Friday, 16 December 2011

Comix Reader Issue 3!

Work is progressing apace on the new issue of The Comix Reader, a collaborative newsprint comic featuring the best in underground British Comix talent! The Comix Reader is edited by Richard Cowdry and is something of a spiritual successor to his popular Bedsit Journals anthology, but on a never before seen scale! Twenty-plus comics artists from across the UK, each with a page to themselves, and a broad scope of great talent; Ellen Lindner, Jimi Gherkin, Lord Hurk, Kevin WardPeter Lally, Barnaby Richards, Julia Homersham, Alex Potts and many more! 

I find it hard to get across just how excited I am by The Comix Reader. I've only been involved in the anthology for one issue, but even in such a short space of time it's been exciting to see how it's developed. Not only does it possess an enviable rouge's gallery of the best UK comic artists, The CR also retails for a single pound, making it a great purchase for people who wouldn't usually consider themselves readers of comic books. The paper's raison d'etre has always been to reach new audiences and venues beyond the usual comic book stores, and in this sense it's a great showcase. If you want to get into comics, but havn't the faintest idea where to start, then The CR is a great stepping stone; even if you're the most virulently anti-comics curmudgeon, there's bound to be someone in it whose work you like! 

With this in mind, I feel exceptionally privileged to have been given the cover of Issue 3. I hope I do it justice. I've got the whole thing drawn, but the colours are still a little rough around the edges. Here's a little taster, to give you some idea of what to look out for in the new year: 

What's been fun about designing this cover has been taking the ideas from covers of issue one and two are trying to meld them all into something with a distinct flavour. A magazine really builds an identity for itself through what it prints on its covers, so a lot of what I've done is drawing on the idioms of the previous two issues. In each, we've got a character reading a comic (the increasingly beloved Jippy!) in an incongruous setting that puts them somewhat at odds with the rest of society. I think the incongruous humour of the comics reading itself is what's key to the paper's vibe; it echos the mission of trying to reach new audiences you wouldn't think of as "comix readers" in a variety of different settings. Other visual ideas involve a "dirty" aesthetic and gritty, urban surroundings.  

The comics store GOSH! recently moved to fabulous new premises in Berwick Street in the centre of Soho, and though the shop itself is a glittering construction of brushed steel, glass and pine wood, it's situated just opposite a delightfully seedy alleyway that offers some of Soho's more established businesses. (Interestingly, the London comics scene grew up in the streets of Soho, but was driven out by the gentrification of the Thatcherite era.) That, and the 70's to 80's Underground Comix vibe that the CR pays homage to were the driving inspiration behind this cover (with a bit of Amsterdam thrown in). It was also fun trying to draw in some references to the Georgian caricature prints of Hogarth et al. that would have been sold around this area centuries ago; a lot of the creepy johns in the foreground have features pulled from 18th C. caricatures, and the vaguely-raunchy subject matter fits with the history of this district of London. Soho has always been the place to go to buy the steamiest novels, the lewdest prints, always willing to cater for the discerning pervert. Here's to Comics' triumphant return to the "slatternly streets" of vibrant Soho!  

Part of the reason why I'm so obsessed with The CR is that I'm a total wonk for publications that try to influence the publishing scene itself. The recession has definitely made things hard for publishers, printers and purchasers alike, and digital publishing threatens to overturn what little profits are still being made. In this economic setting, it's important to have projects like The CR that explore new directions and attempt to carve their own niches.

 A lot of artists are dissatisfied with the low profits that mainstream publishing models have been turning over in recent years. A lot of people are finding things difficult, many struggling to make comics a viable career. There's a sense that some artists want it to be 1989 again; an uncomplicated time when you could draw 'em, print 'em and sell 'em, and the publishing house would take care of all the nitty-gritty financial nonsense. The reality is that there's no way back; and that if we do want to push forward and keep print relevant in the 21st Century, it's going to involve boldly striking out into uncharted territories and making it up as we go along. 

That's not to say that we shouldn't consider the past at all; quite the opposite. Despite rising print costs, newsprint remains cheap and highly profitable. The digital revolution has brought down set-up costs, bringing it tantalisingly within the grasp of private groups and individuals. Perhaps most excitingly, it allows print runs on a scale seldom seen these days in the comics world; The Comix Reader is running in batches of 10,000 per issue. In the last decade, Graphic Novels have spearheaded a drive towards material quality in an attempt to gain respectability and permanence as an art form, and this ethos has had a huge impact on the production values (and retail prices) of small press comics. But in following these trends, are we forgetting comic's roots as a mass-produced, ephemeral art? We don't have to abandon the principals of good design, but we can do the actual printing on more of a shoestring. As it stands, there's a gap in the market for large, low-cost, mass-produced, full-colour comics, and no shortage of audience. In short, if we can't make it 1989 again, perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from 1889. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Please Be Moral!

