Rockaby by Samuel Beckett (1981)

Rockaby is a short play which Samuel Beckett wrote at the request of Daniel Labeille from the State University of New York, for a festival and symposium arranged to celebrate Beckett’s 75th birthday.

In the printed text, one and a half pages of detailed description of the stage setup, the actor’s costume and position and so on are followed by eight pages of actual text, the words to be spoken. This is unusual for Beckett, in that it’s written in short unrhymed lines so the text looks more like a poem rather than prose. Less unusual is the fact that all but ten or so words are not spoken by the actor we seen onstage but are pre-recorded. So the majority of the play consists of listening to a tape recording of the actor’s voice, similar to the setup in That Time which features a single actor onstage who never in fact says anything, but listens to three different tape recordings of his own voice interweaving seamlessly.

As part of the Beckett on Film project, Rockaby was filmed in a production featuring Penelope Wilton as the Woman, directed by Richard Eyre. This version runs for 14 minutes, but I can’t find it anywhere online.

For the duration of this short performance, an old woman (‘prematurely old’) with unnaturally large eyes (heavily made up) sits rocking in a rocking chair, while we hear her pre-recorded voice reciting the short lines of the text. Her rocking and the recorded voice both start when the woman in the chair says ‘More’. After a few minutes the rocking and voice come to a stop, there’s a characteristically Beckettian pause and then the woman says ‘More’, and the voice and rocking start again.This pause and then rather harrowed request for ‘more’ occurs four times, punctuating the action, giving it a shape and rhythm.

It’s as if the Woman has to call the voice into action in order to restart her rocking, to give her motion, activity and, by implication, life.

The play premiered on April 8, 1981 at the State University of New York, starring Beckett’s favourite woman actor, Billie Whitelaw, directed by his longtime American associate, Alan Schneider. A documentary film, Rockaby, was directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and recorded the rehearsal process and the first performance. This is the performance segment of that film. It is not great quality but it does feature the brilliant Billie Whitelaw and she was coached for the performance by Beckett himself, so it’s probably as close to being definitive as possible.

The impression is that only the Voice allows her to continue. The Voice keeps her rocking. The Voice keeps her going, ‘keeping going’ being the concern of most of Beckett’s characters ever since The Unnamable was published in 1953.

Repetition

And repetition, arguably Beckett’s central literary strategy. Key phrases and words are repeated numerous times to create an incantatory, spooky, ghostly power, like the witches at the start of Macbeth reciting in unison. It’s quite spectacularly brilliant and disturbing, isn’t it?

went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

The text invokes confused identities, seems to indicate that the person going down the steep stair into the basement where the old rocker is, in doing so exchanges identities with the dead mother:

time she went right down
was her own other
own other living soul

So that the physical movement ‘down the steep stair’ appears to also be a psychological transition in which the woman upstairs metamorphoses into the mother in her rocking chair. The overlap of personalities or avatars or spirits comes into focus or crystallises at the three moments where the Woman onstage breaks her silence and speaks the short phrase ‘time she stopped’ in synchrony with the recorded Voice (a trick, incidentally, Beckett had used in …but the clouds… at the couple of moments when the phantom woman suddenly mouths the male speaker’s words in synchrony with him).

In the literary world, this theme of merging identities can be unravelled at some length because literature and literary criticism, particularly of a psychoanalytical persuasion, are obsessed with identity, the self and the ever-threatening ‘other’, the repressed or controlled elements of our psyche which are always threatening to break free.

But on a less highfalutin’ level, the theme of possession is a staple subject of horror novels and movies which routinely feature the innocent heroine venturing down to the spooky basement or the spooky attic to find themselves becoming possessed by a dead spirit – this is the very familiar and assimilable subject of countless horror movies.

