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 beachlife 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, they’ve turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French join with expresso machine, but a down at heel, flyblown 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 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 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, Thiailand, the Sioviet 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 ouevre 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.


Related links

Print! Tearing It Up @ Somerset House

This is a funky, fascinating and sometimes very funny exhibition celebrating the longstanding tradition of independent British magazine publishing over the past fifty years or so. And it is FREE!

Past

There’s a nod to older, historical magazines at the start of the show, where the curators display a couple of copies of Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist magazine, Blast!, from 1915 – a quite extraordinary typographical and editorial irruption into the sedate world of Edwardian gentlemen’s magazines – and a copy of Peace News from the 1930s — but overall this isn’t a historical exhibition, its focus is very much on the modern (post-1960s) tradition of alternative and right-on magazines, with a special interest in the reflowering of indie magazines in the last decade or so.

Things really get going in the late 1960s with the birth of the ‘counter-culture’ and the founding of critical magazines like Spare Rib (1972-93), Black Dwarf (1968-72), Oz (1967-73) and Private Eye (1961 and still going). The exhibition then traces the evolution of small, independent, counter-cultural, as well as fashion and music and art and architecture magazines, from then to the present day.

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Several gallery walls are covered with a massive wire grille on which have been hung scores and scores of magazines, with a dazzling variety of photographic, typographical and design styles, to admire and enjoy, with titles like international times, Beaver, Mole, Frendz, Shrew (‘the suppressed power of female sexuality’), Pink, Gay Left, Squatters and so on. The funniest title was Prada Meinhof (bright green, at the right of the photo below) which bears the text ‘Only way to change things – is to shoot the men who arrange things’. Right on, sister.

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Alongside these wall displays are a number of glass cases focusing on the stories of particular magazines or themes.

For example, one case tells the story of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex in the King’s Road which received coverage around 1976 in sex-related mags like Forum and Gallery International as well as the giveaway magazine West One, edited by a young Janet Street-Porter.

Another case focuses on Gandalf’s Garden, the official publication for a collectively-run ‘head shop’ for hippies, also in the King’s Road, which issued six copies from 1968 to 1969.

Contemporary art and graphics have been publicised in a tradition of small art magazines like ApolloArt Line in Newcastle, Modern PaintersFrieze, Arty, Garageland and Pavement Licker.

Satirical artworld writing could more recently be found in titles like Sleazenation (1996-2004), Vice, and the attractively titled Shoreditch Twat.

In one case the show draws links between the 1935 art magazine Axis launched by writer Myfanwy Jones, and the art and politics magazine Mute, founded in 1994 and still going strong.

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

In 1977 Peter York wrote a defining article for Harpers magazine about the independent magazines of the day, mentioning such obscure productions as Emma Tennant’s literary quarterly Bananas, lifestyle mag The New Style and Nick Kimberley’s reggae pamphlet, Pressure Drop.

And a whole display case is devoted to the worldwide publishing and digital success which is Time Out, launched in 1968 and overseen for most of the time since then by publisher Tony Elliott.

Alternative music mags have included Freakbeat, Zigzag, Echoes, Rough Trade, Flexipop!, SFX with more modern publications emerging from grime and dub-step like Woofah, Push and Trench.

The mindmap

Confused? You should be – the last fifty years have witnessed wave after wave of new, small, independent, radical magazines catering to an ever-expanding list of issues and constituencies.

One entire wall of the exhibition is devoted to a vast mind-map which shows the links and interconnections  between all these independent magazines. If you buy the exhibition booklet (£4.50) you get a free fold-out version of it (though not quite this big!).

Mind map of British magazines

Mind map of British magazines

… and present

Only a little way into the show does its origin and motivation become a bit clearer, specifically the motivation of exhibition curator Paul Gorman.

In 2011 Gorman finished writing a history of The Face, the cultural magazine published from 1980 to 2004. In doing so, in comparing the Face to its current equivalents and looking for its lasting legacy, Gorman became aware of the raft of indie mags which had emerged from the wreckage of the economic crash of 2008.