One of my best hauls from Leeds was a fantastic minicomic from the equally fantastic Sarah McIntyre, a comic based on her trip to China. Sarah herself did very well at Leeds; her book Verne and Lettuce won the Leeds Graphic Novel prize! Congrats, Sarah! I enjoyed  Please Be Moral: Do Not Spit so much that I wrote Sarah a short review which she posted on her blog! For more info on Sarah's work and some neat bookbinding tips about how she put the minicomic together, check out her blog!  

Recently I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Sarah McIntyre's China Travel Diaries at the Thought Bubble comic convention in Leeds.

I'm not entirely sure what I expected, but it blew me away from the very start. Drawn whilst on the road, Sarah dutifully documents the travelling adventures and mishaps that are an essential part of any holiday, but also focuses on the broader themes of "family". After meeting with her parents in Beijing, Sarah and her husband embark on a once-in-a-lifetime trip that takes them from the peacefulness of Buddhist monasteries to the bustle of the Shanghai Promenade. Along the way, we get to know her tour group and they become something of a family themselves!

I found the actual story itself incredibly moving. It was as complicated and nuanced as China itself, and managed to give a very touching account of everyday life in the People's Republic. More than anything, it was the kind of story that I love, one that swings back and forth between jaunty comedy and more sombre topics, that manages to pull at the heartstrings with well-observed dialogue and warm relationships between the characters!

"Please be Moral: Do Not Spit" is also attractively hand-bound in a traditional Chinese style with a really fun cover design. Sarah McIntyre breathes new life into a tired TV cliche, transporting us on an "emotional journey" with an emotion and vigour that is refreshingly genuine. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to tear up slightly at the ending!

Overall, a brilliant minicomic, and it's one of my favorite things I got from Leeds!

dotComics update!

This week, Mike Medaglia and myself have been starting to push our anthology dotComics a bit more! I think this is the first time I've posted on my blog about the comic, which is awful seeing as I helped edit the whole thing. 

For those of you not already in the know, dotComics is the first anthology dedicated to bringing webcomics to the printed page. Attempting to reach a new audience, and offer an alternative to endless internet trawling, dotComics selects extracts from some of the most exceptional webcomics, and brings them into lush, full-colour print! We also feature interviews with creators as well as insightful critique and scholarly essays on some of the biggest questions about the digital revolution. 

Gorgeous coloring by the wonderful Mr. John Riordan

dotComics is now on sale a two of London's loveliest Comic book retailers, Gosh! Comics of Berwick Street, Soho, and Orbital Comics of Great Newport Street. If you happen to live in Leeds, you can pop into OK Comics to get your fix! Online sales are still a way off, but more comics retailers are constantly being added, so check back here regularly to find your closest seller. Alternatively, why not friend dotComics on Facebook, or follow our Twitter feed?  

That's all for now! I'll be back with exciting updates about progress on Issue 2 later in the week! Until then, 

Elliot x

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In The Studio

I'm having a bit of a colouring meltdown at the moment. My attempts at colouring my comics in the past have been decidedly mixed, so I'm trying to make a little bit more of a concerted effort to use colour rather than just hobbling myself by constantly sticking to black and white. Of course, it's not coming easy. 

Part of the problem is that I don't really know where or what materials I want to focus on, so I'm experimenting with a couple of different approaches. This is something of a double-edged sword, because lacking that specificity can turn you into something of a jack-of-all. For the moment, however, I'm taking a break from the painfully slow world of computer colouring and focusing more on traditional materials. 

I was given a gorgeous set of Acrylic Inks some time ago and have only really gotten around to trying them out. The colours are incredibly luminous and strong; they layer really nicely too, and you can get a good variety of tones. The downsides are that it takes time to build up more nuanced, muted colours, especially if you're using thin washes like I am. Of course, applying thin wash after thin wash is just one way of using inks as a medium, and preferably I'd like to slap it on a bit thicker, and be bolder with my colour schemes. I'm hoping I can get a load of glass phials and start mixing up colours for some Herge-style colouring experiments! Does anyone know anywhere that might sell such a thing? 

Time consuming though it may be, I think I'll be colouring the bulk of Nineteen-Ough-Two like this. If anyone has any good tips or tutorials, then I'd love to hear them! Keep me posted, 

Elliot x

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Little Historical Titbits

Like most people, I think I'm still reeling from the vast amount of Comic events that have gone on this week and trying to get my thoughts in order! Going through my photos of Thought Bubble, I managed to find these Photos I took in the Leeds City Museum of some great little Neo-Classical ladies' fans...

 Aren't they great? I love the little motifs and decorations that go into the borders around the delicately painted scenes, and no surface of the fan is left untouched; even the supports have little scenes filigreed into the ivory. I'd really love to try and include some of these flourishes as comic panels. This would be a great way to actually think about presenting a comic strip as well, for anyone willing to experiment with fan-making, as well as drawing a curved, radial comic. As a format, it's neat, compact, and easily portable; plus a lifesaver on hot days! Why not enjoy your favorite funnies whilst hob-nobbing with the duchess at the Opera? 

