Have you ever seen a piece of art that changes the way you see other art that you’ve already seen before? Sorry, I know, of course you have. You’re not a robot. But anyway this is an example of that which happened to me recently.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see I Finally Accept Fate by Johannes Kahrs in real life. Not that I was going purposefully to view said drawing, as before I stumbled across it I didn’t even know it existed. It looks like this:
What does your mind process when you encounter this image? Kahrs’ works are a blurry and chiaroscuro-heavy attempt at photorealism, like the subject is being painted from a paused TV screen or fuzzy monitor. But within a few seconds the interpretation of what I was seeing shifted so dramatically it was like the canvas itself had been pulled into focus.
Having only seen a limited number of Kahrs’ paintings before, I knew he did some figurative work, and wondered whether this was a collection of hand sketches on black that had been blown up and ‘promoted’ to a proper work in itself. This interpretation may seem a strange conclusion to automatically come to, but it was in no small part influenced by having also seen Nicolas de Largillierre’s Étude de Mains recently too:
However it’s very quickly obvious that the sparse and scattered positioning of the hands – and it is only hands – cannot be serendipitous, that even the ones not touching are reacting with each other. So my next response when viewing the entire composition was that they were reaching forcefully, but just to touch rather than grab – as if it were a display of urgency restrained by politeness. When I read that the image is actually of Al Gore and wife Tipper descending a staircase moments after hearing that he’d lost the US presidency to George W Bush in 2000, that interpretation made a lot of sense.
I don’t have the original image, and I don’t recall seeing it in the papers at the time, but I don’t need to. As soon as you know what the photograph is, as soon as you know the moment and the historical significance captured within, you can easily fill in the blankness around the hands. You can see the look of defeat behind the smiles of Al & Tipper, walking with repressed resignation through the throng clapping, snapping, straining to shake hands with them, being held back by security as they surge towards the couple. Or, as the text next to the work put it, Kahrs has left “only the tension and disorder of highly expressive decontextualized gestures which contain a mute violence.” As soon as the viewer is given the political event to align the part-obscured image with, the emotiveness of the situation falls into place.
But did I need that piece of information? My brain seemed to make certain gut reactions about the emotional charge of the moment taking place before knowing what it was, all just from the hands. Was it just coincidence that this reading of their positioning was sort of right? Or – and this is coming from a fervent non-believer in chiromancy – can certain feelings be expressed with neither the viewer nor the viewed consciously intending them?
I ask because, shortly before finding this drawing, I was thinking about the work of Perth-based artist Anna Dunnill. Despite (or perhaps because of) being a multimedia artist, Dunnill’s work always strikes me as being collage, even when it technically isn’t; much of the detail in her art is striking but scattered, like intricate fragments spread out in a way that makes whatever surface they’re on feel like a dense, blank void. And in many cases those details are hands.
Having seen Kahrs’ work, I suddenly realised I’d been making certain assumptions about the hands in Dunnill’s pieces without being consciously aware of it. Take the above image, a detail from Notes Towards A Universal Language. Perhaps because they look like they’ve been sourced from elsewhere, I didn’t assume that the hands were autonomously roaming Addams Family-style around the landscape Dunnill has constructed for them, and their photographic-looking nature meant I involuntarily wondered what the whole image they had been sourced from might have captured. But I wasn’t aware my brain was doing this, nor that it had automatically come to the conclusion that the hands emerging from the depths of the page were…well, desperate. Urgently but desolately lunging out for a hand to grab them back. I had gathered, basically, that they’re the drastic reaches from someone drowning in the work.
Why the hell did I think that? Why the hell did I even think that when viewing the above work from the Transitional Objects series, even though it looks like the hand is grabbing onto something, thus suggesting a glimmer of hope? And why the hell did it take until seeing I Finally Accept Fate to question why I even assumed that at all?
Let’s compare it to, for instance, John Heartfield’s The Hand Has 5 Fingers:
Even before you know the historical context and importance of Heartfield’s work, and before you know what the poster was trying to persuade the viewer to do (i.e. vote for the Communist Party), I would be surprised to hear anyone say the hand look desperate. It feels assured, imposing, aggressive even. It feels bold even before you read the text below it: “with five fingers, you can catch the enemy.”
