joanne lee

 

the drowning world

This book emerged from the exhibition The Drowning World at AirSpace Gallery, Stoke upon Trent, which showed the work of Dan Davis, Michelle Mckeown and Terry Shave. Three writers (Arne De Boever, Charles Danby and myself) were invited to introduce each of the three artists’ work, and then to participate in a conversation about the ideas they explored. It will be available from the gallery and Amazon.




Introduction to the book/exhibition by the AirSpace Gallery curators.

In 1962 J. G. Ballard wrote the book The Drowned World, wherein he explored a particular post-apocalyptical scenario and ideas of chaos brought on by the consequences of solar radiation and melting icecaps. Nature takes over, once again, and the world returns to a more primitive state of existence. The protagonist eventually embraces this new natural order but wrestles with the devolutionary position he finds himself in, this sharply contrasts with the determination to retain power and control by other characters. The actions of others eventually persuade the protagonist to find unity with a more organic landscape. After all, you don’t know tranquillity without knowing chaos.

The Drowning World, explores some of this subject matter in relation to contemporary and historical concerns, alongside the layering and transformational processes within the production of art. The artists shown here produce unnerving images, which discuss the dislocation of people related to place, history and society. The notion of strata is key to all of the artists, whether that be historical, physical (in terms of the layering of an image) or social. All of the artists are showing new work in this exhibition.



An introduction to Dan Davis by Arne De Boever



Dan Davis does not believe in fairy tales: for him, there never was no once upon a time. Instead, such time is a principle internal to society, appearing when society is considered as if drowning. From such a perspective, humans—almost entirely absent in Davis’ recent work--begin to look decidedly less human, like creatures suspended in the down below or high above. Are they in hell? Are they in heaven? To answer the question might be to miss the point. For Davis is painting neither hell nor heaven, but society’s dissolution into these realms: its drown-ing rather than its being drown-ed. Kind of dark, one might say. But there is a peculiar consolation to it: as long as you are drowning, anything can happen. The game is only over once you’ve drowned.


Consider, for example, The Troubled Waters of Bethesda. The title refers to a spring-fed pool in ancient Jerusalem, whose waters were supposed to possess healing powers. An angel moved or troubled the waters at certain times, thus healing the sick. Davis takes on this tradition, and paints himself into the crack of the word “troubled”: under a bloody, dripping sky, we are invited to step into the mysterious waters, but it is not entirely clear what will result from this descent (which is also an ascent, given that one steps up, in the bottom right corner of the painting, only to step down again into the pool). As is often the case in Davis’ work, there are no people here. The plant on the left hand-side looks like it’s not to be trusted, like the infamous tree of life in the garden of Eden, the one from which we weren’t allowed to eat. The risk is perhaps not so much that we would eat of Davis’ plant (this is not a plant, after all, just like the pipe was not a pipe), but that the plant might eat us. There is a trouble that runs deeper here, a voraciousness that swallows up, like the waters in the painting, everything that is human, in the name of civilization.


Davis’ painting thus takes place on the fine line between heaven and hell, which might simply be the space of what is real. Crammed in between the promise of salvation and the risk of the apocalypse lies the human condition: neither up nor down, but facing the dissolution of its reality into these projections. But where do the projections come from? Davis suggests they take root in What We Call Civilization—a phrase that includes not just religion, but also architecture, science, the economy, and art. Sigmund Freud writes somewhere that even science is marked by a primitive belief, however minimal, that we are omnipotent, that we will overcome our humanity (read: our mortality) through our inventions. It’s from this view on the high above that arises our experience of drowning. Civilization is An Antenna To Heaven, plunging us head over heels into the abyss.