Indeed, the image of the old woman dressed in black and gone quite mad and then dead, the image of a dead old woman in a chair, reminds me of Norman Bates’s mother dead in her basement chair in one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, Hitchcock’s, Psycho.

image

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
and rocked
rocked
saying to herself
no

Beckett and his mother

It adds quite a big new layer to your interpretation of the performance when you learn that in his 20s, Beckett underwent extensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London (over 1,500 sessions spread over two years with the pioneering psycho-analyst Wilfred Bion) in order to bring his panic attacks, night sweats and heart arrhythmia under control. In his massive biography of Beckett, James Knowlson explains that the core of Beckett’s psychological problems, and the cause of his psychosomatic symptoms, was established as his unusually intense love-hate relationship with his mother:

The key to understanding Beckett, said Dr Geoffrey Thompson – who, with Wilfred Bion himself, was the one most likely to know – was to be found in his relationship with his mother. And reductive analysis must have focused on the intensity of his mother’s attachment to him and his powerful love-hate bond with her.
(Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson, page 178)

Mother and son problems, OK. And yet in this and the very similar play, Footfalls, written a few years earlier (1976) it is not a man who struggles with the memory of his mother, but a woman who struggles with the memory of hers. It is a woman in these plays, a woman’s voice, a woman’s psyche, which is dominated and (maybe) taken over by the very old or dead mother, the dead mother whose personality lives on in the daughter, which appears to fight for ownership of the daughter’s mind.

so in the end
close of a long day
went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

So you can, if you wish, bring aspect of Beckett’s personal life to the play; or you can dwell on the countless writings about identity and ‘the other’ produced by critical theorists throughout the 20th century (Freud, Lacan, Derrida) and investigate the impossibility of the self, and the multiple conflicts which not only rive the mind, but fissiparate language itself, a tiny glimpse of which is given in the ‘confusion’ or closeness of the words mother and other in the recitative format of the play.

But there is also the simple aspect of the theatrical performance to consider. Just to sit and listen and watch, to let yourself be drawn slowly further and deeper in to an uncanny zone by the actor’s deliberately flat, repetitive, incantatory voice (Beckett was forever instructing all his actor’s to drain all colour and expression from his words, to speak like robots), is to have an almost out-of-body experience.

Watch it with all the lights in the room turned off, close your eyes and drift with the words, and accompany the text on that slow descent into the basement and to sit in the rocking chair of the dead mother. It is a genuinely creepy experience. You rarely find critics categorising Beckett as a writer of ghost stories, of horror stories, but I think they should.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

That Time by Samuel Beckett (1975)

A man is onstage standing high up and unnaturally still. Only his head is lit by a spotlight, a mature face with long flowing white hair. The audience hears a voice coming from somewhere, presumably his voice, although his lips don’t move, and after a minute or so the tone of the voice changes, then later for a third time, so that the audience slowly realises we are listening to three voices. Or are they three aspects of his own mind, specifically three trains or types of memory, gentle, wistful, and harsh (‘ah for God’s sake’) or from different periods of his life, young, mature and old man?

Stage directions

As usual, Beckett gives very precise stage directions in the script:

Curtain. Stage in darkness. Fade up to LISTENER’s FACE about 10 feet above stage level midstage off centre.
Old white face, long flaring white hair as if seen from above outspread
Voices A B C are his own coming to him from both sides and above. They modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except where silence indicated. See note.
Silence 7 seconds. LISTENER’s EYES are open. His breath audible, slow and regular.

And as to the NOTE mentioned, it says:

Moments of one and the same voice A B C relay one another without solution of continuity-apart from the two 10-second breaks. Yet the switch from one to another must be clearly faintly perceptible. If threefold source and context prove insufficient to produce this effect it should be assisted mechanically (e.g. threefold pitch).

Power of three

Three is, of course, a profoundly lucky number, three wishes, three bears, three billy goats gruff, a symbolic number, a theological number, the Trinity, and a very manageable number, a very practical number to arrange into any conversation or short play – witness the three heads in jars in Play or the three old women in Come and Go. Most of Beckett’s works can be sorted into solos, duos and trios. This combines two: a solo figure assailed by a trio of voices, which are all variations on his voice.

