All music matters – not reputation

Karen and Richard Carpenter during the Carpenters international tour in 1972

Having a good taste in music is like having a good taste in wine – it takes time, effort and practice to acquire. Sometimes though, people just want to get sloshed and then vintage, vineyard and finesse count for little. It is the same with music, one day we want to appreciate, explore and learn, while the next we want to party, dance, wallow and weep.

Musical snobbery – a crime of which I have been guilty – is just as tiresome as wine snobbery – and ultimately just as useless, because a person needs a rounded appreciation in order to cater for any mood.

Yes it is fun, advantageous even, to develop a good taste in music and it is wonderful to adventure through the esoteric fringes of the musical universe. But, this is not a trip that should be taken for the sake of building street cred or while chasing some impossible definition of that ultimately undefinable word “cool”.

The truth is that some wonderful things are not cool and never will be, but you may still need them in your life. If you define yourself by “cool” alone then you will miss out on so much that is good.

I was thinking about this recently while I read Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson. It caught my eye because it finally confirmed my long-held – often privately long-held – belief that the Carpenters deserve a bit more respect from toffee-nosed music connoisseurs.

Why?

Well, first of all, there are only a handful of bands in music history – and the Carpenters are surely one – that are so distinctive, so immediately recognisable, that you place them as soon as you hear a few seconds of a song.

For some reason, I have always had a kind of strange photographic memory when it comes to the Carpenters. The moments – entirely innocuous – when I have heard a song of theirs in public are seared into my brain and I cannot explain why.

Most recently, last Christmas, I heard a song of theirs playing in a pub in Yorkshire while I was ordering lunch, and I remember sitting in Bermondsey in London, in a tea-total hotel bar, sipping a glass of hot chocolate as Superstar came over the sound system.

Why do I remember these things? I have no idea.

All you need to hear though is the drifting harp at the start of Superstar – which sounds like the start of an underwater scene in an old movie set in a kingdom of mermaids – to know exactly who you are listening to. Then along come those minor oboe chords that lead us to the deep, deep sounding vocal, “long ago, and, oh, so far away, I fell in love with you after the second show…..”

I only recently discovered that the song is a cover of one originally written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. It sounds so much like a Carpenters song. It sounds like the pinnacle of Carpentry.  But that is the hallmark of a brilliant artist, someone who can entirely inhabit something that is not their own and then record the definitive version.

I mean, technically, Frank Sinatra was a covers artist, but he often recorded what ultimately would become the most famous version of whichever song he touched, such was his talent.

Karen Carpenter has gone down in history as a tragic figure, a tragic singer of sad songs, when in fact she was an exciting, young, vivacious woman and something of – which the Tongston book highlights -a feminist hero.

Karen Carpenter on stage

I’ve always thought that she deserved a lot more respect for not only being a singer, but a drummer too, and not only that but a singing drummer all at once, a very rare feat in music and one that few do well, with only Ringo Starr, Levon Helm of The Band and The Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker coming immediately to mind.

And not only did she just sing and play the drums. She sang and played the drums with a voice that could stop a room, one of the most note perfect voices in music history.

She also – rather marvellously – upended the assumption formed by her supremely talented and dorky older brother – Richard – that he was the musical genius of the family, only to be lapped several times over when his sister’s extraordinary vocal gift became apparent. Ouch.

We can’t kid ourselves though. The Carpenters have baggage. They were safe, unthreatening, apolitical in an era when it was almost impossible to be so, plus they were white, as white as white can be. And, let’s not forget that they played at the Nixon White House in 1973 and were introduced by the president as ‘the best of young America’, which is not exactly the kind of endorsement that does wonders for your image.

Yes, they could be corny, but they produced music with a unique sound, music that makes you feel something, be it good or bad. Music that sounds perfect, yes, but as we all know, came from a struggling central source.

It is perhaps that we know the tragic end of her story that we can feel the same way listening to Karen Carpenter as we do when we hear John Lennon sing (Just Like) Starting Over.

If either Lennon or Karen Carpenter could win the chance to start over, it is doubtful that either one would want to be famous all over again.

Oh, and John Lennon was a Karen Carpenter fan, by the way.

It is rare that my increasingly irrelevant and out of touch musical opinions gain any justification through books published or articles written, but in this case, the Karen Carpenter case, I was right. Karen Carpenter matters.

In fact, I would say that all music matters, no matter what its reputation, from Harry Styles to Wolfgang Amadeus, as long as it makes you feel something.

So what’s next? I’ve always said Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat is one of the best pop songs of the late-1970s. Maybe ever. So, Al Stewart matters?

And what about Rickie Lee Jones? Rickie Lee Jones certainly matters. I mean, have you ever heard Pirates? Now there’s an album to savour….

Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks – The Photographers’ Gallery

There is a lot to say about Rochdale.

Economically it is one of the most deprived areas in the UK, but culturally Rochdale is anything but.

