In arguments about music, books, cinema, painting or whatever artform you care to mention, the topic of artifice versus authenticity never seems far from the surface. My opinion, of which I dare say any regular reader will be well aware, is that such arguments are bunkum. In a mediated world of real, not real and fiction, not fiction then the only things we can trust are the heat of the sun on our limbs and the chill of the ice on our tongues. "The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes" indeed.
Jeff Wall knows this and hinges his work upon this very thread. Photography, that time-honoured medium through which the illusion of ‘truth’ has traditionally been delivered is, in his hands, moulded into lies and deceptions. Convincing, beautiful, epic even, but untruths nevertheless.
His ‘Volunteer’ from 1996 is a fine example wherein Wall creates in a single still image a distillation of memory, observation and experience. On the surface the image appears to be documentary; a glimpse into a moment of the ‘volunteer’ of the work’s title, routinely cleaning the floor of what appears to be some kind of social facility. The room looks ‘real’, the moment entirely believable. And yet the ‘truth’ is that this room is a stage-set where the mural (a replica of one seen in a homeless shelter) has been painted specifically for the purpose of this photograph and where the ‘volunteer’ is as much a carefully choreographed prop as the mop he handles.
Like Cindy Sherman’s ‘Film Stills’, to which Wall’s work from this period obviously nods in acknowledgement, this photograph is cinematic in intention, preparation and execution. I can see it as a still from, say, Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ and indeed is there not a similar tension in Jarmusch’s films between mediated authenticity and surreal unreality? The clues to the staging are, one might argue, hidden in plain sight. Such tonal perfection and compositional exquisiteness do not occur by accident, after all.
Ultimately then Wall’s work gives lie to the idea that photography is a medium of honesty and truth. It instead gives weight to an idea that says the artists’ role is not to merely hold a mirror up to life and the world, but to subtly intervene such that the stories, the myriad truths and interwoven realities are instead crafted such that they become simultaneously clearer and more confused.
Rub your eyes.
When I listen to the playlist of this series one the things that strikes me is the occasional sharp shift in genre from one song/year to the next. Often this is completely at odds with the reality of my listening, where a mix of styles and sounds blends together across the days, weeks and months of a year. Stylistic ebbs and flows. A bit of minimalist electronica here, a dash of Sunshine Pop there. A sprinkling of Jazz and a dollop of Glam.
In 1996 however there really did seem to be a strange and sudden punctuation point; a point at which the predominantly dark and urban growls of jungle and hip hop gave way to the sound of suburban whispers and pastoral pop. It was all Michael White’s fault really (and it was a wonderful twist of history that led to him penning the definitive Sarah story), for he had sent me tapes from way over on the East coast of Canada that were filled with new songs by bands who were pretty much on my own doorstep. It surprised me that groups were still making this kind of sound. Two groups on those tapes really stood out though: Yummy Fur, who sounded like Fire Engines with a mouth full of Bazooka Joe and Belle & Sebastian who sounded like nothing on earth.
Some of course would say that Belle & Sebastian circa 1996 actually sounded like an indentikit indie band, all fey whimpers and hiding behind fringes, yet those who might have suggested such things were clearly missing the point. The point being that in Belle & Sebastian we suddenly had a group who, yes, certainly evoked thoughts of previous pop highlights such as Pale Fountains, Orange Juice, Felt, Weather Prophets, Servants (or any other combination of bands on Stuart Murdoch’s infamous ‘Bowlie’ tape as documented in Stuart David’s glorious ‘In the All Night Cafe') yet who crucially really did not sound at all like any one of those influences.
