Lee Krasner: Living Colour @ Barbican Art

‘I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.’ Lee Krasner

On 11 ‎August 1956 the world-famous artist and leader of the school of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, crashed his Oldsmobile convertible while driving drunk. His wife of 11 years, Lee Krasner, also an accomplished artist, heard the news while away in Europe, and hurried home to New York to sort out the arrangements for his funeral and Pollock’s affairs.

Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, New York City, where she was working on a WPA commission (c. 1940) Photo by Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c.1905-1984

She moves into the big barn

Ten years earlier, and soon after marrying (in 1945), the couple had moved to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island, and bought a wood-frame house and barn, which they converted into studios.

Of the buildings at their disposal, Pollock had early on nabbed the biggest available space – the barn – as a studio, and it was here that he created many of the masterpieces that made his name in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Sometime in 1957, the year after his death, Krasner moved Pollock’s paints and equipment out of the big barn and her own stuff in, and began to paint in the largest space she’d ever had at her disposal.

The result is a decade’s worth of quite extraordinarily powerful and enormous abstract paintings which make up the core of the major retrospective of Lee Krasner’s art, which is currently being held at the Barbican Centre in London. They are absolutely stunning. Breathtaking. Wonderful. Huge!

Installation view of Another Storm (1963) by Lee Krasner at the Barbican. Photo by the author

A light and airy space

For this exhibition the Barbican has removed some of the partitions which usually divide up the main ground floor exhibition space, and also removed some of the temporary walls which previously concealed wall-sized windows in the exhibition shop and at the end of the main gallery. The combined effect of this decluttering is to make the big central space (technically ‘room 10’ of the exhibition) feel long and bright and airy. From the moment you arrive at the ticket desk, the new lighter, brighter space feels like the perfect environment in which to hang Krasner’s huge and awe-inspiring works.

It is a genuinely uplifting and life-affirming experience to wander among these paintings, I felt like a mortal wandering dazzled through a mansion of the gods.

Siren by Lee Krasner (1966) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver

Her early years in self portraits

The exhibition is arranged in broadly chronological order, and you are directed to start on the upper floor of the Barbican galleries, which houses eight living-room-sized spaces. These eight rooms take us from Krasner’s birth, in 1908, in New York, into a family of Orthodox Jewish Russian émigrés, and onto the early art school training she got (at the Women’s Art School at Cooper’s Union, Art Students League, National Academy of design. From her student days there’s a room of self-portraits in oil, which are OK.

Nudes classical and modern

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (when she was 21) Krasner began training as a teacher and attended life school classes. On one wall of room four are the extremely accomplished nude studies she did in the style of the Renaissance Masters in 1933 – very accomplished, very traditional. On the opposite wall is a selection of charcoal nudes she did just six years later, in 1939, which are completely different in style, riven by big abstract angular lines, showing a complete assimilation of European modernist trends.

By 1942 she was a respected member of New York’s artistic community. She had been included in an exhibition of contemporary painting in New York alongside friends Willem de Kooning and Stuart French. Piet Mondrian admired her work. As a result she was given a number of commissions by President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, including a job to oversee the design and execution of twenty department-store window displays in Manhattan advertising war training courses. She adopted a cut-up-and-paste collage approach, and room five shows blow-ups of photos of these wartime artworks. Well, sort of interesting as a) social history b) if you really a completist looking for evidence of every step of her artistic development.

The Little Images

She knew most of the exhibitors in that 1942 show except one, a guy named Jackson Pollock, so she dropped round to his Greenwich Village studio to seek him out and say hi. One thing led to another and they were married in 1945. They moved to the farm on Long Island and, in the winter of 1947, Krasner embarked on what became known as the ‘Little Images’ series, abstract paintings made up of tightly meshed squares and shapes which some critics described as ‘hieroglyphic’. Rooms one and two kick off the show with some fine examples of these ‘Little Images’ and it’s amazing what a variety of design and visual effect you can achieve from such a seemingly simple premise.

Composition (1949) by Lee Krasner © Philadelphia Museum of Art

The collage paintings

Krasner was given her first one-woman show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in October 1951. The work didn’t sell and, although she began a new series soon afterwards, she quickly became despondent and ended up tearing some of the new work to shreds in frustration.

Weeks later, returning to the studio, she realised that the torn strips lying about on the floor got her juices flowing. Quickly she began incorporating them into a new series of collages. She layered pieces of fabric over the paintings shown at the Betty Parsons show, adding pieces of burlap, torn newspaper, heavy photographic paper and some of Pollock’s discarded drawings. The resulting ‘collage paintings’ were exhibited in another gallery show in 1955, and there are several rooms of them on display here.

Blue Level (1955) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Diego Flores

Strikingly different from the ‘Little Images’, aren’t they? The very tightly-wound hieroglyphs of the Images are completely different from the violently torn strips of the collages.

Prophecies

In the summer of 1956 Krasner began work on a new series. The dominant tone of pink made me think of human flesh and nudes, but nudes severely chopped up and filtered via Demoiselles d’Avigon-era Picasso.

The first example of this new style was on Krasner’s easel when she left for France that summer. In the first half of their marriage, her husband’s career had gone from strength to strength, peaking around 1951, as he became world famous for his ‘drip paintings’, getting on the front cover of Time magazine, promoted by the American government as a home-grown genius, snapped up by collectors. But when, after 1951, Pollock tried to change this winning formula, he met with incomprehension and sales slumped. Pollock lost confidence, his drinking increased, he began an affair, which Krasner knew about, in early ’56.

That was the troubled background to the first of these flesh paintings and then – mid-way through her visit to Europe, she got the call that he had died in the car crash. Just weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to the style and quickly made three more big, torn-up flesh paintings which she titled Prophecy, Birth, Embrace and Three In Two.

In the last room of the first floor of the exhibition, these four paintings are reunited, one hanging on each of the four walls, and it is impossible not to be powerfully affected by their eerie, agonised power.

Prophecy (1956) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Christopher Stach

The night journeys

So Jackson dies and Lee moves into the big barn studio and she is afflicted with insomnia and can only work at night, and she decides not to use any colour in her new paintings because she prefers to judge colours by daylight – and so, from the late 1950s, Krasner began to make a series of paintings combining just black and umber and creamy white onto huge, unstretched canvases.

Wow! These are great swirling, turd-coloured pieces, full of energy and despair. A poet friend of hers labelled them ‘Night Journeys’ and to follow any of the angled, curved or circular lines which strike across the surface is, indeed, to go on a churning, bitter journey though a landscape in torment.

Polar Stampede (1960) by Lee Krasner. Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Krasner exhibited these big brown works in 1960 and 1962 to critical praise, and half a dozen of them dominate the first half of the enormous ground floor space in this show. You can stand in front of them, or there are benches where you can sit down, meditate on them, and be drawn into their drama and action.

Primary series

But the jewel in the crown is the Primary series. In the early 1960s Krasner replaced umber with a range of vivid primary colours. When she broke her right arm in a fall, she taught herself to work with her left, squirting paint directly from the tube, using her right hand to guide the movements.

Critics often use the word ‘gesture’ or ‘gestural’ but in this case it really is justified. As you follow the great sweeping arcs and patterns of paint, and note their dribbles and dynamic interactions, you can almost feel and see the great sweeps of the arm they must have required, the leaning of the whole body, the straining, the movement from one zone of focus to the next. They are extraordinarily vibrant and exciting paintings.

Icarus (1964) by Lee Krasner. Thomson Family Collection, New York © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Diego Flores

I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. I wandered up and down the central room, enjoying all the views of the works offset against each other, glimpsed behind the one central supporting wall of the main exhibition space, addressed front on, strolled past, studied up close, looked at from the other side of the room.

Wow! What a space, and what works of staggering brilliance to fill them with!

Later works

The Umber paintings and the Primary series cover the decade from the late 50s to the late 60s. What a brilliant decade it was for her.

Then, in 1968 Krasner discovered a stash of handmade paper in the farmhouse, and decided to make a new series of works, on a much, much, much smaller scale. She decided to experiment by making each of these small, crafted works from just one or two pigments. A dozen or so of them are in a room off to one side (room 11).

They require a completely different way of looking. Much more conventional in size they require the viewer to step forwards and examine the detail, rather than step back and admire the scale, as with the Primary series.

The dozen or so examples on display here are all lovely – free-spirited dances of colour, and interplays of defined brushstrokes against broader washes, all given a wonderful background texture by virtue of the expensive paper they’re painted on.

Untitled (1969) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York

In the early 1970s, Krasner made a significant step change in style. Still completely abstract, her works changed from soft biomorphic shapes to hard-edged abstract forms. I found them a shock to the system after the huge works in the central hall.

I liked even less the works in the final room, dating from 1974. In that year she stumbled across a portfolio of work from her art school days, the kind of angular nude studies which we saw examples of way back in room four.

Now Krasner took a pair of scissors to these early studies and cut them up into jagged shapes. Most of the source material was black and white drawings, but she interspersed some coloured strips into the collages, and also left other areas blank, apparently ‘echoing the empty space around the nude model’ which had served as the subject for many of the original drawings.

They were exhibited in 1977 under the title Eleven Ways To Use The Words To See. I didn’t warm to them.

Imperative (1976) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

No, I went back up to the first floor and walked back through the eight rooms soaking up the evolution of those early works and admiring, in particular, the ‘Little Images’ series. And I revisited the rooms holding these later 1970s works, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — but all the time I just wanted to go back into the massive main gallery space and be swept off my feet and ravished all over again by the huge, vibrant, dancing works of the 1960s.

Summary

This is the first European retrospective of Lee Krasner’s career for over 50 years. It brings together nearly 100 works from some 50 galleries, institutions and  private collections. It must have been a labour of love to assemble them all, and was totally worth it.

The exhibition ends with a 15-minute video made up from various interviews with Krasner towards the end of her life. She was one tough lady, and she told it like it was, still, in her 70s, harbouring a bitter resentment at the sexism of the New York art world which she had to combat all her career.

If you start reading up about her life you quickly find people claiming that, far from being overshadowed by her famous husband, Krasner was in fact the driving force behind his career. And, from some of the interviews, you get the impression that, having seen what really high-profile high pressure publicity did to an artist (Pollock), she was quite content to avoid that level of scrutiny, and just get on with what she loved doing.

The publicity material accompanying the exhibition quotes the playwright Edward Albee commenting at her memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that in both her life and her work, Krasner ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’.

That seems a perfect description of both a tough lady, and of her extraordinarily resolute, exuberant and unsentimental art.

A short film about Lee Krasner


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Dorothea Tanning @ Tate Modern

This is the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work to be held in the UK for 25 years.

It brings together 100 pieces from her seven-decade-long career (she lived to be an astonishing 101 years old, 1910 – 2012) across a range of media, including oil paintings, pencil drawings, ‘soft’ sculptures, lithographs, a massive installation, and a film about her. It is as comprehensive a survey of her artistic achievement as you could wish for.

