Entries from July 2009 ↓

anxious images: controversy shadows Robert Capa

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Photo EFE/ Szilard Koszticsak. This detail of the photograph on ArtDaily shows curator Zita Sor shot posing caught with Robert Capa’s famous image of a falling soldier, is at the centre of the storm of controversy that follows the iconic Capa image. Further questions about the authenticity of the photograph have been raised in the context of the traveling exhibition This Is War: Robert Capa at Work… “which re-examines Capa’s innovations as a photojournalist in the 1930s and 1940s with vintage prints, contact sheets, caption sheets, handwritten observations, personal letters and original magazine layouts from the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.”  The exhibition is currently on display at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya until September 27.

One account in Aperture says yes: “Proving that Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” is Genuine: A Detective Story” by Richard Whelan. He concludes: “May the slanderous controversy that has plagued Robert Capa’s reputation for more than twenty-five years now, at last, come to an end with a verdict decisively in favor of Capa’s integrity. It is time to let both Capa and Borrell [the subject] rest in peace, and to acclaim The Falling Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.”

Another is ambivalent: read Philip Gefter on photography and truth-telling in the NYT Lens blog. He concludes “…somewhere between fact and fiction — or perhaps hovering slightly above either one — is the province of metaphor, where the truth is approximated in renderings of a more poetic or symbolic nature.” Plus see a subsequent report in the NYT Art & Design pages…

Thanks to James Steele’s eagle eye (see comment below) Mail Online nails it with the before and after photographic evidence.

Yet surely this is not just a mere play of metaphor, or the outing of a propagandistic fiction? Beyond its iconic function, in its thousands of subsequent contexts, lies the reality of the subject of the photograph’s destiny: did Borrell live, or die? Now look at this…

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What the? I’ve always wondered whether this anti-Soviet poster produced in Peshawar in the early ’80s was somehow based on Capa’s iconic image of the falling soldier. There’s plenty of evidence that the propaganda artists of this campaign were happy to appropriate other images from the West. This is one image that didn’t make the cut into Martha Vogel’s landmark study Roter Teufel: machtiger mugahid (Bohlau, Weimar, 2008). But if there was a relation between these two images, it’s surely a bizarre transformation! Compare and contrast with this detail of the Capa photograph… Is it a Yes? or a No?

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PS the text on the poster is simultaneously ironic and mysteriously specific: along the top it reads (thanks to MR) “belakhare gheirat-mand shodi” which means “at last, you become zealous!” Or “at last, you gain honour!” This, as the man is being shot by an “askar” – which means a (“good”, ie, honorable) guard or soldier. The text on the black rectangle reads “Shendand” which may refer to events at the Shindand airbase, built by the Soviets south of Herat to give them a strategic influence over the Gulf region…

Subculture: [or] the meaning of style

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was the title of Dick Hebdige’s classic study way back in 1979. Is this the clue to understanding our collective urge to decorate our (culturally various) means of transport?

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When we try to interpret the decorative elements in this Harley at CraftACT‘s current exhibition Custom Made, (see Hogs @ Craft below) how much attention do we give to the epithets “tribal” and “goth” as signifiers of the particular style of the modifications made to this machine? And yet this is not (on reflection) outsider art – if by “outsider art” we understand the creative products of isolates working beyond the influence of culture or fashion. By contrast, this is primal, first-world, derivative, sub-cultural style. Difficult to interrogate. Compare with other cultures, other times…

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There are even Vespa choppers… See the Lambretta and Vespa Scooter Club site and be amazed.

Canberra needs to emulate The Serpentine

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The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2009 is designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of leading Japanese architecture practice SANAA. SANAA is the firm that designed the New Museum in New York, but didn’t get to design the new MCA. They currently have an installation at the Sherman.

My spy in London tells me “this year’s pavilion is a thing of beauty”.

ArtWranglers said it last year – London’s love affair with The Pavilion would be an excellent solution to the urban design misery that is the south end of Northbourne Avenue. Imagine this here! Read the full story at Artdaily, and see more pics at The Serpentine

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And while we’re on the topic of London pavilions, each year the Architectural Association’s students compete to make a pavilion in Bedford Square. This year Driftwood won the prize. Envy. Want more? Go here.