In an interview with The Drum (see the second video, below) Gorman says:

Around 2011, 2012 I noticed these magazines emerging – like The Gentlewoman and Mushpit – and I was quite encouraged by the fact they were being published mainly by young women. They were anti-corporate, and they had all those values that appealed to me.

It inspired Gorman to take stock of the magazine culture of our times and he realised that, although some high-profile magazines had recently gone to the wall (Glamour, Look), sparking an outbreak of gloom among high-end publishers, we are actually living amid a resurgence of cheaply produced, anti-establishment, freethinking publications.

A little like the revival of vinyl records and just as counter-intuitively, print magazines are going from strength to strength in the digital era.

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photography: Milly Spooner

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photo by Milly Spooner

So mixed in among the older examples from the 60s, 70s and 80s in the exhibition, is a rich selection of mags from just the past decade or so, which address 21st century issues.

As I walked round, admiring all this visual energy and creativity, I reflected that although Gorman and the other curators might find it inspiring and exciting that there are so many mags celebrating ‘alternative views’ on lifestyle, leisure and architecture or addressing topical issues including diversity, gender, sexuality and media manipulation… us older visitors might instead notice the surprising continuities between the concerns of 1968 and those of 2018 and draw different conclusions.

My take would be that, although gender, sex and race continue to be as reliable money-spinners as ever they were – expressing black anger, women’s anger, the newer range of LGBT+ anger, Asian anger and so on – and are enthusiastically snapped up by guilty young white students — meanwhile the ideas which seemed dominant in my youth – socialism, communism, Marxism, and working class politics – seem to have largely disappeared.

The white working class communities that I thought I was helping when I joined the Young Socialists in 1977 have been redefined into union jack-waving, Tommy Robinson-supporting, Brexit-voting chavs, recategorised as patriarchal racists. Now all the liberal press tells us we should be supporting female BBC presenters, Hollywood actresses and illegal immigrants everywhere.

And the working class lads who empty my bins every week? No one writes about them or gives a damn about their lives. I suppose they just don’t live at the intersection of style, fashion, gender and race.

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird/Photography: Turkina Faso

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird / Photo by Turkina Faso

To quote the exhibition text:

The debate surrounding gender and sexuality has been reflected in the success of hugely popular magazines launched in the past decade, from The Gentlewoman, which can chart its evolution from Spare Rib, the seminal feminist magazine founded in the 1970s, to Ladybeard, Ablaze! and D.I.Y zines created by teenage feminist collectives in 1990s-2000s, among many more showcased.

Similarly, the exhibition celebrates the rise in titles dedicated to ethnic minority communities and concerns, with examples including gal-dem, Thiiird and Burnt Roti, which showcases South Asian creativity.

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine/ Paul Gorman Archive/Photography: Theo Jemison

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine / Paul Gorman Archive / Photo by Theo Jemison

If it ain’t black, queer or about women it doesn’t seem to have any purchase, any traction, any validity.

That said, it’s not all identity politics. There are plenty of other contemporary magazines which are not directly political, all manner of magazines out there which I’d never heard of, such as Real Review and Eyesore which promote new writing on architecture and the urban environment, Little White Lies focusing on film, and The Gourmand on food.

Read, listen, watch

The last room in the exhibition is devoted to a very pink, pop-up newstand bearing a variety of bang up-to-date mags which you are invited to pick up and browse through.

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

This space could have done with some chairs or a couple of sofas to really kick back in.

Podcasts

The pop-up newstand is next to a row of equally pink booths each with a set of headphones for you to slip on and listen to podcasts i.e. brief interviews or monologues by key figures from the recent history of independent magazines.

It would have been interesting to find out more about the impact of digital technology on magazine and news culture:

How much has digital supplanted print magazines? Are there particular reasons why some magazines have gone out of print and out of business, while others are successfully making the move to an online-only existence? Is it luck, or something to do with the subject matter, or the audiences?

And what does it take to succeed in setting up an alternative mag in the current climate? A good business plan? A clear proposition for your advertising department to promote? To what extent does the need to sell adverts undermine or negate any claim to ‘radical’ thought?