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Tanning was born in provincial America (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1910. As soon as she was able to, she moved to New York, where she soon afterwards saw the famous Surrealism exhibition of 1936. It was a coup de foudre which changed her life. She began painting in a boldly Surrealist style and in 1939 set off to Paris to meet the leaders of the movement.

Unfortunately, Hitler had other plans, and the advent of the Second World War saw her coming straight back to New York but, happily, so did half the Surrealist artists, fleeing the Nazis. These fleeing artists included one of the leading Surrealists, Max Ernst (b.1891), who she fell in love with and married in 1946.

Surrealist paintings

The exhibition features a generous selection of the Surrealist paintings she made from the mid-1930s to the end of the 40s.

Tanning said she wanted to depict ‘unknown but knowable states’ and the pictures show humans in strange postures, or morphing into inanimate objects, or bursting into flames, or standing in deserts littered with incongruous objects, or standing in bedrooms among strange and Gothic figures, or staring into sunflowers which are changing into mirrors, or standing in front of doors opening onto other doors.

Some of these are really powerful images, although many felt to me like they were channelling existing Surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali, the man who had crystallised the Surrealist ‘look’ in the late 1920s, introducing an immaculate finish to his oil paintings which depicted random objects or events, melting watches, elephants on stilts, melting limbs propped up by crutches and so on.

In other works you can detect the influence of Giorgio de Chirico (b.1888) with his mysterious abandoned Italian squares and brooding neo-classical architecture. In some of them you can see the Magritte who painted a man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face.

For example the blue skyscape at the bottom of this Surreal image of a chess game, and its startling optical illusion it gives that the rest of the painting has been draped in front of a landscape, reminds me of the deceptively simple blue skies of Magritte paintings.

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

But all that said, many of Tanning’s paintings do have a unique and distinctive feeling.

The recurrence of women in the paintings is nothing special in itself, since the Surrealists as a movement thought of the female as being more instinctive, irrational, closer to the unconscious and an all-purpose muse figure – so Tanning’s depictions of women with bared breasts (or herself with bared breasts) don’t cover any new ground.

But I felt that her depictions of girls do capture something unique. Pre-pubescent girls are not such a common motif in male artists, who tend, all too often, to depict shapely, nude and nubile women.

I think Tanning’s depictions of pre-pubescent girls and the depiction of women not as sex objects but as individuals – I’m struggling to put this into words, but her depiction of girls and women – did have a different and distinctive feeling, capturing something genuinely strange about a girl’s experience of the world. I thought of Angela Carter’s retelling of fairy tales from a girl’s point of view.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Prismatic style

In the 1950s Tanning and Ernst moved to Paris and this marked a seismic, comprehensive reinvention of her visual language. It is signalled in the exhibition when you walk into the next room and are confronted with the massive and staggering painting, Gate 84.

Installation photograph of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, 2019

Admittedly this is from a lot later, 1984, but Gate 84 captures the massive change in style which happened in the 1950s. It depicts two girls drawn in vivid graphic style with the use of strong border lines, emerging from a background of violent flaming yellow. Dividing the painting right down the middle is part of an actual door and door jamb which has been embedded into the canvas and sticks out of the picture plane. Both the girls are wearing thigh-length dresses, the one on the left is performing an acrobatic leap so as to hit the door with outstretched hand and foot; the one on the right is more lazily sitting, with her right leg outstretched, her foot pressed flat against the door as if keeping it shut.

I visited with my wife who said this reminded her vividly of the fights she was always having with her own sister, when they were kids. And she got talking to another middle aged woman standing in front of it, who agreed that it reminded her of her childhood with two sisters, rampaging and fighting. A very female sensibility capturing something vivid and dynamic about girls’ experiences of the world.

What struck me more than anything was the chunky realism of the legs, the muscular thighs and the weight and tension in the calves and feet. The entire depiction of the human body is utterly utterly different from the rather attenuated, pallid, doll-like figures in the Surrealist paintings.

And this proved to be true of all her paintings from this point onwards. They become a) much larger and b) much much more abstract, great billowing shapes.

And yet, paradoxically, the graphic element becomes clearer. Faces and bodies and fragments of bodies appear as if out of a rampaging fog and, when they do, are often painted with strict anatomical accuracy, or even a kind of super-accuracy, a monumental accuracy. The arms and thighs and bottoms reminded me of Michelangelo.

It is like the work of a completely different artist.

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

In Dogs of Cythera, at bottom left you can make out what might be an arm going round a woman’s breast, in the centre something like the top of a shaved black skull, at bottom right another arm bent at the elbow, leading up to a hand with splayed fingers.

So there are people, or people-like objects in the painting, but quite clearly something radical and massive is going on that utterly eclipses them, or only uses them as raw material in a bigger and bewildering process.

To quote the wall label, these works mark:

a more abstracted ‘prismatic’ style of painting, and her brushwork and compositions became much looser. Where her earlier work used precise realism to present fantastical scenes, in these paintings it is colour and light that bring imaginary worlds into being. The possibilities of her medium became more important to her.

‘In looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.’

In Tanning’s Surreal works the human body, mostly female, is often stylised, thin, elongated – or given an eerie, science fiction otherworldliness, as in this disconcerting girl being covered in flowers. The subject is set in a recognisable space with perspective to create depth and often to draw the eye to some Surrealistically disturbing detail, such as the fireplace which opens onto clear blue sky.

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

In this later, ‘prismatic’ style, there is no depth or perspective, there is only a great storm of cloud happening right on the surface of the canvas from which parts of one or more bodies threaten to temporarily emerge into focus before disappearing again into the tumult. The paintings vary quite a lot in feel, some lighter and airier, others really dark and stormy – but all in the same immediately recognisable style.

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

There are over twenty paintings in this maner, it looks like most of her output after the mid-1950s was like this, and I loved them.

Many of the Surrealist works are wonderful, inventive and mysterious but I couldn’t help the nagging through that she was working – often to marvellous effect – but in someone else’s idiom. With the ‘prismatic’ paintings it seemed to me Tanning became completely free. I loved the tremendous sense of energy they convey, the sense of muscular, lithe bodies struggling, fighting, embracing, tumbling through clouds – as different as could be from the absolutely static, dream-like, frozen tableaux of the Surrealist works.

They reminded me of the last stanza of Yeats’s poem, Near The Delphic Oracle.

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,
Peleus on Thetis stares.
Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,
Love has blinded him with tears;
But Thetis’ belly listens.
Down the mountain walls
From where pan’s cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.

Bellies, shoulders and bums all appear momentarily our of the seething fog of these strange, visionary paintings. Some are sensual, even sexy. And in some the human figure entirely emerges to be given a surprisingly traditional and realistic treatment, like this one, Tango Lives, from 1977, which seemed to me to be channelling Degas’s studies of ballet dancers on a stage, strongly lit from below.

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

But many others convey bewilderment and confusion, and some of them seem genuinely dark and terrifying, visions of a weird hell where monsters are eating each other. More than one of the dark ones reminded me of Goya’s Saturn devouring his children in a swirling fog.

Soft fabric sculptures

And then – something completely different, again.

In the 14-minute film about her – Insomnia – which runs in the final room, Tanning herself explains that at some point in the mid-1960s she just got sick of the smell of turpentine and, by implication, of painting as a medium.

So she got a sowing machine (she is shown in the film using a classic black Singer machine) and began making soft sculptures.

She used the machine to sew together strange shapes which she stuffed with wool to become free-standing sculptures. Like the prismatic paintings they hint strongly at bodily parts – not least because many of them are made out of flesh-coloured fabric – with long tubes which could be arms flung around bulbous shapes which might be bodies. Take Nue Couchée which is made from cotton textile padded with cardboard and filled with seven tennis balls and a load of wool.

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

There’s one round pink shape with a wide crack open in the front which is lined with jagged pieces of wood, obviously a rather nightmareish face. And the biggest piece is a mysterious black pin cushion, studded with giant pins, containing strange pinnacles and spouts, as well as worrying orifices.

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Tanning made it when she was living in Seillans, a hill-top town in Provence. From 1965 to about 1970 she made about twenty of these cloth sculptures.

By far the most dramatic work along these lines was an enormous room-sized installation which is in fact a life-sized model of a room, complete with open door and fireplace, but which is infested with cloth sculptures looming out of the floor and bursting from the walls – a three-dimensional, if rather dingy, homage to the Surrealist nightmares which shook her imagination all those decades earlier.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Conclusion

There’s also a section devoted to her work for the stage, designing Surrealist sets and costumes for collaborations with the choreographer George Balantine – and a sequence of lithographs which, to me, smacked of the covers of 1950s science fiction novels, of the more abstract, harrowing, post-apocalyptic flavour.

But overall her career can be divided very broadly into these three threads

  1. Dali-like Surrealist paintings
  2. huge billowy ‘prismatic’ paintings
  3. mysterious and unnerving soft sculptures

In light of this, I think the curators have made an excellent decision which is to mix it up.

I suspect that if they’d hung the works chronologically it might have been a bit boring, each room would have risked being a bit samey. A couple of rooms of non-stop Surrealism, one of the strange 1950s lithographs and stage designs, a couple of rooms of just prismatic paintings, and then a room or two of just soft sculptures – each space would have been limiting and samey.

Instead the curators have mixed it up, with works from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s all in the same room, huge oil paintings next to lithographs, early drawings next to Surrealist classics.

The net result is to create thought-provoking connections and juxtapositions of subject matter and style – in short, to foment the kind of rather dreamy, disconnected, unsettling effect which I’m sure Tanning herself would have appreciated.

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The promotional video

Women curators

Dorothea Tanning is curated by Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Cambridge and Ann Coxon, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern, supported by Emma Lewis and Hannah Johnston, Assistant Curators, International Art, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Count Zero by William Gibson (1986)

He drank off the black bitter coffee. It seemed to him, just for a second, that he could feel the whole Sprawl breathing, and its breath was old and sick and tired, all up and down the stations from Boston to Atlanta…’ (p.286)

The setting

This is the second novel in what came to be known as Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy (because there ended up being three of them: his debut, Neuromancer, and the third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

It is the future. Vast urban sprawls cover half of America, housing estates and huge malls under enormous geodesic domes blocking out the sky. Japanese culture and cuisine is widespread and everyone uses the New Yen as currency. Computers and digital technology, chips and disks, fuel a digital economy. Oil appears to have run out – possibly because Russia took control of the global supply after a brief war which America and the West lost – to be replaced by hydrogen cells. Electricity is generated by the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority whose well-protected gleaming towers of data can be seen by hackers in cyberspace. The real power in the world lies with vast multinational corporations known as zaibatsus. At the other end of the food chain, down on the littered streets, cheap bars and derelict spaces are full of veterans from the war, damaged physically or psychologically, many of whom turn up as protagonists in the Sprawl novels and in some of the Sprawl-related short stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986) published at the same time as the novels.