Byron, the legendary romantic poet, owed his title – Baron Byron of Rochdale – to the town. Gracie Fields, one of the most internationally famous actresses and singers of the 20th century was born in Rochdale, and most famously, the town gave birth to the modern Cooperative Movement.

The pioneers who founded it based the Cooperative on the ‘Rochdale Principles’, the most crucial of which states that each cooperative has to be run democratically by its members and that membership should be open to all no matter what race, religion, sex or sexuality a person happens to be.

Rochdale’s community is a patchwork quilt of numerous sections. The town is extraordinarily diverse, and despite well-documented problems over the years, Rochdale’s community has remained largely tightly knit.

While other nearby towns, such as Oldham, saw a fraying and an erupting of racial tensions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Rochdale retained a sense of togetherness – despite its many adversities – to offer a welcoming home to people from all over the world.

For example, at a time when the very existence of Ukraine as an independent nation is being threatened by Russian troops menacing its borders, it is important to note that Rochdale has long been a safe harbour for Ukrainian people in times of strife.

Rochdale was the first town to recognise the Holodomor Famine – a man-made catastrophe caused in part by Joseph Stalin’s decision to single out Ukraine for harsh treatment in order suppress an independence movement – as genocide.

The famine killed as many as ten million Ukrainians and there is a memorial stone commemorating the event in front of Rochdale Town Hall.

It is Rochdale’s community that multimedia artist Helen Cammock pays tribute to in her exhibition ‘Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks’ which is now in its final days at London’s Photographers’ Gallery.

The exhibition, which was put together in cooperation with Rochdale’s wonderful Touchstone Gallery, uses film, photography, text, song and performance to present all the different facets of Rochdale’s bustling community in one place.

Cammock uses the Cooperative Movement and the town’s proud industrial heritage as a starting point and uses this base as a way to examine the power and potential of a social collective.

An immersive, nearly two-hour film, forms the centrepiece of the exhibition and it features people working together to make the town a better place, while outside the projection room objects that are referenced in the film are on display.

A Ukrainian choir is featured singing a traditional song on a bandstand in one of Rochdale’s many parks. In another section Sultan Ali is interviewed, a man who went from growing up as a shepherd boy in Sahiwal in Pakistan to becoming Rochdale’s first Asian Muslim mayor in 2003.

Rochdale resident Pete is also featured, a retired joiner, who speaks of his attempts to re-wild an abandoned patch of scrubland close to the town centre. His success is evident, as he lists the countless numbers of wildflowers, butterflies and birds that he has spotted in the years since he began his work.

A Bangladeshi artist is depicted showing the sewing machine skills – a nod to Rochdale’s textile industry- that were passed down to her by her parents and grandparents. Her knowledge has proved to be an inspiration for her artwork and she is pictured using an antique sewing machine by the side of Hollingworth Lake – a popular local beauty spot.

The conversations depicted between the residents capture discussions about the future and the past, the good and the bad, but most importantly they focus on common experiences.

All stills from Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks, 2021 © Helen Cammock 
Courtesy of the artist

“The spaces we inhabit are different shapes to everyone. The comfort we enjoy is not the same from one community to the next – from one home to the next,” Cammock comments.

“But some strive more for a sense of collective parity. The Rochdale Principles embody this notion of a shared role, responsibility, and stake in what little or great opportunity and subsistence a community generates.”

This is an exhibition that proves that despite Rochdale’s often harsh industrial history and the problems that still confound the town and its community to this day, a sense of humanity, humour and warmth still shines through.

Does Manchester look as good as Los Angeles on film?

There is a story – I’m not sure how true it is – that Tony Wilson – the famous Mancunian music impresario behind Joy Division and New Order, wanted to fly a film crew over Manchester in a helicopter at dusk to ascertain if the city looked as sexy as Los Angeles in the moonlight.

LA has long appeared sultry on celluloid, but has Manchester? The answer, in case you are wondering, is yes.

To me, Los Angeles has never looked better than in Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the Raymond Chandler detective thriller The Long Goodbye. Altman’s detective, Philip Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is a man out of time. He’s a man who has seemingly been asleep for thirty years only to wake up in a spinning world of non-existent morals that he does not understand.

To support this picture of Marlowe as a chain-smoking Rip Van Winkle, Altman’s detective lives in the High Tower in Hollywood Heights, with its tall turreted lift shaft that leads to several nautical style art deco residences on a palm-tree covered hillside.

From his chaotic hilltop flat that he shares with his cat, Marlowe can see all the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, which is captured in soft, hazy colours on film by the inventive cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond.

Does Manchester have an equivalent of LA’s Marlowe? Well, yes. Just take out Elliott Gould and replace him with Stanley Baker, the great Welsh actor, who played Detective Inspector Harry Martineau in the 1960 Val Guest directed film noir Hell is a City, which was shot in Manchester.

Just as The Long Goodbye tries to create a colourised film noir, Hell is a City does the same in 1960s black and white. Just as the characters in The Long Goodbye step out of seedy shafts of light, so do the characters in Hell is a City, only the light is distinctly Mancunian. Just take out the sun-streaked haze of the Hollywood Hills and replace them with the rain-soaked gloom of Saddleworth Moor, where one of the film’s key moments takes place.

