Transience by Michael Craig-Martin @ the Serpentine Gallery

Michael Craig-Martin was born in Ireland in 1941. He studied in New York and Paris before moving to London in 1966. Through the early 1970s he made many conceptual works but he also began experimenting with ‘simple’ line drawings of everyday objects. In the early 1980s he experimented with drawing the cartoonish technical outline of objects directly on walls, before dropping painting altogether to do conceptual work.

In the 1990s he returned to the line drawings, experimenting with the use of colour and his style crystallised into the creation of large, highly stylised line drawings of everyday objects, the designs and backgrounds filled with bright flat primary colours. No light or shade. No perspective or depth. The thing itself, in plain view, with no secrets, like a designer’s, a draughtsman’s, diagram.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (light bulb) 2014 Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (light bulb) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin

The Serpentine Galleries are half a mile north of the Science and Natural History Museums, just into Hyde Park. They have been closed for refurbishment are re-opening with Transience, a show of 30 or so prime examples of this, Craig-Martin’s late style. It is the first solo show of Craig-Martin’s work in a London public institution since 1989 and brings together works from 1981 to 2015.

(This post is twinned with my account of the artist’s tour around the exhibition at the press launch.)

Platonic ideals

Each work depicts one object. The object is, in general, an example of the devices and accessories associated with our increasingly technological way of life: a laptop, a games consoles, a black-and-white television, a lightbulb, a mobile phone, pair of headphones and so on.

They exist in an ideal world of forms, the forms which the Greek philosopher Plato thought existed in the mind of God, and of which everything in this, our ‘fallen’ world, were mere copies and – if humans made works of art about them, copies of copies of copies.

Our world is full of copies of Craig-Martin’s perfect objects. Poor copies, shabby copies, used copies, broken copies. He offers us the source, the original template, restored to vibrant but silent perfection.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

The joy of design

The most immediate impression is how big the paintings are. The biggest are 4 or 5 metres high. Completely absorbing. Paintings to be hypnotised by.

Then how bright and bold and unhesitant the colours are, none of the murk or gloom, none of the expressive splashes or splats or writhing splurges with a lot of modern art, say, Pollock or Cy Twombly. They are fantastically restrained. Self-contained. The colour, like the good king’s snow, is deep and crisp and even. And very beautiful.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (xbox control) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 200 x 200 cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (xbox control) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 200 x 200 cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Celebration of the everyday

Craig-Martin has reproduced the everyday artefacts of his time. One obvious result is that the time in question passes and is soon ten, twenty, thirty years ago. And then History. And the objects we were once so familiar with become obsolete.

Thus the works are mementi mori in the classic European tradition, reminders that tempus fugit. In fact, in one way, their perfection is ironic.

In Keith Douglas’s tremendous Second World War poem, Vergissmeinnicht, the poet compares the decayed corpse of the dead German with the shiny perfection of the Panzer tank it is trapped in:

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

‘Mocked at by his own equipment’.

We may smile indulgently at these relics of a fast-receding past – tape cassettes ha ha ha – but it is we that are ageing and decaying, and the tape cassette remains permanently new in the heaven of its perfection.

Michael Craig-Martin Cassette (2002) Acrylic on canvas 289.6 x 208.3cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Michael Craig-Martin Cassette (2002) Acrylic on canvas 289.6 x 208.3cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

In a very obvious but completely convincing way, Craig-Martin’s work transforms the world by delivering it to us in perfect form. As Sir Philip Sidney pointed out in his Defense of Poesy (1583):

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied on any such subjugation, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention doeth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or quite anew… Nature’s world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

The designers who conceived, the manufacturers who produced, the consumers who used, broke and threw away these wonderful implements, are here superseded by a heaven of consumer objects, restored to their rightful place, at the centre of our culture, fit recipients of our worship.

A perfect and perfected style

The objects have a finality, a wonderful completeness. There is nothing more to say. They are so perfectly encapsulated in Craig-Martin’s formulations. And embalmed in these immaculate reproductions. The way they sit there, blank and mute, reminded me of a great poem about the secret lives of objects by a contemporary of Craig-Martin’s, the (Northern) Irish poet, Derek Mahon – The Mute Phenomena.

Michael Craig-Martin Biding Time (magenta) (2004) Acrylic on aluminium panel 243.8 x 182.9cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Michael Craig-Martin Biding Time (magenta) (2004) Acrylic on aluminium panel 243.8 x 182.9cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

What lost civilisation do these beautiful, these magical objects bespeak? Is their collocation in these bright  surfaces the result of some lost religion? Did their viewers bow down before artefacts so perfect in their design and function, so immaculately conceived, so perfectly portrayed?

They should have. And here in the Serpentine Gallery – they can.

Related links

Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern

A major exhibition of art photography about war and warzones, what’s not to like? The images come ready-made with all sorts of poignancies and pathos.

To mix it up the curators tried something radically different from the predictable chronological order, namely arranging the images by the length of time after the event they are addressing took place.

