by Sue Hubbard
Until 10th March 2013
I remember seeing Judy’s Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a rundown Islington warehouse. It was 1985 and I had just arrived in London; a young single parent mother, newly divorced, and a fledgling art critic. The year before that the work had been shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The huge crates had crossed the Atlantic by boat, and then travelled by lorry to Felixstowe, to be carried up two flights of stairs in a 19th century building without a lift. Arranged on a triangular banqueting table, each arm of which measured some 48 feet, there were a total of thirty-nine place settings commemorating women from history. Each setting was laid with a china-painted porcelain plate on which there was a raised central motif – vulvae and butterfly forms – created in a style appropriate to the woman being celebrated. There were also embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils and the names of another 999 women inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Disparaged and misunderstood by many at the time I was bowled over by its ambition and emotional reach. I’d never seen a visual art work that spoke so directly about female experience. There was nothing ironic, nothing deliberately sensational about the work. This was a female aesthetic based on the lives of important women, and on the oppression and devaluation of the feminine that had been the norm for centuries and was still current in contemporary society. The art historian, Griselda Pollock, suggested that the piece created “a feminist space of encounter”, where new explorations and new ideas about femininity, modernity and modes of representation could be examined. Its daring helped to open the door for women’s self expression on both sides of the Atlantic and gave permission for women to become real contenders in the art game.
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by Sue Hubbard
How do we remember? Before the invention of the camera most people never possessed a likeness of themselves or those they loved – a lock of hair, a letter, were the heart’s most treasured possessions, the artefacts that conjured the past. Photography democratised the ownership of images. A portrait need no longer be in watercolour or oils, it could be an informal snap taken on a box Brownie: a casual moment sealed in the proverbial amber of memory. With the technological advances of the 20thand 21st centuries, with film, video and digital technology and the predominance of surveillance equipment it might, theoretically, be possible to record a whole life from the moment of birth till the second of death. It was only a decade or so ago that the French Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the images which assault us – on our TVs, in film and advertising – are not copies of the real, but become truth in their own right: the hyperral. Where Plato had spoken of two kinds of image-making: the first a faithful reproduction of reality, the second intentionally distorted in order to make a copy appear correct to viewers (such as a in a painting) Baudrillard saw four: the basic reflection of reality; the perversion of reality; the pretence of reality, and the simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”. Baudrillard's simulacra were, basically, perceived as negative, but another modern French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, has described simulacra as the vehicle by which accepted ideals or a “privileged position” can be “challenged and overturned”. Reality has become a complex issue.
Jonas Mekas was 90 on Christmas Eve, which means that the film-maker, artist and poet, often referred to as the godfather of avant garde cinema, has lived through a lot of history. Born in Lithuania he spent part of the war in a forced labour camp, then after the hostilities ended, another four years in various displaced person’s camps such as Flensburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Kassel – first in the British Zone, then in the American. With nothing much to do and a lot of time he read, he wrote and went to the movies, which were shown free in the camps by the Americans. So began his long relationship with film. Later, when he commuted to the French Zone to study at the University of Mainz, he met André Gide who told him to “work only for yourself,” and watched a lot of French cinema. After arriving in America he bought his first Bolex camera in 1950, which he used to film everyday scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lithuanian immigrants who lived there. Describing himself and his brother as “two shabby, naïve Lithuanian boys, just out of forced labour camp”, it was not until some 10 years later that he decided to assemble the footage into a film.
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Diana Thater: 'Chernobyl'
Hauser and Wirth
196A Piccadilly, London, W1J 9DY
by Sue Hubbard
At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986 two explosions ripped through the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. The reactor block and adjacent structure were wrecked by the initial explosion as a direct result of a flawed Soviet design, coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. The resulting steam explosion and the subsequent fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere, though it was not until 2 p.m. on April 27th that workers were evacuated. By then 2 people were dead and 52 in hospital. Nearby buildings were ignited by burning graphite projectiles. Radioactive particles swept across the Ukraine, Belarus, and the western portion of Russia, eventually spreading across Europe and the whole Northern Hemisphere.
The graphite fires continued to burn for several days despite the fact that thousands of tons of boron carbide, lead, sand and clay were dumped over the core reactor by helicopter. The fire eventually extinguished itself when the core melted, flowing into the lower part of the building and solidifying, sealing off the entry. About 71% of the radioactive fuel in the core (about 135 metric tons) remained uncovered for about 10 days until cooling and solidification took place. 135,000 people were evacuated from a 30-km radius exclusion zone and some 800,000 people were involved in the clean up. The radioactivity released was about two hundred times that of the combined releases at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions were exposed to the radiation.
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This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia. [Bindu Shards, James Turrell, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.]
Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.
Bindu Shards 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?
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by Sue Hubbard
Little could the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, have imagined, when in 1841 he developed the calotype, an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide, where this nascent technology would lead; the ethical and moral questions that photography would raise. From Fox Talbot’s point of view the camera was about producing ‘natural images’. But more than 150 years later we know that the photographer’s relationship with his subject is more complicated. As Susan Sontag perceptively put it in her seminal book On Photography: “like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.”
Voyeurism and its cousin, surveillance, have been one of the unforeseen consequences of photography. We take it as a given of modern life that the celebrity is both hungry for photographic coverage, whilst feeling that the paparazzi (as in the case of the late Princess Diana) is constantly hounding them. One of the most complex questions raised by photography is what constitutes private space, provoking slippery questions about who is looking at whom and the degree of surreptitious pleasure and exploitation of power involved. Since its invention the camera has been used to make clandestine images and satisfy the desire to see what is normally hidden or taboo. No one knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are spying on us in the UK as we go about our day to day lives. A figure of 4.2 million cameras has been cited. That’s about one for every 14 citizens and means that most of us will pass an average of 300 cameras a day. Mobile phone and digital cameras are now ubiquitous, making voyeurs of us all.
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