The duchess and I own 2/20,000ths of a Richard Long artwork. The tiny segments are part of the piece that Bill Drummond has been selling off as part of his own ongoing performance artwork. For what it’s worth, our segments were some of the first to be purchased back in 2001 when Drummond came to Exeter. As expected he was as witty, engaging and intellectually stimulating as you might expect someone who had burnt a million quid to be. And you may interpret that last sentence according to your whim.
In my head therefore Drummond and Long are inextricably linked, and in my head this is not a problem for we need pointers to lead us to places of interest. So whilst I was aware of Richard Long’s work long before Drummond made his connections, it was only really when I read the former KLF member’s terrific ‘How To Be An Artist’ that things clicked. What clicked? Well I think it was the notion that you could be this and you could be that all at once. The one may contradict the other but that is okay. Indeed, the contradictions are a part of the appeal. So Richard Long (and Bill Drummond to a degree) might in one light be seen as unconscionable hippies in thrall to the pull of nature and yet in another can also be seen as sublimely minimalist, modernist even. Perhaps even revolutionary in their own quiet ways.
What I like about Richard Long’s work though isn’t so much what it is, or what it’s about, but rather the questions it asks us. Where his work is recorded in photography those questions are very much tied up in the value of the image: To what extent is the photograph the work? Does the success of the work depend upon the skill of the photographer? What impact does the choice of the photograph have? How valuable is a moment captured when the work is about time and experience that belongs entirely to the artist? Drummond himself seeks to address some of those questions by slicing up and selling off his £20,000 photograph of ‘The Smell of Sulphur in the Wind’. Did he buy a photograph or did he buy something much more exclusive and elusive? Invisible and non-existent, even. What a scam. Nice work if you can get it.
With his text work (of which ‘Halfway Stone’ is one) the questions are similar: To what extent is the text the work? Does the success of the work depend upon the skill of the writer and of the typographer? How valuable is a moment captured when the work is about time and experience that belongs entirely to the artist? In the case of ‘Halfway Stone’, what is the significance of the halfway point on a walk of 622 miles? Is all that came before simply preparation for the moment? Is all that came after an anti-climax or an irrelevance? This is the punctuation point, but what of the void? 622 miles is a long way. Is that, then, what we value and appreciate about the work? Walking 622 miles in 21 days is hard work, after all. It’s no stroll in the park, but then again Long obviously loves walking. He’s doing what he wants to do, and ultimately that is what I like most about his work: It is unapologetically about the artist himself and his own relationship with the world. Yes, the viewer may be encouraged or inspired to find their own relationships and create their own interventions with the world, but these particular moments actually belong to no-one but the artist himself. There is something beautifully selfish in that act, and artists should be selfish above all else after all.
There have always been some ridiculous demarcation lines drawn between musical genres but none were more ridiculous than the notion of ‘Dance’ music being a genre in and of itself. You can dance to anything, after all. Even architecture. Especially architecture. Yet ‘Dance’ was, particularly for a period at the end of the ‘8os and into the ‘90s, a genre distinctly defined by media and consumer alike. It became something of a battleground, especially for those of a certain persuasion. Such people claimed that every band previously seen (or heard) wielding guitars were sell-outs or traitors for adding a funky drummer breakbeat to their records. Some groups countered with “there was always a Dance element to our sound”. It would have been funny if people hadn’t been so earnest. Actually, perhaps that is exactly why it was so funny. And I suspect I may have been something of a comedian in my time...
Many of the artists who trod the shady line that some pronounced as being ‘indie- dance’ had ludicrously (and mercifully) short life-spans. Others assuredly deserved better (step forward World Of Twist, Paris Angels and Intastella). In hindsight it seems impossible to contemplate that Saint Etienne would not become the group who went go on to produce innumerable albums of astonishing accomplishment yet at the time of their second single there was no certainty that the party would last much further into the future. Perhaps this was part of the appeal. It could all fall apart tomorrow so enjoy it whilst it lasts.