Hell is a City’s climax sees Martineau clambering over the rooftop spires of the Palace Hotel on Oxford Street as he hunts down an escaped convict, all guns blazing, as the smokey dirty urban sprawl of early 1960s Manchester hums beneath him. 

Los Angeles just like Manchester is urban sprawl. Los Angeles in the time of Altman, and before, was choked by smog, just like Manchester was choked by smoke from its factory chimneys.

Manchester, in fact, sounds very similar to a description David Lynch once gave of LA. “I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness,” Lynch once said about the city, “but when you’re there for a while, you realise that each section has its own mood. Even with the smog, there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth.” Just like in Manchester when those endless grey slate rainy days bring a sense of warmth and homeliness through familiarity.

Jumping forward a few years to 1969, Manchester’s next significant appearance on film comes in 1968’s Charlie Bubbles. This film was directed by and stars Albert Finney as the eponymous Bubbles, a successful London writer, a Mancunian exile, and another man like Marlowe, trapped in a world he doesn’t understand, asleep on his feet.

So he heads back home to rediscover his childhood in Salford and he takes his assistant, Eliza Hayhoe, who is played by Liza Minnelli, back with him. Did you know that Liza Minnelli once clambered over the ruins of a bulldozed Salford street? The answer is yes, and she appeared to enjoy it.

Aside from witnessing slum clearance in Salford, Charlie is also seen sauntering past the under-construction Piccadilly Plaza Hotel an appearance of the brutalist architecture that would come to dominate the northern look for the rest of the century, which is not something Stanley Baker would have recognised as he tumbled across the Palace roof. However, Altman’s Marlow would have seen some similar brutalist designs such as the Liberty Savings and Loan on the corner of South Beverly Drive and West Pico Boulevard.

We end where we began, with Tony Wilson and the band he made famous, Joy Division. The life of Ian Curtis is perhaps best depicted in the stately black and white of Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control, which almost sees Manchester appear like the monochromatic images of Berlin that were seen when David Bowie was making Heroes in the 1970s.

The most recognisable image of Joy Division is the picture of the group crossing the Epping Walk Bridge which stretches over Princess Street in Hulme. The street leads towards the city centre and the raised road that encircles the city known as the Mancunian Way or ‘the highway in the sky’ as it was called when it was built in 1967. 

It is another element of Manchester that could perhaps be compared with the freeways of LA that segregate rich and poor neighbourhoods to this day. The poor and the glamorous living at close quarters is what is so often captured in films about Manchester and Los Angeles, but in both, it has always been in the underbelly where the magic happens.

Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer – The Estorick Collection Reclaims an Unsung Female Hero

Abstraction of a Line No. 2, Astrazione di una linea n. 2, 1925, Private collection, Rome

As anyone with an interest in early to mid 20th century Italian art will know, the Estorick Collection in Islington’s leafy Canonbury Square is a treasure trove.

From the musical swirls that flow from the fingers of a shadowy pianist in Luigi Russolo’s Music, to the piercing eyes of a woman in a multi-coloured hat and a single pearl earring in Umberto Boccioni’s Modern Idol, the Estorick Collection certainly boasts the highlights of Italian Futurism and Modernism on its walls.

The museum’s programme of temporary exhibitions tends to delve deeper though, to cast a light on early to mid twentieth century Italian artists that are not as well known.

In Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer, which opened on 14 January 2022, the Collection’s galleries turn to an inventive abstractionist in an exhibition that aims to reclaim an unsung Italian female hero.

Lazzari’s status as a relative unknown outside of her home country is unfair, given the self-made nature of her artistic success and the battle she had to wage to achieve it.

Untitled, Senza titolo, 1966, Private collection, Rome

“As well as being under appreciated internationally, I would say that Lazzari is neglected in Italy too,” Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection, told me. 

“Women tended to be pushed towards applied art rather than art itself. She decided that she wanted to be an artist in her own right, yet she remains little known. 

During the 1960s there was a lot of exchange between the British and Italian art worlds, but with the reduction of the Art Council’s budget everything became much more insular and Italy turned to the United States to show off its post-war rejuvenation.”

Bice Lazzari, born a Venetian in 1900, opted to study design and applied arts at the Venice Academy of Arts, rather than follow her heart and study art itself. She had an intention to make her own living from her craft, despite her parent’s desire to see her become a teacher.

“When my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level,” Lazzari wrote. “So rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making fabrics, scarves, bags, belts and carpets, in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”

Blue Architecture, Architettura azzurra, 1955, Private collection, Rome

It was the art world that provoked an inescapable fascination in her though, and she would display her interest in abstraction through the designs that she completed for clients.

Her desire to break into the male-dominated Italian painting world would constantly be frustrated, firstly by her natural shyness that she struggled with all her life and led to a description of her as being ‘like a piece of ice in which a flame burns’. 