On a similarly decorative note, my charming boyfriend recently brought me this wonderful bar of finest Kazakh chocolate that he was given by a foreign agent. The packaging is insane. In case you can't tell, it's gold-embossed, with a prominent blue silhouette of Kazakhstan. It looks more like currency than any chocolate bar I've ever seen, and we half expecting to find a golden ticket to visit Mr Wonkovitch's marvelous chocolate factory when we opened it. 

Instead, what we found was some of the nicest chocolate I've had in a long time, dark as sin and slightly bitter (just the way I like it) with rich body and a slightly salty, smoky aftertaste. Overall, really excellent choccy! Watch out, Switzerland! 

Finally, I came across this little magazine in a market in Soho, and just had to have it. 

As expected, Eve's Own consists mostly of fairly "dainty", soppy, formulaic romance short stories and serials, with a handful of sewing patterns and home-keeping tips. But the jewel in its' crown is the extensive "Eve and the Editor" section, in which anonymous bright young things pour their hearts out to a fusty, male "Agony Uncle". "Old Solomon" deals with these sensitive issues with an authorial voice that is almost audibly pompous, plummy and patronising. My long-term, mixed-race (part asian) gay boyfriend and I had a good laugh over this little snippet; 

Dear me. Unfortunately, this is fairly representative of Solomon's replies and prose in general. I have to admit, as a piece of Psycho-History, these Agony Aunt sections are an amazing way to get inside the minds of women of the distant past; to discover what their anxieties were, how they conducted relationships, and how an oppressive patriarchy idly dismissed their troubles. A great resource for anyone wanting to write historical fiction. But I can't help but hope that Mournful Mollie stayed with her Chinaman. 

I think I'll leave it at that for now. Until next time, dear little pals, 


Friday, 25 November 2011

More News from the Studio

Work on Nineteen-Ough-Two is coming on apace, and it looks like I should have the strip inked by early next week! A lot of my time so far has been concerned with Historical research, which is always time consuming, slow, but ultimately very rewarding. I've found some great old photos to work with. Whilst on a search for old costumes to use for bystanders in the "1902" segment of the narrative, I came across this great turn-of-the-century portrait:

Dude! Cecil Higgins, you dandy gentleman, where have you been all my life? That spotted 'kerchief, that dapper watch fob, those lush curled moustache tips! Cecil may have to find a home in one of my other stories, because he is simply a Cartoon character made flesh. I am working fairly flat out on Nineteen-Ough-Two this week, but if I have a spare hour, I may break off to sketch up a my own portrait of Cecil. At times like this, I feel that good image research really pays off; every now and again, divine providence throws something like this in your lap, but it's not something you want to be relying on all the time. 

Anyway, enough rambling, here's another very quick "raw" scan to let you see how everything's coming along: 

Blank spaces in panels 3-6 are where the "1902 AD" logo will be copy-pasted. Of all the tools an artist can use in the digital world, copy-paste is probably the lowest, the cheapest, most miserable attempt to bulk out work, so i've tried to keep it to an absolute minimum. I'm also justifying it by reminding myself that all these panels will be coloured individually. In fact, a lot of the narrative will be told through colour.

In case you hadn't guessed, repetition is going to be a key theme in the visuals of Nineteen-Ough-Two (hence title) and this approach is what's allowed the whole thing to come together so swiftly. However, I always feel that true repetition in art is boring for everyone involved, which is why I've tried to vary the seemingly repetitive panels as much as possible. More often than not, true repetition can end up creating works that are as dull for the reader as they are masochistically tedious for the artist to produce. Successful art in this genre usually ends up relying on the sheer spectacle of scale and the baffling pointlessness and insanity of the exercise to impress. In the comic form it's very difficult to tell a narrative with truly identical panels; not only because nothing "happens" as such, but also because it doesn't capture the reader's eye in any way; you'll tend to skim the entirety, like you would a fabric pattern, rather than pausing and considering each individual panel. That's not to say that audience reaction isn't a useful tool in it's own right! See Tim Kreider's masterful We Even Yet? as an example of how this glib visual attitude can be used to evoke a powerful reaction from the reader.  

The only other Wimbledon news is that a Tutor's asked me to exhibit some pages in a small college exhibition, so you could see some of these coloured sooner than I anticipated. Until then, have a great weekend, everybody! 

Elliot x

Thursday, 24 November 2011

In the Studio

Hey Guys! Just thought I'd give you a quick update as to what's been going on at my studio HQ at Wimbledon! Things are pretty busy this week, as I've been trying to draw a new comic! Nineteen-Ough-Two is my first attempt at making a long-format scroll comic; it' also completely silent and follows the life of a Cornicestone through a century of London History.

 But that's not all! When it's complete, I'll be attempting the impossible and trying to turn this full colour comic into a limited edition screenprint! Since it's going to be about 28x300cm this could be a bit of a trick to pull off, we'll have to see how it goes. But it's also going to be pretty costly; and due to the amounts of ink, paper, and time that need to be devoted to it, I don't think it's really going to be an affordable comic; so Nineteen-Ough-Two will also be available online as a scrolling digital comic.