‘Suddenly’ is the vital word here, for Belle & Sebastian really did appear almost fully, perfectly formed. It was as though someone had sat down and plotted how to create the ultimate ‘indie’ band, complete with self-myhtologised back story (and in comic strip format to boot!) and rules of engagement (no encores; publicity photos that did not feature band members; the drummer heading up interviews). Belle & Sebastian immediately gave glorious lie to the notion of ‘indie’ authenticity. Here was a group as carefully constructed as The Monkees or Take That but with the key difference being that there was no svengali behind the curtain pulling strings. Infamously of course the group made waves by winning a Brit Award thanks to being the first group to leverage an Internet savvy fanbase. As such, Belle & Sebastian were perhaps the first band for a socialised, networked age (crucially, their fan base was one who previously networked via fanzines and frenzied letter writing - thus they took to the tools of the Internet like ducks to water). Certainly Belle & Sebastian were a group who knew the value of gang sensibility (as opposed to Gang mentality). The fact that they made such exquisite records was certainly a valuable bonus.
‘Stars of Track and Field’, the opening cut on their now widely and rightly celebrated second album certainly still sounds as delicious today as it did when it first emerged, trembling yet quietly assured from Michael’s tape. It is a song that grows in confidence as it moves forward with the loneliness of the middle distance runner: An energy saving first few hundred meters; a glance at the competition as it breathes deeper and accelerates imperceptibly; stride lengthening as it enters the final lap to culminate in, if not a sprint to the line, at least a profoundly secure romp home. Nobody else is in the finishing straight.
Turn To The Sun - Zee Town and the Dog Boys (from 'ii' EP. Bandcamp) Blue Skies - Sad Day For Puppets (from 'Unknown Colors' LP. Bandcamp) Let's Start It Over - Cosines (from 'Transitions' EP. Bandcamp) Someone to Care For Me - The Hayman Kupa Band (7" single. Bandcamp) Somebody's Turning On The People - Grapefruit (available on 'Yesterday's Sunshine' LP) Me & Magdalena - The Monkees (from 'Good Times' LP) Passing a Van - Robert Rotifer (from 'Not Your Door' LP. Bandcamp) Bed of Bones - The Lad Mags (digital single. Bandcamp) The Fall Of Great Britain - Martin Bramah (from 'BREXIT!' free EP. Bandcamp) Dream Baby Dream - Suicide (YouTube. R.I.P. Alan Vega) Get High (Grimiss & KVS Remix) - Suzy Blu (from 'Crush On You' remixed LP. Bandcamp) Paper Cuts - Boy Least Likely To (YouTube) Soul Remains - T.O.Y.S (from 'Sicks' LP. Bandcamp) Moscow on the Thames - Terry (from 'Terry HQ' LP. Bandcamp) A Beautiful Night In Oslo - Billie The Vision & The Dancers (from 'Where The Ocean Meets My Hand' LP. live on YouTube) Stop the Music - The Pipettes (from 'Earth vs The Pipettes' LP. YouTube) Future Vanishes - Rose Elinor Dougall (YouTube) Calm Before the Storm - Penetration (from 'Resolution' LP) Life's A Mistake (Worth Repeating) - Dribbling Darts (from 'Present Perfect' LP) St. Paul's (Westerberg Comprehensive) - Martha (from 'Blisters In The Pit of My Heart' LP. Bandcamp)
Just as it was difficult to decide on what song ought to illustrate ‘The Sarah Years’, so I also thought long and hard about what track ought to act as soundtrack to ‘The Drum’n’Bass Years’. After all, there really are so many shockingly good records to choose from. It could have been Goldie’s astonishing ‘Terminator’ from 1992, but really when it came down to it I could not choose anything but ‘That Summer Feeling’ to document that particular year. Or perhaps LTJ Bukem’s remarkable ‘Music’ from 1993 which I admit only just lost out to ‘French Disko’ in a bloody late night shoot out. ‘Terminator’ though really was the spark that eventually led to my immersion in the concatenation of fractious beats and heart-stopping sub bass detonations. For several years it felt as though not much else mattered and I admit that I devoured the latest 12”s in the same way I once hoovered up Indiepop 7”s. It took years for my bank balance to recover, yet the thrill was certainly worth the cost.
