Anastasia Taylor-Lind - 'Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square'
Withered Hand - ‘Fall Apart'
Was it Soul aficionado Dave Godin who was fond of saying that context is everything? I’m sure he wouldn’t have been the first to say as much and he certainly won’t be the last, but was he correct? Is it really? Is it always?
Does one need an understanding of the specific context underpinning the photographs of Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s ‘Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square’ to appreciate them? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly in as much as these photographs were made within a specific time and place, surrounded and informed by specific events, then that context is vital. Now I admit that my mind was largely elsewhere as 2013 ended and 2014 began, so the news of the protests in Ukraine largely passed me by. Conflict between protestors and police in Kiev during February 2014 registered only fleetingly on my mind; the political and social reasons behind the conflict vaguer still. Taylor-Lind’s photographs then were certainly the catalyst for my finding out more about recent history, but even so I admit that it was the aesthetic qualities of the images that had the biggest impact. It remains so, for they are intriguing and elegant photographs.
Each of the individual ‘Portraits from the Black Square’ give the illusion of being studio portraits, yet in reality they were shot in a street close to the centre of violent upheaval. By visually isolating her subjects from the immediate physical context Taylor-Lind lends the work a tension between what is suggested and what is real, between what is Political and what is human. So are Taylor-Lind’s photographs Political photographs? Is there sympathy with the subjects’ stances? If there is a Political line drawn in the sand, which side of it does Taylor-Lind choose to stand? Is she with us or against us? And who is ‘us’ anyway?
Certainly if Taylor-Lind does make a stance through her photography then you would surely argue that it is from a humanist perspective. A common thread throughout her work is an empathy with the subject that is powerful enough to reach out from the image. It is an empathy rooted in the very simple desire to know people, however fleetingly, and to make connections. A desire to seek the threads that bind us, perhaps. This empathy is difficult to achieve and is, I think, one of the reasons I admire Taylor-Lind's work so much. I know I could not do it myself.
Empathy with a subject is one of the most difficult things to teach when you teach photography. Indeed, unlike the technical aspects of the art form, I think it is something that cannot be taught. I am not even sure it can be learned. Not really. Not beyond a conceptual understanding and acknowledgement. For I believe you either have it or you do not. Me, I think I am too much of a misanthropist at heart, but there you are.
So Taylor-Lind reaches out to people and makes photographs that allow them to give something of themselves to her, and hence to us. It is an act that subverts the ancient fear of the camera stealing one’s soul; is an act that turns fear into love, that turns science into magic. And ultimately it is an act that, for me, makes me crucially question the value of context. Is it always everything? Perhaps not.
In recent years it has been my habit to compile an Unpopular advent series, documenting my favourite records of the year. Perhaps you are reading this in the midst of the 2016 version. Perhaps not. Whatever, the advent activity helps fulfil my need to organise and categorise; to tabulate and to rationalise. Some might suggest that this kind of activity place me ‘on the spectrum’ and I have no problem acknowledging that. I acknowledge too that the temptation has been great to simply recycle the top record from each of these past few years for this series, but the truth is that would be too easy, and anyway the world of records and songs and memories and preferences does not work that way. Except for 2014, where it certainly does work that way, for my favourite record of that year cannot fail to offer up the song of choice.
You may wish to follow the connections and the links and read what I wrote about Withered Hand’s glorious ’New Gods’ LP back in 2014 or you may not. In the depths of those words I suggest that in the record "we glimpsed the ghosts of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons sharing a bourbon in an LA Airport lounge whilst daydreaming of peat fires and Sauchiehall Street.” I suggest too that it was "an echo of James Hackett sidling up to Van Dyke Parks and suggesting they make a record about airplane rides, fading photographs and missing heartbeats.” Those are words that I stand by. They are words and allusions that I still rather like, and they are allusions that are assuredly there in ‘Fall Apart’, touched lightly as it is with a dusting of translucent Pop magic. For ‘Fall Apart’ is nothing if not Pop; is nothing if not magic. It forces you to believe. There is no other option. Come on, come on.
‘Fall Apart’ soars and aches in equal measure. The salve it offers is to the wounds it opens; its heart is on its sleeve and its sleeve is tattered from its own oscillating perpetual assault of self-doubt and self-belief. ‘Fall Apart’ is, like many of the songs in this series of articles, one that simultaneously does this and does that. It is a song that underpins its epic simplicity with a complexity that rewards multiple listens. Just as well then it is also a song that insists on repetition. Come on, come on.
Those who know know the value of repetition. Those who know know the key.
‘Fall Apart’ falls in and over itself, wraps itself in its arms and devours its heart to keep itself warm. Nostalgia gives way to regret; regret gives way to salvation; salvation softly returns to nostalgia and we start all over again. Loops and harmonies intertwined. Words masquerading as ghosts and ghosts slinking away to kiss under the mistletoe. Well why not?
‘Fall Apart’ does this and it does that. It is a song about everything and nothing. It is a song that recognises futility whilst celebrating hope. It is a song that knows its heritage and it is a song that knows that heritage counts for nothing in the long run. Everyone knows this is nowhere, after all, don’t they? Well don’t they? Come on, come on.
“You and I dancing by the light of every dead star”? Of course. Of course. Always. Forever. Come on, come on.