo.

An iconic photo of the 20c, but perhaps not the one you were expecting. The more famous photo on that day shows the powerful protest of two African American athletes – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – and a white athlete apparently oblivious to it. The white athlete was Australian record-breaker Peter Norman. The photo above tells a different story, a true story, the respect and comradeship that existed between the three athletes. If you find the more famous shot on line, you will notice that Peter Norman is wearing the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, as are the two other athletes. He was aware of the protest before the medal ceremony took place, and wanted to show his solidarity.

All three suffered the opprobrium of their own countries for their part in the protest, but maintained a loving friendship. Carlos and Smith are still with us, but Norman passed away a few years ago. Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral. When a commemorative statue was raised San Jose State University, Norman asked to be omitted from it, to leave room for people to express their solidarity by being photographed on the symbolic representation of where he stood.

There’s an expansion of the story here. The writer is not a native speaker of English, and some of how he tells the story has proved controversial, as is explained in his later apologia (linked to in the article), but it is worth reading. Norman’s presence on the podium now seems like one of modesty, his solidarity in no way taking attention away from the eloquent protest of his two colleagues.

There’s a lesson there. We are still a long way from being able to shake off our phoney taxonomies based on prejudice and false science, a long way from a future where race might eventually not matter. Until we reach that point, black lives matter, black opinion matters, black protest matters.

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‘Juggling Genders’, 1992

Jennifer Miller, photographer Karl Giant (detailed).

This photograph is something I have sought out, following reading the chapter “Transgender Mirrors” in Chris Straayer’s book Screening Genders. It is of Jennifer Miller. Jennifer is a woman, by any definition even the most narrow, despite (because of?) the fact that she has a naturally hirsute face – her beard is genuine. She appeared in the 1992 documentary Juggling Gender, which deals amongst other things with her setting up a feminist circus in which she juggled “bearded and bare-breasted, foregrounding her sexual discontinuity.”[1] The chapter is fascinating; I don’t want to comment too much but I do want to quote:

         Miller’s performance demonstrates how essentialist and constructionist discourses can lead into each other. Allowing her beard to grow is a direct extension of her cultural feminist training, but in doing so Miller belies the essentialism on which cultural feminism is based. In taking cultural feminism of “naturalness” to its logical conclusion, Miller risks exclusion from that very community, because to that community, as to mainstream society, she risks appearing to “be” a man.[2]

Gender formation is constantly in process; rather than being a root of oneself, it continues throughout life, via interactions with others […] The process of sex attribution (that is, gendering) does not stop at birth. For most people, complicity with binary gender semiotics (sex role stereotypes, conventional clothing, and so on) allows social interaction to reinforce birthtime sex attribution and thus gender. For others, voluntary or involuntary nonconformity causes radical disruptions and contradictions.

        Wearing a beard, Jennifer Miller crosses the semiotic boundary between male and female and thus alters the basis upon which others construct her gender.[3]

If you followed the link to the trailer for Juggling Gender, I wonder if you formed a different instant opinion about Jennifer’s gender than you did when you first saw her photograph. Did the moving image convey anything different to you from the static? Chris Straayer’s chapter is the first piece I have researched that refers to gender in terms of semiotics – I have no doubt it isn’t the only one – almost as a written language that conveys meaning(s). Did you understand something different from each image? What are the norms that drive our prejudices in these matters?

I hesitate to speculate on how Jennifer would be read by the handful of vigilantes who patrol public restrooms; but the way individuals like Jennifer continue to cut across our expectations can only contribute to the challenge to our idées fixes about sex and gender.

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[1] Chris Straayer. Screening Genders. Rutgers UP, 2008. 126.

[2] Straayer, 126-127.

[3] Straayer, 127.

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An iconic photo of the 20c: Marion, Indiana, 1930.

Detail from a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, 7th of August 1930. Photographer: Lawrence Henry Beitler.

I am keeping my social media comments on current affairs to a minimum at this time, given what is going on in the world right now. Other voices than mine should be heard. However, I have decided to reproduce a detail from a very famous photograph from 1930. These people – some smiling – are bystanders, maybe participants, at the type of event that Senator Rand Paul is blocking from being made a federal crime. I hope he relents, or his posthumous notoriety, in ninety years time, will be as great as that of this photograph.

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The projecton©

A peculiar discussion developed in the seminar. I had only been half-attending – blame my ADHD – but my attention was caught by the tutor speaking about “the precedence of a planet-sized project,” and smiling as they spoke, to see the nods of agreement from my fellow-students, before steering the discussion onto a divergent topic.

I waited for some break in what followed, in order to speak my mind on that, before its immediacy and relevance diminished. There wasn’t one, so I had to interrupt.