The exhibition prompted all these thoughts and more, but didn’t really address any of them. Where should I go to understand a) the current state of play among radical mags b) the direction of travel?

Activities

The exhibition is accompanied by a rash of activities including all-female activist lines-ups, explorations of self-education, acknowledgment of architectural anarchy, plus a PROCESS! Festival co-curated by Somerset House Studios artists OOMK (One of My Kind).

The PROCESS! Festival will run from Saturday 21 to Sunday 22 July and will celebrate independent media and making, bringing together established and emerging designers, artists, activists and publishers to explore, interrogate and share approaches to creative and collaborative processes.

Videos

There is, of course, a promotional video.

And this useful video report on the show by The Drum.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain @ Victoria & Albert Museum

A wonderful exhibition of the fantastical designs, shapes, engineering, ingenuity and expertise the human imagination has brought to the humble shoe, a basic item of equipment invented to protect feet from the environment which, throughout human history and around the globe, has mutated into thousands of patterns and purposes and continues, in our time, to inspire designers and craftsmen to ever giddier flights of fancy.

The show brings together over 200 pairs of shoes, ranging from a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate concoctions of contemporary makers.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt (c.30 BCE-300 CE ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One sandal, gilded and incised leather and papyrus, Egypt
(c.30 BCE-300 CE) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The exhibition is divided into two parts:

  • Downstairs the carpet, walls and curtains are all a dark purple, creating a womb-like ambience as soothing new age music pipes through hidden speakers and visitors process past glass panels each showing 10 or 15 or 20 shoes of amazing variety, antiquity and geographical spread.
  • Upstairs is light and white, the stands are on a big circular podium open to the enormous atrium room, with huge video screens suspended from the ceiling showing craftsmen at work creating shoes, a series of cases showing how shoes are designed and constructed, as well as several cases dedicated to the collections of some epic shoeaholics, and a 12-minute video featuring interviews with such shoe gods as Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi and Christian Louboutin.

Killer Heels at the Brooklyn Museum

It just so happens that I went to the ‘Killer Heels’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this time last year. It focused more on the glitz and glamour of contemporary designers whereas the V&A show features more examples from around the world and from past eras – as befits the world’s leading historical museum of design. The V&A show definitely brought together a much wider range of footwear but, I think, was less penetrating in its analysis.

For example, where the V&A points out that shoes can be sexy and seductive, the Brooklyn show goes the extra mile to show exactly why, explaining that high heels:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

In other words, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality and have done for centuries.

 'Parakeet’ shoes Artist: Caroline Groves, England (2014 ) Photography by Dan Lowe .


‘Parakeet’ shoes by Caroline Groves, England (2014) Photography by Dan Lowe.

Folklore, fairy tales and myths

The show starts with the Cinderella fairy story which dates in one form or another back to the first centuries AD. It makes the central point of the show: Cinderella is the virtuous girl whose shoes elevate her literally and socially. Cinderella’s life is transformed because wearing high-heeled shoes gets her noticed by the heir to the throne, the handsome prince. This is the focus of the exhibition – the way that across space and time, the wearing of fancy shoes signals privilege, rank and status.

The same display case goes on to mention other examples of powerful and transformative footwear: the Seven League Boots worn by Hop o’ my Thumb. Reference is also made to Puss In Boots, surely the smartest cat to wear shoes, but not to the Old Lady Who Lived In A Shoe, nor to Hermes, the messenger god with little wings attached to his ankle boots. I would have liked more about the importance of footwear in myth and legend. I bet Marina Warner could write an entire book on the subject – I’d have liked a thoughtful paragraph or two.

Film footwear

Too quickly for my taste the eye was drawn away from the depths of myth and legend to the shallows of shoe-ey film clips: There’s a short bit of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz tapping her ruby slippers, as well as clips of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain and Marilyn Monroe tottering along on high heels which emphasise her waggling bottom. On actual display are the red shoes worn by dancer and actress Moira Shearer in the classic Powell & Pressburger film The Red Shoes, which give their wearer her semi-magical power of dance, but also propel her to her death. Yes, and, and…?