Lazzari’s shyness is reflected in her work. “Her art is very sophisticated in a way,” Cremoncini adds, “it is very polished and fine and it is not disruptive so it didn’t come to the foreground very easily.” 

Her progress was also disrupted by the arrival of fascism and war in the 1930s, which prompted Lazzari to turn to illegally imported art magazines for fresh inspiration.

Acrylic No. 5, Acrilico n. 5, 1975, Archivio Bice Lazzari, Rome

When her art found full flight after conflict concluded in 1945, she created intricate, geometrically abstract work, comprised of lines and marks which seem to move across the page like notes on a symphony’s score, reflecting her time spent at a conservatoire as a child.

Towards the end of her life, her work became increasingly simple, and as time wore on and her eyesight started to fail, her only artistic tools were a red and white pencil with which she created pieces with a remarkable sense of symmetry and harmony.

Lazzari in her studio on the Fondamenta Cà Rezzonico, 1920s

“Her work has a special feeling to it,” Cremoncini concludes. “It is very subtle and extremely accomplished. Her paintings are poetic, you can grow into them. Your first impression might be to see a few lines on a canvas, but if you look more closely you will see that there are a series of layers to be discovered.”

The independent nature of Lazzari’s work is perhaps best summed up in her own words: “For many, the only way to survive artistically is to establish a continuous dialogue with oneself,” she wrote, “a challenging monologue to build’s one’s own art.”

Bice Lazzari: Modernist Pioneer runs at the Estorick Collection until 24 April 2022. 

Looking Back On My Interview With Bill Fay

In 2010, Bill Fay was considered to be – within the narrow confines of the UK’s folk-rock scene – a reclusive musical enigma of almost Salingeresque stature.

In the early 1970s he recorded two albums and, after being promptly dropped by his label, he disappeared into obscurity in north London.

The two records that he left behind, over time, presumably through accidental dusty record shop discoveries and later CD reissues, began to build a small army of followers.

His first record, the eponymously titled ‘Bill Fay’, with its hymnic devotional songs to nature, and its darker follow-up, ‘Time of the Last Persecution’, have a style entirely to themselves.

In 2010, Bill commenced what would become an unlikely comeback, by releasing a series of home recorded demos that he had completed during his years in seclusion.

The album was released by Coptic Cat, a label that was founded by David Tibet of Current 93 fame. 

Spying an opportunity to get a chance to speak to the man himself, and solve one or two mysteries in the process, I got in touch with David to request an interview with Bill.

I was, to say the least, not hopeful of success. But, a reply did come, as well as a request for questions with the caveat that there were no assurances that they would be answered.

Luckily, Bill liked the questions and called me to discuss them. The results of the conversation became an article that I wrote for Flux Magazine, which was at the time a print publication based in Manchester.

When I emailed Bill to tell him that the article was done and the magazine was printed, he told me that he would go to his local WH Smiths to see if he could find a copy, which is a part of the story that makes 2010 sound longer ago than it really was.

Bill’s music is timeless though and the adulation that he received, including an article in the New York Times, for the two albums he released after 2010, with American record producer Joshua Henry, was richly deserved.

Looking back on my interview with Bill, eleven years later, many of his answers seem to me to be rich in a wisdom that is hard won. I have included a few answers from the interview below: 

Your music has always been about returning to nature. In Garden Song, you sing about planting yourself in the garden. Are beauty and nature and our relationship with them things that still inspire you?

For me, Garden Song was the beginning of seeking something deeper. I came to feel that we were largely in our day-to-day lives asleep to a greater reality. I believed there was something to find out, but more than that, I felt strongly that you could actually find out, which was a big step for me.

I felt that we as human beings had named things like a tree or a butterfly and in the act of naming them, we had explained them away. I came to feel that we were living in one sense within the restrictions of our own heads.

So, I started to pay more attention to nature. I didn’t run to the mountains or anything, I mean that I would sit on the top deck of a double-decker bus and look at things, trees, for example. Part of your head is saying ‘why are you doing this, it’s only a tree’, but I kept looking, to try and understand more and get outside of my own head.

How did you channel this thought process into your song writing?

What used to happen back then and to some degree still happens, is that a song is a vehicle, a means of expressing, where I’m at inside.

Just as I sing in Garden Song, ‘I’ll wait for the rain to anoint me and the frost to awaken my soul.‘ It was that waking up that was important to me, connecting with the real world around us of living things. I did come to feel an enormous strangeness, the connection that I began to feel with the living world was very vivid.

Aside from nature, I also get a sense that some of your music is inspired by the wartime generation, your parent’s generation and the wars that they fought?

I have always been grounded in the 1914 generation, the generation that fought the First World War. I remember my old Aunt May and her sister looking after my Uncle Will after he was poisoned by mustard gas in the trenches. He used to just sit there all day in a chair and they used to look after him. My song ‘Sing Us One of Your Songs May‘ is loosely based on that.

