Category Archives: Art

The Black Dahlia Murder: A Night at Barts Pathology Museum, London.

 I’m a bit of a geek for the Black Dahlia Case, and can’t wait to go to this next Tuesday: The Venetian Vase, a night of talks on dismemberment and the unfading interest in the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short (1924-1947). The shocking photographs of the crime scene and the failure of the LAPD to ever catch the murderer have become part of Hollywood myth and folklore.

In case you haven’t read up on this gruesome, unsolved murder in ’40s California, you can find a perfunctory account in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywod Babylon IIor read James Ellroy’s novel based on the case –  The Black Dahlia, a book doubly chilling due to the similarity between Short’s murder and that of Ellroy’s own mother (recorded rather brilliantly in his memoir My Dark Places ). There is absolutely no need to watch the dreadful translation of Ellroy’s novel to screen in Brian de Palma’s film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett, it is truly terrible. 

My ultimate favourite, however, has to be the Surrealist take on the murder case argued in Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss’s Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder in which the authors draw links between certain Surrealist paintings and the arrangement of the victim’s body:

Foremost, our book asserts that this gruesome but precisely executed murder may have been a deranged attempt to imitate motifs in surrealist art. That said, we do not believe that Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, or any other surrealist artist was directly responsible for the murder, or that the killer himself was an artist.

Thrilling! And yet no more bonkers than any JFK conspiracy. I have a copy of the book should you feel compelled to read it.

Max Ernst, ‘Anatomie als Braut’ [Anatomy of a Bride], 1921, Photographic enlargement of collage on paperboard, Private Collection.

Marcel Duchamp, Given: 1) The Waterfall, 2) The Illuminating Gas (Etant Donnés: 
1) La Chute D’eau, 2) Le Gaz d’Éclairage), 1946–66. Interior view. 
Courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of the Cassandra Foundation.

And for the squeamish look away, a photo from the original crime scene.

Tuesday’s event organised by Queen Mary’s and the Pathology Musuem looks set to be a night to haunt.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Portrait Dans un Miroir

I really love the effect of the what I shall call the ‘decaying’ mirror in Raul Ubac’s photo portrait. Daido Moriyama applies a similar technique in his self-portraits using reflective surfaces. The erasure/disclosure of the image plays with the solidity of ‘identity’ as a knowable concept. Here, the woman’s head seems to emerge from water, the neck visible below a filmy surface. The bright dots suggest astronomical constellations. The eyes closed, or cast downwards, the face withdraws from the viewer; the filmy, cracked ‘overlay’ removes the subject further accentuating the construction process of the print. The distancing plays with the ‘present’ moment of the photograph, wrapping the female face in a temporal indeterminacy, the patina suggestive of damaged nostalgic snapshot keepsakes from the turn of the nineteenth century. The woman herself, is positioned indeterminately, submerged in the dreamy water of sleep, or imaginative revelry. Significantly, Ubac’s portrait is the image used for the cover of Rosalind Krauss’s The Optical Unconscious, a book which proposes an alternative history of modernist art. Krauss’s book discusses art (such as that by Ubac and Ernst) as the unconscious ‘side’ of modernism, of art detached from the socio- economic, of more radical, fantastic works representing a shifting reality.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Portrait Dans un Miroir

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Portrait Dans un Miroir.

Bohemian exoticism and the Ballets Russes – Ezra Pound’s satirical ‘Les Millwin’

Sonia Delaunay, Costume for ’Cléopâtre’ , Ballets Russes,  c. 1918

In the early twentieth century British modernists such as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis scorned and satirised the oriental exoticism prevalent in the Ballets Russes productions that were becoming increasingly popular among the upper classes. These productions became associated with a ‘High Bohemia’ and decadence, and were deemed ‘regressive’ by the avant-garde, owing more to Victorian aestheticism than modern aesthetics. Pound’s poem ‘Les Millwin’ refers to Michel Fokine’s ballet Cléopâtre, which was first brought to life in London in 1911 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes,  with elaborate stage sets and costuming that delighted audiences. The Millwins immortalised in Pound’s poem were , for the poet, typical of the wealthy aristocrats who attended these spectacles.


The little Millwins attend the Russian Ballet.

The mauve and greeenish souls of the little Millwins

Were seen lying along the upper seats

Like so many unused boas.