Or does it? Being so used to seeing Heartfield’s collages, and knowing their significance during that period of 20th century Europe, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t associate his work with confrontation and defiance. Was the size and shape of the hand, its gesture separate from the body and dominating the composition, enough for me to read such feelings into it? Or did I take on the image and associations simultaneously before really being able to judge the hand’s gesture by itself?
These are, effectively, the same questions I ask when considering Dunnill’s work, because I first became aware of the hand motif in her practice after reading her zine Okay Ampersand #4. It is, by the way, an incredible zine. It’s the zine I now think about whenever I even slightly start to wonder whether spending so much time on ‘defending zine culture’ is actually worthwhile, because it quickly reminds me that it totally is. And because of its content (which I won’t go into here, as it feels more appropriate to let the zine explain for itself), it is utterly emotionally devastating. It’s about reaching out and holding on, and makes the way my mind interprets the hands in her work feel entirely fitting.
So, I’ve forgotten which came first. Do I react to the hands in Dunnill’s work as desperately stretching out into emptiness for help because that’s something I also found in the zine? Or did I see it in them before I had that association forever inextricably linked? I don’t know, it’s too late to recall. And probably too late for you too, now…sorry about that.
Well, this isn’t a review of the above zine, but just a shout-out to the lad Felix for reviewing Fifty Unused Zine Titles in his latest zine without a title. If his parents are watching, I’m sorry he had to read words such as ‘Fuck Batman’.
Anyway, I love this, here it is:
- What will you be when you grow up?
Older, I expect.
I don’t know what I will be, but I know things I would like to be. I think I’d enjoy being a Renaissance Man – i.e. with some perspective and an illusion of depth. (Little art joke for you there Eugenia.)
- What makes you happy?
I know things that have happened to me in the past that have made me happy but whether they can be ‘re-staged’, I’m not sure. Lots of people I know make me happy – for reading this you’re likely to be one of them. I know that if I feel unhappy I’ll watch Harry Hill DVDs and roast marshmallows in the spare room over a tea light, but that probably doesn’t count.
- What is happiness?
I don’t know, sorry.
- Do you prefer the great outdoors or the great indoors? What do you do there?
I prefer the indoors I think. And maybe that’s why I like the city because it’s a big collection of indoorses. I tend to spend a lot of time there thinking “I should get out more”.
- Do you look at or avoid mirrors?
I don’t purposefully avoid them but I tend to forget to look in them, subconsciously or otherwise. Therefore I tend to turn up at my place of work not knowing how crap I look. I’m sure if you drew cartoon genitalia on my face in my sleep I wouldn’t know about it until I accidentally caught my reflection in the office espresso machine.
- What’s your favourite colour?
- Tell me about a song OR scene from a film that evokes a particular time, memory, experience, story for you…
I’m not much of a film person and I often find it difficult relating to the characters, so I guess the thing movie scenes usually evoke for me is that time I was sat watching them. So maybe I’ll do a music one.
OK last week I’d booked some DJs for a clubnight and then one of them, who I’d not met before, played ‘Je Veux Te Voir‘ by Yelle, and it reminded me of being at university and listening to it loads on headphones in my room of the house-share I was in, hiding from the ketamine addicts I’d accidentally ended up living with, thinking “I’d really like to be at a club where this is playing”. It took six years but when it happened I lost my freaking mind.
- What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
I’d say the face of my baby sister the first time I made her laugh with one of my jokes. I say joke, it was mainly me rolling around on the floor going “WAAAAAAH!!”, but y’know that’s pretty sophisticated for a six-month-old audience. And compared to the rest of my material.
- If you have travel planned for the future, where will you go and what will you do there?
I’m going to the UK for my cousin’s wedding. We’ll do what people regularly do at weddings, I guess. Usually drink, usually dance, usually bubble.
- Ever wanted to know what it’s like in another person’s shoes? Who would you consider swapping a day in your life with? Why?
Not really, to be honest. There’s people in my life I really admire and aspire to be like, but I think that’s different from wanting to go through their experiences. I know a lot of people who have dealt with terrible shit in their lives and I think it is being sym/empathetic to appreciate that whatever it was, I do not want to know what it was like going through it. If you had the capability to give me the chance of experiencing someone else’s life the way they perceive it then yes, I admit I would be curious. But I wouldn’t be so desperate as to insist you create the contraption that could achieve this. So stop asking me for funding.