This comic's also a bit of a new direction for me in that I'm strictly limiting the tools I work with. I enjoy brush painting with inks, but the whole process can be very time-consuming, and makes me obsess relentlessly over wether I'm making the "right" lines. Nineteen-Ough-Two is my first real attempt to adress this issue; all the artwork is drawn with fims fixed gauge pens that don't allow for any variation in the width of the lines, and the colour will be carrying the story for the most part. The upshot of using a very inflexible nib when inking is that you end up thinking less about the inking process itself and concentrating more on how you use these largely identical marks to draw a variety of different forms, textures and objects. In short, it's great for practicing your markmaking skills without a lot of other hassle.

Here's a little taster to whet your appetite!

Check back later in the week for more updates! 
Until then, 

Elliot x

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Thought Bubblin'

For those of you not in the know, last weekend (the 19th and 20th) was the return of the anxiously anticipated Thought Bubble Leeds Comic-Con! I have to confess that this was my first year up at Thought Bubble: my first ever trip to Leeds as well, actually: and the only negative thing I can say is that I deeply regret never going before. Thought Bubble, where have you been all my life? 
Due to my coach tickets being booked for an ungodly hour on friday morning, I actually got a chance to look around Leeds as well, which beats staring at the inside of a convention hall for an entire weekend! 

A Mucha-inspired muse of Art in one of Leeds'  many Victorian Shopping Arcades!
Having looked around Leeds I can also say, without reservation, that the city has the most breathtaking Public Library I have ever seen. Rooms stacked with books, a dedicated art library, soaring, intricate pillars and a stairwell that was like a cross between Hogwarts and an MC Esher print with a scattering of bizarre sculpture thrown in for good measure. 
The Stairwell 
The Attic Library
Be sure to take good care of it, Leeds County Council! I hope you know how lucky you are! 

The convention itself was great experience! The Big news of course, is the launch of dotComics, the Webcomic Anthology I have been editing with Mike Medaglia. It's also (as far as I know) the first publication of it's kind, attempting to link the divide between print and digital, and draw in a new audience who perhaps hadn't heard of webcomics or even knew they existed. I was particularly astonished by the print quality, as were most people who came to the table. The temptation to run your hands over the glossy pages is almost too much to resist, and there's a lovely texture of ink on paper. One of the guys I spoke to said that Josceline Fenton's Hemlock looked like it was printed with huge gobs of still-wet ink! (In a nice way.) Thanks to Pulse Print for a fantastic finish to what we hope will be a great magazine! 

The dotComics stand at Thought Bubble!
I swear, some of the worst photos of my life have been taken behind convention tables. This one is particularly unflattering. My evidently gross sandwich eating didn't put off the customers, however, and we did rather nicely! 

Among the stall holders at the Convention were some of our contributors! The charming Phillipa Rice had her checkered gingham table cloth covered with all manner of Comics, Prints, Totes and delightful goods from her webcomic My Cardboard Life

And the ever-prolific David O'Conell had his wonderful new anthology ink + PAPER for sale alongside his other work, where it was selling like hot cakes! 

TB Leeds marked a real change for me, I feel fired up and raring to go, and am already making plans for Thought Bubble 2012! Thanks so much to everyone who brought dotComics, helped make it possible, or just stopped by the stall! I hope you all had a good a time as I did. I feel I've barely scratched the surface in this blogpost, so I'll be returning to this topic later. In the meantime, I'll be pouring through all the lovely swag I brought back to London, and posting little reviews of some of my favorite comics and best buys from Leeds! Until then,

Elliot x

Friday, 16 September 2011

A Bad Start/ Mission Statement

This is a short comic I made recently for my application to the London Print Studio's internship programme. The application involved "explain[ing] in words and pictures why you're interested in comics", so this is kinda like a Mission Statement about my attitude to comics. 

Overall, I think it came out fairly well. I wanted to talk about Frederic Wertham and the Comics Code in a way that would distribute the blame not only to Wertham but to those who stayed silent and allowed the Comics Code to be put into effect. The fact that this was one of the most draconian and strictest censorship acts ever put into effect in Modern Western Society is an affront; than the fact that it inspired very little reaction from the artistic community is inexcusable. 

I wanted to point out that the reaction against that "Seduction of the Innocent" inspired was very much an extension of prejudices that were endemic to High Modernism as a movement in all forms of art at the time. In an era in which defining the "essential nature" of all forms of art (but most notably painting) was the most pertinent issue, synaesthetic art forms such as Comics were slighted for mangling two "noble" arts into a bastard offspring. In addition to these prejudices,  Modernism also encouraged highly elitist divides between "High" art and "Low" art, with Low art often hazily defined as Mass Media. To put it another way, a single, unique abstract painting laboured upon by the artist was the polar opposite of a run of  10,000 Comic Books produced by machine. 

