Bramhall, Manchester, London, Dublin, Galway, Bramhall, Longniddry
At Swim Two Rafts
John Beard’s After The Raft of the Medusa
Until last week I was a Galway virgin. Now I feel like an old tart, rambling on about the great experiences I’ve had, in an all-too-brief 24 hours, in that fine city - a city just announced as European City of Culture for 2020. If you’ve ever visited Stromness in the wonderful Orkney Islands, it has that same sort of feel. But while Stromness has a population of some 2000 inhabitants, Galway is a mega-city of 80,000 very lucky souls.
I’m a great believer in the maxim that the shorter a time you stay in a place the more it is fixed in your memory. Many years ago, I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three uninhabited islands off the West Coast of Scotland. It was the time of Vietnam, the Watergate hearings, and the music of Captain Beefheart, The Incredible String Band, and Leonard Cohen, all of which I listened to on my bigger-than-a-phonebook ITT Cassette Player. I had two other keepers for company, along with the basking sharks and – on Ailsa Craig – the world’s second largest gannet colony. I wrote a book about it called Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper (Canongate). I only did the job for six months, so the memories all remained crystal clear and drip-fed into my narrative. Had I spent the rest of my life working “on the lights”, everything would have become mundane and everyday, and my stories would have lost their immediacy. So it was with Galway. I spent more time getting there and back than I did in the city itself. And I remember every split second of it, from the vicious knifing scene in the climax of Woyzeck in Winter at its world premier, to the fine young artists at Woodquay, who called a group of us in off the street and treated us to an impromptu tour of their festival show, Memory has a Pulse, using stunning juxtapositions of text, image, and raw emotion. And I’ll never forget booking into the Radisson Blue Hotel, where I was staying with the rest of the Festival guests. It’s one of these low-rise, early 21st century hotels with a footprint the size of a football field. “You’re on the first floor,” the chirpy receptionist told me, his voice as smooth as a pint of Murphys. “You’re in Room 1248,” and I headed to the lifts with my heavy suitcase. Twenty minutes later I had circumnavigated the first floor twice, but could find no sign of Room 1248. There was nothing to do but haul my heavy case back to reception. “No problem, I’ll show you where it is, it’s dead simple,” he said. We set off on the long trek around the First Floor and eventually came to another lift. “What you do is take this lift up to the second floor, and your room is six along on the right. See, the second number of your room number is 2. That’s where you went wrong. Room 1248. And you’re in room 48.”
My strange but exhilarating journey – my odyssey – began in Manchester, the day after another arts festival closed, (earplugs provided) by the band New Order, curated by artist Liam Gillick and composer Joe Duddell. It was held in the old Granada Studios, the last event to be held there before the building is demolished to make room for Rem Koolhaas’s first UK piece of Starchitecture, a £110 million cultural centre called The Factory. I stood at the back of the hall, next to Johnny Marr of The Smiths – an intense looking and sober vegan who has weathered the years well. He watched every movement, parsed every riff, and nodded his head with the subtlety of a Jeevesian lifted eyebrow. We’d met up with him earlier in the night when a group of us, led by Joe Duddell, one of my colleagues from the Goldsmiths/La Salle external examining group, formed a fictitious band called Witness Protection in the beer garden of a nearby pub called The Briton’s Protection. On the way to the venue, not far from the life-size sets of Coronation Street, we bumped into Marr (see photo below) who quickly agreed to become lead guitarist with Witness Protection.
The next morning, to get from Manchester to Galway, and lose the rough edge of a hangover on the way, was a twelve-hour adventure by train to London, flight to Dublin, and then a three and a half hour bus trip up the left cheek of Ireland. I was running to a tight deadline. I had to get to a lecture by 2pm. You see, my primary reason for this visit was to see the astonishing art installation After The Raft of the Medusa by Welsh-Australian artist John Beard, winner of the 2007 Archibald Prize at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, for his painting of fellow-artist Janet Laurence. This work was part of a series of portraits of fellow artists he has created over a number years, many of which have been Archibald contenders. These include Hilarie Mais, Ken Unsworth, and William Wright, as well as Joseph Beuys, Francis Bacon, Raphael, and Manet. As I write this, the 2017 Archibald is being decided, and it is interesting to reflect on the careers of its winners after the event. An exhibition of Australian art has just opened in Berlin (until September 29), curated by two-time winner Del Kathryn Barton and featuring works by Pat Brassington, Ben Quilty, Brook Andrew, Dale Frank, Patricia Piccinini, and the late Sally Gabori amongst others (see SMH July 21, 2017).