In hindsight too it feels so right that their first two singles should have been cover versions from such apparently opposite ends of the Pop spectrum. Neil Young and The Field Mice? How does THAT happen? At the time it felt simultaneously both strange and gloriously apt. Looking back from 2016 it almost feels like an inevitability. In those post-modern daze of wonder and abandonment to the heady melting pot of Pop how could it possibly have been any different?
And yet Saint Etienne did seem strange at the time. We could see the signposts but couldn’t see the roads. Or maybe where Pop was going it didn’t need roads…. Saint Etienne then seemed to be a group that embraced, indeed celebrated the very manufactured essence of Pop; a group who implicitly understood the artifice inherent in notions of authenticity and yet seemed so very real in their shimmering elusiveness. It’s a hard act to pull off, with the implicit point that if you can see the hand move then the magic is lost. And Saint Etienne have always believed in magic.
‘Kiss And Make Up’, then, as remodelled by Saint Etienne retains something of the resignedness of the Field Mice original but smothers it in salacious smooches such that the ennui registers only as a nagging undercurrent. It is a spacious and dubby record and with it’s Italo House piano slowed to an almost funereal pace it could come over with an Indie-boy earnestness if it wasn’t so dashed skinny hipped and seductive. The record shimmies from the bedroom to the dancehall and back to the bedroom, but it’s certainly not going home on it’s own. It’s not crying and it most assuredly doesn’t want to die. In the end then this is its greatest quality: it is this and it is that all at once. Its contradictions are essential ingredients of its whole. Revolutionary, in its own quiet way.
In a 1987 (or perhaps it was 1988) issue of ‘Underground' magazine there was a terrific article about a McCarthy and Wolfhounds tour in Europe. Richey Edwards once told me that reading it changed his life. It did not quite do this for me, yet there are moments even now when I’d tell you that the records of McCarthy and Wolfhounds meant the world to me; that they shaped and sculpted that world by both informing and focusing thoughts of Political, social and aesthetic form. Wolfhounds in particular delighted my sonic palate with their discordantly melodic guitar Pop. Theirs was a Pop that, like Wire, was taken apart and put back together at slight angles. Just so. Not quite. And...
‘Bright and Guilty’ was their second LP and perhaps my favourite. It certainly contains the Wolfhounds song I most regularly revisit. ‘Ropeswing’ is a disarming evocation of childhood, one that intelligently acknowledges the tension between self-mediated fictions and realities. Perhaps it is a strange song to have sung in one’s early twenties, yet in truth there is no other point in life when that distance between youth and age seems so simultaneously vast and alarmingly small. Frustrations still simmer and the memories of the void of responsibility can feel so alluring. So alluring indeed that perhaps they even blind us to the memories of the flipside, which is that searing anger at one's impotence in the face of authority. What Richard Hell once described as "all that bullshit" of being a teenager. Wolfhounds singer David Callahan sums it up as prosaically as Hell when he sings, simply: "Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I want to go back” before pointing out that "It’s when the job ties you down and the strings of your life go slack.” Never been there? Never felt that? I envy and pity you in equal measure.
‘Ropeswing’ is also perhaps the Wolfhounds song that most explicitly tips a nod to Callahan’s love of nature and as such it is a song that I have always felt sits almost magically apart within the Wolfhounds singularly impressive canon of work. The lines about “the long grass” being “ghostly and solid with frost” resonate strongly. For many years those lines and the song in general recalled for me early ‘80s years out in Fullarton Woods in my home town of Troon. Football on the terraced lawns of the long-demolished house; hide and seek in the dense bamboo; and yes, the ropeswing hung from the tree over the remains of what I now realise would have been an icehouse but what in our young imaginations was of course a dungeon. In our late teenage of course there was an afternoon spent with my much-missed friend Scot and a gaggle of Prestwick girls, all of us hiding from the pressures of school exams and finding release in the pleasure of doing nothing very much at all. Now however the song’s lines mostly remind me of moving to the country from the city some ten years ago. December frosts lit up the mornings and accompanied freezing walks to the river. ‘Ropeswing’ reverberated in my head and heartstrings.
