Monday, 29 March 2010

Political Ethics with Mary Warnock

Morality starts in the home, according to politician and ethicist Mary Warnock, and yet an ideal social system of ethics does not derive from cultural or religious context, but is somehow naturally evident in our common humanity.  Values such as truth, compassion, and trustworthiness need to be instilled when we are young if we are to self-regulate and always seek out the "moral route". 

I'm not sure if it's practical to take Warnock's basic theory of values (existing outside of political, social, and religious structures and being that which is just "the way people want to be treated themselves") and infer that this is a morality which people wish to share. 

A far easier task early on a Monday morning is to take her premise that we wish to live up to the moral standards demonstrated by family when we were young, and consider what has been carried through to adulthood today.  

From my mother: Materialism = Self-Love
Always shop when you are unhappy; it provides a sense of purpose and lifts the spirits.  When seeking the perfect shoe, remember that possessing such an item is secondary to the pursuit of the footwear: the journey rather than the destination gives one greatest satisfaction.

From my father (a man of the cloth no less): Self-sacrifice = Happiness 
You can never be truly happy or free unless you give up all your interests and time for other people.  A sense of self is less important than a sense of what other people want and need: discover this, give it to them, and a blissful existence shall be yours.

Mary Warnock was at the School of Life's Sunday sermon, Conway Hall.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

One-Week Diary

Steve McQueen in Conversation with Adrian Searle [National Portrait Gallery)
Mary Warnock, Political Ethics [School of Life]

Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard

Ballardian (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments

On Friday night I watched 'Crash' (the naughty Cronenberg film based on Ballard's novel, not the movie with Halle Berry) in preparation for yesterday's excursion to the Gagosian to see 'Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard'.

There's a scene at the start of the film where a woman opens her blouse, lifts one breast from her bra, and presses her bare flesh against the cold, hard metal of an aircraft.  It's an erotic fusion of human and machine that recurs over and again throughout the film, although in far more painful circumstances.  

I confess to knowing little about Ballard, and after watching Crash, I was more than curious about what I might find.  The closest I came to Crash's erotically maimed characters was an encounter with Cindy Sherman's Untitled #253, 1992.  Also echoing key elements of the story are Douglas Gordon's self-portraits of James Dean and Jayne Mansfield, created from mirrors such that the viewer becomes part of their tragic end. 

My favourite review of the exhibition comes from Oliver Basciano at Art Review, who makes lyrical observations like this one: "...the strong line in American sublime that pervades here is tempered by the inclusion of a few artists who work within the distinct mode of English melancholia".  His words resonate with my experience: I certainly felt as though I carried myself through the exhibition in a dreamlike trance.

All the work can be found on the Gagosian website, but here's a few of my favourites:

Michelle becomes part of James Dean's tragic end, with Douglas Gordon's Self-Portrait of You + Me (James Dean), 2007

Cyprien Gaillard, View of Sighthill Cemetery, 2008

Jane and Louise Wilson, Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard, 2000

Robert Rauschenberg — Jockey Cheer Glut, 1987

Ed Ruscha, Fountain of Crystal 2009

Dan Holdsworth, Untitled (Autopia) 1998

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2010

Sophie Ristelbeuber may have won 2010's Deutsche Borse Photography Prize, but it was finalist Zoe Leonard's snaps of urban decay and destitution that stole my heart.  In 'Analogue', Leonard ventures around and sometimes beyond her native New York to capture small businesses that have faded or are marginalised by the expansion of a global economy. 

She says her central theme "is that I’m trying to make a portrait of us as a society at this moment in time and what our objects and urban landscape say about us. It’s a kind of archaeology – an attempt to understand who we are and what we care about as a society" (The Telegraph, 11 Feb 2010).

There's a sense of loss in her images, yet the vintage Rolleiflex camera and 11inch by 11inch format lends them a kind of romantic, nostalgic air.  There's even a little bit of hope: in a picture of a wheelbarrow and television for example, one reflects on where they might be going next.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

One-Week Diary

A week of chaos, decay and trauma.

Crash: Homage to J. G. Ballard [Gagosian]
Sophie Ristelhueber, Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010 [The Photographer's Gallery]

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

I been thinking 'bout you ... HOPE

"Cynics object to treating hope as a virtue because it rarely bears fruit.  But that, say hope's defenders, is to see things upside down.  Hope is a virtue independently of its realisations, it is an intrinsic value, an end in itself, allied to courage and imagination, a positive attitude full of possibility and aspiration."
A.C.Grayling The Meaning of Things 2001

I needed a big dose of hope when I had a broken wing recently (as my friend K so charmingly described it).  I sustained myself by imagining all the marvellous things I'd do when the cast came off, and I spoke to friends who rallied my spirits by reminding me it was only six weeks of suffering.  Now that I've been patched up, my world is the right way up again; but I'm filing those hopeful wishes away for the next time I feel vulnerable.  