Hence the importance of time in the title, and hence the rooms are titled ‘Moments later’, ‘days, weeks later’, ‘Months later’, ‘1-10 years later’, all the way up to ’85-100 years later’.

An overabundance

There are a lot of photographers and a lot of wars. Helps to have a good working knowledge of the conflicts in the ‘century of atrocity’, Mankind’s most shameful century so far (but who knows what’s round the corner?) though there were some displays of work from select wars of the 19th century:

(Nothing from the Boer War or any of the small colonial wars the European nations waged against native peoples during the ‘Belle Epoque’….)

Even so the information panels next to each set of images are packed with facts about the individual photographers (almost none of whom I’d heard of before) and then about their ‘project’ or relationship to the subject matter, and then about the nature of the conflict or war in question, often itself dense with historical and political complications — An awful lot of information to take in.

I paid assiduous attention to the first third, skimmed the next third and, I admit, was too full of facts & fights by the end to do anything except just react to the pics…

The surfeit of material was epitomised by the images around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very first images in the show come under the heading ‘Seconds after’ and were a few photos taken ‘seconds after’ the Hiroshima bomb exploded, by a Japanese man working in a lab nearby, who ran to the window in time to catch the growing mushroom cloud. (In fact, theyre not particularly good photos, and don’t look anything like the famous mushroom cloud.)

But about half way through the show there was a mass of images on the subject: a display case containing 13 or so photo-books of images from various sources, by numerous photographers, above which was hung a selection of photos each by different photographers, and then another wall of images from ‘one of the most important photo books of the century’, The Map (1965) by Kikuji Kawada. I found it difficult to react to any but the clearest and most striking images…

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963
© Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

There were some familiar and iconic images of war, namely Richard Peters’ shots from Dresden just days after the fateful air raid, or Don McCullin’s combat-shocked American GI.

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

It is photography’s bad luck to have become so easily assimilable. We are surrounded by images and will be in ever-increasing amounts as the internet tightens its grip on our lives. Possibly, what were once termed ‘raw’ and ‘graphic’ images had an impact at some nominal golden age in the past, maybe in the 1960s and 1970s when this kind of photo-journalism first came in. But we’ve had fifty years of ‘graphic’ images of wars, plus the steady stream of jihadist terror since 9/11, as well as a brutal new level of graphic violence in war movies and TV (Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001)) – all of which, I think, has diminished their aesthetic, and moral, impact.

Therefore, some of the other types of engagement, some of the more tangential approaches to the subject matter on display yielded a different sort of feeling, less at risk from horror fatigue. For example, the series of large colour photos of locations where World War I deserters were executed, located and photographed by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914  © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914
© Chloe Dewe Mathews

Favourites

Like everyone these days, I also take photographs (showcased on my walking blog) and from doing it myself I’ve evolved a favourite style or approach and way of seeing: I don’t do people (they move, they want permission) and prefer to do either natural features or buildings framed square-on, with space around the subject so you see it in its entirety and, ideally, warm sunshine on a clear day, which helps pick out the detail and gives contrast and depth to an image.

That background explains why I liked what I liked in this show.

1. Simon Norfolk made a portfolio of images titled Chronotopia of Afghanistan. The name refers to the way this wretched country has endured 30 years of almost continuous fighting and therefore why the buildings and landscape contain multiple layers of devastation. Norfolk’s images are big and bright and clear.

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

2. Jane and Louise Wilson I came across their photos at Tate Britain’s hit-and-miss Ruin Lust exhibition. Here again they had three of their enormous black-and-white photos of the Nazis concrete bunkers and defence system along the coast of France – the Nazi subject matter is totally familiar (no reading up required), the buildings are starkly charismatic, they are framed in the classic way I love.

3. Sophie Ristelhüber is awarded an entire room full of really big photos showing the impact of the First Gulf War on the desert landscape in Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991, titled Fait. Enormous and in glossy colour, like Norfolk’s, they are consistently high quality and imaginative – each image carefully composed and framed. Very powerful.

4. Ursula Schulz-Dornberg was represented by a sequence of black and white photos of the bare, abandoned remains of the Kurchatov nuclear test site where over 480 detonations took place, photographed 22 years after the final test, in 2012.


There’s a lot more from conflicts in Africa (Congo, Namibia – nothing from Biafra), South America, China, the Armenian genocide, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Holocaust survivors and so on, a relentless and depressing testimony to humanity’s inability to live in peace.

Powerful though many of these images are, there is always something clinical and detached about a glossily printed static image hanging on a white gallery wall. I think the complex emotional aftermath and meditation about conflicts and wars is done better by other arts, music sometimes, but poetry…. there’s a case for arguing that poetry commemorates the dead best of all.

Sophie Ristelhüber’s photos, in particular, with their wrecks in the desert, reminded me of Keith Douglas’s poem from the Desert campaign in World War Two.

Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas (1942)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

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