May would sing the old songs like ‘Sunshine Of Your Smile’ and I would play the piano to accompany her singing. She never married and May and her sister went through life looking after their mum and dad and their brother. It was another generation, which was just not confronted with the same things I was in the 1960’s but I felt amazingly linked to them.

It seems to me that your songs are written more from a spiritual angle than a political one, although you came of age in an era when political and protest songs were very much in vogue. Do you avoid politics?

I suppose my songs can be political, sometimes, just think of The Sun is Bored on my first record and ‘the minister for good taste’ that I sing about. There is a political aspect sometimes, but I don’t often find modern politicians inspiring.

I am sure that there are good politicians though. I do remember fondly the old Labour politicians, like Manny Shinwell, and people of his ilk, who said they wanted to bring about heaven on Earth, but it was as much as they could do to prevent hell on Earth. I could say a lot politically, I have a lot of political anger, but I do understand that a lot of the issues that politicians deal with are very complex.

Your third album Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow ends with the line ‘Nothing has changed, only me, the world’s still the same, but I’m not the same.‘ Are you still changing? Still searching? Or have you reached a level of contentment?

I don’t think that the level of contentment you speak of exists. I don’t think you can be content when there is so much wrong in the world. I do think that you have to strive to keep awake to all the things I was talking about earlier. Nature will always inspire me. It’s great just to see a robin sometimes! There are such miraculous little things in the world.

In day-to-day life you can quite easily become not as connected as you have been in the past, so there is always a feeling within me that I need to stay awake to the full picture, no matter what the distractions.

Tantra Song – The Mystical Modernity of Paintings from Rajasthan

Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio
Energy fizzing about a turquoise sea – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

With our modern eloquence, our technology and our brash and inventive culture, contemporary artists have developed individual ways of expressing hopes, beliefs, doubts and fears through art. Yet magically, when arts and crafts are brought together from across the world — from cultures and nations completely separate from one-another — unlikely bonds emerge, suggesting a common human struggle for expression.

An excellent example of this can be seen in Tantra Song, a new book compiled by one of France’s leading contemporary poets, Franck André Jamme. The book features a collection of rare Tantric paintings from Rajasthan, India, used to awaken heightened states of consciousness through meditation. Collated by Jamme during many trips to his beloved India, the paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to 20th century abstract art, Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, despite the fact that they are articles of the 17th century, replicated by generations ever since.

Having spent more than two decades in conversation with the private communities of Rajasthani tantrikas, Jamme—like other poet-ethnographers before him, Michaux, Leiris, and Bataille, was moved to highlight the paintings’ subtle magic.

The pictures presented are often joyful: filled with colour, they are both hypnotic and sensual, their simple geometry elegant yet immediate. Produced upon recycled paper, the paintings feature divine and religious diagrams and representations of deities and mystic forces, which are used to help believers visualise the deity they portray.

White arrows dance and fizz across a deep turquoise square representing energy, whilst colour filled wheels contain all the shades of the Earth. There are fiery triangles atop a tropical shade of blue — the tongue of the goddess Kali in duplicate — the repetition supposedly inducing true intoxication.

All the colours of the world - From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio
All the colours of the world – From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, selected and with writings by Franck André Jamme. Published by Siglio

Jamme quickly recognised the simple logic of the Tantrika craftsmen: “They see time and day and night very naturally, they think of two stripes, black and white.”

“There are a lot of small rules with this kind of Tantric painting,” Jamme adds, “but [ultimately] they respect colour: if they want to express consciousness, they are going to use light blue; they are not going to use red.”

This favouring of colour over stipulation is indicative of Tantra, which is often looked upon with scorn by traditional Hindus who’s own religion is comprised of complicated rules and regulation. In comparison, Tantrism embraces freedom, personal liberty, and gender equality. “Traditional Hindus are skeptical and a bit afraid of this,” explains Jamme, “because Tantrism can sound a little bit devilish to them — there is so much freedom. They’re afraid of freedom. — [fear] is the standard for humanity.”

Returning to France from India with the artwork and a better understanding of its meaning, Jamme exhibited the paintings as part of Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) an exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. The display brought together contemporary art from across the world in an attempt to answer the question: “Is there such a thing as a common world art?”

Jamme considers the answer to that question to be yes; the evidence lying not only in the distinct similarities between Tantric painting and our own contemporary art but in the art and culture of eras past.

“In Orissa, India,” Jamme says, “[they’ve] found a particular form of poetry from the Medieval times which is extremely close in form to Haiku poetry from Japan — very short pieces with the very same number of syllables. That’s fascinating! I think there is [universally] a collective, hidden human search for expression,” Jamme explains, “just think of yodelers in Switzerland — you have exactly the same thing in the North of Vietnam.”

The principal force driving this search is freedom of expression, something embodied by the Tantrika craftsmen who harbour a “mad and pure desire for mental elevation. They’ll think of any way, any manner, any practice to reach that goal, beyond many of the rules and regulations of their rite.”

