Caught between time: Pablo Bronstein at Nottingham Contemporary

Pablo Bronstein, part of Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth, at Nottingham Contemporary

Pablo Bronstein, part of Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth, at Nottingham Contemporary

Exhibition view of Pablo Bronstein's show at Nottingham Contemporary

Exhibition view of Pablo Bronstein’s show at Nottingham Contemporary

‘Never go back.’ This familiar chime is surely the most common piece of advice to be adhered by nobody ever. When the present suddenly feels unbearable, it happens that a thought occurs to us, a ‘memory’, perhaps, that there was a place where we were happy, or a time that felt like ‘our time’. An entire industry exists around this modern, human, impulse to retreat into an idea of the past, even (especially) when it is not your own.

It would be easy to be critical of it, if it were not for the fact that, like alcoholism or depression, it is an affliction that can and often does affect anyone at some point in their life. My fascination with the history of photography has always been a fascination with the origins of the human impulse to return to somewhere, to revive something; but what, exactly, and why?

And what happens when we do return? One could compile a list, an entire genre, of cultural production, from all corners of the globe, that has ruminated on these outcomes. Perhaps it is considered indulgent at best, fraught with danger at worst, but it is rarely encouraged and often cautioned against: never go back; you can never go back.

On the flip side of this is another modern phenomena, now commonly referred to as ‘ghosting’, whereby one ‘vanishes’ from a former intimate’s life without warning by basically ignoring their calls, blocking their profile, hiding when they come knocking at your door, etc. Anyone with a long-lost relative (hands up!) will know that this has been going on since before smart phones and social media (wars have a lot to do with it, or conflicts of any kind, or dreams — Shakespeare notably abandoned family in Stratford for a new life in London as a writer). The surprise revealed by these contemporary stories is not necessarily how easy it is to ‘disappear’ from another’s life, but now common it now is to meet and come close to, even intimate with another person, and then never go back.

To do otherwise, according to one of the testimonies in the New York Times article, ‘Exes Explain Ghosting: the Ultimate Silent Treatment,’ is a sign of weakness. People who do not simply let go of the past do so out of some desperate need to be loved, even in the face of irrevocable difference. But the phenomena of ghosting, concurrently, exposes an equally weak sign: an inability to face up to choices made and decisions acted upon, for whatever reason. What if sticking around, probing the past, brought new discovery and positive change for the future? The term ‘ghosting’ has a double-meaning to me in this context that suggests, to me at least, that the act of walking away, to never go back, is not always that simple. People may ‘vanish like a ghost’, but a ghost is a soul not at rest; it haunts.

I have moved around a lot over several years. I have made homes wherever I have ended up, and lifelong friends. I have often taken pride in my ability to do so. But for all that is gained from all the endless moving on, something is lost: something barely noticeable unless one returns to find that moving on is not merely a privilege of the one that does the actual moving. Time inevitably moves us all on, nobody is ever stuck in time, but perhaps only in the memory of others. Things ever grow while appearing stationary; wonderful things can occur through stillness, careful observation and patience. Perhaps, though, this discovery is the product of (or the reward for) leaving and returning.

I feel comfort when walking the streets of a town once common to me. I associate this place with comfort, nowadays, when a certain mood moves me, although I have, of course, also felt plenty of its opposite here. Alone, caught up only in my own thoughts, it is a warm feeling of escapism that grips me, a world of my own creation comprised of selective memory, but then something inevitably comes along to jar the fuzzy scene in my conscious mind and snaps me out of ‘yesterday’. In that instant I feel jetlagged, suddenly faced with the task of aclimatising to a peculiar timezone, neither present nor past. It makes me act strangely, in ways I find difficult to account for. I am forced into re-thinking my relationship to my past, present, and future. I have returned but have not made it back. Trying to interact with familiar faces in the streets, I wonder if they think I have become a real weirdo.

While occupied with these thoughts I wandered, appropriately, into the Nottingham Contemporary, where the current exhibition Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth is showing until 20 September. This exhibition effectively put all my mixed-up thoughts at that time into focus, dramatically enacting across the exhibition rooms what I was feeling: just like Bronstein’s work, I was caught between time, and it was not so much an affliction I felt as it was a sense of freedom. What a wonderful realisation!