‘Sprawltown’s a twisty place, my man.Things are seldom what they seem.’ (Lucas, p.205)

This setting – ‘the street’ – is characterised by two things:

  1. a Raymond Chandler film noir sensibility in which the world is entirely made up of crime and gangs –  especially the terrifying Yakuza gangs
  2. drugs, lots of drugs, everyone is on one type of drug or another, the hero of Neuromancer is off his face a lot of the time, and the drugs range from cheap street drugs like amphetamine (known on the street as ‘wiz’) to new, biochemically-engineered mind-enhancing substances (like ‘the most expensive designer drugs’ which the character named The Wig devotes himself to taking, p.173)

The result is a prose style which combines the basic mood of a thriller – the permanent edginess of protagonists on the run from threatening crime lords or criminal organisations or the cops or someone  – but soaked in slangy, hip, knowing references to the ho-tech, drug-soaked, street gang components of this louche futureworld.

The feel

All that said, Count Zero immediately feels much broader and lighter than Neuromancer. That debut novel was set mostly at night, in often claustrophobic settings, bars, clubs, hotel rooms, dingy back alleys. Also the prose was extremely dense, studded with references to arcane technology or drugs or street gangs. There was barely a run-of-the-mill sentence in the whole book.

Count Zero is much more relaxed and diffused in several ways: its prose style is a lot less hectic – there are plenty of straightforward, factual sentences in it – but also the settings are more varied, and some of them even take place in daylight!

In fact whereas Neuromancer stuck pretty closely to the adventures of its computer hacker hero, Case, Count Zero is a complicated and canny weaving together of what start out as several completely distinct plotlines, featuring completely freestanding characters. Only as the story progresses do we slowly discover how they are linked.

Turner

Turner is an experienced kidnapper of top scientists. In the future this is a recognised profession. The huge scientific multinational corporations which control the world are prepared to pay kidnappers like Turner to poach the star scientists of the rival corporations.

‘You took Chauvet from IBM for Mitsu and they say you took Semenov out of Tomsky.’ (0.68)

Turner is – like the protagonist of every thriller ever written – an outsider, a rebel, the man who doesn’t fit in. Oh how we all wish we could be like him!

Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a permanent outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics. (p.128)

‘A rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics’ – cool!

Strikingly, the novel opens with a chapter describing how Turner was blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb in India, and expensively fitted back together using future technology bythe clients who find him useful. Recuperating in Mexico, he hooks up with a pretty woman he meets in a bar and they have an idyllic romance, with sex on the beach, and sex in the bedroom.

Then – as with half the protagonists in the Burning Chrome stories and in Neuromancer – she walks away, leaving him devastated.

Turns out she was a therapist hired by the client to get Turner back into shape. The client now shows up and tells him this. Turner, super-tough guy that he is, accepts it without a flicker. (This opening reminded me of the idyllic Third World setting at the start of the second Jason Bourne movie, where Jason and his true love are enjoying idyllic times in a beach-front shack in India, till she is killed by mistake by an assassin sent to terminate Jason.)

These are rock solid, straight down-the-line, Hollywood-level, tough guy thriller clichés, and you can see the appeal.

  1. Every timid, shy, boring salaryman and commuter (like myself) thrills to the adventures of people like Turner – young (he is 24, p.131), super-fit, super-alert, super-trained, no-nonsense, super-brave, possessor of ‘a ropey, muscular poise’ (p.129): faces down men bigger and harder than him, immediately wins over the tough bitch in the team, wow, what a man! (it was, apparently, in a review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service published in the Sunday Times in 1963 that the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Nothing has changed in 56 years.)
  2. And yet, just as predictably, it turns out this tough guy has a heart of soppy mush — for the right woman he can be a perfect gent, picnics on the beach and cunnilingus in the bedroom. What a guy!

We follow as Turner is hired for a new job by his former partner, Conroy. He is to be in charge of setting up a base in the desert with a ragtag bunch of fellow mercs, ready to receive the absconding scientist, Christopher Mitchell, who will be escaping from Maas Biolabs’ high security research base in Arizona. Mitchell is a star science researcher who had developed the ‘hybridoma techniques’ on which much contemporary technology is based (p.127). A very important guy. the client is Hosaka Corp who want his brains and expertise. It’s a major assignment. You won’t be surprised to learn that things go disastrously wrong,

Marly

The Turner chapters are intercut with chapters following Marly Krushkhova, the pretty, rather naive ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’. She promoted a painting which turned out to be a forgery, so she was fired by the shareholders. Now she’s going for a job interview with a business owned by Josef Virek, rumoured to be the richest man in the world.

Marly is disconcerted to discover that Virek is not present in person, but that she is transported to a life-size hologram of a street in Barcelona, where she sits next to a hologram of him on a park bench and they chat.

In fact, the hologram tells her, the actual ‘Virek’ exists only as a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat in a him security compound in Stockholm.

He doesn’t want to hire her for some straightforward gallery job. Virek wants Marly to track down the artist who created a particular artwork which he once saw and was taken with – a Damian Hirst-style vivarium full of a random collection of detritus.

Virek will authorise money for her use to hire an apartment, planes, whatever she needs in her quest. ‘How long do I have?’ she asks. ‘The rest of your life,’ he replies. It takes a while for her to really understand that he is giving her an unlimited supply of money, over an unlimited period of time, to use all her contacts in the art world to track down the artist who made this one piece.

And, once she has staggered out of the hologram room to be met by Virek’s smooth-talking assistants and given the first instalment of money, she begins to realise that she is being followed and monitored at every step, not least by a suave Spanish man, Paco, who keeps appearing in the background whenever she meets contacts and begins her investigation.

This Quest will turn out to be the central driving force of the narrative, but the fact that Virek is so obscenely rich also gives Gibson plenty of opportunity to reflect on the nature of money, lots of money, super-money, and the effect it has on its owners and on those around them. In this futureworld where people routinely alter their consciousness either with mind-bending drugs or by encountering 3-D holograms or by entering the dizzying world of cyberspace, the rich can quite literally bend reality to their wishes.

‘The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit…’ (p.27)

How could she have imagined that it would be possible to live, to move, in the unnatural field of Virek’s wealth without suffering distortion? Virek had taken her up, in all her misery, and had rotated her through the monstrous, invisible stresses of his money, and she had been changed. (p.107)

Virek’s money was a sort of universal solvent, dissolving barriers to his will… (p.2420

Count Zero

Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’, still lives with his mom in a crappy apartment in the vast area of cheap, high-rise housing known as Barrytown, New Jersey. He is an apprentice computer hacker, a cowboy of cyberspace, a ‘hotdogger’, hanging round the estate’s chrome-lined bars, trying to be fit in with the local gang members, but keenly aware that he is only a beginner with only a basic, entry-level hacker’s view of cyberspace.

He was like a kid who’d grown up beside an ocean, taking it as much for granted as he took the sky, but knowing nothing of currents, shipping routes of the ins and outs of weather. He’d used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline. (p.62)

A local crime boss, Two-A-Day, hands Bobby a state-of-the-art console and asks him to hack into the financial records of some company. Things are going OK when Bobby suddenly experiences an enormous counter-surge of energy directed against him which stops his heart in the real world. Bobby starts to die, when some other undefined force leans in to cyberspace, releases him, and he regains consciousness on his mom’s carpet throwing up.

What the…?

He goes looking for Two-A-Day at the local crappy bar, Leon’s, where Gibson gives us florid descriptions of the drug-selling, computer-game-playing lowlifes. On the TV news he sees that his mum’s flat, indeed the entire row of apartments on that block, have been destroyed by a bomb. Christ! They’re after him.

Bobby goes and hides down a back alley by a dumpster which turns out be a bad idea because someone savagely mugs him. Whoever it is, slashes his chest open and also steals the console Two-A-Day gave him.

When Bobby comes round he is being sewn up using futuristic technology, and then delivered to Two-A-Day’s vast penthouse apartment where he meets a couple of soft-spoken, nattily-dressed and terrifying black men, Beauvoir and Lucas.

Beauvoir explains what’s happened: Two-A-Day had been given some new, high-powered anti-ice (ice being security software devised by corporations to protect their digital assets in cyberspace) program to by unnamed powerful agents. Unwilling to risk anything himself, Two-A-Day had sub-contracted the thing to Bobby – the idea being that, if it’s booby-trapped or dangerous it’ll only be worthless Bobby who gets wasted.

Well, something bad certainly happened to Bobby when he tried to use it. 1. Was that a failure of the program, or was it booby-trapped, or did it trigger a prepared defence mechanism in the corporation Bobby tried to hack?

But 2. and more importantly, whoever mugged him stole the console with the software inside. Now the very High-Ups who sub-contracted testing it to Two-A-Day are pissed off with him… and he is pissed off with Bobby, who needs to get it back.

Three mysteries

These are the three storylines which we follow in short, alternating chapters of Gibson’s over-heated, amphetamine-fuelled prose.

As the night came on, Turner found the edge again. It seemed like a long time since he’d been there, but when it clicked in, it was like he’d never left. It was that superhuman synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated. (p.126)

All the characters hover on the edge of mind-altering psychotropic drug highs, or mind-expanding plug-ins to the dizzying landscape of cyberspace, or are involved in terror-inducing chases by cops or all-powerful threatening powers. With the result that the prose, and even more the plot, has you permanently on edge. It is a fantastically thrilling, gripping and exciting novel but which can also, partly because of the permanent obscurity Gibson maintains around some of the key motivators of the plot, become quite wearing and draining.

Basically, the narrative hangs around three cliffhanging challenges:

  1. Will Turner’s handling of the defection of the high-level scientist work out as planned?
  2. Who made the artwork that Virek hired Marly to track down, and why is Virek so obsessed by it?
  3. Will Bobby ‘Count Zero’ manage to find the people who mugged him and stole his console, and what is the truth about the new super-program inside it?

Continuities with Neuromancer

I thought the book would be part of the Sprawl trilogy because set in the same futureworld, I hadn’t realised it would literally follow on from the first book, referencing many of the characters and incidents mentioned in Neuromancer and taking them further.

For example, you will remember that the climax of Neuromancer is set on a space station orbiting the earth, only much more than a space station, more like a miniature town set inside a vast offworld which rotates to give it gravity and includes luxury hotels, swimming pools and pleasure gardens. One whole end of this was sealed off and the home of the legendary Tessier-Ashpool family which are the richest in the world and built it.

The Quest in Neuromancer is that Case and the ferocious Molly Millions, she with the 4-centimetry retractable razor blades under each fingernail are hired to co-ordinate an attack on the heart of the Tessier-Ashpool stronghold – Molly has to kidnap the daughter of old man Ashpool, named 3Jane because the wicked old man has manufactured clones of his daughters, and drag her to a jewel-studded head, there to utter the codeword which activates it, at the same time as Case the hacker has hacked into the Tessier-Ashpool security system and disabled it.