No wonder then that in Davis’ world, very little, almost nothing is left of “we” as we know us. Un-peopled, our constructions haunt us as the foundations of our obsession with the high above and the down below, fairy tales that makes us forget about the excessive here and now. On and On captures this reflection to great effect: reflected, civilization’s calculus leads to “hell.” It becomes troubled, Hell(ed). But hell is high up, too, in this painting, thus coming close to “heaven.” To be drowning thus comes close to becoming-saved—with Davis situating us somewhere in the in-between, in the closeness that marks the minimal difference between heaven and hell. For Davis, there is thus neither heaven nor hell, only the excessive potentiality of the present. It is perhaps this insight that stands at the end (for now) of his reflections, of the multiple reflections that make up his paintings and occupy the figures in it—from this insight, too, that his recent attention to the extraordinary ordinary in Chromium/Foliage and Hiding in the Light emerges.


An introduction to Michelle Mckeown by Charles Danby



Slipstream

In 1967, the year before her death, and five years after J G Ballard’s The Drowning World was first published, the English author Anna Kavan published her novel ICE, set in an antithetical world to that of Ballard’s, one besieged by a new ice age. The book depicts moments and monuments of the familiar, towns, ports, anger, aircraft, but through the refraction of a mirror whose distorted logic is unknowable and subject to shift. While Ballard’s work draws on a slipstream of equally unbridled and distressed logic it casts this as a portal (or fold) of prehistory, evoking this reversion through its reflexive other, the rendering of a ‘possible’ future. It marks the present (of the book) as ‘primordial’, existing through a lens of moribund loss, amnesic to modern Western societal structure and belief, and it is this that jars it parallel to the present (of the reader) and the past of their own history. In loose contrast Kavan offers no touchstones of time, just a vision of constancy, a present that proliferates as a perpetual encroachment (of ice). From start to finish, the ice advances and continues to advance.


It is from between these points of tripped histories and detached permanence that it might be possible to consider the new paintings of Michelle McKeown. Pictorially these works originate from the Seventeenth Century Spanish court of King Philip IV (1605-1665), a court dominated by the work of a single painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). It is his portraits of the Royal Infanta and those of (his apprentice, son in law, and court successor) Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1612-1667) that McKeown turns to as the subjects of her series of ‘Madre de Dios’ (Mother of God) paintings.


These works, single portraits, are divisions and doublings that affirm the rectangular proportion of the portrait frame, matching its edges through a single vertical fold or crease that marks the indexical transfer of a fragment (or fractal) of image from one side of the canvas to the other, transposed not as image, but as an image formed (of material) only through the replication of itself.


Central to the works is the exaggerated visual form of the dress, the Guardainfante, whose expansive internal wire structure was designed to conceal pregnancies (as the direct translation of the Spanish suggests). Beyond the replication of a Royal lineage this serves as an ideal vestige for the blot-like application of paint that McKeown applies to the works. These butterfly-like stains draw on the experiments of Swiss psychologist Herman Rorschach (1884-1922), who used a series of inkblots as a psychoanalytical tool to determine character traits and cognitive processes based on the interpretation of non-representational marks. Here McKeown proposes such play but presupposes and fixes their outcome, and further more bases this on the pre-existent representation of an image.


This ‘seen’ image is fragmentary and counterfeit. McKeown applies the technique of folded transfer (of paint) only to selected portions of the representation, retaining in other areas of the painting processes of technical representation consistent with the application of paint in the original works. Through this McKeown marries two separately interned conceptions and techniques of painting, that of system (as process) and that of mark (as a liturgy of authorship), exposing and collapsing within these elements the conceptual divide between a material surface and a representational one. The material surface reveals its process of manufacture, countering the alchemy (or liturgy of authorship) assumed within its cognitive association (as inkblot).


King Philip IV’s only surviving daughter from his second marriage, Infanta Margaret Theresa, is the central subject of one of Velázquez’s most celebrated works, Las Meninas (1656), and this is perhaps the unseen image within McKeown’s portraits, befitting through the prismatic gazes of its mirrored and screened vestiges the resonant with the primeval displacement of Ballard’s London (in The Drowned World). At the back right corner of the painting is the consort figure of Don José Nieto Velázquezone, the source of two alternate narratives, who is seen either entering or leaving the room, the difference of which presents an oscillation of time that is reflected in the volatile pathos of Ballard. It is here that McKeown’s folds mark the constant present of an impending or encroaching tear, its homage (image), or its repair, and further to this it is the subject of her works, as well as her own subject, as a female painter of female subjects, that joins the slipstream and encroaches on the traditions of courtesan and male painters.