Again I bet there are umpteen studies of footwear in films and it would have been interesting to have had even a few sentences analysing how, for example, close-ups of footwear are a useful shorthand to quickly identify character types, or any other suggestions or thoughts…

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England Artist: Freed of London (founded in 1929), Date: 1948 . Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Red ballet shoes made for Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948), silk satin, braid and leather, England. Freed of London (founded in 1929). Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Status and display

Instead the exhibition is rarely distracted from its core mission which is to show how footwear is overwhelmingly about status and display. It is about how rich you are, how your footwear asserts your membership of an elite group or class or circle. Many of the shoes are celebrated for their impracticality: they display and assert that the wearer is quite incapable of physical labour or looking after themselves or managing even the slightest physical obstacle, they are so pampered.

One wall label rather casually pairs Queen Henrietta Maria and Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker as ‘style leaders’ whose shoes (and overall look) other people copied. Well, Henrietta’s main achievement was contributing, via her Catholicism, her luxury and her inflexible snobbery, to the unpopularity of her husband King Charles I who plunged his country into civil war and was eventually beheaded.

The exhibition treats ‘status’, being a member of an ‘elite’, of ‘an exclusive circle’, as cost-free activities, as if this appetite for inclusion doesn’t imply a mass exclusion, keeping out the vast majority of people who aren’t in the charmed circle.

The displays range impressively far and wide in its examples: there are shoes from the Ottoman Empire, Ming Dynasty China, Meiji Japan, from Caroline England, from a rajah in pre-Independence India – all regimes which were overthrown in violent revolutions. What role did (and do) ostentatious shoes play in alienating the 99% of the population not allowed or too poor to wear them? Maybe there is no meaningful answer, but the question goes unasked…

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chopines, Punched kid leather over carved pine, Venice, Italy, c. 1600

Sex

In the (surprisingly) small panel about fetish boots and sex, the commentary makes some rather sweeping generalisations:

  • The modern high heel is associated with sexual availability rather than just desirability.‘ Really? As I wrote in my review of the Brooklyn show, I’d have thought it’s more that expensive shoes, especially heels, are about adopting a role, assuming a pose, feeling more glamorous and attractive. Not at all the same thing as making yourself sexually available. For most people most of the time, I’d have thought the sexual suggestiveness of high heels and glamour shoes is implicit, repressed, unacknowledged, beneath the socially (and personally) acceptable activity of making yourself look ‘glamorous’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘classy’, ‘enchanting’, ‘smart’.
  • Further, the commentary asserts that ‘sexy shoes affect the movements of the body, titillating the watcher and creating a sensual experience for the wearer…  Shoes equal sex.’ Well, quite obviously most shoes do not equal sex. And, as and when they do, it’s surely in a number of ways: the Brooklyn exhibition put into words precisely how heels cantilever the female form to emphasise its sexual characteristics. But thigh length boots, stilletoes, studded shoes? I could have done with more explanation, from psychologists or sexologists, about just why shoes can be so erotic.

Scores of the shoes and boots scattered randomly throughout the exhibition are doubtless ‘sexy’, designed to emphasise a woman’s sexuality, designed to cater to (changing) sexual tastes through the ages – but restricting this big theme to one small display case, for me raised but then didn’t sufficiently explore the idea.

‘Invisible Naked Version' by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley .

‘Invisible Naked Version’ by Andreia Chaves (2011) Photo by Andrew Bradley.

Shoes and control

In fact, one of the themes that emerges from the show is that many shoes through history were designed not to flaunt their wearer’s sexuality, but to cripple the wearer, to severely restrict their ability to walk. The Japanese prostitute heels linked to above, are one example. Another well-known extreme is the terrifying traditional shoes worn by Chinese women, whose feet had been broken and bound in order to look petite and exquisite.

Clearly some cultures developed traditions designed to hamper walking in all sorts of ingenious ways. For some cultures the motive was to highlight the wearer’s wealth and status, emphasising that they didn’t need to move very much because everything was done for them, brought to them. For another large group, mainly women, their ability to walk was limited by their masters, who thereby demonstrated their power and control.