There is a hackneyed saying from greetings cards that says that today is a gift; that’s whey they call it the present. For Bronstein the past is full of treasures. For this exhibition he has carefully selected objects from Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Works by Rembrandt and Franz Hals, Delft porcelain, the coronation chairs for William IV and Queen Adelaide, and a colossal Roman marble foot appear within and alongside original work by Pablo Bronstein, across the galleries of Nottingham Contemporary.

These objects and works have been deftly presented to impose an ambiguous but jarring atmosphere upon the space, inviting many possible reactions and interpretations from audiences. The strict order of time and period imposed by conventional narratives of historical interpretation have become flacid and pliable in the hands of Pablo Bronstein. On a monumental scale he has digitally recreated images of the palatial Chatsworth House and plastered them on the walls surrounding a central grouping of Louis XIV period furniture. It feels like a combination of reverence and playful mockery, leaving these once dominant architectures of power somewhat exposed and manipulated.

Elsewhere it is my own observations that send me spinning fancifully in and out of time. A William Kent chair from 1733 is displayed on a plinth in one of the galleries. William Kent is known for the leading role he took in establishing a new design aesthetic for the Georgian period, when Britain found itself newly ruled over by Germans and was subsequently defining itself as a new nation. I, however, am drawn in by the chair’s adornment of golden leaves and the face at the base that remarkably resembles the Green Man of English pagan tradition, which commonly adorned church buildings from as early as the eleventh century. Could it be that this chair represents a silent protest to the imposition of new foreign rulers? My heart flutters at the thought of this personal discovery.

Fellow gallery visitors admire the exquisite rendering from 1623 of Pope Urban VIII being carried reverently down the nave of St Peters. For me this pen and ink drawing brings sharply to my mind the infamous, haunting image of Bacon’s ‘screaming pope’; a painting that drew upon the past in the present. In what was such a defiant statement, Bacon’s image reverberates through me still today and haunts my interpretation of this almost 400-year-old drawing before me.

Pablo Bronstein’s own drawings revel in a time in part familiar yet wholly unknown. His ink and watercolour work, ‘Design for a large clock in the Louis XV style, representing The Sun Rising over the Dead’ (2012), recalls 18th-century aspirational design alongside 20th-century Surrealist fantasy, via. nineteenth-century steampunk. Bronstein paints with broad brushstrokes from a loaded temporal palette. The affect is a world pregnant with possibilities.

For me, art takes something real but apparently unthinkable and puts it into perspective, even if it is just to say that there are phenomena in this world we have no rational language to explain. Our feelings and impressions of this world can be in effect enough to topple even the strongest and highest notions of rational thought. Professor Boris Groys reminds us, from his essay ‘Comrades of Time’ (E-flux, 2009), that Descartes defined the present as a time of doubt—of doubt that is expected to eventually open a future full of clear and distinct, evident thoughts. Through his work, Bronstein frolicks in the undetermined space between received notions of past in the present, and invites us to join him.


Empathy: the ‘imaginative leap’ towards the other

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the Yard Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet.

Janet Etuk and Sean O’Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the Yard Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet.

Empathy is now acknowledged scientifically as an essential ingredient of human well-being, but it takes work. We can only appreciate the lives of others to the extent that we can establish a connection with them. We also have to be prepared to make an “imaginative leap”, into the lives of someone beyond our own. Once this is achieved, it can lead to the shedding of certain established prejudices about others in the process.

In his recent book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, Roman Krznaric argues that it is “outrospection”, the emotional capacity to empathise with others, that is “an antidote to the self-absorbed individualism that we have inherited from the last century”. The results of such an attitude could lead to significant social change.

Krznaric emphasizes the importance of art and of storytelling to the foundations of empathy. To this end he has established The Empathy Library for sharing books and films to inspire a global empathy revolution. Beyond Caring (pictured above), a piece of original theatre commissioned by The Yard in Hackey Wick in 2014, is my recommendation for this library, for the way it carefully lifts the lid on an otherwise rarely seen, much discussed but far-less-understood invisible working class. It challenges to confront the extent to which we are “beyond caring” about the lives of others. My review of the play is on the Litro website.

