The Good and Bad of Provocation – art and the dispossessed

Warning: These get written in one fell swoop, so they can be messy and confused.

It may not be as striking as Epstein’s Lucifer at the Birmingham Art Gallery, but Medusa’s head in the hands of triumphant bronze Perseus is a strong start at the Cardiff museum.
The dying snakes are close to the entrance into the world of Quentin Blake. This appears to be the same excellent exhibition that opened London’s House of Illustration, so I should warn you that it contains the emotionally intoxicating words of Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book with Blake’s original illustrations. Fortunately, I was unusually well-balanced today and managed to leak at this very powerful combination of words and pictures dealing with the death of Michael Rosen’s son without my eyes flooding.

This surprised me, as I had just watched John Akomfrah’s Auto Da Fé. I was unaware of Akomfrah until my most recent visit to Turner Contemporary in Margate where his Vertigo Sea is currently screened. Vertigo Sea meditates on the whaling and the sea and it is a triptych, three screens, each with lavish and beautiful moving images projected on them. Auto Da Fé is a diptych (I have only found this out by looking it up, a new word to me). The two screens portray stories of people being displaced. The figures walk through a desolate and decaying island of old swimming pools and rotting churches. Intermittently cutting to the sea, toys, laundry bags and life jackets bob ominously on the waves. This psychogeography of a landscape possessed by the dispossessed makes contemplation on our part in the refugee crisis unavoidable.

My thoughts were disturbed by Katie Hopkins phantoms invading my head. I thought of her use of words like cockroaches for those who flee, just another peg into the disgraceful campaign to dehumanise those seeking help. I was distracted from the images by angry thoughts of a media complicit in promoting a figure with nothing more to offer the news media than the spectacle of hate and the twitter trending that goes with it. It was the words of Harlan Ellison that reminded me of why I should not appear on a Sunday morning current affairs show.
“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant”.
Now, in the hunger to keep the fetid carnival of news as entertainment , the bookers don’t really give a fuck if the guests have any authority, their authority is awarded to them by dint of their ability to confidently and energetically incite with imagined facts so scant that they would be instantaneously struck from the record of a wikipedia page. I see a joyless version of the acid scarred Divine bouncing on a trampoline and emptying the chamber of a revolver in Female Trouble.

The aggression of their attitude comes from the presumption that we will never be the dispossessed, that just happens to other people, the sort of people who have never been like us.

I thought of Peter Singer talking of extraneous consumerism versus charitable action. How we might spend money on an unneeded luxury when that money could save a life. He compared it to seeing a child drowning and not diving into the water because you have just put on some new, shiny shoes. I thought of a child in peril in the sea as a mother shouted for help, and the lifeguard asking for certificates containing place of birth and dental records before taking to the sea.
“You can’t be too careful there are a lot of people deliberately drowning for a better life.”

Auto Da Fé deserves attention. It is thoughtful provocation. Spectacle with humane purpose.

On my way out, through the gift shop of course (Peter Singer’s powerful theory has not hampered my hankering for postcards), I saw two Turner postcards. Maybe they weren’t on display at the moment, but I checked at the desk. I had missed a room, so scampered past Medusa again and found the 19th century British painting room. On the way was Evan Walter’s impressive A Welsh Collier.

The Turner’s included The Beacon Light and Morning After the Storm, and I was fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on a curator talking to a friend.
“It’s as Kenneth Clark said,’his painting is utterly continuous, and that is what sets Turner apart”.
Looking again, it was so bloody obvious all along. Sadly, I did not experience that elusive peak Turner consciousness I had in Margate.


I wrote for too long on Auto Da Fé, but saw many other things, Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote Reading reminded me that I should really read Don Quixote (or at least play the soundtrack from Man from la Mancha)

Van Gogh’s Rain, Auvers – “I deliberately try to express sadness and extreme loneliness”

Gwen John’s The Japanese Doll

Ceri Richard’s The Cycle of Nature

Looking at Frank Auerbach’s Head of EOW, I could understand why my sister had to leave the Auerbach exhibition after becoming discombobulated by the thickly smeared almost faces of his portraits. Her nausea at those faces is revenge at the way she used to terrify me by doing a weird dead eyed stare that used to freak me out when I was little.

Today was also the first day I became aware of Eugene Carrière’s work. The Tin Mug is a hazy, dark, near colourless image of mothering and care. Peculiar to me as the technique suggests bleakness, but the subject is warm. Like a memory of a time after taking a wrong turn in a block universe. I must have read too many ghosts stories as a child as I am always seeing ghost stories in paintings. Ghosts everywhere.

New Book Shambles is up, today it’s Nat Luurtsema.

New volume of Dead Funny, Dead Funny Encore, ghost stories by comedians including Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Isy Suttie, Natalie Haynes, James Acaster, is available now

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1 Response to The Good and Bad of Provocation – art and the dispossessed

  1. liliannberg says:

    Thanks for the wonderful tour of art seen through your keen and unbiased eyes. Apropos seeing ghosts in paintings – yes absolutely, they are everywhere, captured in pigments, buried behind the scenes, appearing when you least expect them. The act of painting itself is communicating with the past as well as with the unknowable future. I once painted a mural in a corridor leading up to a hospital morgue, often working alone late into the night. The wall I was painting on was directly opposite the lifts and every now and again a lift would descend, the doors open, but nobody came out. The lift was empty. Or was it?

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