Beckett’s heads and the reflexive self

Visually, it is another Beckett head, disembodied, like the three heads activated by spotlights in Play or the jabbering woman’s head in Not I (where the head is positioned 8 feet above the stage, compared to the ten feet above stage level or That Time), or Winnie’s head sticking up out of the midden in part two of Happy Days.

Beckett’s obsession with heads can be simply explained because the head is the location of the human subject’s puzzlingly split consciousness, which is Beckett’s deepest, most enduring theme – the problem of being a self which observes the self observing the self thinking about the self, processing the things happening to the self now even as the self remembers events which happened to the self in the past – and so on and so on into an indefinitely recursive abyss of self-reflexive uncertainty, where first the sense of ‘self’ disintegrates into doubt and uncertainty, and then language itself begins to fall apart. That’s what happens in many of Beckett’s prose works.

After all, what is this ‘I’ that claims to be in control of the endlessly fissiparous mind? What a preposterous claim! How ridiculous! As one of the three voices puts it:

Did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now? [Eyes close.] could you ever say I to yourself in your life?

We all say ‘I’ all the time, but none of us really knows what that means, once we start pondering what consciousness is, or appears to be, or how it thinks, or tries to think. Two and a half thousand years of philosophy and psychology have produced all manner of florid theories, but no-one really knows what the mind is or how it works.

Performance

That Time was specifically written for the actor Patrick Magee, who we have seen starring in productions of Krapp’s Last Tape and Cascando. Magee gave That Time‘s first performance, timed to mark Beckett’s seventieth birthday celebration, at the Royal Court Theatre on 20 May 1976.

Here’s the production made for the Beckett on Film project, with the Listener and the three Voices performed by Niall Buggy, directed by Charles Garrad.

Isolation

On a close reading you realise all three voices are describing scenes which, in their different ways, describe a life of self-induced isolation and retrospection. Solitude and isolation are what ooze out of the incantations. Alone alone alone.

alone in the same the same scenes making it up that way to keep it going keep it out on the stone [Eyes close.]
– alone on the end of the stone with the wheat and blue or the towpath alone on the towpath with the ghosts

The importance of memory, but even more of his isolation, is somehow rammed home by the insistent repetition of the title phrase ‘that time’:

  • that time you went back that last time to look…
  • that time in the Portrait Gallery in off the street out of the cold and rain…
  • that time curled up worm in slime…
  • muttering that time altogether on the stone in the sun or that time together on the towpath or that time together in the sand that time that time…
  • stock still like that time on the stone or that time in the sand…
  • that time in the Post Office all bustle Christmas bustle…
  • was that the time or was that another time…?
  • that time in the sand the glider passing over that time you went back soon after long after…
  • like that time on the stone the child on the stone where none ever came…
  • the Library that was another place another time that time you slipped in off the street out of the cold and rain…
  • that time in the end when you tried and couldn’t…

But that said (over and over again), the insistence and the implicit accusations… listening a bit more, I found the play slowly becoming, well, more nostalgic and comforting (if in a rather gritty way).

None of the three difference voices recall any horror, physical violence or abuse, nothing really disturbing. The first time I listened, I caught just random details – the protagonist remembering going into the portrait gallery, huddled in a doorstep, sitting together on a stone in the sunshine on the edge of a little wood with his sweetheart, hiding in some old ruins as a child, making up stories and voices when a child, by moonlight, on the towpath, on the sand ran away from home and everyone out looking for him…

Maybe it’s meant to be harrowing, and some bits are rather chilling, but overall I found the stories and the memories and the imagery (grittily) nostalgic. It sounds like your man had, in its way, quite a colourful life, a rather wonderful childhood in the country, exciting ruins, Foley’s Folly, woods and fields of wheat, a pretty girl with blue eyes, a night ferry, a portrait gallery. To a listener stuck inside during a COVID lockdown, it bespeaks a big wide wonderful world.