Empathy is a key component in the audience’s engagement with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, where we witness varying degrees of empathy in the most unlikely of places, from inside a women’s prison in America. The script initially invites us to identify with the young blonde, whose freedom has seemingly been taken away from her by her unfortunate dealings with a drug cartel ten years ago. We are constantly reminded at the beginning of the first series that this is a woman who does not belong in a place like prison with these other women. However, as the series progresses, we are shown how to empathise with the inmates as we are shown glimpses of their past lives before they were in prison. The individuality of each characters’ suffering reminds us that we can all be drawn into difficult circumstances, no matter what our backgrounds. In its broadly generous and warm portrayal of all the characters, Piper Chapman does not ultimately demand our empathy any more than any of her fellow inmates. This is the ‘imaginative leap’ that eschews prejudice and opens our minds.

The aim may not be to make the ‘invisible’ visible, or give the ‘other’ a voice (for this only affirms a preconceived superiority or power imbalance), but to do away with such categories all together, and to understand that our perceived differences are as fleeting as anything else about us.

Spectral Stories for Hopeful Monsters

And now we find ourselves

gazing into overgrowth,

from a place where there

may be no remorse

for time’s passing,

where even the earth breathes

sighs of relief

almost audible

until a path

beaten through this abandoned place

betrays the image of desolation.

We are not alone.


Where monsters prevailed

we creatures now follow,

And the ghosts

that remain in the landscape

are poised, ready

to speak of stories

sketched in a spectral alphabet

for us, their audience,

the ancestors of the world

who seek to survive

in places made for ourselves.

Yet are we hopeful enough

to face this predicament?

2014-09-20 10.22.42

Exposed Intentions Meet Transformative Inventions: Maya Deren and Barbara Hammer

From within every scriptural economy of a given symbolic order there sometimes emerges a cry that disquiets. The effect of this, like the appearance of a rogue footprint on Robinson Crusoe’s island, can lead to profound consequences; disturbing or exciting, depending on your point of view.

It is in light of this that I can relate to the feelings that Barbara Hammer recalls she had when she first saw Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943). Hammer spoke of her subsequent excitement at a recent screening of her new film, “Maya Deren’s Sink” (2011) that marked the opening of a season of her films at Tate Modern this month. Here she is speaking at MOMA about the making of the same film:

I can similarly recall my own experiences of my first encounter with “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Before I had even known it was made by a woman I felt exhorted by a feeling of possibilities, that the tools of cinema could produce multiple transformations from within the symbolic order that it nonetheless upholds.

In “Meshes,” distinct and recognizable symbols have been utilised and manipulated that propel us towards being willfully seduced. The music has the quality of a snake charmer’s but as our gaze is conjured out of its sleeping hole it is at once struck by various lapses, cuts, unexpected juxtapositions and breaks (enhanced by the strikes in the soundtrack). The film creates numerous disruptions in the flow of language that in other circumstances stealthily and seamlessly produces the familiar images from which we make associations and judgments. A record spins silently and the telephone is off the hook- ‘I’m sorry it has not been possible to connect your call.’

The film is restless, but it is still possible to make out, in the film’s most elevated moments, enunciations that are detached from formal statements, that may wound or pleasure our senses (or both)- It is an elusive language-within-language that communicates with places in the body that do not respond to the language of reason nor possess a distinct language of their own. The experience for the spectator therefore corresponds to the experience of the filmmaker as Deren saw it, not merely an endless process of production but “an act of discovery,” that combines a creative act with things accidental or unknown.

In her book, Stillness in Motion in the Seventeenth Century Theatre (2003), PA Skantze distinguishes immediate perceptions of the world, as something wild, from comprehensive ideas that seek to stabilise those perceptions, closing the circle of knowledge in the process. These experiences do require some meeting place, a “material site,”[1] in order for this process to be realised and to prevent our sensations from languishing in the space (what Michel De Certeau called ‘the frontier,’ a kind of ‘void’[2]) that exists between them. Tools (like the film camera) therefore have an important role in preparing the ground and forging the relationship between what De Certeau calls our “natural” and “cultural” selves, our immediate and individualised emotions and our structured and organised bodies, which we are constantly engaged in negotiating with. Following this, Skantze appropriately asks, “When the apprehender full of the physical feel of a discovery finds herself no longer alone, how does she tell what has changed? How does she show…?” (Skantze 2003: 5)

Barbara Hammer’s own film, “X” (1973) characterizes the process of feeling such a new discovery from within the process of its articulation. Hammer herself describes the film as “A baroque ritualistic naming chant that points again and again with image and sound to make a self-determined statement out of despair.” During a panel discussion at Tate after the screening of the film last week. Hammer explained how “X” was made at a time in her life when she was only just making a transition from heterosexuality to homosexuality. The film captures this moment of becoming quite remarkably. It’s intoxicating kaleidoscope of images combined with repetitive chants are a constant affirmation of the artist’s deliberate self from within a new found uncertainty, “This is my exhibitionism… these are the children I’m glad I don’t have…” The film is partly funny and partly disquieting and charms the viewer through a humility of expression.