The world is full of centenary exhibitions in this dark decade that we seem to be (just) surviving – from the battles of the First World War to the Easter Rising of 1916. But Beard’s “expanded field of painting” installation takes us back a full two hundred years to the sinking of the frigate Medusa, off the West African coast in 1816, as it does to the great French painter Theodore Géricault’s rendition of the tragedy, Raft of the Medusa, first exhibited four years later in 1819. This is a story of a shipwreck, a story that will have currency for a full four-year period, bookended by the anniversary of the event itself, and by Géricault’s memorial to it. So if you missed Beard’s “talk of the town” unveiling in Galway by Stephen Bann, Cambridge Slade Professor of Art History, fear not, it may turn up in a city near you some time before 2019. And I nearly missed its unveiling myself. Having just made it to the Galway bus station at five minutes to two, my three-stories-a-minute cab driver took me to The Porter Shed, rather than the plain and simple The Shed, both confusingly at opposite ends of the waterfront. No matter, in the heat of a day that would make you feel you were getting value for money in Barcelona, I stumbled into this vast space just as the good Professor was saying “Several different factors combine to make John Beard’s monumental painting After The Raft of the Medusa (1819) not so much a reproduction as a reflection: in other words a work that encourages us to think creatively and constructively about the role of Western painting as it has developed over the past two centuries… Géricault himself took the initiative of circulating full-scale versions of the original work, which were shown to the public in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, receiving a mixed response. He would surely not have been disconcerted to see the tonal range of his painting converted [by Beard] into a scale of black and white.”
So what are we looking at here? Let me first say that Géricault’s original canvas, full of Romantic grandeur and keening pathos, is a jaw-dropping 16 feet by 24 feet. It is the early nineteenth century equivalent of a blockbuster movie. The sort of grand narrative that Parisians would queue up to see, to argue about, and to revisit. It hangs in the Denon Wing of the Louvre, a brief side-step from the gaggle of tourists ganging up on the Mona Lisa, smiling enigmatically just around the corner. Not only has Beard reinterpreted it on a Borgesian scale of 1:1, in which “the map is the territory” – ie it’s the exact same size, but he has built on it and given us something far more than the easy Appropriation Art of Sherrie Levine and Jeff Koons, so flash-in-the-pan-popular in the mid-1980s. John Beard’s great artwork, it could be argued, has more significant differences than similarities to Géricault’s own. Not least because Beard has created a second, far darker version, in a digitised format, that reflects across the 30 meter space of The Shed and takes human, visual perception and cognition to its outer limits. Now, I’m no great believer in miracles, having invented a fictional group of artists (what I refer to as a “Superfiction”) called AAA (Art Against Astrology). They are supposedly a trio from Brooklyn who examine all forms of mythic thinking. However, I will make an exception for this installation as I believe it to be a miracle that the dimensions of The Shed are such that it can (almost to the millimetre) accommodate not one, but two, versions of Géricault’s masterpiece, and that it facilitates a near-perfect viewing distance between the two works (surely one of the best potential arts spaces in Europe. And wouldn’t it be better if Galway, now European City of Culture in waiting for 2020, extended the run of its art exhibitions beyond the length of their festivals, as Edinburgh and Manchester do? An exhibition of this calibre deserves at least a six week run in the middle of the tourist season).
John Beard trained at London’s Royal College of Art and now, in his mid-seventies, divides his time between studios in Greenwich, Lisbon, and Sydney. Always a great experimenter, he is now working at the peak of his ambition, constantly pushing at new technical and conceptual boundaries.
To stand, alone, in between his – what shall I call it? – “stereo echo chamber”, that will do – gave me an epiphany similar to being in Tate’s Rothko room, or lying on my back in Tasmania, as I was a few weeks ago, looking up at the dawn sky through one of James Turrell’s awesome (a correct use of the word) light pavilions at the magical Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) outside Hobart. It was a truly sublime experience, if we take the sublime to be a combination of great beauty and white-eyed terror. The dying sailors on the raft tried to stay alive by eating their felt caps and leather belts. The raft itself, for God’s sake, was not much bigger than the actual canvas that depicts it. Some sailors were pushed overboard to make more room, until someone thought of cannibalism, and the darkness grew even darker, then darker still. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to draw parallels with contemporary events in the Mediterranean, and with refugees drowning off the coast of Australia.