An introduction to the work of Terry Shave by Joanne Lee



It’s appropriate that an exhibition with the title The Drowning World should feature work by Terry Shave, for he hails originally from Suffolk, an English county with an especially complex relationship between land and water. In the east, the soft sand and clay are quickly eroded by the North Sea, such that a major portion of the town of Dunwich disappeared beneath its waves, whilst Orford, once an important medieval port, lies stranded inland behind a huge shingle spit, produced thanks to the relentless longshore drift of flint from further up the coast. Inland, there are marshes, fens and water meadows, the result of extensive peat extraction and agricultural drainage schemes, whose appearance shifts through the year depending upon rainfall and the activities of various pumping stations. This tension between solid and liquid, definition and uncertainty, seems replicated in Shave’s paintings: drips and oozings of rich pigment are set against images of crisp cotton fabric or solid buildings; and blurred, sometimes ghostly, forms refuse attempts at resolution. The subject matter itself tends both towards dryness (images of dusty roads and desiccated old barns) and fluidity (creamy milk and viscous blood: references to a family history of farming and the processing of agricultural produce) and the finish Shave gives to the work, using layer upon layer of resin above the painted surface, only adds to the contradictory effect: what we see before us appears simultaneously to flux and freeze; it is pure image, and yet also intensely visceral.


Shave’s paintings are conceived as triptychs within series, which produces the sense of multiple viewpoints and different time frames: some elements feel intimate and close at hand (at times so close that we might almost be viewing microscopically) whilst others seem as if they are receding across space or time. As a viewer, my position is ambivalent and shifting: my eyes range across the paintings, uncertain where they should rest, such that the confounding experience is a little like encountering my peripheral vision head-on. Shave has spoken of his boyhood delight in discovering the possibilities of perspective, and realizing how artists were able to lead people through pictorial space (Hobbema’s painting of The Avenue at Middelharnis has been a constant source in this regard); his current work explores what happens when that gaze is thwarted, and when the hegemony of perspectival progression is denied. In these works for The Drowning World, we viewers are all at sea, at times tossed queasily from one thing to another, and at others becalmed in quiet backwaters where the scene before us shifts only incrementally. The point of Shave’s painterly voyage is most surely not to arrive at a destination, but rather, I think, to suggest that we might usefully remain longer amongst the tangle of our sensorial experience, and not be too quick to come to conclusions.




The three writers were then invited to engage in a conversation beginning from the following questions.


Questions about The Drowning World (from curators at AirSpace Gallery)

When science fiction books from the UK are translated into film, there are often intriguing shifts of context as a consequence. There are, more often than not, shifts related to location or setting. J.G. Ballards Crash, H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds and John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, come to mind, and their 1996, 2005 and 1962 cinematic versions respectively. All three novels are set in London and their filmic treatments are either shifted in location entirely or have the main protagonist replaced by someone from a different location. The consequence of this could be regarded as an additional element of alienation, through a dislocation of place and belonging. Cronenberg’s Crash was filmed and set in Toronto; Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was filmed and set in New Jersey and Boston. In The Day of the Triffids, an American lead, Howard Keel, was brought in, to presumably add a bit of north-American glamour, despite it being a UK production. What is relevant here, as an analogy for the artworks in this exhibition, are the codes and conventions of Hollywood filmmaking, and resulting audience expectations, that help to create this type of translation as an accepted and appropriate formula.

How important, and to what degree, are site and location to each of the artists, and how do they use the ‘setting’ or ‘set’ within their artworks?

