Breach the Pieces 2000
After the rampant plagiarism of his hugely successful series of engravings, The Harlot’s Progress, William Hogarth won, through influential friends, the first Act of Parliament to protect the copyright of engravers. ‘Hogarth’s Act’ became law in June 1735. In his reversioning of the Tate website, Harwood has jumped precisely into the modern version of this problematic. For the last few weeks Harwood has been sniffing around the Tate’s armoured cupboards. At any one time only a small percentage of the Gallery’s holdings are on show. The rest remains in storage, waiting – if it is ever to arrive – for the perfect curatorial moment for reanimation. In this case, the life-giving spark comes from the flash of a cheap digital camera in the hands of a gatt-toothed dog fancier intent on merging erased lineages with that of British Art. The images of the archived pictures, taken in extreme close-up, are fed into a computer, then combined with other pictures: from the Tate collection and from the faces and flesh of Harwood, his friends and family.
There are three basic elements to this versioning of the Tate’s website: these pictures, montages of people and paint; close-cropped sections of canvases butted up to photographs of mud, debris and puddles on the banks of the Thames on Millbank; a reworking of the text of the website to provide other forms of information about the Tate.
Harwood has used sections of paintings by, Turner, Wheatley, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Rossetti, Reynolds, Holman Hunt and others from the Tate collection: ‘masterpieces’, canonical objects for what is being proposed as British Art. They are then melded with shots of his mother and father; other artists from Mongrel; with parts of Harwood’s own face and body. The digital camera allows a proximity to material, to skin, to the surface of paint that excels the eye’s trained ability to sort and recognise. Skin pores become alien matter folding in billows, blunt bags trimmed with iridescent grease, pinked mudflats. Hair meets paint slabbed on like cold marge. Eyes of muscle, water and jelly share the same surface tension as those of dried-up and laquered oil in a self-portrait by Hogarth. Beeswaxed curls crust up into sheets of colour, a microcosmic gesture on canvas becomes enough to smother a head.
Michel Serres suggests that, ‘Turner was the first real genius of thermodynamics’ (1). That is, that the movement of matter, the channelling and unleashing of energies, the unceasing giving of the sun and the tight, enclosure by iron of the steam-tug’s fire is where Turner puts a burner under the cold landscape tradition of the cataloguing of holdings, or of indentured bucolic wash-mongers. The Thames becomes the tropics, threatening, diseased, full of ambivalent bodies and volumes, uncertain edges.
For Ruskin, avatar of the early modern, Turner fused light, air and water into a compositional machine that never ends. Reflections, planes, banks of cloud that dissolve into pellucid goo, haemorrhages of light. Sprint through the Clore Gallery, sitting exactly on top of the isolation pits of Millbank Prison, and what you get is an image of Turner as blighted victim of an eye dysfunction (pre-empting his later problems): sight collapsing into a molten core just off-centre of nearly every canvas. But Ruskin had another problem, even though he owned the painting at one point, he literally could not see the people in the water in Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on. The tumultuously rendered sea-sky fills the eye, salt frees the water from people, makes it tasteful.
It is this, how painting corresponds or becomes invisible to the learned eye, how art history consists of a succession of conflicts between techniques of perception, that Harwood deals with in the series of images which place sections of paintings next to close-ups of photographs of the Thames shore.
The paintings of Turner lend themselves very much to this project because they are, as Serres articulates, concerned with the movement and composition of matter. Whilst, ‘We no longer need mud, we have Turner!’ may be one response to this work, it is precisely the status of these paintings as having access to the archetypal forms of matter in flux, to ur-mud, that is of interest here. If these images work and the eye vacillates in making a decision as to which of the two halves of the image corresponds to a painting and which to riverbank then many things are thrown open. Primarily, the focus switches from paintings as objects which contain and embody a certain way of looking at the world to the act of looking and being in the world itself. This is a manouevre which does not negate the paintings but mobilises them.
Returning to the first type of image, those of paint and flesh, is to see Harwood testing out the politics of visuality in another way. Gainsborough’s portrait of Giovanna Bacelli painted in 1782 brought controversy at the time because it was thought that the subject, a ballet dancer and mistress of the Duke of Dorset who commissioned the work, was not worthy of being painted in such a style. Class position had meshed with and broken the hierarchy of aesthetic codes. This continual breaking and reforming is, without guaranteeing progress, in many ways one of the motors of art history.
Harwood has renewed the portrait. A thick chunk of hair nicked off of the head of his niece busts out of the top of the cracked image. Intimate, opaque eyes slide across at and away from the viewer and the painting is cut off abruptly. The cheeks, a skin of smooth brush-strokes, are rotted open by syphilitic sores. In contrast to the lightness of touch with which Gainsborough works the paint, no attempt is made at more than a gesture of using the image manipulation tools available in the production of this image. This is a raw juxtaposition. Mechanisms of potential illusion are pointed towards, only to be moved along to the main target. Three imaging systems collide: a snap, a portrait, and an ‘informational’ picture culled from a medical textbook. All of the images that make up this composite are staged in some way. Whilst all are concerned with a variant of truth, there is only one that makes claim to be staging fact. By the time this fact has become part of this other set of images it has ceased to be one of the representational culture of medicine, but of art – that area of representational culture that either legislates upon or makes vivid its activity as culture both in the particularity of its articulation and in its arrangement within the contexts it operates. The sheer bandwidth of information about the syphilitic sores gnawing at this face is what makes it, as a photograph, more than we necessarily want to deal with. The portrait of Bacelli was opposed in part because she, as a dancer – an independent woman – was also, by implication, a code-breaker: fallen. Harwood then, mobilises the picture in two ways. Firstly, it is an almost art historical manouevre: making visible what was implicit but repressed in reactions to the painting when it was first shown. Secondly, it moves to confront the meta-cultural discipline of art, or at least those agencies concerned with ordering and controlling its front end, with its very squeamishness. You can have people fainting with boredom, but just don't get them puking up on the gallery parquet.