If I did though, I’d quite like to try out the life or an artist I like, but someone who doesn’t have a formula about what they do, who tends to just find ideas ‘happening’ to them. Does that make sense? I can’t think of a great example right now…this isn’t one, but I’m thinking of that story where Paul McCartney allegedly dreamt the melody for ‘Yesterday’ and had to wake up and write it down, but didn’t have any lyrics yet, so just called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’. Regardless of the lack of words, I wonder what the hell it must feel like waking up to find your brain has just farted into your mind one of the most popular songs ever written. Is it like an instant revelation, or something you acknowledge has promise but you’ll have to work really hard on to get right, or do you shrug it off and only appreciate it later? Do you know what I mean, Eugenia? Let’s swap lives for a bit, go on.
Oh, unless you literally mean, would I literally like to spend the day literally in someone else’s shoes, which would be a ‘no’ too. I like my shoes. I tend to give my shoes names, for that personal touch. The ones I have on right now are called Mulder & Scully.
Thomas Blatchford, email@example.com
A numbered limited edition of my art piece A Five Dollar Note Kissed By The Artist will be available this weekend from The Window Gallery.
This event is part of Sticky Institute’s Paper City 2013 festival, which I helped organise and stuff. I’ll be there most of this weekend, so if you’ve ever aspired to inflict physical harm upon me, that’s where you can find me.
Happy New Year and everything.
Here is my mixtape of things I’ve liked this year. You can stream it here:
Or if you’re quick – and again of course I can not condone this – but if you want to download it, it’ll be here for a limited time. Yep, here. Or you can email me for it, I guess. Obviously I will have to tell you what a heinous act it is first, and then send it you.
- Internet Forever s/t is my album of the year, hands down. If this embed works you can listen to it here:
- The Church Of Hysteria are the band I saw live most this year. Once, it was in the upstairs of a pub while the man in front of me was so offended he put his fingers in his ears, like a cartoon weasel waiting for dynamite to go off. Once it was in a complete shithole, watching alongside two bemused and be-ponytailed businessmen and a dog, and (at the most recent gig) in front of a gaggle of headbanging kids. I don’t regret attending any of them (and I regret loads of stuff). You can hear their album Argyle below, I will try not to make all of these points bandcamp embeds.
- Most of the new music I listened to this year could easily have conceivably been made ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago even. I’m not going to go ‘the full Simon Reynolds’ on you and explain why I think this is both a good and bad thing, and why that’s probably mostly my fault anyway. But Never by Micachu & The Shapes is the only album I’ve heard this year where, upon first listening, I couldn’t have imagined it being made the day before. This explains it better tbh.
- This is surely the best music video made this year:
- Err I think that’s it. I hope you had a wonderful year.
So I have a new zine out called Fifty Unused Zine Titles. Guess what it’s about.
I’m happy for you to use any of these titles for any future zine you make, on the one condition that you send me a copy, because I’d like to read it please.
So I’ve not written on this blog for ages, sorry about that as usual. I have got a nine-to-five now. Err, yeah.
Anyway. Here’s some ace stuff I’ve written about in the past few months for the lovely Three Thousand, seek all of these out if you know what’s good for yer:
The films of Kenneth Anger. It was a push fitting this into two hundred words, I’ll be honest.
Grace Note by Keith Deverell. An art thing about drummers. That was my original review but they insisted on something more substantial.
The Many Faces Of George Grosz #1 by Keith McDougall. The only time in my brief history of writing for Three Thousand that someone’s tweeted me to say I’ve got my facts wrong. Can you spot where?
Textanudes by Arlene Textaqueen. I don’t think her work is pornographic, I should have made that clearer.
Wok The Rock. What a dude.
The Guerrilla Girls, generally. I hope they’re coming back in April.
Eames: The Architect & The Painter. Also difficult to sum up the Eameses in so few inches.
Entertain Us!, by Craig Schuftan. See below.
Buffalo Girls, a film about Thai boxing nine-year-olds. Less harrowing than you’d except.
An Individual Note by Daphne Oram. Or some event to do with it. An excuse for me to gush about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop anyway.
I also done loads of listings. They won’t be relevant now.
*this is a reference to an Andrew O’Neill joke, btw.