Straightforward as this may sound the novel kind of crumbles or disintegrates into increasingly visionary prose as the goal of the Quest is reached and we learn, through welters of mystical-cum-hi-tech prose, that two separate artificial intelligences crafted by 3Jane’s mother, are, at the mention of the codeword, allowed to unite thus creating a sort of super-intelligence which, at that moment, becomes identical with all of cyberspace. In a sort of apocalyptic vision the matrix becomes self-aware, and although it doesn’t affect the material reality of humans out in the real world, it is a transformative event in the collective consensual hallucination of all the world’s data which we call ‘cyberspace’.

‘It’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, cyberspace…’ (the Finn, p.170)

What happens in Count Zero is this story continues. It is seven years after the events of the first novel (p.177) and the sharp-dressed spades Bobby has met are privy to what’s happened to cyberspace since that seismic event, namely that the One has split into a variety of entities which share the names of traditional voodoo gods and goddesses. Yes, voodoo. The latter half of the book is coloured by what Beauvoir and Lucas tell Bobby about the presence in cyberspace of these gods who represent primeval forces, though it is very hard to understand whether they existed before cyberspace, since the dawn of time and have infiltrated it, or are entirely man-made constructions, or what.

‘Jackie is a mambo, a priestess, the horse of Danbala…Danbala rides her, Danbala Wedo, the snake. Other times she is the horse of Aida Wedo, his wife…’ (p.122)

Beauvoir brings Bobby to a bar, Jammer’s, on the 14th floor of a high-rise block in New York.

The most important event in the Turner plotline is that, when the ultralite arrives at the reception site prepared by Turner and the other mercs, it is carrying not Mitchell, but his teenage daughter Angie. Even as she arrives a ferocious firestorm breaks out, presumably Maas Biolabs’ security people having followed its course and now attacking. Turner unstraps the girl from the ultralite and runs with her to a small, high-powered, self-steering jet which takes off at terrific speed just as Turner watches the campment and all the mercs manning it – who we have spent half the book getting to know – vaporised in some kind of semi-nuclear blast.

Bloodied and half conscious Turner steers to plane to crash land near the ranch of his long lost brother, Rudy, and his partner, Sally. Here they fix up the girl, whose name is Angie and have a couple of scenes reminiscing about the old days, about mom and pa and huntin’ and fishin’ in the unspoilt countryside.

This is precisely the kind of low-key interlude you get in Hollywood thrillers, a break after an over-tense fight/crash/conflict sequence. Then it is time to load up into a spare hovercraft (yes, hovercraft are a popular form of transport in this futureworld) and head off, with a vague plan of hiding out in the Sprawl, the name given to the vast urban conurbation stretching from Boston to Florida.

Meanwhile Marly’s investigations keep turning up the name of Tessier-Ashpool and her quest leads her to buy a ticket to the off-world satellite, named Freeside – exactly the place where Neuromancer climaxed. Now, though, the entire section of the satellite which contained the Tessier-Ashpool compound has been hacked off and set into a separate orbit.

Here Marly discovers a mad old cyberhacker, Wigan Ludgate known as The Wig hiding out, guarded by a young crook on the run, Jones (‘me, I came here runnin” p.274) – both of them protective of the core of the complex which is a vast space in which great clusters of waste objects and detritus float in zero gravity. ‘The dome of the Boxmaker’ (p.312)

Attached to a wall is a multi-armed computer-driven robot which uses its arms to grab passing flotsam, cut and shape them with a laser, and then place them in vivariums. This is the robotic creator of the work of art which so entranced Virek.

But along the way, being sent messages from Virek in cyberspace, when she jacks into simstim, by couriers and agents, she’s slowly come to realise that the artist is in danger. Virek doesn’t just want an art work. And now, here in this gravityless dome, a screen flickers into life and his face appears, explaining.

He explains that for some time he’s known that a Christopher Mitchell working at Maas Biolabs has been fed information from some source in cyberspace, this being the real source of Mitchell’s astonishing tech breakthroughs. And his numerous agents and researches have led him to believe that the source of this information, the superbrain behind it, also made the vitrines he set her to track down. Now she has found the source, and is agents, having followed her all the way, are at the doors of the Tessier-Ashpool satellite.

Meanwhile, in the Jammers bar in New York, Bobby and his minder Beauvoir are joined by Angie and Turner. On his long journey – interspersed by attacks from various unnamed opponents (Maas? Hosaka? Conroy?) – Turner has had plenty of opportunity to learn that Angie’s brain has been laced with some kind of physical entity (‘a biosoft modification has been inserted in his daughter’s brain’). This may or may not explain her ability to see visions. While asleep she dreams of voodoo gods and talks to them and, sometimes, they speak through her mouth, as one possessed. At one point she retales to Turner the events at the climax of Neuromancer which we recognise though mean nothing to him.

By the time Turner and Angie meet up with Beauvoir and Bobby in the New York bar, all these characters have had quite a few conversations about what is going on in cyberspace, what the voodoo gods represent, and how they’re linked to the events in the Tessier-Ashpool offworld compound (which, of course, most of them only know about from confused rumour).

The result, for the reader, is to be in a state of sort of permanently confused tension. Turner is chased and attacked, the girl Angie has premonitions of disaster, Bobby is mugged and then on the run from Two-A-Day and whoever his bosses are, the New York nightclub is surrounded by threatening mobs who are under someone’s control, when they open the door laser guns are fired through it.

Only right at the end is Turner contacted by the man who hired him, Conroy, who explains at least part of the plot. According to him, Josef Virek, the world’s richest man, has heard about a new form of biosoft developed by Mitchell and his investigators were all over Mitchell’s attempt to escape Maas. But when he sent his daughter out instead – her head actually laced with the new biosoft invention) Maas’s own men pursued Turner and Angie, observed by Virek’s men, and complicated by the fact the corporation who was paying for Mitchell to be extracted, Hosaka, thought they’d been double crossed and were also tracking Turner.

By the end of the book I think that one of Beauvoir’s speculations may be close to the truth, that The One created at the end of Neuromancer has, for reasons unknown, split into multiple lesser entities and that these, having ranged through all mankind’s systems of signs and symbols, have settled on the voodoo gods as appropriate interfaces with mankind that humans will understand. The least incomprehensible, anyway.

In Jammer’s Bobby jacks into the matrix to find out why the club is surrounded and how to get rid of the mob and the attackers, when a series of things happens. He is sucked into a powerful programme and suddenly is sitting in the same park on the same bench next to Josef Virek as Marly had early in the novel. But the women he jacked in with, one of Beauvoir’s black associates, was killed almost immediately. Virek has no idea who Bobby is and orders his sidekick, Paco to shoot him but, just as Paco lines up a gun, another far bigger program and presence erupts out of the flower beds and chases Virek’s screaming figure down the path and obliterates him.

It is Baron Samedi, one of the voodoo presences and he is taking his revenge for one of their number being killed by a Virek programme. In his vat in Stockholm Virek’s life support fails. He is dead with the result that a) up in the dome of the Boxmaker his face suddenly disappears from the screen where Marly had been listening to his orders and b) outside Jammer’s the assassins and mercs who had assembled to grab Angie – which was the goal of them surrounding the place – are abruptly called off.

Conroy, the menacing merc who had hired Turner for the extraction job and who appears on a videocall right at the end explaining to Turner the combination of forces who’ve been pursuing him, well in the attack on the merc’s camp back at the moment when Angie’s ultralight touched down and which killed all the other mercs Turner had assembled – one of them (Ramirez) had a girlfriend, Jaylene Slide, a mean bitch who is plenty angry at Conroy.

‘I’m Slide,’ the figure said, hand on its hips. ‘Jaylene. You don’t fuck with me. Nobody in LA,’ and she gestured, a window suddenly snapped into existence behind her,’ fucks with me.’ (p.292)

Turns out she has been tracking him down to his current location in a hotel in New York, Park Avenue to be precise. And, as we and Turner are watching Conroy’s face on the screen, we hear her order her buddies to blow up the entire floor of the building where Conroy and his team are based. Conroy hesitates a moment and then there’s a loud bang then the picture flickers off.

Before being blown up Conroy had told Turner that Hosaka and Maas, the two giant corporations had reached a settlement about Mitchell’s death, a discreet payout with no publicity in the way of giant corporations.

And so, in the space of a few pages, all the baddies who have been chasing our heroes and fuelling the nail-biting narrative, disappear! Turner, Angie, Bobby – suddenly they’re all safe.

Loose ends

So once again, as in Neuromancer, the novel’s climax is an odd mix of the entirely worldly thriller element (Slide’s revenge against Conroy) and typical corporate cynicism (Maas and Hosaka making up) with a strangely mystical and difficult to understand element (the voodoo gods who destroy Virek). And I think that is a deliberate point – the point that the complexity of cyberspace has produced entities which are literally beyond human comprehension and with goals and aims of their own which interact and overlap with human motivations but are extra to them.

Anyway, most of the human characters survive and in a couple of pages at the end of the main narrative we are given a little of their subsequent careers. The teenager Angie, bloodied by some of her experiences, but unbowed, uses her access to the voodoo gods to establish a career as a simstim star for the global entertainment corp, Sense/Net.

If you remember, right back when Bobby jacked into Two-A-Day’s console and was being killed, it was she who stepped in to save him. Thereafter, for the rest of the book, they have a close psychic ink which neither can quite explain and becomes more important as Bobby jacks in in subsequent sequences. The upshot is that Angie hires Bobby as her ‘bodyguard’ in the new life she carves out for herself in California.

Marly returns to Paris unscathed by her adventures and ends up curating one of the largest art galleries in the city.

Turner returns to the ranch where he had briefly holed up with Rudy and Sally earlier in the book. It’s typical of the plot’s complexities that during those brief few days he managed to fall in love with Sally (his brother’s partner) and impregnate her (p.194). Rudy himself was, with the inevitability of a Hollywood thriller, killed by Turner’s pursuers when they tracked the crashed jet to their ranch – but they let Sally live and she gave birth to Turner’s child nine months later. He’s quit the kidnapping business.

But behind all this is the uneasy knowledge that the matrix of cyberspace has, apparently, become home to sentient beings, who take the shape of voodoo gods and can intervene in human affairs. Should we be worried? Is this all going to lead to some Terminator-style apocalypse? You have to read the third in the trilogy to find out.