The turbulent and undisciplined host of art students –

Was before them.


With arms exalted, with fore-arms

Crossed in great futuristic X’s, the art students

Exulted, they beheld the splendours of Cleopatra.


And the little Millwins beheld these things;

With their large and anaemic eyes they looked out upon this configuration.


Let us therefore mention the fact,

For it seems to us worthy of record.


Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker’s ‘Sissi in Analysis': Transference, Trace, and Museum Space.

Saying It

‘Sissi’ in Issey Miyake

Installations at the Freud Museum in London are always creepy in part (Freud’s ‘spinal’ armchair and replica oral prosthesis are the stuff of horror films,) but I can’t think of a better setting to augment the psychological content latent in such works as Louise Bourgeois’ bronze sculpture ‘Maman’ (which was housed in the museum’s garden earlier this year). The museum itself provides an intimate, secretive space that charges exhibits with affect and underscores the art-science problematic central to psychoanalysis itself and the source of much critical consternation in readings of Freud’s work.

Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker’s ‘Sissi in Analysis’ is a ten-screen video installation that ‘fictionalises’ the analysis of a real patient taken from a book entitled Mère Folle by the French psychoanalyst Françoise Davoine.The ten screens were set on various surfaces in rooms throughout the museum, sharing space with Freud’s own paraphernalia and other historical objects related to the history of psychoanalysis. Much like Freud’s most famous case study of female ‘hysteria’ in which the female patient Ida Bauer, or ‘Dora’, voices the physical and mental violations that her parents and a neighbouring couple inflict on her, Davoine’s was a failed analysis of a young woman (both Freud’s and Davoine’s patients cancelled their analysis mid-way through).

Sissi, in contrast to Dora, however experienced a greater severity of physical suffering, undergoing an abortion after being impregnated by her father which resulted in her being sterilised without her consent. In both cases the mother conspires to cover up for the male characters, adding to the complexity of the trauma. Bal and Gamaker’s installation stresses the significance of the witness in the pain of others, and the role of transference in the ‘talking cure’. In ‘Sissi in analysis’, Sissi performs her trauma through dialogue and through her embodiment of a variety of characters for which she changes costume. The filmmakers ‘show’ what Sissi ‘says’, and the spectator becomes a witness in the analytic process. In their statement on the installation, this intent is made clear:

This exhibition is devoted to the idea of a self-discovery that is possible only on the condition of finding a witness. This witness will act as the ‘second-person’, a function that defines sociality. Through witnessing and thus acknowledging trauma, a second person can make sayable what could not be said before. Witnessing in psychoanalysis may well be the most important role for the analyst in the face of trauma, and ‘Sissi in Analysis’ asks the spectator to be that witness.

Davoine’s clinical approach conceptualises psychoanalysis as being rooted in the socio-historical, and she incorporates fiction into her work to test hypotheses – fictional realisation of fantasised events provide insight into the analysis itself.Thus ‘Sissi in Analysis’ functions on multiple plateaus, a fictional reinterpretation of an already quasi-fictional account of one woman’s deep traumatisation.  Bal and Gamaker’s films serve to problematise the ‘separation between fiction and reality on many levels': Sissi’s dialogue is authentic, her analytical sessions include both real and fantasised elements, the characters are played by actors, the clothes worn in the video are subsequently transported from the video into display cabinets in the museum itself. The films ask the viewer to interpret, to bring these elements into meaning, to ‘hear’.

Film still taken from ‘Sissi Outside’, Bal/Gamaker, 2011

A separate video work entitled ‘Sissi Outside’ (2011) was situated on the first floor, and although designed by the artists’ as a projection of the ‘outcome’ of Sissi’s analysis, it was the film that I saw first when I visited the exhibition. No matter, it could have come at any time during the 10 segments because I was constantly thinking about the escape from analysis and the resolution of trauma as I took in each of the films regardless of the stage of the treatment that I was watching on screen. Thus to me this final coda represented a version of my own fantasy of release for Sissi which remained at the surface as I walked around. According to the artists, the real Sissi did finally escape her confinement. They present this escape in a video of Sissi years later on the island of Seili, walking through the grounds of a former leper colony. Her seemingly aimless rambling appears to have brought contentment or at least solitude (from the voices too?). This site has not been chosen abitrarily,but has been selected by the filmmakers for its historical significance as a former leper colony. They note that it was written in the colony hospital records that patients were required to bring their own coffin as a prerequisite for admittance. This chilling subtext hints at the volatile space that Sissi inhabits, her illness dominating her chance of survival.