In many ways, Modernism was an extended reaction to and rebellion against Mechanical Reproduction, and to my mind, the Wertham furor was an inevitable vengeful backlash. My one regret with regards to this comic is that for reasons of brevity I've dramatised the libricidic aspects of Wetham's campaign that have captured public imagination for decades. The truly harmful aspects of the American Campaign against Comic Books were the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. The Code was an authority that deftly evaded some serious 1st Amendment infringements by being a de jure "voluntary" certification, but imposed a monopoly on the Comic Book marketplace to such an extent that it became a de facto censorship body.  The Code stifled creativity, bankrupted competitors and allowed Marvel and DC to grab insane amounts of market shares, becoming in effect the only publishers on the market place. And, of course, it inflicted untold damage on the artists themselves. Wether or not Comics were art before the Code is a debatable point; the fact that they weren't after it is beyond any reasonable doubt. Any Comic published under the CCA logo is nothing more than a product

I've touched on some huge issues here in not nearly enough detail to do them justice. You can expect more from me in the future about Wertham, the CCA and the relation between Comics and Modernism.

Note to Art Fans; That's my facsimile of Sir John Everett Millias' Ophelia in panel 3 of page 2; my decision to actually Illustrate Ophelia's death on page 3 raises a great deal of questions about the relationship between Comics, Literature and Art. By illustrating Ophelia's death directly, do I destroy the ambiguity that is the most compelling aspect of her demise, etc? Discuss.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

So Nice To See You Again!

Dana Mellili, Tupperware™ Consultant

So I'm getting back on the horse somewhat with my blog posting by uploading some of my character designs. Currently I'm working on my Comic for the Observer Comic Prize. My one criticism of the Prize is that it doesn't really have a name; or to be more precise, it has an insane surplus of names. It's such a mess of corporate sponsors and jargon that it ends up being called something along the lines of the Observer/Guardian/Comica/Jonathan Cape/Graphic Short Story/Short Fiction/Short Comic/Comic/Prize, 2011, or any combination thereof.

The important points are that it is a) prestigious, b) a chance to see your work printed in a national newspaper and c) pays £1,000 to the winner, and I heartily encourage anyone who hasn't thought about entering yet to do so. It's limited to 4 pages only, a limit that is actually a really interesting challenge yourself against; too long to support something silly and light-hearted, but not really long enough to describe a meaty plot. It seems to hark back to the ancestor of comics and political cartoons in the UK, the illustrated anecdote, in that there's just enough time to sketch a situation and some characters and not a lot else. In any case, it's wonderful practice, so do go for it if you haven't already.

Dana Mellilli, my protagonist, is a Mid-Western Tupperware Consultant and faded one-time beauty queen, and the narrative itself is set around the mid 1960's. The comic that I'm drawing has been a bit of a departure in how I work. I've been laying out all my reference images on a mood board, and I've found that it's a really useful way of having swift reference to any complicated structures you have to draw. It's well worth the time getting one together if you're embarking on a comic, particularly for historical fiction, where accuracy counts to some extent. I've also been greatly inspired by Emily Carroll's wonderful Draw this Dress blog, and am going to start posting some of my own character and costume designs. Have also been re-reading Emily's incredible comic, His Face All Red. It's not only a fantastic long-format comic, but also one that manages incredible pacing, not through techno jiggery-pokery, but pure talent.

That's all for now!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Thomas Struth at the Whitechapel Gallery

I've been doing a bit of creative writing to gear up for my dissertation and get back into the swing of writing for pleasure. This is an article on Thomas Struth, an artist whose work is currently on show in the Whitechapel Gallery near Brick Lane. I'd advise anyone who's interested to go along and see it, it's a great exhibition, and well worth the fee. If anyone has advice or suggestions for my writing, I'd love to hear it. I've tried to keep this article as accessible as possible, let me know what you think!

Particle Physics and the Parthenon:
Understanding and Uncertainty in the Architectural work of Thomas Struth

A thought occurs whilst circuiting the gallery- is it harder to hang Thomas Struth than it is to get the hang of him? Or, to put it another way, who does one sympathise with; the Gallery Hand who has to wrestle his vast 2x3 meter prints onto the walls, or the critic who has to wrestle the sheer variety of his work into a coherent thesis? Despite initial appearances, Struth is an artist whose apparently diverse and disparate subjects are held together by a very tightly defined ideology; but one that proves coyly elusive.

Tourist spots, family portraits, landscapes; Struth’s work plays with subjects that by rights, a detached and ironic critic would normally treat like the plague, or denounce as hopelessly sentimental. But somehow it works, even though his treatment of the “vulgar” photograph is superficially the only unifying subject linking his oevre. There’s a palpable sense of just how disastrously wrong a lesser photographer could go in these fields, yet in Struth’s hands it all seems to flow effortlessly.