Like Deren’s, “Meshes…” the film never fully settles, but there is more at stake in Hammer’s “X,” than a witty play-within-a play of language that reveals its fabrications. A more appropriate equivalent may be Deren’s later film “At Land” (1944), which Deren described as reversing the dynamic of the Odyssey. The female protagonist, “Instead of taking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will and confronts her with a volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy.”[3]

However, whereas Deren may consider the identity of her female protagonist a “sole constancy,” of an otherwise changing universe, what Hammer’s film illustrates is that even this identity is subject to and constituted by a “relentless metamorphosis” that usurps the idea of predictability. What constitutes our own ideas is at once a necessary promise and a threat.

[1] From Mitch Rose, [last accessed 21/ 08/ 11]

[2] De Certeau, M; The Practice of Everyday Life, Uni of California Press, California and London, 1984 pp. 128-129

[3] Maya Deren; Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, in Daedalus, Vol. 89, No. 1, Winter, 1960

so far from you in fact, so near to you in love.

“This is a love letter to Diego, and this is not a love letter to Diego. It is universal and wholly personal. It is dated Right Now, and yet it is as old as the primordial. You, Diego, it is to you. ‘Diego is the name of love,’ I wrote. But I ask you to read it with many names, whatever your name is that you live by, and let me address myself to your soul, in the simplicity of love, in the generosity of life. To you, then, by all the names of man you ever took, before and before and before, pre-Columbian, pre-literacy, and yet readers too in the strange and unpredictable future, in tenses I am afraid to use. I know you by the flame in your heart, by the light in your eyes, and I write to tell you what I can see, so far from you in fact, so near to you in love. Diego is the name I use to knock on the door of your heart. Yet the door is not the door to his heart alone, but the door to any hearing heart. I take my guitar, and pick out the sound of his name by playing the strings which spell him. But I could play that tune in the key of any name.


The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

And I am Frida but also I am not Frida.I am her paintings and the nature of her love. I am her shadow. I am many women, I answer to many names, any know knows grief. I am all the phases of the moon, I am all her qualities. I am El Duende. I am the light of the psyche, writing from my soul, speaking to the psyche of humanity, the psyche which is shaped like the wings of a butterfly or a moth; fly closer, fly nearer to me. After the accident, I was caged in plaster casts for months and on this hard shell I drew butterflies as my first votive painting, encouraging the soul to crack the carapace one day and fly free to the moon.”

— Excerpt from the exquisite A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths.

Imagination: A Bridge Towards What Cannot Be

images“I am only a human being, but through my imagination…I can be a bridge,” declared Hannah Höch from the walls of her first solo exhibition in Germany. Hannah Höch was an important member of the Berlin Dada movement and a pioneer in collage. She took a disliking to the single-mindedness of society’s perceptions and developed an artistic style that challenged this attitude

Splicing together images taken from popular magazines, illustrated journals and fashion publications, she created a humorous and moving commentary on society during a time of tremendous social change. It may be an inevitable attribute of being human that we resort to single frames of reference to steady our way. Höch literally blew apart these frames of reference in her work leaving behind an absurd representation of our process of making meaning from what we perceive. Her work is a bridge to understanding how precarious our realities are.images-1

When the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died this week, appeared on Desert Island Discs, he talked about his lifelong passion for Miles Davis. He said that the music of Miles Davies represented for him “the sound of what cannot be”. What is so important about believing in what cannot be, even if it is in the imagination? I think that through his intellectual and political work life Stuart Hall demonstrated a will to strive, against all odds, to keep “what cannot be” alive, in the imagination, so that it may be a possibility in an as yet undetermined future.

“Isn’t it Freaky When Your Life Becomes History?”

The Paris Review published a response to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York entitled, ‘The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951’, by photographer and writer Lucy McKeon. You can read it here. It’s a lively and provocative piece, observing her own responses to the images, as well as those of others around her.