Of course by 1995 the sounds of d’n’b were already in many places becoming smoothed and smothered and never more so than on Goldie’s often dreary crossover ‘Timeless' album (though ‘Inner City Life’ still sounds like a splendid Pop single). D’n’b was infiltrating and infecting ‘the mainstream’ and artists were cropping up in all sorts of places remixing all kinds of unexpected records. It probably says a lot about the times when I tell you that I cannot think of one off the top of my head that really left a mark. Yet I expect it helped pay the rent and allowed the likes of Rupert Parkes to continue to hone their art.
It is Parkes then that gets the nod to illuminate 1995 with his ‘UFO’ cut, a track that takes Parkes’ trademark atmospheric constructions and drops in the audio from Lt. Col. Charles Halt’s investigation of an unexplained incident in Rendelsham Forest, Suffolk in December 1980. The narrative of Halt’s speech is treated as another instrument to be played with. Chopped, repeated and re-configured it is at times a rhythmic device mimicking the syncopated and spliced beats; at others it plays out more fully, building the story, weaving through the dense clouds of bass just as you imagine the narrator and his squad treading carefully through the Rendlesham forest at night. Is this melding of sound and dialogue a precursor to Parkes’ successful soundtrack work in Hollywood? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly the six minutes of Parke’s record passes almost in a blur of extraterrestrial disorientation that plays out cinematically on our aural retinas.
Intriguingly, Parkes’ track predates the official release of the Rendlesham Forest recordings by a good fifteen years. So was ‘UFO’ itself a strange time-slip phenomenon, leaping across the decades in a worm-hole blip of the eye? For sure it would explain why, like all great records it sounds curiously both utterly of its time and remarkably timeless all at once. Time is fluid, history fiction.
If you were to ask me to choose one visual artist whose work somehow fits with the chopped up rhythms of drum’n’bass then I suspect I might choose Cy Twombly over any number of perhaps more obvious ‘urban’ graffiti artists. His apparently arbitrary yet remarkably ordered scribbles, scratches and scrawls seem to me to perfectly echo the twists, turns and tumbles of the sparsest, finest d’n’b productions. In both too to space is vital. But I hardly need to say that by now, do I? Not that there is no connection to be made, for Twombly was famously as much an inspiration to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat as Warhol, and you surely do not get any more fashionably urban than Basquiat in the world of painting.
Twombly’s 'Quattro Stagioni’ was completed in 1995 and is, perhaps, the visual lightness to the aural darkness of Photek. Do all four parts of the monumental painting still hang in Tate Modern? I have not been there for many years, but I hope they are still on display. Like the room of Rothkos (which incidentally were never displayed so beautifully as when they were in the Tate at Milbank) they deserve to be on permanent view.
Of the four paintings, each conjuring a season, ‘Estate’ (Summer’) is, obviously, our choice for this series; like the season it portrays 'Estate’ is seductive and gentle, explosive and tender. As in Motherwell’s ‘Elegy To The Spanish Republic’ the painting is invested with the white light of a hot summer, through which echoes of text vibrate and lazily wink. Yellows erupt like fireworks in the sky and bleed down the canvas like honey. Metaphysical meaning evaporates in the sun and teases us with languid suggestions of faded memory. Time is fluid, history fiction.
There is an argument to be made that Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness is not a piece of Art at all, but regardless of the fact that I have little or no interest in gardening, I believe this would be a fallacious suggestion. For Jarman’s garden at Dungeness clearly follows through in the spirit of other adventures in the visual realm, be that painting, photography, film, sculpture, whatever. All involved with the manipulations of line, shape, texture, form, light, colour... Does this make every gardner an artist? Of course not, for to be an artist first you must perceive yourself to be such. Only artists truly believe themselves to be artists, and artists only. I am sure the same is true of gardeners.
As with anything, when thinking about Jarman’s garden at Dungeness we must remember that context is everything. Perched at the end of England, Dungeness is a strange outlaw land of contrasts and tensions. Nuclear power station cheek by jowl with nature reserve; a tourist destination with no tourist attractions; a windswept desert on the edge of a gloomy introspective land. Very much a Marmite kind of place, it is very difficult to explain the magic to anyone who has either never been or who has been and doesn’t ‘get it’. My suspicion is that for those who are bitten by its beauty it is a difficult place to forget. I think I can understand what drew Jarman here.