These Tantric paintings are the colourful, disciplined result of concentration combining with freedom, beautiful to look at, yet also — to those who believe — an attempt to “assemble almost everything, out of almost nothing.”

Tantra Song, collected and with writing by Franck André Jamme is available through Siglio Press.

Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston

flowers

Those Kray twins were right bloody bastards weren’t they? With all that filching, cly faking, dewskitching and dollyshop demandering. Should have gone into scrap metal like their old dad instead of always being a few sour moves away from a pair of silver derbies. Ronnie and Reggie were both born in Hoxton, London, which today is sewed together with bordering Shoreditch. Back in those fun filled glamorous days that we collectively term England’s Middle Ages, the body of Jane Shore, a noteworthy tart and one time gumar to Edward IV, you know, that pudgy faced, all cheeks and very little mouth, David Cameron lookalike of a Plantagenet monarch, was dumped in a ditch in the area, leading to the district’s ironic dubbing, or so the highly dubious and historically disputable story goes.

Hoxton and Shoreditch used to be characterised by bustling small industry, factories and workshops, but in the years after the Second World War industry began to move out, leaving behind a great number of empty warehouses and shop floors cheaply available. Because of the large spaces and low rents artists and musicians began to move in, giving birth to a burgeoning creative scene. The cultural bridge between the tail end of the industrial Kray scarred Shoreditch and its early days as an artistic haven in the early nineties was dreamed up, built and cemented by Joshua Compston. Artist, impresario and curator.

Compston is best known for the gallery he set up in a former factory on Charlotte Road named Factual Nonsense. Described as a “cultural think tank” Compston wanted the gallery to aim towards revolutionising the lives of the working classes. In his lovingly crafted new book on Joshua Compston, published in conjunction with an exhibition of work and materials related to Joshua’s career at the Paul Stolper gallery in London, Darren Coffield, a friend and contemporary of the artist, writes of Shoreditch in the early 1990s. Coffield describes the area as “a dilapidated and unpopulated place”, in the wake of another British recession, a place that appeared to Joshua as something of an ‘undiscovered country’, a million miles away from the late-era Thatcherite middle class hedonism that had taken root in London’s west.

Factual Nonsense organised a number of public events that, if one, like a complete fucking buggerlugs, were to analyse Shoreditch’s recent cultural development, would be regarded as key moments in the area’s rebirth. The Fete Worse than Death (1993) was one such event, a kind of art house street party organised by Joshua and located in Hoxton Square around ‘the notorious triangle of Great Eastern Street, Old Street and Curtain Road, a Victorian artisan area famous for its nobler design.” Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst famously dressed up as clowns for the event, producing spin paintings at one quid a pop, just as anyone who has bought a Hirst in the following years should have adopted similar jovial gear.

Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.
Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst at the Fete Worse than Death dressed as Clowns by Guy Moberly.

Gavin Turk did a bash the rat stall, Brendan Quick a pubic hair exchange for those who wished to pluck and barter with their tangled diamonds, Sarah Lucas had an empty stall with a piece of cardboard placed on it reading ‘our thoughts on any matter for 20p’ and James Goff (these are all names of artistic veks who were on the scene at the time, quoted diligently in Coffield’s book) was particularly proud of his tuna fish tail stall. “We went to the bloody fish market and got all these tuna fish tails and then we got this grill and we barbecued together and we sold it. And I remember at the end of the day, we were sweating and stinking and we were selling tuna fish tails for five quid a piece. And Damien Hirst was selling his fucking spin paintings for a quid a piece.” Across the way from Goff’s tuna fish tail stall Tracey Emin was running a kissing tent, 50p for a kiss and by 7pm of the same day you could get a lot more for the same price. Did James Goff of the tuna fish tail stall stop by for a snog on the rot from Jane Shore, oh, I mean Tracey Emin. “No, we were to busy doing the fucking tuna,” he remembers. The Fete ended with the traditional drawing of a raffle (the prize: a bag of dildos) and someone yelling at them to turn the music down.

The Fete was successful in binding together a disparate set of characters into a community, but the cool reputation it garnered as the event fell into crystalline memory began Shoreditch’s transformation into what it is today. “Within a year and half,” Gary Hume notes in the book, “everything had gone up in price. People could no longer be there. A coffee house arrived and another one. The Fete was the beginning and the end of it.”

In the meantime Factual Nonsense continued its pioneering work. There was The First Party Conference (1993), a string of cultural events of the kind that if you remember them then you weren’t really there, the cock and yarbles posters that publicised the programme are fondly remembered, but caused a great deal of controversy when they tried to plaster them down the King’s Road. There was also the Fete Worse than Death II, which Compston said attracted “over 4000 people of different descriptions and denominations, making myth of the area of Hoxton and Shoreditch as an upbeat up and coming cultural zone.”