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on architects and their trees…

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Threads emerge on iconophilia in unpredictable ways. Trees as icons? Bear with me. This time I’m suggesting heroic iconic status for a poor little tree of a completely different character to my previous post. In this instance we witness the architectural trope of planting exotic trees in the most artificial environments, as if somehow they’re going to thrive and enhance their surroundings. Just as Raquel Ormella has been photographing Canberra’s European trees at the end of their lives, so your iconophiliac has been noticing how little we’ve learnt at this end of the timescale. The trees above are planted in a asphalt-sealed geometric plinth which seems designed to shed water. Not that water falls from the sky any more. Good luck tree. We’ll report on your progress. This new building is at 16 Marcus Clarke, Acton. No architects acknowledged. But to give credit where credit is due, the eucalypts in the planter box out the front look as if their future is much more promising.

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The trees below have struggled ever since they were planted at right angles to the sloping lawns in the nightmarish Garden of Australian Dreams at the National Museum of Australia. Vertical shoots are not permitted – although some survivors are evident in this photograph. This Cabinet of Cliches was designed by Room 4.1.3 (Richard Weller and Vladimir Sitta). Want to learn more? You can read the latter here on anger management and incontinence – ah! the internet’s a wonderful place.

True to its acronym the GOAD is the epitome of landscape design arrogance. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable site full of lame jokes – see their “Blue Poles” in the background. The other sad consequence (at the expense of its desired effects) is that “The Garden” has had to be modified time and again for Health and Safety reasons… Yet when there were suggestions the whole thing might be scrapped and redesigned, as Matthew Rimmer reports: “one of the designers … Richard Weller threatened to bring an action for a breach of the new moral right of integrity…” As my mother used to say: “goo-ah” (god help us all).

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Compromise and insult. Even the NMA’s own account gets it all wrong…

Iconophilia invites readers to contribute to this thread. Examples of both the best and worst of the relationships architects have to trees are invited. In the meantime, you can lift your spirits by following the links the previous “if trees could speak” post has generated.

Sun Girl

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Or rather, a fully inverted Moon Boy. Iconophilia interprets the effects of the full moon in downtown Cobargo after a weekend of gold-leafing as the trigger for a leap of perception. See this portrait of Hanna Hoyne by Blaide Lallemand as a foretaste of things to come… Who are they? You’ll need to go back to the archives in ArtWranglers to find their other personae as les Fillettes Mignon

Hogs @ Craft

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Iconophilia asks: Is this craft, design, or a kind of outsider art? Whatever you may decide, just watch Craft ACT expand its audience with the current exhibition. Custom Made is curated by Jas Hugonnet and, as they say, “ventures into the territory of large scale crafted objects”. Which translates as: there are five very shiny modified Harley Davidson craftworks currently on show at Craft ACT. Even their names are downright sexy: there are three Softails, a V-Rod and a Deuce.  And that’s the Harleys, not the staff…

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Last night we heard the curator Jas Hugonnet in conversation with the owners of these labours of love: Corey Allen, Geoff Noakes, Ralph Smith (above, from Chopperworks) and Jon Desprez, who Jas credits with the original idea of the show. For the audience the discussion provided insights into the world of fetish objects the likes of which you’ve never seen in an art gallery before.

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Some background and some challenges: eighty-five years ago the world of art was cracked open by the inclusion of “industrial design” within the high temple of modern art: MoMA. In 1934 New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented the art world with Machine Art curated by the architectural modernist Philip Johnson. The exhibits included everyday domestic and industrial items from clocks to chairs to insulators, machinery and laboratory glassware, all presented in the same manner as works of art. Ever since, Design has been a core element in their collecting policy. Inclusion in the collection grants instant iconic status.

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(Newsday/Bruce Gilbert/2004)

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And yes, since the Museum re-opened, there is now a motorbike on show… But it’s not a Harley. The question for us is, why not? Iconophilia suggests it’s the absolute stylelessness of this other V-twin, Phil Irving’s legendary 1949 Vincent Black Shadow, which is in keeping with the Eurocentric and Purist sensibility that has been a part of the MoMA experience ever since the 1930s.