Again, I’d have welcomed some thoughtful commentary about the importance of shoes as implements of power and control through the ages. Maybe sustained investigation of these themes is in the exhibition book…

Below are silver platform shoes, named padukas, traditionally given to brides in India to create height, and to emphasise (as usual) their wealth and status. I imagine the most the wearer could manage would be a shuffle. Maybe a cautious totter…

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Wedding toe-knob paduka, silver and gold over wood, India (1800s)

Work and gender

The curators know their audience, white, middle-class, older, female. The world of work, and especially the vast world of male physical labour, was largely invisible. All forms of working boot, steel-capped boots, footwear worn on building sites and in factories, by sailors and truck drivers, was not here. I particularly missed Doc Martens, that symbol of skinheads and the violent 1970s (which have, in fact, largely reinvented themselves as style accessories).

For as well as physical labour, the equally male world of violence is largely invisible, the bloody civil war which the extravagance of Henrietta Marie helped to spark and the elaborately beshoed Charles II managed to escape, nowhere mentioned.

The Duke of Wellington is here because of his well-known boots but nothing else about Army or Navy or Air Force footwear, riding wear, driving wear, flying wear, climbing wear. Tucked away in a corner of one display were some fantastic glam rock platform boots from 1973, which the original owner is quoted as saying were good for ‘kicking the shit’ out of other men. But for the most part, marching, tramping, working, kicking, fighting, all these male foot-related activities are invisible.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

NOVA by Zaha Hadid for United Nude (c) Image Courtesty of United Nude.

Makers and collectors

Upstairs the focus shifted to the making and collecting of shoes. There were several stands devoted to explaining just how shoes are designed, how patterns are generated from the prototype and then the necessary shapes cut from leather. There was an array of heels, the same shape, but painted different colours and with various diamante applications, which I found fascinating. I was also interested to learn that the metal spike heel was invented in the 1950s, which allowed designers to play with a whole new type of look.

Around the corner is a brilliant semi-circular 7-foot-high wall made of everyday cardboard shoeboxes. I really liked this as a piece of sculpture, but it’s also practical for it creates an auditorium effect, there are benches placed in front of it and in the middle is suspended a big video screen on which plays the 12-minute video I mentioned earlier, featuring interviews with shoe gods Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi, Christian Louboutin and others.

The final section of the exhibition contains a number of cases which display the collections of several notable collectors of shoes. Lionel Ernest Bussey collected shoes from about 1914 until his death in 1969, all ladies shoes bought from fairly ordinary shoe shops. By the time of his death he’d collected about 600 pairs, all new and unworn, many not even taken out of their boxes. He left his collection to the V&A. Robert Brooks (age 42) collects just adidas trainers and travels the world to acquire rare items for a collection which now numbers over 800 pairs. Also featured is Katie Porter from west London who has more than 230 shoes in her collection.

Why? We are invited to marvel at these impressive collections, but I’d have welcomed a sentence or two exploring and explaining the psychology of collecting, and of collecting shoes in particular.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain , Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Installation view of Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Note the wall of shoe boxes in the background and the display of Robert Brooks’s adidas trainers in the foreground.

Lighten up

But maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m missing the point: maybe it is simply that all these shoes – removed from their historical contexts, from too much depth or meaning – are all transformed by this exhibition into objects of fantasy and escape. The exhibition invites us to gawp and marvel and not dig too deep.

We ordinary folk who can never afford Henrietta Maria chopines or Sarah Jessica Parker’s Blahniks, can enjoy them, and hundreds of other weird and exotic specimens, here in the V&A and, by extension, on the internet, in magazines, in videos. Via all these channels we can enter, without too much thought, into magical worlds where we are all thinner, taller and richer, where we all live for a moment more interesting, colourful lives, in remote historical eras and exotic countries, inhabiting the countless fantasies these amazing and endlessly inventive objects offer us. Maybe marvelling and admiring is enough.