Panthenon, Rom 1990, (183.5 x 238cm) and Las Vegas 1, Las Vegas, Nevada 1999, (179.8 x 240.7cm)
Compositional Similarities

Gape-jawed tourists gawk at Florentine frescos. The epic curvilinear sweep of the Parthenon is referenced in the crass facade of a Vegas Hotel; elsewhere colonnades of Gothic Cathedrals stand in stark contrast to the tiled underside of the Space Shuttle, held aloft by hydraulic pillars. Marvels of Science and Religion don’t so much clash as share a common spectacularisation in photographs that are spectacle in both their physical scale and content. Yet they don’t lean on spectacle as a crutch. There is definitely more than first meets the eye in Struth’s work; but discovering what exactly this is takes some unwrapping.

The exhibition is curated in much the same fashion as you would expect any major international show to be- flawlessly. Connections and parallels between works are quietly suggested, never proscribed; the flow between and around rooms feels smooth and natural; works are hung in groups that resonate clearly and effectively. The curation is an invisible presence that hangs over your shoulder like an unctuous and talented waiter, noticeable only in it’s proficiency.

After an entre and starter of varied architectural shots, your maitre d’ nudges you gently towards what I suppose this rather over-extended metaphor now has to refer to as the fish course, and Semi Submersible Rig, DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island (2007) is a veritable sturgeon in terms of scale.
Semi Submersible Rig, DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, 2007 (279.5 x 349 cm)

Struth’s largest work to date, Semi Submersible Rig measures a daunting 279.5 x 349cm, and manages to dominate both the Whitechapel Gallery and the shipyards of Geoje Island. An intricate criss-cross of lashings draw us deep into an image that has a remarkably developed depth-of-field in contrast to Struth’s other, intentionally flat prints on display. Here, as with other photos in the lower gallery, eye-boggling complexity and scale chafe alongside a vulnerable, dwarfed human element. The Rig’s presence is menacing- the artist himself compares it to “a bear tied up and brought into a medieval fair”.

From the brutalist structures of the Rig, we are guided carefully up the stairs, through a sudden departure to Struth’s family portraits, before leading on to what is obviously the dramatic denouement of the exhibition, the Jungle Images. Sandwiched between two series of urban prints, the Paradise series makes a clear “Fall from Eden” allusion and is very much the core of the show, with Paradise 9 the acclaimed star. A quick eye over the gallery literature proves that Paradise 9 is most certainly wearing the “Best In Show” rosette- it’s mentioned in almost all the pamphlets and most of the accompanying essays subject it to nigh-excruciating analysis- and seems to be poised in the exhibition as a dramatic 11th-hour entrance into the mind of Mister Thomas Struth, through which the rest of the show can be revisited and re-read. Struth may allegedly “avoid dramatising the pictoral narrative” (Annette Kruzynski, On the Pictoral Structures of Thomas Struth, 2011) but that doesn’t mean his exhibitions are devoid of predictable dramatics.

Paradise 9, Yunnan Province, China, 1999 (268.8 x 339.5 cm)

At first glance, there’s a striking similarity to Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist; a remarkable and almost unnerving achievement for a photograph. Pollock’s investigations into abstract expressionism famously lead him to eliminate any representation from his images with random dribbles of paint; the resulting painting becomes nothing more than a flat surface, the confusion of squiggles confounding any attempt to interpret it as three-dimensional space. Struth attempts the impossible, taking a 3D environment and rendering it uninterpretable; the thicket of branches performing the same function as squiggles of paint. Clearly, both are images that are meant to be looked at for the act of “seeing” rather than interpretation. The interest in Paradise 9 lies in the delicate manner in which the forms of foliage both defy and invite understanding:

“The Photographer blocks our path and almost completely closes off the pictoral space as though to literally underline the fact that we are locked out of paradise.”
Annette Kruzynski, On the pictoral structures of Thomas Struth 2011

Annette Kruzynski goes on to describe at length the compositional importance of a single branch in this photograph composed of quite literally nothing but branches. I feel this is somewhat missing the point. The crux of Kruzynski’s argument is that a single, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slender branch bisects almost the entire length of Paradise 9, dividing its frenetic unstructured chaos into a recognisable composition that can then be partitioned up and interpreted by established rules. In doing so, she unintentionally reduces Struth’s work to a clever flirtation with composition, his images a conflict between order and chaos, his ideas to political, emotional topics; but this is just one reading. The brilliance of Paradise 9 lies in its clarity, and with ideas gleaned from it, you’re free to explore Struth’s work in a new light- but it’s very much the officially sanctioned entrance that a slick curation guides you to unthinkingly. Is hacking a path through the jungle the only method by which we can find a way into his work, or are there other, more civilized entrances?