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell -  Factual Nonsense  - Sex Art Money
Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell –
Factual Nonsense – Sex Art Money

Compston’s public work, such as the Fete, in many ways foreshadowed some of the recent public artworks by Jeremy Deller, yet aside from the public events, the book also highlights Compston’s more conventional artworks. Coffield praises Joshua’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ collection as “one of the most underrated and overlooked artworks of the last twenty years.”

Coffield notes that he and Compston were interested in printed ephemera and says that the two of them would attend ephemera fairs at the Victory Services club near Marble Arch, with Joshua going on to recycle the purchased turn of the century paper curios by sending people letters scrawled on the back of “old ocean liner menus, Edwardian cheques and pre-war public health posters.” Compston’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ project saw him recruit a number of leading British artists, old and new, to produce a series of prints, inspired by ephemera and based on old texts, so Mat Collishaw recreated a page from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, while Henry Bond contributed a description of Monaco.

The title was inspired by a collection of poems collated by Viscount Wavell, a general in the Second World War, who had the habit of reciting poems to encourage his men on the eve of battle, he was later persuaded to compile these poems into a collected volume, which he titled ‘Other Men’s Flowers’, flowers being an age old term for writing. Compston’s father had given him a copy of the book and he later discovered that the title was not Wavell’s own, but belonged to the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who had written to describe his own collection of other men’s poems, “I have gathered about me a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.” Which is rather a good description for the stories presented in this fine book, Coffield gathering together and binding up for the sake of posterity the life’s work of a dear friend.

Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell Factual Nonsense - Verbage
Darren Coffield and Graham Bignell
Factual Nonsense – Verbage

Joshua Compston died in 1996, at the age of 25, and was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals,” writes Coffield, “it was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End while Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that Joshua inspired, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”

London characters come and go, but the city is eternal. Rejoice by the dusty railings around the steps to the pedestal of the statue of this great and incorruptible youf. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice.

Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston is available now: http://www.factualnonsense.com

All images (except the first) courtesy of the Paul Stolper Gallery, London ©Dosfotos

How did London become the first metropolis to disappear?

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Go to the City of London on a Sunday afternoon and you will find emptiness. Street after street of emptiness. Nobody comes to the City, London’s financial district, on a Sunday.

The irony of this is that the City IS London. The boundries of the City are the same that marked the Roman settlement of Londinium, established nearly 2000 years ago. The City is where London first started to breathe and grow and develop into the teaming metropolis that it has since become.

Under the modernist, brutalist layers of the Barbican Centre, lie not only Roman foundations, but Tudor foundations too. It was here, in the bustling Barbican of Tudor times, that Shakespeare lived, in Cripplegate, and wrote Hamlet.

The City is where Londoner’s endured the greatest calamities of the metropolis’s history. The Church of St-Giles-without-Cripplegate, which sits, preserved, within the concrete womb of the Barbican, survived not only the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also the Nazi bombs of the 1940’s, which obliterated the rest of the area.

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This church’s canny skill of self-preservation allowed not only Oliver Cromwell to marry at its altar, but also allowed Rick Wakeman to record The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in the church’s nave, a century later.

Today the population of London’s historic heart is just 8,000, out of an overall population of nearly nine million, a number that has stayed static for decades.

It is surprising that anyone still lives there at all, in this cavernous mass of offices and sandwich shops.

There are over forty Eats and Pret a Mangers within the Square Mile and there are probably more on the way. That is one to serve every 200 of the City’s population, which is quite a good ratio of sandwich coverage.

But, civilisation does cling on and people do live there in the penthouses that sit at the top of the ever taller office blocks and in the beautifully appointed apartments of the Barbican.

I once even met someone who lived in a converted flat in the spire of Christ Church Greyfriars, the bombed-out church at the top of Cheapside, which was left partly in ruins as a memorial to those who died in the Blitz.

This is, to say the least, one of the City’s more unusual desirable residences, sitting as it does above the grave of Isabella of France, the so called ‘She-Wolf’ and original femme fatal, who was married to Edward II.

The rise of global finance and the power of the City of London Corporation and Parliament’s reliance on it as the economic engine room of the country, led to the sanitisation of this very crucial slice of London’s history.

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The very centre of wider London, sits not in the City though, but under the statue of Charles I in front of Trafalgar Square. The statue of the beheaded King was torn down in the wake of the Civil War and the Roundheads ordered that it be melted down. The canny merchant who bought it though, buried the statue in his back garden and returned it to Charles II on his restoration in 1660.

It is from this spot that the accession of future Kings and Queens of England will be announced, but the monarch too, just like the workers in the City, is a commuter. For long periods of time Buckingham Palace is empty, turned over to millions of tourists, while the Queen reigns from Windsor or Balmoral or Sandringham.

Go to Chelsea or Kensington, or any of the more well healed inner suburbs of London and you will find emptiness too. Street after street of houses bought up by millionaires and billionaires, who use them once in a blue moon whenever they are in the city.

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Go to County Hall, the imposing building that sits opposite Parliament, the former home of the powerful and independent Greater London Council and you will find only fish. Tank after tank of tropical fish. It was converted by Margaret Thatcher into an aquarium in the 1980s.