Before street photography had become accepted as an art form, the Photo League wanted to merge socially motivated documentary with formal artistic sensibility and were ‘alive to the reciprocity of politics and aesthetics, life and art.’ For me this recalls, among other projects, the work of The Free Cinema group in Britain in the 1950s that had been inspired by the work of Humphrey Jennings and the Mass Observation Project, which demonstrated a heightened awareness of aesthetic devices for political persuasion.

In her piece for the Paris Review McKeon makes a provocative statement that, ‘this historical meeting of social justice and aesthetic value seems today both canonical and impossible.’ Her argument is informed in part by present political realities (‘The financial crisis of the 1930s helped provoke the hard-nosed solidarity of the Photo League, both its politics and its aesthetics, whereas our own crisis is shadowed by skepticism on both fronts.’) and in part by the present social status of photography and spectatorship.

Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy, 1949

Faced with Rebecca Lepkoff’s Early Morning Rush Hour (1947), McKeon touches upon photography’s relation to the supernatural – to an in-between space – by way of its relationship to light and time, and the aesthetic effect this provokes.

She demonstrates the formative role of the imagination in the way we engage with photographs when two different pictures from the show become connected in her imagination, due simply to their proximity in the exhibition. A boy from one particularly compelling picture becomes the subject of another in her mind, with no bearing on reality: ‘I imagine that Butterfly Boy is the child in the left-hand corner, off school for a day, his schoolboy attire hastily discarded, rumpled in a pile left for his mother to wash.’

Referencing Susan Sontag, McKeon also remarks on something else that complicates a spectator’s relationship with photographs today: ‘an acute sensitivity to photographer-subject relationships has bred within the medium an identity politics that’s not easily negotiated’, she writes. Photographic criticism that is too concerned with identity politics can compromise the radical aims of these social documentary projects. Combined with expanding technologies, the uneasy connection between spectatorship and consumerism, and the financial motivations of the modern business of photojournalism, there are very real reasons for being cynical of documentary photography today.

She poses another provocative question: given the prevalence of identity politics in representation and spectatorship theory, ‘Is there an equivalent of the Photo League today? Or would today’s Photo League be something like class tourism, even if backed by a Marxist middle-class ethos?’ McKeon’s consideration here to me recalls the perpetual debate over the ‘value’ of photography today; a somewhat hyperbolic legacy of most postmodern engagements with photography.

In 2010, the San Francisco Museum for Modern Art hosted a symposium aptly titled, ‘Is Photography Over’ that was designed to address such concerns. An archive of contributions to the event are kept here. The artist and writer Walead Beshty argued that these debates represent a crisis, not for the medium, but ‘a crisis of the institutionalization of art itself. . . academia or museums. . .of paying the bills, of funding lines, departmental autonomy, curriculum, intellectual fiefdoms, library tabs, allotted real estate, and canons wrapped in the guise of a broad philosophical conundrum.’

There is an imperative to consider these conditions for photographic production in the midst of socio-economic flux. But what is at stake if an awareness of these debates become a preoccupation for photographers working in a documentary capacity today? In addition to this we need ways of understanding the role and affects of the medium upon spectators. There is a subtle irony that the question of whether or not socially motivated documentary can exist today (or ‘is photography over?’) compromises the possibility of its actual existence. Is it best to get out there and find out? Whether or not we can ‘trust’ the politics of a photographer, can we afford some certainty, or at least integrity, in our own, as photographers ourselves, or as spectators?

Elsewhere 2013 has been declared “a triumphant year for the art of documentary” by Sight and Sound magazine. Amongst the recommendations listed, writer Robert Greene extolls the documentary filmmaker’s ability to exploit the “mysteries of observational cinema and the power of restraint.” Photography is perhaps not over at all but experiencing a change in method. Whilst putting an end to notions of “objective” representation, there is a clear support for “a clear-eyed observational look.” Greene also celebrates this elevation of documentary and a break from its “subservience to journalism.”

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Back at the Photo League retrospective, looking at pictures of protest marches from the 1940s, the present moment may not seem so radically different from the past, where political turmoil still runs like wildfire around the world. The events in our own life can often become clarified through photography by allowing other isolated events to be seen from some historical precedent; perhaps one that is still in formation. Any perceived differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ are as significant as the similarities, and photography can facilitate the understanding of both, even if it is tinged with the perpetually tragic necessity of retrospect.