Structure

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett, as is its wont, emphasises the structural aspects of the piece and the history of its careful assembling by Beckett. This has at least two obvious features. 1. The piece is divided into three parts of exactly five minutes each, the parts divided by the breaks consisting of ten seconds of silence when you can hear his breathing quite audibly. 2. More subtly, the three voices alternate in alternating patterns. In the first two parts, these are: ACB, ACB, ACB, CAB and CBA, CBA, CBA, BCA. So a triplet with the same order and a fourth trio in a different order. However, the third part has a consistent pattern all the way through, namely BAC, BAC, BAC, BAC, thus creating a subliminal sense of order and what the Companion calls ‘serenity’.

Does it? Is this very calculated structuring of the piece what creates, at an unconscious level, the sense of a lulling rhythm of memory and reminiscence which is strangely, incongruously, comforting? Almost like… a lullaby.

The final smile

The main character is, in accordance with Beckett’s anti-humanist requirements, unnamed. In fact he is referred to simply LISTENER, along the lines of OPENER, VOICE and MUSIC in Cascando or HE and SHE in Rough For Radio, or W1 and W2 in Play or READER and LISTENER in Ohio Impromptu (I wonder if someone’s done the simple exercise of totting up all the ‘characters’ in all Beckett’s plays and figuring out whether there are more unnamed than named ones).

For most of the performance the actor is required to stand quite still, his only action being opening or closing his eyes. The text is punctuated by three ten-second silences (much as the jabbering monologue of Not I is punctuated four times by abrupt pauses, when the mysterious ‘other figure’ raises and lowers its arms).

So far so schematic and familiar as the three voices punish, criticise and assail the stricken, immobile, silent figure, very much as the silent figure of Joe is harangued with all his past betrayals and adulteries by WOMAN’S VOICE in Eh Joe.

But there’s a big surprise at the end, when the play requires that the LISTENER, right at the very end of the 20-minute play, when all the voices have finished… breaks into a smile. Now, Beckett being Beckett, the author tries to disavow any sentimental or romantic interpretation by requiring that the smile should be ‘toothless for preference’. Still. It’s a smile.

And it’s not the first one, because after tormenting Joe for eighteen minutes or so in the play Eh Joe, right at the very bitter end of that play, after having his life and bad behaviour and betrayals thrown in his face as if under an intense interrogation, the voice eventually ceases and… Joe breaks into a big smile. So that’s two plays which end, very unexpectedly, with smiles.

Why? Why do both these plays showing a middle-aged man being assailed by bad memories or an external accuser, suddenly end with this enigmatic smile? The shortest answer is that it is a smile of relief, certainly in Joe’s case, because the nagging accusing woman’s voice has finally ceased punishing him, at least for this evening.

But maybe the smiles hint at something subtler, which is a sense of psychological closure. Nowadays we all know a lot more about therapy and counselling than people did 50 years ago, about the need to talk, to get it out, to express the hurt, to be listened to, and so on. And the notion that, eventually, by dint of this process, you achieve closure, a word which has become more and more common currency in recent decades.

So the smiles might be both: smiles of simple relief – and also smiles indicating the process of self-accusation is in some sense, in this dramatic representation, something approaching ‘over’.

That Time and Not I

So That Time has a pretty close resemblance to Eh Joe in that both consist of a wordless, speechless man being persecuted by bad memories from the past but who, in the plays’ dying moments breaks into a broad smile. But Beckett also highlighted links with another of his works, Not I. In a letter he described That Time as a ‘brother to Not I‘.

He wrote to George Reavey [in his characteristic clipped style]:

Have written a short piece (theatre): That Time. Not I family.

The fact that Beckett described That Time as ‘cut out of the same texture’ as Not I explains why he didn’t want them on the same theatre bill.

As you enter the final phase of Beckett’s career, the gathering linkages between the plays and prose, the recurring topics, setups, themes and images, build up to create a kind of meta-structure – a Beckett cathedral of correspondences and connections which ramify out in all directions, reinforcing and complexifying each other.

… after that never looked back after that was that the time or was that another time… or was that another time all that another time was there ever any other time but that time…


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


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