It is how we should look, at the website or within the walls of the Tate that is the focus of the third element of Harwood’s work.
If you dial an incorrect phone number, you can expect the person at the other end to let you know and put the phone down. You don’t expect them to start filling you in on the secret life, the dodgy deals, the affairs, the backhanders of the person you were calling. Harwood’s take on the Tate does precisely this. He reshuffles the collection, messes it up, flips the register in which art is spoken, makes links. The precondition for the first two modes of the work is that they are situated within an already travestied version of the Tate. Millbank Prison, upon whose ruins Tate Britain is founded, rises from the banks of history to subsume the building. How then, does this site operate in relation to the wider context of the Tate?
This work exists not in what Harwood calls the ‘Hallowed ground’ of the Tate buildings; things haven’t gone that far, but merely in a small pocket of one element of its public face. This is an institution that can command newspaper front-pages and peak-time serial documentaries on its interior design choices. More likely than not, a little politicised blemish is calculated to provide a counterpoint to its overall perfection of composition.
Perhaps this permitted disfiguration of the Tate is a mistake on Harwood’s part? After all, there is currently a fashion amongst institutions to do a little bit of apologising for past ‘misconduct’. It is incumbent upon the Tate to be seen to incorporate or at least editorialise its other, to play its part in a broader current of the ‘reinvention’ of Britain.
Whilst Britishness, the premise upon which the Tate at Millbank is being reprogrammed, is a flimsy fiction that never fails to sour, it is one operating in a wider context which also pertains to this work. Museums are inherently conservative. At the same time, they are compelled to be speculative, looking for points of rupture in their collection, in their understanding of what constitutes ‘important’ art. Equally, ‘The space of representation associated with the museum rests on a principle of general human universality which render it inherently volatile, opening it up to a constant discourse of reform as hitherto excluded constituencies seek inclusion.’ (2) In other words, both art history – or the desire for it to continue – and social history – or the desire for its containability – provide a range of soft spots within the museum.
To complicate matters, it is perhaps those artists whose activity most profoundly breaks with the established currents of art practice and with the social normativity of the museum who can make most use of them. Despite the architecture, it must be understood that museums are not monolithic. They are riven with interdepartmental factions and disciplinary approaches, bids for new angles on which careers can be made. At the same time for artists, they act as a megaphone which can be grabbed, through which public thought can be taken on a detour. Perhaps we may even consider that ‘...being “recuperated” – a fate so deeply feared by most avant-gardists – may be the most efficient way to obtain one’s objectives’(3) The theoretical model of recuperation has always allowed too much power to Power. It appeals more to those wanting to agonise over their inaction rather than, in as many places and as many ways as seem worth a try, begin to make things differently. There is no firm, pure, place from which the world can be levered off its axis. But this also means that there is no space in which domination cannot be challenged or taken down.
It is essential for the practice of power that its excercise be, if not unintelligable, at least ineffable. In a sense, to begin to attempt to analyse it, to second guess it, as in the mode of institutional critique, is to fall prey to this. Minutely detailed cataloguing of repressions belongs perhaps to the academy. The location of the Tate within its historical, economic and aesthetic determinants becomes here something more: a means of complicating not merely the mechanisms of the institution, but also those of the artist in a conjugation whose outcome remains openly difficult.
Harwood appears as another mug in place of the face of the painted. The archive becomes a space of subjective involvement and invention, of fantasy as much as a location for critique. Life stories feed into history, feed into aesthetics. And this is surely where Harwood is aiming. To produce an open difficulty in the representation of the Tate, to effect a thoroughgoing conflict with its procedures and modes of operation and representation. But also to weave that difficulty into a process of his own self-composition, as a member of a class that has been scrubbed from the walls of the Museum, is to provide the foundations for opening things up still further.
(1) Michel Serres, ‘Turner Translates Carnot’, trans. Mike Shortland, Block 6, London 1982
(2) Tony Bennett, ‘The Political Rationality of the Museum’, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture, vol. 3 no.1 1990, http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/3.1/Bennett.html Bennett also points towards some models in which the museum can be opened up in ways that go beyond the usual polarisation between the popularist/entertainment and the statist/education modes between which he argues they most commonly vacillate.
(3) Comment made on Hans Haacke’s ‘Germania’ Salon at Venice Biennale 1993 in Dario Gambino, ‘The Destruction of Art: iconoclasm and vandalism since the French Revolution’ Reaktion Books, London 1997
Net Art commission by Graham Harwood, pointing towards (A)rt’s role as medicine and the use of aesthetics to negotiate social positioning, race, national identity and economic forces.