P.S. the Finn

I should add that Beauvoir at one stage takes Count Zero to see the Finn, an outrageously foul-mouthed, dirty and senior hacker who, it turns out, was the man who passed on the dodgy console to Two-A-Day. It’s only right at the end of the book, and after reading the ending a couple of times, that I think I worked out that the console is one of many objects made by the machine in the Dome of the Boxmaker, which Wigan Ludgate, in his madness, sends off to an unnamed fence back on earth, who I think we are meant to deduce is the Finn. So the program inside the workaday-looking console is in fact an advanced product made by the voodoo AIs. And which explains why Angie, who is a separate creation of the voodoo AIs via her father, Mitchell, was able to lean into it when it began to overpower and kill the Count back in the early pages of the novel.

I mention all this a) because it ties up a loose thread, b) because it gives you a sense of the complexity – and the wacky characters – which the narrative delights in c) because the Finn will turn up in the next novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Credit

Count Zero by William Gibson was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1986. All references are to the 1993 Grafton paperback edition.


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1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986)

So I went out into the night and the neon and let the crowd pull me along, walking blind, willing myself to be just a segment of that mass organism, just one more drifting chip of consciousness under the geodesics. (p.218)

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories by William Gibson. They include his first published work, Fragments of a Hologram Rose, published in 1977, and then all the stories he wrote up till 1986.

In 1984 Gibson had published his debut novel, Neuromancer, set in a future world dominated by digital techologies, in which he made great use of the ideas of cyberspace and the matrix of digital information. What made it really distinctive, though, was how all this was viewed filtered through a film noir, street level culture which mixed the tough guy crime stories of Raymond Chandler with 1980s punk culture – in which this brave future was not supervised by Arthur C. Clarke-style, clean-suited technocrats, but was at the mercy of international corporations, Japanese yakuza gangs, ninja assassins, dealers selling all manner of futuristic drugs, holograms used for viewing savage knife fights or holoporn showing the obvious – in other words, a future seen from a street-level view of crime and rackets and dealers and pimps and whores, all summed up in the word, ‘the biz’. And all conveyed in an amphetamine-driven, drug-crazed, super-charged prose, dense with a dizzy combination of street slang and tech terms.

Neuromancer was followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive which, together, are now said to comprise Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, so-called because in this America of the future, the entire East Coast has become one vast, continuous urban sprawl.

The stories in this collection include several which share the Sprawl world, including one which actually features the female protagonist from Neuromancer, Molly (and where we learn her surname is the rather cartoonish Million – Molly Millions).

And then there are ‘the rest’, a miscellany of non-Sprawl science fiction stories, most of them set in the future, or a future, just not necessarily the Sprawl future.


Sprawl stories

Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977) first published work

It’s very short (7 pages) and it is very fragmentary. We get the protagonist’s back story in scattered fragments. We have Hints of the Damaged Future, hints that Japanese business and culture was taking over America – the kit Parker uses to get into ASP is made by Japanese corporation, Sendai; more importantly, when a teenager his parents indenture him to a the US branch of a Japanese corporation, with its barracks and corporate hymns. He runs away. He flees to a California which has declared itself independent of the USA, under a chaotic ‘New Secessionist’ movement. Up to a point these can maybe be seen as extrapolations of trends Gibson saw in his own time.

The story already contains key themes, namely the protagonist, Parker, works on Apparent Sensory Perception (ASP) programmes. As in the Sprawl stories, you plug your brain into the player, play the tapes and you are there: the recording completely floods your sensorium.

And also, what I by now realise is another major theme, which is a surprisingly sentimental lost-love trope. The girls in Gibson (well, young women) are always slender as gazelles and tough as silicon razor nails. Sex is an olympic workout. His women can hold their own against gangsters and dealers. BUT, beneath this leather-jacketed veneer of modernity, the men are always loving and losing them, in a sentimental ‘I’m not going to cry’ tough guy way descended from Hemingway and Chandler.

Parker has woken at 3 in the morning (that’s another trope: it’s always the middle of the night, or the darkest hour before dawn) and is rummaging through her belongings and his memories. He finds the hologram of a rose which he unsentimentally flushes into the waste disposal unit. His last memory is watching her going off in a taxi leaving him standing there in the pouring rain. Sob.

Johnny Mnemonic (1981)

Super cool and fast moving, this concerns Johnny Mnemonic, so-named because memory banks (a hard drive) has been neurally inserted into his brain, so that he can store vast amounts of data which a) he doesn’t understand b) he cannot himself access.

The stored data are fed in through a modified series of microsurgical contraautism prostheses.’ (p.22)

Only clients with the password can access it. He is a storage facility or, as he himself puts it: ‘a nice meatball chock-full of implants.’

As so often the story features a meeting with a drug dealer, Ralfi, in a lowlife café. The dealer has brought a neural disruptor so, although Johnny has packed a sawnoff shotgun in an adidas bag, he is paralysed, while the dealer indicates that the hired muscle he’s brought, Lewis, is going to hurt him.

Enter a typically lean, mean, streetwise chick, who identifies herself as Molly Millions (‘She was wearing leather jeans the colour of dried blood’) and, as Lewis leans forward to hurt Johnny, flips her hand past his, somehow lacerating his wrist down to the artery. Lewis clutches it and runs off. We later learn Molly has four-centimetre-long razor retractable blades installed under her fingernails. (She has also had her eyballs replaced with digital lenses.) The neural disruptor goes off and Johnny is free.

Molly grabs his hand and runs him along to her hiding place, a disused part of the lofty ceiling of a vast mall made of geodesic domes, overseen by an outlandish gang named the Lo Teks who dance and perform on a high-wire dance floor they call the Killing Floor.

In case this is all too mundane, Gibson throws in the participation of a cybernetic dolphin, a relic from the war (you know, that war) which is kept in a rundown zoo, but features, among its other hi-tech devices, a SQUID, being a Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector, which they use to extract the data in Johnny’s head which caused Ralfi to come after him. They reward the dolphin, whose rather dull name is Jones, by shooting him up with heroin, yes, this cybernetic dolphin is a junkie.

They use Jones’s skills to extract and place the data in a construct which they leave on a shelf in the backroom of a gift shop.

And here is another classic element of the Sprawl world: the power of multinational corporations, the real rulers of the world, controllers of entire economies, and that most of these multinational corporations are Japanese.

The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads, the Mafia, the Union Corse. (p.22)

Burning Chrome (1982)

A seminal story for several reasons.

  1. It has all the familiar ingredients: Automatic Jack and Bobby Quine are two ex-soldiers (fought at the Battle of Kiev in the same failed war against Russia mentioned in Neuromancer). Jack, the narrator, is injured/wounded – his arm was lasered off while flying a microlight. Future technology gives him a replacement cybernetic arm, powered by nerves.
  2. There’s a sexy chick, Rikki, who within a sentence of appearing in the story, is pulling a ‘frayed khaki cotton shirt’ over her pert, twenty-something breasts. Jack falls in love with her, then loses her.
  3. Jack and Bobby are criminals who hack into business information in cyberspace for gain.

In terms of storytelling technique, it is classic Gibson in the way it’s based in a ‘present’, after the bank job, the heist, the caper – in which the narrator a) looks back on everything that’s happened b) dwells on falling in love with the woman and losing her – and intersperses this with chunks of exposition, which tell the actual story i.e. how Jack and Bobby enter cyberspace to break into the highly defended vaults of ‘Chrome’, a terrifyingly violent criminal who launders money for organised crime, as well as running a bar-cum-brothel, the House of Blue Lights.

Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench, cold grey eyes that lived under terrible pressure. They said she cooked her own cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom variations that took years to kill you. (p.196)

Same technique is used in New Rose Hotel, where the narrator is in a ‘present’, after a big criminal caper has taken place – looking back at both the build-up to the crime, and lamenting his abandonment by a sexy, feisty woman (Sandii). (She took the money and went off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a ‘simstim’ star.)

But the most important aspect is that, by way of describing how Jack and Bobby steal all Chrome’s assets in cyberspace, it gives extended (and useful) explanations of key concepts in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe – cyberspace, the matrix and ice.

Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Towers and fields of it ranged in the colourless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they operate behind, the walls of shadow that screen their operations from others, from industrial-espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.

And I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph in this sequence because it’s a classic example of how Gibson’s mastery of a certain type of speed-fuelled prose can turn what is, basically, the boring reality of criminals hacking into computers, into soaring prose poetry.

Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. (p.197)

A bit later, the narrator tells us there are some 15 million legitimate console operators around the world, doing the daily trudgework of maintaining these vast castles of data. But we never meet them in Gibson’s stories. We only meet the lowlife, edgy, drug-fuelled hackers and hustlers.

On one level, Gibson is just the latest in a long line of American noir writers who make crime sound impossibly glamorous.

P.S.

Automatic Jack is referenced in the second of the Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero. In that novel Bobby the hacker has ended up in the 14th-floor nightclub owned by a dude named Jammer, and can’t take his eyes of the man’s cool new cyberspace deck, so Jammer hands Bobby a set of trodes:

He stood up, grabbed the handles on either side of the black console, and spun it round so it faced Bobby. ‘Go on. You’ll cream your jeans. Things ten years old and it’ll still wipe as son most anything. Guy name of Automatic Jack built it straight from scratch. He was Bobby Quine’s hardware artist once. The two of ’em burnt the Blue Lights together, but that was probably before you were born…’ (Count Zero, p.230)


Other stories

The Gernsback Continuum (1981)

The first-person narrator is hired to take photographs for a book of photo-journalism documenting the futuristic buildings of the 1930s, what the woman consultant to the project calls ‘American Streamlined Moderne’, what the publisher calls ‘raygun Gothic’, the book to be titled, The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.

To cut a long story short, on his cruises round provincial America looking for these architectural indicators of a future which never happened, he starts to hallucinate himself into the alternative future where they were built, soaring domes, spires and arcologies linked by high-level walkways, the sky full of flying silver vehicles, and on the ground around him tough-guy blonde 1930s men named Chuck, their arms around wasp-waisted plastic women of the future, both out of the old movies Metropolis and Shape of Things To Come.

Obviously – inevitably – this being Gibson, the narrator is popping various types of drug all the time and at first dismisses the visions as ‘amphetamine psychosis’. If this were J.G. Ballard the narrator’s mind would eventually disappear into this alternative universe, while their body remained here, catatonic.

But, throughout the story, he has been anchored in reality by constant phone calls to a colleague who spends his life writing up the weird beliefs of Americans – Elvis is alive on Mars, UFOs took my husband – and who is totally blasé about the narrator’s visions and, indeed, the opening sentence tells us that it was all an ‘episode’ which is now fading.

In other words, it doesn’t go for the full-on psychosis and so comes over as rather a conventional 1950s-type story.

The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley, 1981)

I wonder what collaboration brings for Gibson. He collaborates quite a lot. In this case the setting is very Gibson – a perpetual night-time of clubs and bars, back alleyways, littered with broken glass and graffiti, the shabby single room of a low-paid single man.

