Monday 5 May 2014

Old Bailey, in ruins

Two exhibitions to tell you about - as quickly as I can - since they are just about still showing in London. Mind you, I suspect many people will already have made up their mind about whether or not they want to see the first one I'll mention: David Bailey at the National Portrait Gallery.

His signature style - close-up black-and-white portrait, plain white background - must now be so familiar that even people with the most casual interest in photography might argue they'd never really need to go to a special exhibition just to see them. Only last month, the Queen's latest birthday commission - shot in exactly that format - put Bailey back on the front pages.

For all that, the exhibition contains a few surprises. Curated by DB himself, the show certainly includes the 'greatest hits' (the 'pin-ups' box, the Rolling Stones, Hollywood icons) ... but no doubt with an eye on his legacy, he is careful to include some of his B-sides and album tracks, too. As you might hope if you came along to the gallery as curious about the man as the work, the exhibition really amounts to a giant, multi-part self-portrait of David Bailey. And that's why I think even those of you who feel you've seen it all before might still get a lot out of going along.

Two points I'd draw out in particular...

1) The 'wall' devoted to his wife, Catherine. A model when they met, she has become muse as well as partner and insists (given the nature of some of the images) that she is a totally willing collaborator and in fact remains the party in control. I believe her. However, some of the photos do seem odd - for example, those of her giving birth. I couldn't help thinking that someone in the room might have given Bailey something more useful to do. ("Push!" / "Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Bailey" / "Can we do that again? Wasn't quite ready" etc...) More seriously, does the fact you're a photographer mean you should document every moment, no matter how private? But the sheer number of Catherine pictures, all ranged in a single explosive array, do speak volumes about their working relationship and the importance he places on it.

2) I was struck by how Bailey's rock-and-roll scenester existence informs a lot of his other work. For example, he was prompted to go to the Sudan through Live Aid. In particular, he often seem to use his textbook 'iconic' black-and-white method when travelling far and wide and making portraits. It's tempting to think of this as a safety net or security blanket - especially when used with such consistency from Papua New Guinea (1974) to the Naga Hills (2012). But that belies the rattling connections that looking at the pictures set running in your brain: the cool, confident gaze of the tribespeople reveals them as the 'movers and shakers' - and indeed royalty, I guess, in the case of certain chiefs/elders - and Bailey gazes back, perhaps having his cake and eating it, making us think twice about what we're prepared to find iconic.

In contrast to the relentless focus on one artist, over at Tate Britain, a fascinating show called 'Ruin Lust' picks an extraordinary theme and runs with it. It may not stay 100% true to its supposed topic, but nonetheless it works as a mind-expanding survey of one of the strangest artistic obsessions over the last 300 years: depicting ruin and decay. (The Germans really do have a word for this - "ruinenluste" - and there, in translation, you have the exhibition's title.)

The exhibition takes care to provide historical context, as Turner and his contemporaries discover the appeal of painting ruins of, say, Tintern Abbey, which are as gorgeous to look at, if not more so, as any intact version. But the show really scores by illuminating how the 'ruin' became such a useful tool for underpinning other philosophies and ideologies behind the aesthetics. Again, I'll list examples so I can try and give you succinct highlights....
  • John Gandy's painting of the then-new Bank of England, commissioned by its architect John Soane to be depicted as a 'future ruin'. This genius idea allowed the painting to show the beauty and complexity of the interior layout (the roof having 'gone') while fitting the trend for ruin paintings.
  • War artists - in particular the haunting images of Graham Sutherland and John Piper - are given good coverage, but in the case of Paul Nash, the exhibition chooses to focus on his photographs. These images of seemingly abandoned or isolated segments of buildings and machinery carry over the deliberately surreal and eerie atmosphere of his paintings. I won't forget the stairs-into-mid-air shot in a hurry.
  • John Armstrong's painting of the bomb damage to Coggleshall Church. The Tate website speculates that the structure shown underneath implies the resilience of the building against attack. I don't disagree, but I also find something of an Escher-like, futuristic, 'how-does-it-all-fit-together?' feel to the exposed interior. Rubble must've fallen inward, too - but this is perfect, clean, mechanised, and almost seems to project towards the view further than the confines of the building.

As you can probably tell from the pieces I've listed, the exhibition gains a great deal of power from the seemingly paradoxical idea that ruins are somehow future-looking: today's structures are tomorrow's ruins. Ironies like this crop up throughout. Tacita Dean's 'Kodak' (which I felt was a bit off-topic - it's more a celebration of something passing into history, than a ruin as such) is a documentary on the film manufacture, partly made with some of the discontinued stock. There's also a terrifying series of photos by Jane and Louise Wilson of the concrete-block remains of the Atlantic Wall coastal barriers built by the Nazis, shown here in close-up as derelict monoliths, imposing, brutal, but now useless.

Please don't think of the exhibition as downbeat - there are too many ideas, too much making your brain fizz as you go around. Even at its darkest moments, the ingenuity and inventiveness of the artists wins through - for example, the necessarily bleak 'zine art' of Laura Oldfield Ford shows graffiti on an estate - something looks wrong, until you realise that the writing isn't following the intricate and beautifully drawn perspective of the building shown in the picture but across the 'fourth wall' of the front of the image. Genius.

Please see 'Ruin Lust', if you can - it's on until 18 May, so don't tarry. And although the accompanying book is a fascinating artefact in itself, it's not really a full-on catalogue as one might expect - so to get the full measure of what's on display, you really do need to be there. 'Bailey's Stardust' is open until 1 June.

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Both photos are taken from the gallery websites (and I see the copyright message for the Bailey shot is embedded in the actual image - *doffs cap*)...

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