Having said that Dungness is a tourist destination without tourist attractions, this statement has of course to be tempered with the fact that Prospect Cottage and its garden is undoubtedly a draw for the middle aged and middle class Guardian readers of the world. This is certainly not meant as an insult, for it is what initially drew us to the place. As an ‘attraction’ it is strange in that it both draws one in and excludes in the same moment. As a garden, as a cottage, it is both monument to Jarman’s life and work and a continuing home to his partner at the time of his death. As such it feels an imposition to stop and linger for too long, yet I know that many do. Many even walk into and over the garden, assuming somehow that is is a public exhibit. It must be exhausting to live with that.
Then again, that tension between privacy and exhibitionism is entirely appropriate for it is often at the core of any artist’s life and perhaps Jarman’s in particular. There is a lovely opinion voiced in the 'Life As Art’ documentary about Jarman’s vision of England being essentially conservative with a small ‘c’; about how it was of an England of "beautiful, unspoiled countryside” and “good, clean, nice people” (which chimes with my thoughts of Ray Davies and his visions of a mediated, mythic England). And this view of course clashes magnificently with the outward appearance of his work. One wonders if the one is possible without the other.
Certainly Prospect Cottage and it’s garden would not be possible without Dungness. Yet although the appeal of Dungeness would certainly remain intact without Prospect Cottage, there is a delicious symbiotic relationship between the two that certainly means that in this moment in time it is difficult to imagine Dungeness without it.
As this story drifts towards my late twenties I admit that it has become ever more difficult to know what music to leave out. This is particularly true when I think of what year and what song I should include to portray ‘The Sarah Years’. Fortunately history has been kinder than I ever expected in this regard, for at the very least I am able to artfully shimmy sideways and suggest that really all one needs to do is to watch the very lovely ‘My Secret World’ documentary or to read Michael White’s exemplary ‘Popkiss’ book. It must be added too that I have felt incredibly honoured to have penned sleevenotes for various reissues over the years by Harvey Williams, The Field Mice and The Orchids. Sometimes I wonder what my younger self would have made of it all...
So The Orchids are the group who have drawn the short straw, and it is the title track to their ‘Striving For The Lazy Perfection’ set that illuminates the way. And what a brilliant illumination it is: James Hackett’s wispery thin, blissfully mumbled vocals drift gently atop a confident, supple yet never strident groove; Pauline Hynds’ similarly soulful but stronger singing provides a scintillating counterpoint; the sound of strings and percussion tickle through the mesmerising sequencer blips like sprinkles of rain on the roof. Again, as in so many of the songs I find myself drawn to in this series, it is the space in the production that allows all of this to work. Gaps are left for those refrains to drip and drop into and out of. The choreography of sound is elegant in a pragmatically elementary manner: It might be grubby wee boys dancing in tenement bedrooms, but it’s richer and more beautiful for all that.
Do you remember ‘The Word’? No, me neither, for the notion of Friday night telly did nothing very much for me in the early 1990s or at any other time. I do not remember ‘The Tube’ either, since in that show's heyday Channel 4 was beyond reception in our backwoods coastal town. Not that I could have watched it anyway, for in a household of one television set the evening viewing would never have included such esoteric Pop cultural content. This is not something that fills me with regret for there were always less boring things to do than to watch television after all. Perhaps this is why I have also never been much bothered to engage with YouTube and its publicly sourced archive of video archeology. It neither connects with me as repository of moments of shared experience or interests me much as a source of historical documentation. Which says more about my relationship with the medium of television than anything else I suppose. Ambivalent was made to describe such moments.