Here's what my hope is looking like... (hover over photos for sources)

Monday, 8 March 2010

Bibliology, Exhibit at Golden Lane Estates

Raised in a small Australian town with no building over five stories, I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of the British estate, and the way these impossibly tall, imposing buildings loom above the houses next door.  I'm unnaturally drawn to brutal modern architecture - making up for a childhood of waterfalls, rainforests and dusty camping trips perhaps - and whilst I know that life in these tower blocks can be alienating and dangerous, living in such close proximity to others can conversely inspire a sense of camaraderie.

Such is the case in the Golden Lane Estates adjacent to my favourite Brutalist piece of architecture: the Barbican.  Being located in prime part of East London, next door to one of London's most famous arts venues, some of the 557 flats were statistically likely to be occupied by a large number of creative types. 

Two such residents have tapped into the creative and communal spirit of the estate to establish 'Exhibit', a small art and design space that "aims to provoke awareness to design heritage of social housing with special focus on its ageing communities".   It's located at the foot of the estate, next door to a Barber whose furniture seems untouched since the estate was completed in the 1960s.

I ventured there this weekend for a Bookcrossing event at the current 'Bibliography' exhibition.  Photographer Kathryn Faulkner has been welcomed into the homes of the Golden Lane Estate residents to capture them reading in their natural habitat; lying on beds, relaxing in armchairs, sitting at tables. 

I arrived with my own battered copy of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, had it stamped and recorded online, and was then invited into the estate to set it free.   After indulging in a voyeuristic peek into people's lives through Faulkner's pics, I was emboldened to take a few cheeky peeks of my own as I passed by!  And although I didn't see anyone reading, they may soon find a copy of Black Swan Green on a window ledge, and curl up in bed to lose themselves in someone else's story.

*I'll be tracking the progress of my book here.  Join the bookcrossing movement for free and set your own books loose on the world.

One-Week Diary

99 [Hackney]

Saturday, 6 March 2010

'Promises, Promises', Soho Theatre

Promises Promises left me gasping for breath this week.  In the dark, tiny confines of the Soho Theatre Miss Jean Brodie, recently retired in disgrace from a Scottish school, delivers an intimate monologue from her temporary supply classroom. 

A full cast of characters comes to life during her tale, from a young headteacher jollying his staff along, to a small mute girl newly arrived from Somalia with a team of community workers trailing behind her.  They're determined to exorcise her demons and make her vocal again - in full view of her young classmates - and Miss Brodie appears to be the child's only defender.  It ends in a bloody drama far removed from my own supply teaching experience, where my most uncomfortable moment was being asked by a 16 year old schoolboy to perform an inappropriate act on him in a South London schoolground.

The play could have been titled Snip Snip, so vivid was the cutting imagery threaded throughout.  The threat of something sinister and unnamed is present from the beginning, with a marvellously realistic primary classroom setpiece enveloped in the shadowy darkness of the theatre.   As the play races towards its dramatic climax, figurative cuts both past and present - severed relationships with a sister and a best friend, stolen tailoring scissors to deny a father his fearsome power, alienation from the colleagues around her - become literal gashes.   

As Miss Brodie reflects on the promises broken by others in her life, she tries to keep her promise to her new student that she is safe in her classroom.  Her voice intensifies and sharpens as the young girl's self-imposed silence is revealed to be a reaction to a primitive, dangerous, but all too common slicing inflicted by older womenfolk to preserve the purity of their daughters.  

Miss Brodie has been a broken woman for most of her life, and the most poignant scene for me was not the confession of molestation by her father, the revelation of her alcoholism, or even her discovery of the abuse of the child.  It was instead the utter abandonment she feels when her best friend from her early teaching years runs off with a man. 

This friend's words were "straight out of the dressing up box"; she was a woman who took the words and ideas of others and cut, shaped, and sewed them until they fit her like a glove, much like the home-made outfits she wore.  Miss Brodie longs to be like her, but failing as a seamstress she instead seeks to uphold her friend's mantra that a teacher makes a promise to to keep her students safe and teach them all they need to know.

At the end of the play, the lecherous male community elder finally suffers a similar fate to that of the young girl, at the hands of Miss Brodie and her stolen tailoring scissors.  It is with terrible sadness though that we realise she does not protect the child out of love, but rather in an attempt to avenge older, more personal wounds.