“Sorry… if I may I’d like to address a point you made a few minutes ago. I think this is important.”

The tutor, with a gesture, invited me to have my say.

“You talked about the precedence of a planet-sized project, implying that such a project is the product of some kind of collective effort. That implies deliberation, a telos, a realisable whole. I say no. Precedence should be given to the smallest, momentary project – something that need only last for a fraction of a second before winding up, but which has profound and far-reaching implications of its own. A project in a particle. I call this particle ‘the projecton’.”

“But the planet-sized project of which I spoke is a single entity, a whole made up of billions of what you call ‘projectons’ but being greater than the sum of its parts,” said the tutor.

“I’m aware of the gestalt theory,” I replied, “and in passing that states more properly that the putative whole is different from, not greater than, the sum of its parts. But you speak as though there is some a priori plan to produce the planet-sized project, when in fact what you’re doing is inferring a result.”

“But there is an a priori plan. It’s called the laws of science…”

“… or of nature, or the will of God,” I interrupted. “Call it whatever you like. We see these laws not because that’s how they are but because that’s who we are. We couldn’t see them any other way. What we judge to be facts are subject to – subjects of – our perception. There is no place for us to stand to get such a God’s-eye-view. But consider what would happen if you altered one projecton, or added one, or took one away. It would alter the nature of the planet-sized thing completely. This, if nothing else, gives precedence to the small over the large, shows the larger to be nothing more than an effect. Look, phenomenology states…”

That was the point at which I woke up. The fact that all this happened in a dream doesn’t diminish its being a springboard to some basic but interesting philosophical discussion. Go for it.

By the way, the concept of the projecton has no connection to the similarly-named commercial entity. Just saying.

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Trust or suspicion?

KW 164 1965. Watanabe Katsumi

In the 1960s, impoverished photographer Watanabe Katsumi wandered the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, taking what amounted to monochrome snapshots of the gang members, prostitutes, pimps, and cross-dressers who could be found in the district. He would sell them to his subjects for a few yen, but scarcely made a living. In those days, several decades before wafer-thin IT devices that doubled as phones and digital cameras, a photographer stood out, took their safety into their own hands, maybe didn’t risk taking shots of the ‘name’ Yakuza but took what advantage they could from the small fry. People would pose, trying to look cool, or hard, or cute.

Once in a while Watanabe would stumble across subjects who would simply be themselves. One such is framed in a photograph known only as KW 164 1965. She has allowed the photographer to come close, yet she is relaxed, has a friendly smile, and is looking with frankness straight into to the camera lens. There is communication and trust between her and the photographer; they are sharing space, they are allowing mutual intimacy. There is no “pose” here.

And yet there will already be people reading this who are bristling because I have used the pronoun “she.” I have this to say to them:

There are more than seven-and-a-half billion people on the planet. That is more than seven-and-a-half billion nuances of the human experience. Despite this, there are those whose bare, brutal ideology amounts to nothing more than saying “All I need to know about anyone is what was between their legs on the day that they were born.” This is a philosophy of suspicion that disregards who someone is in favour of “what” they are. It is no different from an ideology that makes a judgment about someone based on their ethnicity or colour. It is the ideology of the patriarchy; in fact it is the prime foundation of the patriarchy.

It is therefore amazing that some people think they can oppose the patriarchy by adopting the same ideology – “All I need to know about anyone is what was between their legs on the day that they were born.” To do that is to agree to play by the patriarchy’s rules on the patriarchy’s home ground. If you insist on doing that, the patriarchy will beat you, every time. They’ve had centuries of practice.

So why not counter the ideology of suspicion with the ideology of trust? In fact trust isn’t an ideology, it is the direct refusal to have an ideology; as such it chips relentlessly away at that foundation of the patriarchy. As I look at KW 164, and continue to look, and she returns my look, the relevance of the brutal ideology diminishes. Along with it any residue of what I could call “native maleness” about her features fades in my consciousness. Without affectation, she is simply expressing her gender to me, and it is as natural as spring weather. There is no pretence, so there is no need for suspicion. She can take my trust for granted, and as a result is wholly delightful. There is no reification, no scopophilia, I have entered into the intimacy of the photographer and the friend he has made. There is a bond.

So which is better – a world built on suspicion or a world built on trust? I ask you this. Your ideology, if you have one, will mark out your answer.

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L is for Larionov

Mikhail Larionov, ‘Red Rayonism’, 1913.

Rayonism was the first style of abstract (or near-abstract) painting to arise in Russia. It was invented by Mikhail Larionov. Well, actually it was invented by Natalia Goncharova and Larionov, but the letter “G” has already been taken in this series, otherwise I might have given her precedence.