Beard’s painting (one half of this installation) has been sold for a seven-figure sum to an Australian collector who wants to remain anonymous. But as there are full-size digital versions, that can be of varying darkness to the point of almost complete blackness, the mention of MONA above makes me think David Walsh’s astonishing art museum would be an ideal home for such and installation. Although he would probably have to design a special gallery for it, as he did for Sidney Nolan’s 46 metre long Snake (1972 – 74).
I know that John is keen to exhibit his Raft in Scotland, before it returns to Australia. I arrived in Longniddry, south of Edinburgh, late last night and am typing up these words in a little breakfast café opposite the train station with a stack of freshly bought newspapers: The Guardian, The European, The Scotsman, and the (Glasgow) Herald. In the latter, I read that “A gallery dedicated to modern art that was threatened with closure is to reopen on Saturday with a major new exhibition. The decision over the future of historic Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden (RBGE) caused uproar in the artworld. A campaign urging a rethink won support from Euan McGregor, Irvine Welsh, Val Kilmer, Fran Healey and Janet Street-Porter and 700 people demonstrated in the grounds.” I remember this well, as I do the wonderful gallery – think London’s Serpentine but on a grander scale. It was formerly home to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art before its move to the John Watson Institution in 1984. Many of the world’s leading contemporary artists exhibited there through the curatorial excellence of Paul Nesbitt, over a thirty year period. More Turner Prize winners and nominees have shown there than in any other UK space except Tate, including Douglas Gordon, Richard Wright, Callum Innes, Jim Lambie, Cathy Wilkes, Karla Black, Mark Leckey, and Luke Fowler. I wonder if this might be a venue for John Beard’s raft? According to The Herald, Professor Christopher Breward, principal of Edinburgh College of Art led a working group to “examine the case for keeping a more specific gallery (and) last month proposed a series of measures to ensure its longevity, including plans to showcase at least four seasonal shows, touring exhibitions, and residencies.” The first of these opens on Saturday and is called The Plant Scenery of the World, with work by Laura Aldridge (Glasgow), Charlie Billingham (London-based), and Bobby Niven (Fife). As the commuter trains to Edinburgh rush past across the road, I finish my coffee and wonder whether this might be a suitable venue for John Beard’s Raft? (or, indeed, an exhibition of John Wolseley’s paintings, similar to that shown recently in Melbourne’s NGV? – perfect with its botanical influences and The Wallace Line connections, that great dividing line between Asia and Australia. A previous exhibition at Inverleith House showcased the work of Rungiah and Givindoo’s South Indian Botanical Drawings).
But time to get on the road again, or at least the 10.40am to Waverley. When I travel – as I’m doing on this crazy two year Fake News and Superfictions lecture tour – I begin and end every journey by playing The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, loud, on my headphones. I’ve been doing it for years, at least since 1983 when I’d fly occasionally to Belfast to teach on Alastair MacLennan’s MFA program on York Street (last time I was there, two of the about-to-graduate students were Annie Cattrell and Stephen Snoddy, who have both since had stellar careers). When I interviewed Marina Abramovic in Hobart a couple of years ago, for Artpress magazine in Paris, she described Alastair, with great affection, as the grandfather of Performance Art and the inventor of “durational performance”. One of our Galway Group, Stevey Scullion, like me originally from Glasgow, is a fellow artist who has been overseeing the mammoth task of setting up John’s Raft. And he bears an uncanny resemblance to Alastair MacLennan (far left in group image below). Later than night, the magnificent seven of us, retired to a pub in the centre of old Galway, and celebrated beneath the ice-white stars, on a still balmy evening.
Postscript: The Pogues, as I say, make for great travelling music, whether taking off on a 747, or winding through the streets of Dublin, back to the airport, in a mid-summer tourist coach, the smell of Galway seaweed still in my nostrils. And I’ll leave you with a second miracle. The album cover of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, which I’m looking at on my iPhone back in Bramhall (outside Manchester), is a reproduction of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – the terrified sailors still waving their shirts and pointing towards the distant – almost impossible to see - ship on the horizon…
Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne
Next installment: September 1, 2017