Was it chosen because of the black-on-black colour scheme, or is it because Steve McQueen rode one? Or (scoop) was it because it was designed by an Australian? Up there with Fred Williams, Sid Nolan and a handful of other Australians in the MoMA collection, it was Phil Irving who went on to design the  Formula One engines used in the Repco-Brabhams which won the world championships of 1966 and 1967. When seen in the Philip Johnson Gallery, the explicit machine aesthetic of Irving’s Vincent is set against that other icon of post-war European design, the super-chic 1946 Cisitalia, the inspiration of the Italian maestro Pinin Farina (read the backstory). With the absolutely purist slipperiness of its form, this first supercar was the precursor to all the other aerodynamic European exotica of the following decades.

In their different ways, both these examples are arguably more “purist” than any of the rather clunky American “streamliners” since the 1930s, as seen here in downtown Dickson and in Dick Marquis’ shed on steamy Whidbey Island.

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So why is the Vincent in the MoMA, and not an Indian or a Harley – like Jon’s Dooce? It has a lot to do with the MoMA’s rejection of the 1930s American designers who saw styling as a marketing strategy, as opposed to MoMA’s commitment to the science of pure form. It’s just a coincidence that the Vincent is also a V-twin, like the Harleys @ Craft. Whereas V-twins have been around since WW1, in the years when Britain ruled the motorcycle world, the Vincent was simply the best. And it was also truly innovative – one of the first motorbikes to use the engine block as a part of the chassis – which is probably why it found its way into the MoMA collection – and why it has acquired the iconic status which follows. It epitomises the logical appeal of form following function, without embellishment or stylisation. Just as we are invited to admire the ultimate functionalism of the Bell Helicopter that hovers above the stairwell.

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By contrast, the Harley evokes a kind of sub-cultural rejection of mainstream sensibilities at almost every level. It’s pure style. The chopper’s iconic status as a post-Vietnam symbol of alienation was first made popular by Easy Rider (1969) and particularly in the popular imagination as an icon of the underworld (“Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead”) in Pulp Fiction (1994) – and now it has been institutionalised by its inclusion in Vietnam commemorative marches along Anzac Parade. But subculture has no place at the MoMA – so the Harley Davidson has to make do with its own Museum in Milwaukee.

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The way these examples have evolved around the original form of the Harley reflects the contemporary nexus between nostalgia and the consumer capacities of the Baby Boomer generation, and this historical conjunction has resulted in a new stage in the development of the Harley icon. The prosperity of the past decade has seen the Harley Davidson Company experience its own boom and bust. But if you’ve got deep pockets, you can still select from a myriad of variations off the showroom floor, and create your own unique version in a process called “factory customising”. Yet in technological terms, the Harley is an anachronism. Specialising in its own noisy and ecologically incorrect big V-twin motor, the formula is one of elaboration and variation rather than radical technological advance. Whereas the V-twin Ducati leads the way on the Grand Prix circuit, the Harley is more suited to the dragway. And even the stylisation of the 1998 Porsche designed V-Rod above (slinky replaces scratchy) owes more to Boulevard racing than the circuit. Although it is said to accelerate faster than you can imagine.

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All of this has resulted in a particular kind of conventionalised creativity. There are so many options available, with such a huge industry supplying specialist variants, the Harley phenomenon has turned consumerism into DIY design. And like the universal influence of New York Subway graffiti (its spread to Australia boosted by the 1984 publication Subway Art), the Harley phenomenon has become a cultural export with a huge global impact.  As with all forms of cultural imperialism, in the search for perfection, local variants like the Chopperworks bikes emerge to challenge the center, with their hand-fab details and tribal effects…

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In this exhibition we see a fascinating analogue of the parallel evolution of craft and design, plus the potential for individual expression on the part of the consumer/owner/maker. Where, you might ask, does creativity lie in this process? Is it the conception of all the bolt-together options, or the subtle modelling and painting of the parts that makes them unique? How do we measure innovation in this process? Is it how they look, or how they go? Or how they make their owners feel? So, is it craft, design, or a kind of outsider art? Here’s Ralph Smith, polishing his ninth Harley, complete with ostrich-skin saddle…

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In 1998 the Guggenheim Museum hosted its most popular (and lucrative) exhibition ever – The Art of the Motorcycle. Let’s hope it works for CraftACT?

the extremes of indigenous art

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What are we to make of yesterday’s invitations? Very Parisian. Follow the thread back to an earlier blurt