The exhibition closed at the end of November, but more information about the wider and ongoing project can be found here.

Citations from the artists taken from Saying It, Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker, Renate Ferro, Ocassional Papers, 2012

‘Rising to the Surface’

I am fascinated by Daido Moriyama’s representation of ‘concreteness'; particularly in the emerging images in his 1972 collection ‘Farewell Photography’. Which parts are erased, and which parts take on new life? Temporality is marked by the practice itself, or the viewing, rather than the context.

The moment when the photograph is inside of the developer and under the red light bulb, when the image oozes through and rises to the surface, this is when I most strongly perceive a sense of my own concreteness. Therefore, to me, although the shooting at the actual place is a concrete process, and not just a work of reproduction … it was rather in the dark room, when using hand techniques and when looking at the image as it slowly rose to the surface, that I responded to the concrete impact that “the world never seen before” had on me. It is in the dark room that I can unexpectedly encounter ” a self never seen before”.

Daido Moriyama, Shashin to no taiwa (A Dialogue with Photography), Seikosha, 1995, p.122

‘Magazine Sculpture’, Gilbert and George,1969

On a recent trip to the Whitechapel Gallery, I bought a postcard of one of my favourite images, Magazine Sculpture by Gilbert and George, to put up on my desk. It is such a joyous celebration of irreverence, an act of self-critique and parody intended to preempt the criticism the artists knew would inevitably be levelled against them by the art establishment and public alike. Indeed Gilbert and George were censored throughout their early career, and I know for a fact that my print of Fuck from their Dirty Words exhibition at the Serpentine makes some people uncomfortable. Despite their static capture in these photographs, the pair seem so much more animated than in later ‘living sculptures’, which are paradoxically undynamic.

Even if I were ever to run into Gilbert and George in their East London neighbourhood, (I’ve tried) and see them in three-dimensional reality, I can’t believe that they would have as much affect as in this fabulous double shot.

Aspen Magazine – Bringing Art Directly to You

Imagine now, amongst the burgeoning racks of advert-stuffed magazines; the piles of independently made fanzines or collections of short stories and the more successful volumes of McSweeney’s;  or the infinite and tentacled pool of webzine content, imagine a slim rectangular box. This cardboard box contains essays, drawings, objects, films, and audio recordings crafted by the most innovative contemporary artists, filmmakers, musicians, journalists and writers. It bursts with theoretical concepts that will eventually become some of the most well-known and debated on university campuses and in cafés. It is delivered by hand to your letterbox.Who would you want to contribute to this portable archive?

In 1965, New York journalist Phyllis Johnson (under her maiden name) founded Aspen a magazine encased in such a rectangular box. The magazine ran from 1965 to 1971, and featured the words, sounds, and images of such luminaries as Roland Barthes, Hans Richter, Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Lazsló Moholy-Nagy, Samuel Beckett, and Marshall Mcluhan. As the advert for the first issue, below, suggests, Johnson desired to create a ‘three-dimensional’ magazine, the equivalent of an exhibition space or a concert venue in your own home. And as far as sensory reception went, Aspen was designed to affect its consumer across all senses.

‘In calling it a “magazine” we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a “storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’ Johnson, cited in Allen, Artist’s Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art, 2011, MIT Press, p.43

If this sounds like the kind of experience you hanker after, you can see the original issues – complete with film screening – at the Whitechapel Gallery, running until 3rd March 2013, in Gallery Four . It is a fascinating display, a three-dimensional document of the late ’60s, a collection of both powerful and silly ephemera. It is currently my favourite room at the gallery (I’m not a fan of Mel Bochner – who also collaborated in Aspen – but do check out the amazing tree work commissioned by Giuseppe Penone). Of the Aspen issues, I have a particular fondness for the double-issue 5&6, which delights with Barthes’ now infamous essay on ‘The Death of the Author’ – the annotated version complete with Barthes’ own notes hangs on one of the walls. You can peruse the full list of contents on Mubi, and also sample Moholy-Nagy and Richter’s contributions.