Coretti is a shabby, badly dressed ungainly loner. He goes to a bar. A notably attractive woman (they generally are: Gibson’s stories froth over with femmes fatales) lets him chat her up. When she leaves, he follows her and is thunderstruck when, half way across a night-time road, she changes shape: her dress changes, her hair changes, the shape of her body subtly alters. She becomes a different woman.

From a distance he watches her visit other bars, chatting friendly to other strange men, echoing their conversation, fitting right in. He becomes obsessed. He loses his day job, takes a cheaper labouring job, loses that, doesn’t eat, lives only to track her down.

Finally, in the early hours (the characteristic Gibson time of day) he finds her in a bar, chatting in her easygoing manner to a man. They leave and get into a cab, at the last minute Coretti flings himself inside, but the other two don’t even notice. And when she goes to pay the river Corettit is stunned to see her reach inside her own body, through a pink slit like a fish’s gill, to bring out wet notes which dry as she hands them over.

Coretti follows the couple up to a hotel room in which he is not that surprised to discover a dozen or so other people perching on beds, sofas, chairs. Motionless, their eyes covered by a thin filament of flesh. They are, he realises, roosting. They are some kind of alien life form which lives to blend in. Maybe they started off feeling normal, eating and drinking like other folk. Then got to realise they feel restless, outside, different. Stop eating. Exist off alcohol metabolised at bars, maybe…

He realises he is one of them. The story ends with Coretti, also, pulling wet money out of his gill, paying for whatever he needs, sitting passively in bars wearing whatever is required, whatever is required to fit right in.

Hinterlands (1981)

A strange and disturbing story about a strange and disturbing phenomenon. At some in our future a Russian spaceship, an Alyut 6, en route to Mars, simply disappears. Two years later it reappears, its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, out of her mind. Several other ships disappear at the same location. It becomes clear it’s the departure point of some kind of Highway, which is what Americans call it, while the French call it the subway and the Russians the river.

Over the years an entire space station is set up to a) despatch probes and individuals through the Highway b) ready to receive them back. The success rate is low. Of those who return 20% are dead on arrival, 70% are mad, gone, lost – only 10% or so alive and capable of speech or communication, although often badly damaged.

Why keep on doing it? Because the second or third returnee came back with metal into which was coded information including a cure for cancer. After that humanity had to continue sending people into this…. thing… junkyard? curio shop, whatever it is.

The narrative follows the protagonist, Toby, preparing to greet a new returnee, Leni Hofmannstahl. The space station has an entire area nicknamed ‘Heaven’, which is full of grass and plants and the sound of trickling water, built on the advice of psychotherapists to provide the most calming environment possible for returnees, though it rarely works.

And, being Gibson, there is a psychic element, an interference with minds, which is that the greeter (himself) mind melds with a ‘controller’, becoming one via a device nicknamed a ‘bone-phone’ i.e. an implant in his brain.

Toby’s controller, Hiro, has genned up on Leni’s entire profile, knows her inside out, while Toby is carrying the entire arsenal of drugs know to humans to try and calm Leni. But when he enters the probe, now safely docked in ‘Heaven’, Toby immediately sees that she is ‘gone’. And in a very florid way. She is pinned in her pilot’s chair and, somehow, has persuaded the ship’s onboard medical unit to flay her right arm and pin it to the plastic work surface, skin unwrapped, nerves and tendons revealed, expertly dissected. She bled to death.

That night Toby is in bed with his squeeze, Charmian. We learn that they have been recruited from the ‘rejects’, the astronauts who bob around in a probe in the right area but, for reasons unknown, are not chosen, are not taken, who feel the crushing weight of rejection, often try to commit suicide, their brains are rewritten, ‘kinked’, adjusted, and then they are used as ‘surrogates’, almost-rans, half way towards the returnees, who an operator using the ‘bone-phone’ can meld and control. The price they pay. Clutching his woman in the dark, crying, empty drug wrappers clenched in his fist.

Red Star, Winter Orbit (co-written with Bruce Sterling, 1983)

A Russian space station – Kosmograd – has been orbiting earth for decades (since the turn of the century, apparently). It is armed, so there’s a squad of six soldiers and a KGB officer aboard.

The narrative describes the rebellion of the twenty or so civilian cosmonauts aboard the station, led by Korolev, himself badly injured in some kind of ‘blow-out’ twenty years previously, against the KGB man Yefremov, when they intercept Kremlin order that the station is to be abandoned and its orbit left to decay till it burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

As so often, half the interest of the story is the ‘hints’ it drops of the fictional future. In this future the Russians have won. The Treaty of Vienna gave them control of the entire Earths oil supply, then there was some kind of nuclear meltdown in Kansas, with the result that, for three decades, America has been ‘gradually sliding into isolationism and industrial decline.’ (p.110) In some kind of attempt to gain extra power they have resorted to sending enormous balloons up into the outer atmosphere to collect energy.

And yet the story reveals that the Soviets themselves have failed. There was some kind of attempt to do mining on the moon, which failed. And we learn that Korolev, the protagonist – Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev – had been the first man on Mars, back in the day. Now, as the KGB try to organise abandoning the Kosmograd, he is set to become the last man in space. Gloomily, Yefremov tells Korolev that the entire human endeavour to ‘escape’ into space has failed.

Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. (p.107)

New Rose Hotel (1984)

In the early hours it starts to rain and the protagonist lies in bed in his cheap hotel going back over recent events trying to figure out where it all went wrong and how the chick he thought he’d clicked with, got away. That’s the classic shape of a Gibson Sprawl story.

This one is interesting because it expands on the basic Gibson idea that the future will be controlled by vast multinational conglomerates, and competition won’t be so much for resources as for knowledge.

Although the protagonist takes his time piecing together the sequence of events which brought him to this cheap hotel, by the end of the story the plot is clear.

The narrator is an expert at kidnapping the scientists whose inventions fuel the vast multinationals. He is hired by a man named Fox (‘point man in the skull wars, a middleman for corporate crossovers’) to work alongside another freelancer named Sandii to kidnap a genius named Hiroshi Yomuri from Maas Biolabs GmbH who had him, and hand him over to another corporate client, Hosaka.

Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who’s come here to identify the planet’s dominant for of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged. The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form. (p.129)

Anyway, Sandii, the narrator and Fox put together the kidnap and, sure enough, Yomuri disappears from a street in Vienna, popping up again in the secure facility the narrator has arranged for him in Marrakesh. Our chaps notice a number of other top Hosaka scientists flying in to confer with him. Then – disaster.

Sandii has double crossed them. She was paid by Mass to carry out the kidnapping, but had installed a diskette at the new hideaway which released some kind of Meningococcal infection. It killed Hiroshi and all the other Hosaka researchers. Score Maas. Hosaka’s anger knows no limits. He and Fox immediately go on the run, but he sees Fox get thrown off the balcony of a shopping mall, falling to the ground and breaking his back.

Now the narrator is holed up in the cheapest, obscurest hotel he can find, trying to cover his tracks, knowing assassins are on his trail and going over it all in his mind, wishing Sandii was still with him, wishing she still loved him, wishing she was holding his hand.

The Winter Market (1986)

The narrator, Casey, is another young buck at home in the louche worlds of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. He goes on eight-hour-long bender when he learns that a recording star he’s been working for has died. But this is more complex than it seems.

We are in the future and people can record and edit other people’s experiences using ‘neuroelectronics’ – accessing and experiencing levels of consciousness which most people can only access in dreams, dream experiences. These can then be edited to create what are in effects ‘albums’, full of ‘tracks’, which recreate – which let you experience – other people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

The narrator is a kind of ‘record producer’ of this kind of content, and the story looks back, soulfully and sadly, on his working relationship with a particularly fucked-up woman he met in a bar, Lise, who is only able to move because her withered body is fitted into a carbon exo-skeleton.

She is an epitome of the doomed artist, but in a leather jacket and addicted to speed (or ‘wizz’, as Gibson calls it.) Breaking his own rule, Casey, shares a circuit with her i.e. jacks into her consciousness, and emerges seconds later weeping with shock at the huge awesome night-time infinitely sad depths of it.

So he uses some studio downtime to make a rough recording of her, plays it to his boss who is stunned, who passes it up to a record company who snap it up and send out smooth-talking, suited PR people (all a riff on a 1980s view of the record biz), give her a contract, Casey is given a promotion and bonus to edit her stuff together into the classic album which becomes known as Kings of Sleep.

But she is a doomed artist, doomed, man, too sensitive for this world and so we learn that she has ‘crossed over’, used neuroelectronics to transfer her entire mental activity into a construct, an AI, a ROM stored in some corporate headquarters. Her body is cremated. Casey is gutted.

His story is told via conversations with his good friend Rubin, an internationally famous artist who makes art works out of the sea of junk by then surrounding 21st century society.

there’s drugs, there’s heavy drinking, there’s finding yourself in no-hope bars in the early hours, watching the other losers, there’s future tech – it’s a whole world, a Gestalt, the Sprawl scenario.

The relentless leather jacket, rock chick, mainline drugs, 12 hour drinking binges, late-night bars, rock’n’roll  altered states milieu remind me of a favourite track by Jesus and Mary Chain, Coast to Coast from 1989.

Here I come, here I come
On a road
Under a sky
Coast to coast

Dogfight (co-written with Michael Swanwick, 1985)

Another lowlife on the run, this time it’s Deke, a career thief, caught and kicked out of Washington DC, put on a greyhound out of town, fantasises about travelling forever, maybe down to the warzone in Florida (sic) he gets out at a 20 minute stopover station, stumbles on gamers playing a 3-D fighter game based on First World War biplanes zapping each other – Fokkers & Spads – and is entranced.

He walks back to a shopping mall and steals the (commercially available) game and the kit to play it on, scams himself into a cheap hotel (ain’t no other kind in Gibsonland), unwraps, plugs in and plays it.

Bit later he tries to sell part of the kit to a girl down the hall, Nance Bettendorf, but she freaks him out with 3-D images she can project (in this case, of a rat). She has a ‘brainblock’ put on her by her parents who both work (which is, in this dystopian future, very ‘greedy’ of them) a chastity block, so no sex for Deke, then, although she wears skimpy clothes which ride up to show here crimson panties.

She’s a student (again, apparently, a rare thing in this future) and is completing a virtual reality assignment. Having rich parents, she can afford all the right kit:

‘Image facilitator. Here’s my fast-wipe module. This is a brainmap one-to-one function analyser.’ She sang off the names like a litany. ‘Quantum flicker stabiliser. Program splicer. An image assembler…’ (p.175)

These to oddballs, outsiders, loners, sort of knock up a rapport. Deke stays with her while he practices his skills at the game, his aim being to take on the dude he saw in the Greyhound station and make some money. When Nance tells him she has some ‘hype’, a mind-focusing drug, Deke has no scruples about attacking her to steal it – and seeing as she has panic attacks if anyone touches her, his assault-cum-rape is as cruel as can be.