Rayonism follows a simple and dynamic idea, that of interpenetrating rays of light. ‘Red Rayonism’ plays with our senses; it unsettles us with counter-intuitive results. We feel that the penetrative effect should be towards the narrow, needled end of each band of colour, but that point is the point of origin, and the light diffuses outwards from that point. The umber rays appear to be the product of subtractive colour mixing, as when media of different colour combine; we expect additive mixing, as these are rays of light. If an object is suggested at all, if there is anything figurative here as opposed to abstract, then it is here only in what Goncharova and Larionov called its “symbolic surface.” For all the haste in their definition, the feeling the viewer gets is one of painful solidity, or shards, the red rays having the redness of blood from a gash.

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Tentacular magazine currently has a review by myself of the new collection of poetry by Irish poet Oisín Breen. Go see.

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Two more iconic photographs of the 20c

Details from: (l) Helmut Newton, ‘Saddle 1 Paris’, 1976; (r) Hannah Wilke, ‘S.O.S (Starification Object Series)’, 1974.

You may recall that some time ago I posted about the male gaze. Scopophilia and its written/printed equivalent diabazophilia[*] are involved in my research project, so the idea of “gaze” is something I keep returning to. However, I am troubled by the whole concept of “gaze,” whether male or female, because it implies a concentration of perception that I believe we are incapable of. The whole idea sails closer than comfortable to essentialising the binary nature of the sexes, by making a category and then normalising within that category; the concepts of these disparate gazes are ingrained in our culture rather than in ourselves, or perhaps imprinted on our selves by our culture.

The two photographs detailed above are from the mid 1970s. The first is by Helmut Newton and is from one of his famous publicity photographs for Hermès. It shows a model on all fours, partially attired in riding gear, with the top-range Hermès saddle on her back. The second is by Hannah Wilke, and shows a half-naked woman with chewing gum, moulded into the shape of vulvae, stuck to her body.

The intended cultural dichotomy here is sexist/feminist. Indeed James Fox, in BBC Four’s Age of the Image, implied that the Wilke’s image had been created in reaction to Newton’s. In fact it appears to have been created two years earlier. Although Newton claimed that his aim was to empower women, critics considered this claim disingenuous and countered that his images amounted to the “objectification” of women. I would like to toss a few random ideas around apropos all that.

Any image is an object.

Any representation of a person in an image objectifies.

It’s pointless my asking “What is the subject of this image?” I am!

Any observation of that object is, first and foremost, an encounter with a phenomenon, and is at a pre-cognitive level.

Any phenomenon is here and gone.

If I want to say more about either image, I have to furrow my brow, concentrate, and try to defy the distraction of the stream of phenomena. Good luck with that!

Newton’s model is not looking at me. Convention urges me to hear her saying “Ride me, Master!” But that need not be the case. Her look can be a dare. Her look can be “So what?”

Wilke’s model, with her wry expression, could also be saying “So what?” She is facing me, almost in the way a 1970s centrefold would. Her chewing gum is saying, “You chew me up and spit me out.” It is saying, “You look at me and all you see is ‘pussy’!”

Both images, both objects, are attempting to direct us. Each phenomenon however, hitting us at a pre-reflective level, starts by defying that direction.

These are instantaneous reactions on my part, despite my furrowing my brow. I can’t help it!

And I want to keep it at that level for the time being, because what that does is push aside my own prejudices about these two photographs. I don’t want to say that item XYZ is sexist or item ABC is feminist “because it just is.” Self-evidence is a product of the imaginary dais we construct to give us a god-like view over existence; we dare to call that view “reality.”

And that’s another story.

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What do you think about the work of Newton and Wilke? Let me know.

[*] The difference between diabazophilia, the consumption of voyeuristic text, and diavazophilia, simply a love of reading, will probably be expanded in my thesis.

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Iconic photographs of the 20c, No.3

Edith Tudor-Hart was a refugee from Austria, having fled with her British husband in 1933. She had trained in photography at the Bauhaus. Her strong left-wing views led her to work as a covert agent for the Soviet Union; however it also led her to make photographs like this one below, which were high in social commentary.

Edith Tudor-Hart - estate W Scschitzky - undated
A deprived girl outside a baker’s shop, by Edith Tudor-Hart. ©Estate of W. Suschitzky.

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A quick visit to StAnza

Firstly, a message of thanks to the folk at StAnza for continuing to grant me media accreditation; and secondly, an apology for the tardiness of this article. Instead of writing individual reviews, on this occasion I’m going to post a kind of general summary, mentioning the events and readings I went to.

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It has been two years since I last came to StAnza, and in between times I have parted company with the review site for which I used to write, migrating my reviews here. Even my visit this year, cut short by my having to spend three days away at a conference for International Women’s Day, felt nothing like the immersion that StAnza offers, nor the response that this offer deserves.