In those recent years too I have tried to find interest in wildlife but I will be frank and tell you I find it impossible. Despite living in the countryside I find that I have zero interest in knowing anything about the details of the nature I find myself surrounded by. Instead I find most pleasure and fascination in the human interventions: Pylons; roads and trackways; isolated cottages and derelict barns; abandoned railways and tucked away chapels. Yet despite, or possibly because of this, I have found Callahan’s 2014 book ‘A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects’ to be a fascinating and thoroughly engaging read. Perhaps you have read it? I recommend it as highly as the entire catalogue (old and new) of the Wolfhounds, and there can be no greater praise than that.
Perhaps you have been devouring the current reissue programme of George Simenon’s ‘Maigret’ titles by Penguin? If so then you will assuredly also have been thoroughly enjoying the exposure to the photographs of fellow Belgian Harry Gruyaert, whose work has been gracing their covers. I will admit that these ‘Maigret’ covers were my own introduction to Gruyaert’s work and admit too that I have since delighted in discovering those works within several published collections. Notable amongst these is ‘Made In Belgium’ which collects many of Gruyaert’s images of his homeland.
This particular shot of Brussels was most likely not taken in 1989, but I am choosing it nonetheless. Cropped (as with all the book covers) it graces the twelfth Maigret novel ‘The Shadow Puppet’ and it is a perfect shot for this purpose since the landscape orientated composition is effectively cut in half by the red and white striped pole. It is a bold compositional move, and such obvious delineations rarely prove so effective. One of the reasons it does so in this example however is the contrast between the two halves of the same scene: The right half filled with fore and middle ground, the left punctuated only by the motorcyclist in the background and the vertical strips of light and colour. Interplay of positive and negative space is impressive, with the off-white form of the wool-clad figure on the right reflecting the similar yet inverted shape on the left framed by the two poles and the diagonal white of the crossing marking. To my mind too there is a strange juxtaposition of time: The figure in white seems somehow old fashioned, or at least, in the words of Jane Gardam’s ‘Bilgewater’, “fashioned old” and in contrast to the motorcyclist who appears utterly contemporary. There is delight too at the detailing in the colours. Just look at how the yellow of the motorcyclist’s scarf picks up the yellow bollard (and/or vice versa). You get the feeling that this could be an Edward Hopper painting, a sense that is exaggerated in the ‘Made In Belgium’ book by its juxtaposition with a perfectly Hopper-esque shot of a lone(ly) figure draped over the table of an otherwise empty railway carriage where the red (the red!) additionally nods to Eggleston (of course).
Elsewhere in Gruyaert’s photographs of Belgium the reference to painting is equally strong, yet rather than making explicit aesthetic connections it is instead the sense of careful attention to composition and detail that invokes this link. Gruyaert’s photographs are perfectly poised images that seek out the everyday and present them as the unusual; they seek out the unexpected and present them as the ordinary. Of course men dressed in Napoleonic War uniforms parade in the streets. Naturally a pair of enormous pink ladies underwear should be suspended from the restaurant ceiling. It all conjures an image of Belgium as being unashamedly quirky: A country and a people comfortable with themselves; who value tradition and yet appreciate individualism and anti-establishment behaviour in equal measure. This, I think, is at the core of the character of Maigret too, and it is a tension that weaves its way through all of Simenon’s books.
Naturally too the Belgian connection appeals to cyclists the world over and I admit to feeling that pull. The country is in the very DNA of the sport, after all. Imagine my delight then to see that in the recently published ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection there is a wonderful collection of Gruyaert's shots from the 1982 Tour de France and a quote from him graces the cover: “Even now I feel if I don’t have my bike then I’m not very happy. I love it: It’s a way of looking at the world, extremely quickly.” As a friend of mine is given to saying: It all fits.