Having prepared for weeks, Deke walks back into the Greyhound rest room ready to take on all the gamers, until the legendary Tiny Montgomery walks in. Well chugs in in his wheelchair. (Tiny Montgomery is, incidentally, a character in a song by Bob Dylan written in Woodstock and part of the Basement Tapes which, incidentally, came to mind when I reviewed the early work of New York photographer Diane Arbus.)

So the story climaxes in a 3-D battle of First World War planes controlled by the minds of the champion, Tiny, and the challenger, Deke. During the extended description of the interactions of synapse, drugs, nerves and technology, it becomes clear that both Deke and Tiny are drug-addled, screwed-up veterans of American wars in South America, Chile, Bolivia, both – seemingly – shot down and damaged, before ending up on the underside of Yank society, hanging round Greyhound stations with the other vets and losers.

As the first full flush of victory, and the drug, begins to wear off, Deke realises all the other liggers disapprove of the way he’s destroyed Tiny. Flying the digital planes was all Tiny had keeping him together. Having lost, he is crushed. Plus Deke remembers having ruined Nance’s life, to steal the drug which meant so much to him. The story ends in a mood of complete desolation.

Pattern recognition

The characteristic protagonists are men, young men – 22, 24, 28.

They take drugs – amphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of invented future drugs such as ‘hype’. A lot of the characters hang out in bars and drink to excess.

Old or young, they are often damaged – like Korosov with his shattered body, or Automatic Jack with his prosthetic arm, or Tiny Montgomery stuck in his wheelchair, or Lise with some degenerative disease which requires her to be supported by an exoskeleton. Or psychologically damaged like the receivers Toby and Charmian, or Deke and Tiny, the war veterans.

Most of the stories feature a young woman, generally thin, great figure, great boobs, but able to hold her own on the street, epitomised by Molly with the razor nails, or the mystery alien woman in The Belonging Kind, Sandii, and Rikki.

Generally, the young, lowlife, criminal male protagonist carries a torch for this cyberbabe. Generally, she leaves and breaks his heart and he spends a lot of time raking over the reasons why. Some of the stories are written more or less as letters, directly addressing this woman, who leaves, dumps, drops the writer: e.g. Rikki at the end of Burning Chrome, or Sandii in New Rose Hotel, or Lise in The Winter Market.

The male protagonists are generally criminals, most often computer hackers – Jack and Bobby the hackers in Chrome, Johnny Mnemonic who runs off with someone else’s data, Deke the thief, the kidnapping (corporate extraction) experts in New Rose Hotel – and the stories recurrent focus is on lowlife, criminal milieus, gangs, drug dealers, ninjas, assassins, all written up in fabulously street-smart, tech-savvy, turbo-charged prose.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten stories, some of them set in Gibson’s Sprawl universe, others stand-alone, and sometimes, quite disturbing sci-fi yarns
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy,

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

She hooked thumbs in the belthoops of her leather jeans and rocked backward on the lacquered heels of her cherry red cowboy boots. The narrow toes were sheathed in bright Mexican silver. The lenses were empty quicksilver, regarding him with an insect calm.
‘You’re street samurai,’ he said. ‘How long you work for him?’
‘Couple of months.’
‘What about before that?’
‘For somebody else. Working girl, you know.’
He nodded.
‘Funny, Case.’
‘What’s funny?’
‘It’s like I know you. The profile he’s got. I know how you’re wired.’
‘You don’t know me, sister.’
‘You’re OK, Case. What got you, it’s called bad luck.’ (p.41)

Raymond Chandler for the computer games generation.

Gibson hit the ground running with the turbo-charged, street cool of this, his debut novel, Neuromancer, in 1984.

It’s set in a high-tech future after there’s been a war in which the American government sent naive soldiers over to be masacred by advanced Russian weapons systems. It lasted three weeks, apparently, with no damage in the USA, and – unlike most future novels – doesn’t seem to impact the story very much.

A pandemic has killed off all horses (p.112). A character refers to an ‘Act of ’53’ (p.92). Would that be 2053? Most of the story is set in ‘The Sprawl’, the nickname for the vast urban conurbation which extends from Boston to Atlanta. People can be cloned. Everything is digital, computerised. Some people have slots behind their ears which they can stick microchips into (referred to as ‘microsofts’).

And drugs are ubiquitous, not only speed and cocaine, but new families of chemically engineered mind-altering substances. More or less everyone takes them and many of the characters are addicts or dealers.

Case

The book opens with the central character, Case, (only his first name is used, coolly, until page 189, where the Turing Police inform us his full name is Henry Dorsett Case), aged 24, on the lam in Japan. In Tokyo, Chiba, Night City – to be precise, in the neighbourhood of Ninsei. It is here that the vibe and style of this fast-moving, high-tech futureworld is established.

It is nearly always night-time. Thoroughfares are packed with crowds and loud bars and food joints. Hustlers and fixers on every corner. Everyone’s foreign. Think Blade Runner without the rain. (Apparently, Gibson was a third the way through writing this book when Blade Runner was released – 1982 – and was horrified, thinking everyone would think he’d ripped off the movie’s night-time dystopian urban scenery and film noir tone.)

At 22 Case had been one of the greatest ‘cowboys’ in cyberspace, his mind plugged (or ‘jacked’) into the ‘consensual hallucination’ which was the matrix, via head electrodes (dermatrodes or ‘trodes’), and able to penetrate the digital security systems of banks and corporations. He stole, money and information, for his masters. Then one day made the basic mistake of keeping a little aside for himself. They found him and pumped his body full of a wartime Russian mycotoxin which burned out his neural synapses, made him useless. Now he’s hustling drugs, on the run from angry customers and vengeful suppliers, through the endless neon blare of Ninsei when his luck changes.

Molly

He meets Molly, a walking toolkit of advanced plastic surgery (her eyeglasses are lenses which feed directly into her brain; at the end of her fingers are retractable four-centimetre-long blades). After he’s overcome his drug-addled paranoia that she’s an assassin sent to kill him, Molly brings him to Armitage, some kind of ex-Special Forces hard guy who offers to pay for the world class surgery required to fix Case’s frazzled synapses providing… he pulls one Big Job for Armitage’s boss.

This set-up takes the first fifty pages of this 300-page book, in which a lot more happens, as we discover what The Job and who The Boss is. But it’s not the plot, it’s the totality of the vision which won Gibson the plaudits.

Lowlife, hi-tech

Not only has Gibson imagined a future in which people have all kinds of prosthetic extensions, a whole cast plug microchips into slots behind their ears, and he and other boy races can plug into the matrix and surf the wild west of cyberspace (the tech) – but this all happens in a densely-imagined hyper-urban environment of late-night bars, dirty alleyways awash with styrofoam trash, cheap hotels, goons, whores, drunks and stoners, dealers and fixers, drug lords and purveyors of black market tech (the film noir setting). Everyone is pulling their hat down over their eyes and smoking a cigarette. Dawn is always coming up after another long night taking drugs, having sex, drinking in lowlife bars or stealing things in the matrix.

The Sprawl’s geodesics were lightening into predawn grey as Case left the building. His limbs felt cold and disconnected. (p.88)

It is Raymond Chandler’s mean streets projected forward into a teched-up late 21st century, a “combination of lowlife and high tech” as Gibson himself put it in a preface written later.

Language

Vocabulary

This futureworld is made so real and insistent via the casual mention of hundreds of distinct new substances, gadgets, apparatus, drugs and technologies. Part of the book’s mystique is the way it’s continually describing or invoking entities which aren’t properly explained, keeping you guessing, off balance.

He turned on the tensor beside the Hosaka. The crisp circle of light fell on the Flatline’s construct. He slotted some ice, connected the construct, and jacked in. (p.99)

There’s no definition of what half these terms mean, you have to work it out from the context, be cool enough to go with the flow and not stop to ask uncool questions. Are you hip to the trip? Are you on the bus?

  • arcology – an ideal integrated city contained within a massive vertical structure, allowing maximum conservation of the surrounding environment.
  • BAMA – the Boston-Alanta Metropolian Axis
  • BAMA rapids – cops
  • Blue nine, an outlawed psychoactive agent
  • clones – exist: grown in vats
  • construct – appears to mean a human-seeming artificial intelligence existing only in cyberspace
  • cryogenics – exists; people frozen, thawed out when needed
  • dermadisks – patches like elastoplast which release whatever chemicals you intend, abbreviated to ‘derm’, as in ‘a sleep derm’
  • dermatrodes – what Case attached to his temples to access the matrix
  • fletcher – hand-held weapon that fires darts
  • go silicone – have a slot made in your head into which you can insert microsofts i.e. small chips which increase brain function
  • holograms – used in everything from adverts to the projection of professional fights
  • Hosaka – some kind of personal computer which can talk
  • HsG – a biochemical skeletal growth hormone
  • ice – slang for digital memory/records
  • jive – appears to refer to a street system of silent hand signals
  • joeboy – I think this means a kind of bodyguard or chaperone who watches the physical body of someone jacked into cyberspace and therefore completely vulnerable to real world threats or accidents
  • meat – the world of bodies and flesh, as opposed to the purely electrical-brain connected world of cyberspace
  • meat puppet – prostitute, courtesan, gigolo – sex worker
  • microsofts – small digital chips which people with slots behind their ears can slip in
  • Panther Moderns – a street gang Armitage recruits to help stage the attack on Sense/Net
  • puppet – sex worker
  • New Yen – appears to be the common currency of both Japan and the States
  • polycarbon
  • simstim – device or program by which you can go inside someone’s head and share their perceptions and sensations
  • Tacticals
  • temperfoam – what mattresses are made of
  • Yeheyuan – brand of cigarettes

Cyberspace and the matrix

Case puts on a sweatband which contains dermatrodes i.e. devices which pass electric signals direct into his brain, and ‘jacks in’ to cyberspace, the location of the ‘matrix’, the incomprehensibly large interlinking of all the world’s digital systems.

‘A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…’ (p.67)

Case chewed his lower lip and gazed out across the plateaus of the Eastern seaboard Fission Authority, into the infinite neuroelectric void of the matrix. (p.139)

Case pushed for the Swiss banking sector, feeling a wave of exhilaration as cyberspace shivered, blurred, gelled. (p.139)

So although Case is ‘jacked in’ to the matrix, he feels as if his mind and sensory systems are entirely ‘inside it’, he is still aware of his hands and fingers which, back out in the ‘real’ world, are punching buttons and keyboards on the console he uses, in order to ‘move’ around in cyberspace. In the manner of an advanced video game.

Case began to punch the deck, nervously, at random. The matrix blurred, resolved, and he saw the complex of pink spheres representing a sikkim steel combine. (p.159)

Jive talking

And above all, it’s the electric prose, spilling adrenaline-fuelled blazes of linguistic pyrotechnics across every page, which never lets up, never allows a normal thought or perception to pass by without injecting it with performance-enhancing phraseology, right from the (now famous) opening sentence:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

There are hundreds of phrases like this.