Further to this, could you discuss how the shifting of ground is relevant within the artworks?

Rather than conventions being ‘operated on’ or ‘built on top of’, could it not be argued that the works here articulate their enquiry through, and within, orchestrated conventions, not to add elements in a superficial manner but to invoke our understanding of the genuine usage of known strategies?

Could you discuss the acts of translation, as you see them, that are formulated by each artist?


Arne De Boever

It seems to me these three questions — of setting, shifting ground, and translation – are closely related. When you ask about setting or set, and by extension about site and location, you are asking about a certain choice of framing. When you ask about the shifting ground, you are asking about the limits to that framing, its unframing, so to speak — the way in which the setting becomes unsettled. In this context, your question about translation could be understood as a question about the process of this “becoming unsettled,” and where we consider it to be happening in the works of each of these artists. This particular question is closely related to the imaginary of the novels and films you refer to—they all deal with societies in the process of becoming dissolved, capturing the strange time of order’s translation into disorder. One could argue that in Terry Shave’s work, this translation is located in the tripartite division of each of his paintings. I like the fact that the division that his work captures is not a division into two, but into three; binaries thus immediately turn into trinities. But the trinity is in itself also multiple: Milk In Its Time and Blood In Its Time are close cousins, both works in Shave’s Taboo series — cousins that, because of the incest law that makes intercourse between members of the same tribe taboo — are not allowed to copulate, and multiply. But there is no need for such incestuous copulation in order for multiplicity to come about: each work, in its own framing, already carries the germ of its unframing within it. It’s a kind of civil war that each painting is waging on itself. This opens up a passage to what I would call Michelle McKeown’s psycho-political works. Referencing the painterly tradition of portraits of royals and noble(wo)men, McKeown gives us our king, or more precisely, our queen, but the queen and particularly the queen’s face turn into a Rorschach blot in which, if we look at it long enough, we begin to recognize our obsession with order, division, government. But this obsession appears here as a sickly condition, a skin disease that hovers between attraction and repulsion. So one approaches power only to discover that one is repulsed by it, a repulsion that nevertheless does not mark the end of one’s attraction… It’s this double movement of setting and unsettling that McKeown’s paintings capture, the translation that they mark. In the short introductory text that I wrote about Dan Davis’ paintings, I explained how exactly I consider this to be characteristic of his work as well. If these artists are translators, if they are somehow translating in their painting, they are translating society’s dissolution, its tense position between the tendencies of conservation and renewal. In this sense, they are really showing us a world that is drown-ing, rather than a world that is already drown-ed.


Charles Danby

I would like to pick up on the question of translation. In terms of this idea the examples given in the first part of the question seem to present this as a pivot between the formats of book and film, a pivot that supposes in some way that the shared content of each should be an equivalence that matches as an indexical or facsimile copy. So in this sense the issue of translation is considered as one of language and lexicon, the grammatical rules of which (text / moving image) inform the structure, form and expression of that content. With this in mind the outlined ‘shifts’ that occur within this transference from book to film (in the examples given), seems to me to be less attached to the changes demanded by the internal grammars of each medium (of book and cinema) and more with external factors of audience, geography and economics. With the exception of Ballard’s Crash these film versions were produced as cinematic ‘blockbusters’, rather than as truths, revisions or cinematic copies. Within this however remains the question of origin and of authenticity, of a truth that becomes residual and displaced within its copy, revision or replay. Following this line it seems that the paintings of Michelle McKeown are the only ones that directly propose a graspable point of origin, soliciting this through a process of doubling, through representation and manufacture, that makes visible a chronology of time. In this sense (of language-based translation) McKeown’s work seems to offer itself as an Ariadne’s thread that proposes that it can be retraced to reveal its origin (a certitude of time and place), in this case the Seventeenth Century Court of King Philip IV of Spain. Whether this ultimately provides us with anything logical or brings us closer to the subject of the work is another question, either way such paradox appears to inform the gameplay of the artist. In contrast the double or origin of the works by both Terry Shave and Dan Davis appear to be already displaced within a fiction, in the Borgesian sense of a labyrinth they can perhaps be seen as already being copies of copies (of copies). Science Fiction, the root of Ballard’s early writing in terms of genre, offers itself through fragments of the familiar as ‘sets’ or ‘settings’ that render the fantastical (often futuristic) as functional and present through the residual threads it offers, how much the attachment of an actual ‘setting’ in the sense of McKeown or a simulated ‘setting’ in the sense of Shave and Davis infers on this is something that needs further thought. I like the closeness of Davis’ paintings to the actual pictorial or illustrative source of Ballard’s science fiction writing, to the visual sci-fi language of artists such as Chris Foss and Chris Moore.