Pretty soon you won’t even find Parliament in Parliament. The Commons and Lords are all set to move to allow a multi-billion pound restoration to take place.

The centre of London has been hollowed out and turned into a playground for bankers and tourists, while the real people, the lifeblood of the city, have been pushed further and further out into the endless outer suburbs.

The pulse of the city can now be found in its extremities rather than at its heart.

As Patrick Keiller, in his excellent 1994 documentary film, ‘London’ writes, ‘for Londoners, the City is obscured. Too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know. Its social life invisible, its government abolished, its institutions  at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void, which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers, mostly citizens of other towns.

The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.’

USSR 1991 – A Conversation with Keizo Kitajima

06/06/1991, Nevelsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Larissa Romanov, 20 years old, works at a clothing factory. In September 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a Korean jet off the coast here, killing more than 200 people.
06/06/1991, Nevelsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Larissa Romanov, 20 years old, works at a clothing factory. In September 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a Korean jet off the coast here, killing more than 200 people.

In Keizo Kitajima’s new collection, USSR 1991, there is a picture of a blonde girl with dark eyes standing on the side of the River Neva in St. Petersburg. Her clothes look surprisingly modern despite the 21 years that have passed between the images being taken and their publication. Only the caption gives it away: “Yes, the name St. Petersburg is fine,” 22 year old model Silvia Myznikov says, “but I’m not used to it yet.” Born when the city was still known as Leningrad, Silvia absently turns a monumental moment from history into something like an inconvenience at the post office.

Before his arrival in Russia, Keizo spent his career producing picture collages of life in Shinjuku, a district of Tokyo and hotbed of underground culture and politics, where he created twelve booklets of photographs conveying the aura of the time. He also produced a seminal collection of images of New York in the 1980s. This new collection of photographs, taken on a trip through the USSR in 1991 and gathered together by Little Big Man Press into a lovingly crafted book, captures ordinary people living through a period of great upheaval. “Compared with the dramatic change of a political system, the tale of each individual’s life is very small,” says Keizo, “however I wanted to ensure the photographs valued these people’s stories.”

23/9/1991, Baku, Azerbaijan SSR: Andrei Titov, 16 years old. A Russian boy whose father is a Soviet Army officer and whose mother is a physician.
23/9/1991, Baku, Azerbaijan SSR: Andrei Titov, 16 years old. A Russian boy whose father is a Soviet Army officer and whose mother is a physician.

Depicting the re-evaluation of imposing and strong objects of state, suddenly rendered small and laughable in the wake of political revolution, it is often the individual who is at the foreground of these photographs. “I imagined that the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the Russian people an unfathomable shock,” says Keizo, ” and I tried to make a symbolic iconographic image of the people I met, based upon each individual’s tale.” Like the old paintings of Tsar Nicholas II that place the monarch front and centre his coat decked in garter ribbons and trinkets signifying royal power, the people here stand by icons of their respective trades: a woman in a red cardigan stands by a green loom in a silk factory bankrolled by Charles Aznavour, while a man in a blue flat cap with a wrench in his hand works by the gnashing teeth of a Siberian logging machine.

History is the landscape from which individual stories rise, like, for example, the story of Larissa Romanov, a 20 year old clothes factory worker. She is photographed in Nevelsk, a fishing town located on the southwest coast of Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific. During its history the island has passed between Russian and Japanese sovereignty so Nevelsk is also known by its Japanese name Honto-Cho. “A Korean Air jet was shot down by the Soviet air force offshore here in September 1983, 200 people, or more, were sacrificed,” Keizo says, before adding, “for me this photography represents a hybrid scenery, in which various histories are piled up.”

29/09/1991, St. Petersburg, Russian SFSR: Sylvia Myznikov, 22, was born in Leningrad and has been a model for five years. "Yes, the name St. Peter'sburg is fine, but I'm not used to it yet" she says.
29/09/1991, St. Petersburg, Russian SFSR: Sylvia Myznikov, 22, was born in Leningrad and has been a model for five years. “Yes, the name St. Petersburg is fine, but I’m not used to it yet” she says.

Whilst Keizo asked many people to pose for portraits, not all accepted, “but all those that did seemed to show me their pride,” says the photographer. That pride is clear in the portrait of Dzhuma Redzhepov, a 65 year old, who made rugs with pictures of celebrities on them. With two etchings of Stalin hanging above him, he stands in a cluttered living room, the lapels of his blazer lined with medals won during the defence of Stalingrad in World War Two.

“I thought that I should try not to forget the people of the USSR I met that year,” Keizo adds, and his photographs offer a vivid reminder of those people who didn’t live for the Soviet Union, but nonetheless tried to live as best they could within its fabric.

8/6/1991, Yuzhno-Sakhalnsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk suburbs
8/6/1991, Yuzhno-Sakhalnsk, Sakhalin, Russian SFSR: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk suburbs

Photography Keizo Kitajima