Up to now, my experience/attendance at the festival has been governed by the amount of reviews I thought I could complete quickly enough to get them onto the web site while the festival was still running. This year I have a base in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, so you’d think I had less of an excuse for sticking to a meagre platter. Oh well…

As I lounged on my guest house bed, just over the River Taff from the Principality Stadium, I was able to keep up with the StAnza Twitterstorm – something was always going on, poets and events were being tagged, tweets were being retweeted. I thought back to the two or three times I had stood in queues outside the Byre Studio or Parliament Hall and heard people saying “We’ve just been to see such-and-such, and after this reading we’re off to see so-and-so…” It’s a marathon, a marathon at a gentle pace, as most of the festival-goers are retired. There’s nothing surprising in that, as the first four days of StAnza are weekdays, and anyone younger is probably working.

I do see some younger folk around – I spot a student or two from the university in an audience – and I feel young myself, as a student, although that’s a wee bit of a conceit.

Coastlines poets
The ‘Coastlines’ poets.

I have a question: why is it that I saw so many tweets saying that StAnza “opened” on Thursday 5th? There were two events on Tuesday 3rd, and six on Wednesday 4th, and they were right there in the festival brochure. Certainly when I attended ‘Coastlines’ I was not in any doubt that this was a festival event, not a pre-festival event. The brochure advertised poetry from Anna Crowe, nature writer Jim Crumley, and Valerie Gilles, but there was much more to the event. In addition to the advertised poets, there was a presentation by PAMIS (Promoting A More Inclusive Society), giving an opportunity to wheelchair users Rachel Frame and Arianne Holmes to provide multi-media additions to the words of Maureen Phillip; after that we were treated to readings of poems about Tentsmuir – the coastline between the Tay and the Eden in Fife – from the competitors, runners up, and winner of the Scottish National Heritage / National Nature Reserves competition.

Coastlines poet
Valerie Gilles

If I had to pick one of the headline poets from this event, with all due respect to Anna Crowe and Jim Crumley, it would have to be Valerie Gillies, whose poems took us on a journey from the source of the River Tay in a corrie on Ben Lui, to “Sheughie Dykes” as Tentsmuir was once known. “Sheugh… sheugh… sheughie dykes…” we joined in, and then “seugh… seugh.. seugh…” followed by a soft intake of breath to represent the sound of waves on the sand.

Perhaps the idea that StAnza “opened” on the 5th had something to do with the fact that there was a “sneak peek of some of the highlights” of the festival on the evening of the 4th, under the title ‘Festival Launch Extravaganza’, my emphasis. But then the very next item on the 4th refers to “Opening Night.” Make your minds up! If you wanted to see younger faces and hear younger voices, by the way, then the place to be was the Inklight open mic, once again in the no-man’s-land of Wednesday evening. I was in that myself, having recently started to write poems (like I said, I feel young!). I can tell you this: it was a thrill.

Let’s grant, anyway, that by the time I went to the first ‘Border Crossings’ event on Thursday, the festival had started. I’m a fan of the ‘Border Crossings’ event, and I hope they continue to be an integral part of StAnza. The eight events under this banner during the festival juxtapose two poets per event, each of whom has poetry that either crosses borders, or springs from the poet’s experience of having crossed borders. Sometimes they find things in common – for Yorkshireman Tim Turnbull and Bangladeshi Shehzar Doja it was cricket, and even I joined in the ensuing twanter (banter on Twitter). Let me do a thumbnail summary of each of the four poets I managed to catch…

Shehzar Doja, Tim Turnbull, Johan Sandberg McGuinne, Gerry Cambridge.

Shehzar Doja: rich, rich, rich language coupled with a deliberate delivery. Often he seemed to be musing, capturing words out of the air, rather than reciting already-composed pieces.

Tim Turnbull: dry, laconic humour, coupled with the ability to use rhythm and rhyme when necessary. The simplicity of those devices never fell into doggerel, and when he cocked one side of his mouth up to mimic the louche lingo of Heckle and Jeckle, he almost sounded like – dare I say this? – a contemporary of mine, a poet from the other side of the Pennines (*ducks).

Johan Sandberg McGuinne: a large and colourful presence. Multilingual, Gaelic, Southern Sami, English, resonances between the Sami joik and puirt à beul. Each language struck its own rhythmic pattern.

Gerry Cambridge: probably enough to say that he founded Dark Horse! The fact that his latest collection was taken up by HappenStance Press says more.

I missed such a lot – not only poetry events but all the peripheral performances, exhibitions, and displays. Next year, with my feet even more comfortably under the table at the School of English, I may miss less and may be able to do more justice to the featured poets.