Grazing Incidence Spectrometer, Plank Institute IPP, Garching, 2010, (109.1 x 138 cm)

In amongst the most radically modern and industrial photographs of the exhibition, hangs Grazing Incidence Spectrometer, Planck Institute; a work that feels relatively small with regard to the other pieces in the room. One of the highly technical machines used in subatomic physics by the Planck Institute in Germany, the spectrometer is everything you’d expect it to be: a gleaming construction of stainless steel, mysterious nodes, knotted cables and apparent chaos covering a much more functional, streamlined utilitarianism. One could conclude that therein lies the artist’s motive in creating the piece, and clock off for lunch. But if complexity and the tension between chaos/structure is Struth’s sole purpose in photographing this object, why go to the Planck Institute? Why include the highlighted and prominent label “Grazing Indices” in the shot? Why would you seek this machine, when any other modern computer or server stack displays a similar level of complexity/design? This is clearly a loaded subject, and if we’re uncertain about the artist’s motives for choosing it, then maybe Uncertainty can help us understand.

Max Planck, whose name the institute bears, was in many ways, the founder of Quantum Mechanics, and the spectrometer is a machine that delves into the complex workings of Planck’s quantum world on a daily basis. (The Spectrometer’s purpose is to observe photons and calculate their angle of incidence as they “graze” [or reflect] off other objects.) Planck’s work was the basis for physicists Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Hisenburg, who worked together to produce the Copenhagen Interpretation, one of the most commonly taught mathematic interpretations of Quantum Physics. It was Hisenburg who produced one of the most fascinating, paradoxical and misunderstood theories of QM, the Hisenburg Uncertainty Principle.*

The Uncertainty Principle is more than just dry physics, it translates into very real philosophy. And here’s the rub; you find yourself in a position where an electron can’t be said to exist unless it’s observed, but the act of observation inevitably disturbs the electron in some way. There’s no way of getting round this; it’s built into the fabric of reality. Thus, the Uncertainty Principal axiomatically debunks the empirical concept of an independent observer; the experimenter doesn’t exist “outside” the experiment, and his presence in it influences the outcome. To observe is, mathematically, to participate.

This concept becomes key to a more cerebral understanding of Struth’s work, and the reciprocal relationship between art and viewer. Similarly to the reader-relation ideas of Wolfgang Iser, this framework emphasises the art/viewer relationship, and attempts to destroy the concept of the artwork existing as an “independent” object. A work of art, like a painting, or a book, or this essay, doesn’t exist outside of it being read, but that reading will change the work of art. Viewer and artwork are now co-dependent and all emphasis is on the various readings that go on between them. Struth’s depictions of tourist sites and art galleries are an excellent example; the viewers agape at historical artworks, grand architectures and spectacles are each experimenters lost in his or her own interaction with an artwork: yet by being photographed and presented as a subject of artistic interest themselves, Struth makes us keenly aware of our own physicality as a viewer, the relationships that flow between viewer and viewee, and indeed between viewers as collectives.

Art Institute of Chicago II, 1990 (137.2 x 172.7 cm) and National Gallery I, 1989 (180.5 x 196.5 cm)

This is particularly evident in the artist’s more playful “gallery” works, photographs that toy with elements of visual wit.The evenness of light and focus in Struth’s work creates a democracy of image, breaking down the distinctions between the two-dimensional characters and the oil paintings they’re looking at: and does so with a wry humour. A woman appears to be rolling her child’s stroller into the vanishing point of a 18th C. Parisian street scene; viewers return the gazes of painted figures, and mirror their postures. In one image of a dark corner in the National Gallery, the Whitechapel’s lighting and the glass of the frame conspire to make a natural mirror, projecting the viewer into the frame and offering them a very literal opportunity to reflect on themselves. The focus shifts from passively viewing the spectacular physical objects in the images to the process of seeing them.

Ideas of “seeing” as a physical action form a leitmotif throughout Struth’s work, questioning and uncovering the divide, so often conflated, between viewing and comprehension. Returning to the aforementioned Grazing Incidence Spectrometer with these ideas, one becomes aware that the machine is very much a mechanical eye- detecting photons in much the same was as camera takes a photograph- a contrivance that sees but is incapable of drawing inferences or conclusions from the data it processes. Just as the subject of the Spectrometer’s study is a mystery to unto itself, so does the Spectrometer represent an insoluble mystery to the human eye. Never the less, we are drawn to trace its curves and revel in its complexity and interrogate it in search of an understanding, an answer, a quanta of certainty, that it can’t possibly provide.

Is there a playful, entertaining aspect to the activity of “seeing”? Is this actually enhanced by objects we see, interpret, but whose levels of complexity we can’t grasp? If so, what does this mean about how we perceive the external world? Does this go some way to understanding the widespread popularity of “vision games” like jigsaw puzzles and optical illusions and magic eye tricks and false perspectives and the drawing that is an old-crone-in-a-fur-coat or a beautiful-woman-in-a-feather-hat but never both at the same time and are we revelling in our own fallibility as visual creatures? And what about the things we think we can see but can’t, the tender webs of relationships that flow between human beings in almost all of Struth’s works, be they architectural or familial, those structures implied but intangible?

I think Thomas Struth’s great talent, his volatile, visionary, fissionary nucleus of genius, is to pose all these questions whilst never loosing sight of what actually engages us with his images; the human element. The fact that we can’t fully resolve his thesis with either cool reason or warm romantics is its greatest appeal. No matter what techniques we use to interrogate his photographs- be they cerebral or empathic- there lies at the heart of his work, of all his works, a dark Planck’s Constant of Uncertainty.