On YouTube

A good overview of the show by Euromaxx TV.


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Killer Heels @The Brooklyn Museum

On an autumn trip to New York, my son wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, after which we found ourselves exploring Brooklyn Heights (quaint, polluted), and then realised it was only a short metro ride to the Brooklyn Museum.

Here there was a lot of interesting stuff in the permanent collection, early colonial art, as well as a show of contemporary work by Brooklyn-based artists. But it was all put in the shade by the surprisingly informative and fabulously entertaining exhibition about the ‘art of the high-heeled shoe’.

Prada. Wedge Sandal in Rosso, Bianco, and Nero Leather, Spring/Summer 2012. Courtesy of Prada USA Corp. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Prada. Wedge Sandal in Rosso, Bianco, and Nero Leather, Spring/Summer 2012. Courtesy of Prada USA Corp. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

The full title is Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe and it showcases a surprising amount you can do with such a humble implement as the shoe, an amazing amount. It showcases over 160 examples, from around the world, including some rare and precious historical artifacts.

Italian. Chopine, 1550–1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. 2009.300.1494a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, photographers

Italian. Chopine, 1550–-1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, photographers

But the majority of exhibits are marvels of inventiveness contrived by a checklist of leading contemporary designers.

Zaha Hadid X United Nude. “NOVA,” 2013. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Zaha Hadid X United Nude. “NOVA,” 2013. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn.

Apparently there is evidence of high heels from as long ago as ancient Greece and as far away as China and Japan.

Chinese. Manchu Woman's Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 34.1060a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

Chinese. Manchu Woman’s Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

In fact, wherever there have been shoes, people have experimented with the effect you get by raising the soles and heels. Why?

What high heels do

According to the exhibition, high heels affect the wearer’s body thus – they:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

All in all, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality.

In western culture, heels have come to be associated with empowering female sexuality, creating the classic stockings and suspenders ‘sexy’ look, so familiar from movies and posters. It is a short physical step – though quite a large psychological one – beyond this into the stilettoes-and-studs world of BDSM and fetish – once a kind of underground cult, but now popularised by the bestselling Shades of Grey novels – a world in which threatening heels are a key element of the dominating mistress.

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Are all these levels of meaning invoked when a woman slips on her heels? Is the root of the pleasure which so many women take in wearing high heels because putting them on amounts to adopting a role, beginning a performance, outside of real life? With this one move, by slipping on one relatively simple item of wear, you can assume a dramatically different body shape and feel, as a result, a different person, a more gorgeous, glamorous, powerful person.

Short films

As well as spectacular shoes, the show includes six short films commissioned to take heels as a theme. The one I liked most was Smash by Marilyn Minter.

I quite liked Spike by Zach Gold, a little pop video-ey.

But I really enjoyed Scary Beautiful by Leanie van der Vyver. She made it as a satire on what happens when fashion gets out of control (there’s a five-minute film explaining her motivation, also on YouTube) but it is, without any commentary, a strange and haunting viewing experience, especially with the numb, bland, empty airport music accompaniment.

There’s also a great movietone newsreel with designers from the 1930s predicting what the woman of 2000 AD will wear. Watch out for the very last line of commentary, where the man of the future is predicted to be wearing a telephone and ‘containers for coins, keys and candies for cuties’.

Where can I buy one?

Fabulous shoes

Some of the designs were stunning. I especially liked the pagan, norse Stairway to heaven by Masyn Kushino, 2013. Also:

Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Having gone round this show slowly once, my son and I went off to explore the rest of the Brooklyn Museum, packed with interesting historical and colonial art as it is – but nothing could compare with the killer heels for vibrancy and humour, and so I found myself coming back for a second go-round.

Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Salvatore Ferragamo, 1973 (1973.282.2). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Salvatore Ferragamo, 1973. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

The shoes are funny, clever, colourful, creative, flaming with imagination. Inspiring that something which has, at bottom, such a crude physiological function, so trivial as a shoe, can be transformed by the almost infinite power of the creative mind into an alternative universe of fantasy and fulfilment.

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