That said, I have watched the footage of Stereolab performing ‘French Disko’ on ‘The Word’ on many occasions and I admit that it always thrills me. There is something appealing in the somewhat bizarre spectacle of sparsely clad hedonistic dancers gyrating to a song about the power and importance of revolutionary solidarity. That said, the notion of revolutionary solidarity never sounded so hedonistic as it did in ‘French Disko’ so perhaps it makes perfect sense after all. Certainly Tim Gane appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself in this performance: The former McCarthy guitarist bounces on the spot and grins insanely as the group (sorry, the GROOP) hammer out their peerless motorik Pop groove. Elsewhere we see Dave Callahan of Wolfhounds/Moonshake infamy meticulously meddling with a button on a keyboard, coaxing it into wildly oscillating shapes and shadows. Or maybe he was recreating bird mating calls? Anything is possible.
Then there is Katherine Gifford looking effortlessly cool in a tracksuit top and Laetitia Sadier reminding us all that “Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in, it doesn’t call for bubble withdrawal.” As true today as it’s ever been. Let us not forget either guitarist and vocalist Mary Hansen looking resplendent in shivering silvery white. Mary should also have been celebrating her 50th birthday this year, so this one goes out to her and to anyone else we have lost along the way. My friend Mike Appelstein reflected eloquently on this recently in a Facebook post about reaching his own half century. One of the key points he made (as well as remembering all the friends who didn’t make it so far in life, for a multitude of reasons) was that fundamentally he didn’t feel all that different inside to how he did when he was thirty. This resonates strongly, and whilst it isn’t to say that we do not develop and change our ideas and world-views as we grow older, experience and learn more, the essence of what we are perhaps does not significantly alter. It’s perhaps the reason why ‘French Disko’ in 2016 still feels so remarkably pertinent: It reminds me that whilst my instinctive default position is indeed to crawl into my ‘bubble of withdrawal’, there are some things more important than the self. It is not all about me.
La resistance! indeed.
When we looked at Gillian Wearing’s photographs in 1992 we noted the image that says how everything in life is connected. I mentioned that it often acts as a terrific learning tool, one I use often to highlight the links between images from different artists and different generations. It would certainly be pulled out of the hat if I were talking about Nick Wapplington’s photographs in his ‘Truth or Consequences’ project, for visual homage and reference is certainly one of its central themes.
Tying such long-term projects to a specific year is, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the project in question, an arbitrary decision. For example the photographs for ‘Truth or Consequences’ were taken over a ten year period and the book was published in 2001. Knowing which year any particular shot was taken is, to a large extent, an irrelevance. These photographs may document specific place and time yet these are not documentary photographs.
That said, the project illustrates very well the essence of what makes successful documentary, or perhaps successful art of any kind. For Truth or Consequences is a town that Wapplington grew to know through a decade of extended visitation and this knowledge crucially informs ’Truth or Consequences’ the work. It rather reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy talking about knowing the rock, or the stream, or the tree and how that takes time and effort. In some respects Goldsworthy’s words sound like the vilest Hippie twaddle, but I cannot deny that there is truth in them.
’Truth or Consequences' started in 1993, however, and that is good enough for me. Indeed, some of Waplington’s photos from that first visit (taken on a Snappy Snaps camera) are included in the published collection, complete with orange date stamp. It’s there (April 8th) on this particular shot of a tricycle that of course screams loudly its connection to William Eggleston. How could any photograph of a tricycle deny its heritage roots in Eggleston, intentional or otherwise?
Wapplington’s frame of reference (excuse the pun) is entirely intentional of course and this is part of its charm, for Wapplington’s body of work here is photographic history turned into a game. There is something delightful about that idea, for it diffuses the charges of historical exploration being dusty, dingy and dispiritingly dry. Then again, perhaps it is only those of us with an interest in such things who find it all so entertaining. Does someone with barely a passing interest in the subject find themselves drawn in? Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps they would simply need an introduction: Passing stranger in the street, meet ‘Truth or Consequences’; ‘Truth or Consequences’, meet passing stranger in the street. I think you’re going to get on really well together...
But do you need that introduction to enjoy these images? Do you need to know Eggleston’s work, or Edward Weston’s, or Walker Evans’ to enjoy Wapplington’s? Of course not. But those nuances that the uninitiated might miss certainly add an extra layer of pleasure to those who see the references. Me? I savour this work like I savour the flavours in a 21 year old Portwood Balvenie.