Elliot Baggott, August 2011

* The Hiesenbug Uncertainty Principle is somewhat complicated, but best summarised through a short analogy. Imagine a scientist staring down a microscope at an electron. He’s not able to actually see anything- it’s pitch black because there’s no light at the moment- but he knows it’s there, spinning in the darkness. A particle such as an electron has both momentum (rotation/direction) and position- and a you could attempt to deduce both by shooting a photon (shining a light particle) at the electron. Using a short-wavelength photon (high energy, such as a gamma ray) will give you a clear position of where the electron is; but the gamma ray has a lot of energy, most of which is transferred to the electron in the collision, which radically changes its momentum, making it much less predictable. Use a longer-wave photon, and you disturb the momentum of the electron much less, but can’t find the position anywhere near as accurately. The amount of “Uncertainty” in this trade-off is always the same and referred to as Planck’s Constant.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Put Your Hands Up For METROPOLIS - I Love This City.

I recently enjoyed a great cinematic treat; as part of their centenary celebrations, the Brixton Ritzy Picture-house put on a showing of the 1927 classic Metropolis. Much of the footage was edited out after the German Premier of the film, and was considered lost until an almost complete version turned up in 2008. Now, the film is fully restored back to it's (almost) complete running time. For those not in the know, Metropolis is the glamourous zenith of silent film; one of the last to be made before the invention of "talkies", and with a budget of 5 Million Reichsmarks it remains the single most expensive silent film ever made.

Metropolis impresses audiences even today with effects which remain dazzling even eighty years after the premier. I'm rather fond of it myself, as it goes to prove that if you really want your movie to look spectacular even decades after it comes out, then there really is no substitute for actually building the props by hand- see Jaws, Jurassic Park, Logan's Run, etc. But I want to take a step back from the actual spectacle itself, because it's something that a lot of critiques of the film get caught up in: and Metropolis is something much more than just the Avatar of it's day.

The plot of Metropolis is pretty simplistic, and seemingly based in cliche. At the time of the its release, the film was roundly panned. H.G. Wells was one of the most vitriolic critics (for the record, there's little that's more hilarious and pathetic than listening to Sci-fi authors snipe at each other over whose made-up bullshit is the least plausible.) calling it "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general.". However, some of the best critiques of the film I've read point out that Metropolis isn't supposed to be a realistic vision of the future: rather, it's a Modern Fairy-tale. 

Fairy-tales are interesting. There's something very weird that happens to the willing suspension of disbelief when met with an outrageously simplistic Fairy-tale scenario, and it's one of the best places to study that most elusive of subjects, they "Story-teller's craft". Metropolis is simplistic in that it revolves around a cast of Jungian archetypes: The Richest Man in the World (the King), his Romantic Son (the Prince), the Virtuous Poor Girl, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, and the deformed Evil Wizard (Mad Scientist). setting Metropolis aside from a traditional Fairy-tale canon is a plot concerned with class-warfare and mechanical society. Metropolis IS a stupid story, but it's a great example of how a stupid story, if told well enough, becomes something quite different. This should come as no surprise to University students, who know the inverse law, that a fascinating subject can be slaughtered by a dull lecturer. 

Metropolis appeals with it's beguilingly simple plot, and takes us on a journey through a world which is both vivid, and somewhat familiar; because, yes, you have seen it before. It's hard to overstate just how influential the architectural scenes of Metropolis have been. Beloved character C3-PO is a pale imitation of the Machine-man of Metropolis, and the buildings themselves have influenced Movies such as Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. Even real buildings have drawn influence from the film; the school of Googie Architecture, and the stream-lined swooshes of classic 50's Americana all draw their inspiration from Lang's Masterpiece. 

Rumors of a remake continually abound on the internet, to the distress and cautious elation of fans. For the time being, there doesn't seem to be any progress on this front, but if there were to be a revival, I think an interesting angle would be to focus on the Machine-man as a character. Created by Rotwang, the mad scientist, the Machine-man is unique in cinematic heritage in that it is a robot, a creature or order and logic, given the order to spread chaos. 

The Machine-man accomplishes this not through unstoppable mechanical brutality, as in Terminator, but by manipulating the humans around her. By taking the form of a beautiful woman, the Machine-man apparently surpasses humanity, not in the usual terms of strength or logic. She is "better" at being a woman than women. She is so alluring, men will kill each other to be with her. Her speeches incite legions of workers to rise up and take to the streets. In the climax, she is undone by the chaos that she has created, laughing maniacally as she is burnt at the stake. Did she succeed? As far as she knows, she has accomplished her mission. Did she "win"?

I can't think of another character quite like her, and I'd be desperate to see more of her transition if a future version were ever made.  

Don't think you've heard the last of this from me, oh no. I have big plans for a new comic which will be unveiled shortly. Until then,