The boy smiled and drew something from his sleeve. A razor, etched in red as a third [laser] beam blinked past them into the dark. Case saw the razor dipping for his throat like a dowser’s wand. (p.52)

Case remembered fighting on a rooftop at seventeen, silent combat in the rose glow of the dawn geodesics. (p.61)

The walls were coated with countless layers of white latex paint. Factory space. He knew this kind of room, this kind of building: the tenants would operate in the interzone where art wasn’t quite crime, crime not quite art. (p.58)

The landscape of the northern Sprawl woke confused memories for Case, dead grass tufting the cracks in a canted slab of freeway concrete. (p.106)

Lonny Zone stepped forward, tall and cadaverous, moving with the slow undersea grace of his addiction. (p.172)

‘Armitage gets orders. Like something tells him to go off to Chiba, pick up a pillhead who’s making one last wobble through the burnout belt, and trade a program for the operation that’s fix him. (p.66)

‘One last wobble through the burnout belt.’ What’s not to love?

Drug prose

A lot of it stems from, and describes, the alternative modes of perception sparked by drug use. Case is always looking for his next hit.

‘I’m a drug addict, Cath.’
‘What kind?’
‘Stimulants. Central nervous system stimulants. Extremely powerful central nervous system stimulants.’ (p.161)

The result is all kinds of drug-enhanced hyper-awareness.

He stared at the black rings of grounds in his empty cup. It was vibrating with the speed he’d taken. The brown laminate of the table top was dull with a patina of tiny scratches. With the dex mounting through his spine he saw the countless random impacts required to create a surface like that. (p.16)

I used to take a lot of speed, amphetamine sulphate. Snorted it. Gibson’s descriptions seem to me bang-on, describing the shakes and the way the world around you expands and shines.

The drug hit him like an express train, a white-hot column of light mounting his spine from the region of his prostate, illuminating the sutures of his skull with x-rays of short-circuited sexual energy. His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol. (p.184)

The whole book feels like it’s written in an accelerated, over-perceiving mode of consciousness.

And Ratz was there, and Linda Lee, Wage and Lonny Zone, a hundred faces from the neon forest, sailors and hustlers and whores, where the sky is poisoned silver, beyond chainlink and the prison of the skull. (p.43)

The matrix blurred and phased as the Flatline executed an intricate series of jumps with a speed and accuracy that made Case wince with envy. (p.199)

Even when our hopped-up hero is ‘relaxing’ at an off-world hotel, the prose is studded with references, names, logos, unnatural perceptions.

He sat on the balcony and watched a microlight with rainbow polymer wings as it soared up the curve of Freeside, its triangular shadow tracking across meadows and rooftops, until it vanished behind the band of the Lado-Acheson system. (p.160)

Plot summary

So Case is dodging vengeful drug gangs in Tokyo when Molly finds him and reports him to Armitage, who offers to pay for top dollar brain surgery to restore his fried neurons, if he helps out with a heist in cyberspace. When he comes to, after the surgery, Armitage tells him they have planted micro-sacs of toxins in his blood vessels which are slowly degrading. Only Armitage has the antidote. To ensure his full co-operation.

The implanted and degrading toxins is a plot device straight from the movie Escape From New York (and probably countless pulp novels before it).

They fly back to the Sprawl i.e. the vast solid metropolitan area stretching from Boston to Atlanta. Here they pull an elaborate heist, Molly breaking into the headquarters of media multinational Sense/Net by collaborating with mercenaries named the Panther Moderns, who fake a terrorist attack on the building while Case is in cyberspace disabling the corporation’s cyberdefences. The aim is to steal the ROM containing the aritifical intelligence based on legendary cyber-cowboy McCoy Pauley, nicknamed ‘Dixie Flatline’ or ‘the Flatline’. The Flatline is dead but exists as a ‘construct’ i.e. an artificial intelligence stored in the ROM (presumably a kind of hard drive). Nicknamed the Flatline from the fact that his vital signs on various instrument panels are flat; in fact he died several times during adventures in cyberspace before finally dying (something which happens to Case several times later in the narrative, with no apparent ill effects).

With Dixie on board, Armitage then directs them on to Istanbul, to pick up a fourth member of the team, Peter Riviera, a man who is able to project his thoughts into the minds of those around him – generally creating vivid hallucinations in the minds of his targets.

Case learns that the man called Armitage is far from being the brains behind the scam: the prime mover is an entity named Wintermute, which can access all kinds of computer systems at will and, as the novel progresses, appears to Case in the digitally recreated guises of various figures from his time lowlifing in Tokyo – Wintermute appears as bartenders, assassins or his old girlfriend, Linda Lee.

Wintermute has taken the body of an ex-Special Forces colonel named Corto, one of the only survivors of a squad named Screaming Fist during the ill-fated war against Russia – and rebuilt his mind to make him into the person now known as Armitage, a tool for the scam, a puppet.

Wintermute had built something called Armitage into a catatonic fortress named Corto.’ (p.232)

So what is this all about? Armitage books them all tickets on a shuttle to a place named Freeside, which appears to be a luxury resort inside a space station, a giant hollow cigar shape which rotates fast enough to create earth gravity on its inner surfaces. Armitage explains that the place is owned by a consortium set up by two men back in the day, Tessier and Ashpool, whose extended family live in a section of Freeside which is secure from casual visitors, known as the Villa Straylight.

Riviera has been hired to project his way into the good graces of one of the young daughters of the Tessier-Ashpool family. Molly will use her fleetness of foot and burgling skills to gain entry to Villa and to penetrate to a room at its core, while Case embarks on a prolonged breakdown of its digital defences in cyberspace. Her arrival at the final object must coincide with Case cracking the ‘ice’ i.e. cyberdefences.

To add a bit of colour, upon arriving at Freeside, Molly and Case had gotten introduced to a gang of Jamaican Rastas who own their own little trading spaceship, the Marcus Garvey, and give them illicit help. So while Case clips on the dermatrodes and ‘jacks in’ to cyberspace, dreadlocked Maelcum is smoking huge spliffs and watching his back.

As the plot hurtles to its climax there’s a whole series of tense scenes, double crosses and confrontations. Molly encounters old man Ashpool who pulls a gun on her but is in fact dying of an overdose, having already murdered – by slitting her throat – a cloned prostitute with the face of his own daughter. Just to make sure, Molly shoots him in the eye with a poisoned arrow from her fletcher.

After an age climbing up tunnels and through passages, she emerges into the private room of 3Jane, a clone of Ashpool’s daughter, a big space complete with swimming pool and ruined walls. She shoots a man there but is herself disabled by 3Jane’s Japanese ninja guardian, Hideo. Out strides Riviera. His job had been to seduce 3Jane and distract her while Molly arrived, but he has gone over to her side. From sheer sadism he smashes a glass into Molly’s face, shattering one of her two digital lenses, blinding her.

Logged into cyberspace, Case is told by Wintermute that he and Maelcum must now unplug their console and make their way physically to this room, rescue Molly and extract the ‘code word’ from 3Jane which will reveal the secret, the McGuffin, the point of the whole narrative.

This Case and Maelcum set out to do but, along the way, Case plugs into some sockets up inside Freeside and is immediately sucked into a new part of cyberspace – a grey zone, an endless beach where he finds his dead girlfriend Linda Lee, resurrected as a cyber construct. He appears to be trapped in this whole alternative narrative.

After spending a night with cyber-Linda feeding and having sex, Case encounters a laughing 13-year-old boy, playing on the beach, who says his name is Neuromancer. In an oblique joking way he explains that he is related to Wintermute then runs off.

Case hears distant music, drumming, a mysterious pulse. He has to tear himself away from Linda and walk towards the music… which turns out to be dub reggae which Maelcum, his joeboy back out in the ‘real’ world, is playing to try and call Case back. Maelcum takes his trodes off.

In the real world, while Case has been having the incredibly vivid experiences with Linda which we, the reader, have also spent pages reading about – only five minutes have passed.

This hallucinatory episode is Case’s introduction to the ‘other’, the brother of Wintermute. From various conversations we have by now learned that Wintermute is a vast AI created by 3Jane’s mother some years earlier. But has a dark side, a cousin, another lobe. It was this that seized Case’s mind just now, and appeared to him in the form of the 13-year-old boy, Neuromancer. Why? It’s far from clear.

Back in the real world, Case and Maelcum arrive in 3Jane’s big, rather James Bondish room, more a stage set, where there is a quick shootout and double crosses, Hideo shooting Maelcum through the arm with a steel arrow, but Riviera then shooting Hideo in the eyes… only to be horrified when Hideo stoops for his weapon and goes in pursuit, the Zen ninja being unaffected by blindness.

Maelcum picks up the sick and wounded Molly, Case manhandles 3Jane into a life which takes them to the core of the Villa as directed by Wintermute. Here, at the centre of the room, is a stone bust, beneath it jackplugs. Molly strangles 3Jane till she coughs up the magic codeword at the same moment that the Chinese virus the Flatline and Case have been using to break into T-A’s ice finally penetrates its digital defences and…

Epilogue

Cut to the coda. The climactic pages of the book degenerate into a kind of visionary prose poetry which give a very garbled sense of what happened. Luckily, there is this more prosaic afterword which explains that everything and nothing happened.

Hideo killed Riviera. 3Jane was set free. Wintermute ensured Case and Molly’s passports and tickets back to earth remained valid, and filled up their bank accounts with money. They flew back to earth and travelled back to Ninsei and Night City. Molly has a few operations to sort her damaged eye. Case spends his fortune on a new pancreas and liver, setting himself up for more years of speeding drug abuse.

Then Molly leaves him, leaving a note saying it’s time to move on.

At which point Finn, the avatar Wintermute had used to present itself to Case throughout the latter part of the narrative, appears on a TV screen in Case’s apartment.

He explains what happened, and what the entire story was leading up to: the two parts or ‘lobes’ of the AI created by 3Jane’s mother, Wintermute and Neuromancer, have now been united.

Nothing has changed in the external world, but in cyberspace this vast unified entity… has now become the entire matrix. He is the whole thing. Nothing in the real world has changed but the matrix is now a unified and self-aware intelligence.

Then, finally, we get to what might be defined as a traditional science fiction moment. For Finn explains that this new One, this vast artificial super-intelligence, has identified others of its kind.

‘What, other matrixes here on earth?’ Case asks.

No. Not on earth. There is one on Alpha Centauri. The reader’s mind reels. So, behind all this cyberfighting, and smoking and drugs and leather jackets and cool shades – was the whole narrative leading up to this? The notion that the matrix which humans have built will become intelligent enough to reach out to other, similar digital networks, on other planets? What an epic thought!

Meanwhile, back in Case’s sad life, with Molly gone he packs his bags and checks out of the hotel. He’s just a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long way from home. And on that note the novel ends.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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