It may not have been until 1997 that Gillian Wearing’s 'Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ was shown collectively, but the individual photographs that made up the work were certainly created throughout 1992 and 93. The first photograph from the series that I came across was the shot of a bespectacled, tousled-haired chap holding a sign that said ‘everything is connected in life, the point is to know it and to understand it.’ You somehow felt that the chap would have been familiar with the film for Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and that his sign was a kind of Postmodern meta-critique. Certainly I used both Wearing and Dylan as reference points for my own take on the concept when I made a video for Jasmine Minks’ ‘Daddy Dog’. I imagine many others have done the same in a myriad of contexts.
Whilst the ‘everything is connected’ image continues to amuse me (and is endlessly powerful as a learning tool) it is instead this ‘I’m desperate’ shot that lingers longest in my thoughts. It is this one that continues to itch, asking questions to which the answers always feel so pertinent. The image works so well, I think, because it is a picture of contradictions and because deep down we recognise that contradictions are part of what makes us human. There is something unexpected in seeing a smart young man admitting to desperation; in expressing what we believe to be truth and honesty. It’s so unexpected because our immediate connection for suited young men is to Big Business and The City (particularly in the context of the early ‘90s) and as such conjures thoughts of deception and slippery avoidance. But here the mask has slipped. Reality sneaks through and somehow it’s what we suspected all along: that the neoliberal revolution of the eighties and nineties was fired by greed, fear and yes, desperation. Twenty four years on that desperation resonates stronger than ever.
This work of Wearing’s is another of those where photography is a means to an end, and I continue to be intrigued by that. I remain intrigued by the challenge of identifying the point at which the technical proficiency of the photography hinders or enhances the work. In Wearing’s case it seems to me that the line is walked pretty much to perfection: The photographs have enough rough charm to feel as though they might be everyday snaps (I refuse to say they look ‘authentic’ for hopefully you know by now how much I mistrust that word and notion) and yet are so well composed and executed that they equally clearly are not. That tension between the composed and the instinctual, between truth and expectation is of course a key element in the work, and it’s a tension I find endlessly intriguing.
There are some people, no doubt, who would argue for Jonathan Richman’s ‘That Summer Feeling’ more accurately belonging to 1983 or 84. Yet whilst that earlier recording is certainly special, it is this six minute re-make from Richman’s 1992 ‘I, Jonathan’ set that nestles closest to the very centre of my heart.
Was Jonathan Richman the prototype ‘cutie’ artist? If you were to consider his records from the late seventies and into the eighties you would say certainly, yes, perhaps... although much would depend on your definition of such a concept and particularly on the connections you might go on to draw. It would certainly be true to suggest that Richman’s carefully considered naiveté was a primary post-punk mover in terms of defining a space that was categorically non-Rock. Yet if Richman’s songs could be considered non-Rock they were also simultaneously celebratory of early Rock-n’Roll, and this was part of their charm. They were songs and records that appeared to yearn for simpler times whilst recognising that nothing is quite so simple as that.
So Richman’s songs for children were a blueprint perhaps for groups like The Pastels in as much as they sketched out the possibilities in the rejection of accepted notions of adulthood; a revolt into eternal youth as a means of subverting broken traditions and failed systems. Of course some others mistook it all for an excuse to suck lollipops and play at being fey but perhaps those were simply embarrassing phases of growth and development...
‘That Summer Feeling’ then acts almost as a self-reflective commentary on the very process that Richman was exploring through many of his songs. It is a record that brims with nostalgia, yes, but much more crucially it is a record that acknowledges the way nostalgia is used to manipulate meaning. As such it is essentially a wickedly knowing record that manages to escape from being both obnoxiously clever and from being cloyingly, artificially naive. ‘That Summer Feeling’ is a record that treads the line between discomforting honesty and homely warmth with aplomb; is a record that, like Wearing’s photographs, plays on the tension between the carefully composed and the instinctual. Treasure forever.