Joanne Lee

If I pursue these ideas of shifts and translation, I want to think some more about the movement from a novel to an exhibition. In the first instance, Ballard’s book is the product of one person’s imaginative and critical labour, albeit as Charles has suggested, one also constrained (to some extent) by the accepted forms of genre fiction, whilst the show is a more multi-vocal and plural creative endeavour altogether: the exhibition emerges out of a curator’s premise and the practice of three discrete artists who, so far as I know, had no significant relationship prior to their works coming together at AirSpace. At the very least, it is possible to say that these art works are not an explicitly collaborative response to Ballard’s book, and further, that in the case of two of the artists, their work did not seek to directly reference or address it, or its author. Charles has already identified issues of authenticity and origin, copy, revision and replay, which have become such a familiar part of our cultural landscape, and he points out the role of external factors like audience and economics in shaping the translation of books to films, but I’m curious in what happens in this case, with its literary to artistic shift, which seems to emerge from very different intentions and to very different ends. Although film productions are certainly the result of multiple people’s efforts, usually the desired outcome is to mask this teamwork behind an apparently singular vision; in exhibitions, there is perhaps a greater willingness to allow contesting and conflicting approaches to co-exist. Exhibitions don’t have to be ‘coherent’; they can hold diversity in tension and celebrate unexpected digressions. In considering the translation from book to exhibition, I find myself thinking about that shift in tense from the novel’s title to that of this show: from drowned to drowning. In the first, I guess we are intended to understand that the disaster (in the form of those first solar storms and the resulting alteration of Earth’s climate) has already happened; in using the present tense, the exhibition places us more definitively within an unfolding catastrophe, rather than its aftermath; indeed Arne has remarked that Dan Davis' paintings show us 'a world that is drown-ing, rather than a world that is already drown-ed'. The present tense also seems to suggest action: the world is drowning, but the situation is not over (it isn’t yet drowned) and therefore all is not inevitably lost. (I’ll admit that I’m not exactly sure who is being active: the curators, artists, audience, or perhaps all three, and in what way.) Finally for now, in these first thoughts for our conversation, I’ve been wondering about questions of setting, and it strikes me that a setting isn’t only geographical, but also temporal. The title’s reference to Ballard’s novel, evokes the 1960’s in which the book emerged as well as his dystopian future of 2145, but of course it also resonates with contemporary fears over the effects of climate change (although Ballard’s narrative relies upon the causation of a natural phenomenon, rather than human activity): as I write today, the idea of a drowning world is all too visible, in the terrible floods across Pakistan, and in the host of films and television programmes marking the five years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. In relation to these latter disasters, there is again the issue of tense: for although Ballard’s already drowned world is certainly dangerous, on the whole the crisis is passed, and change is now incremental: its fecund lagoons, so suggestive of the amniotic, inexorably rise, but the inundation is largely after most humans are long gone to see the progression. The disaster is over, and for the majority human suffering is at an end: it’s a far cry from the present time.


Charles Danby

I am interested by the translation of the works in their singular practices or remote state (of the studio) to the collective (contextualised) site of an exhibition, as Jo puts forward. This process is given form by the curators, and it is a separate process, but arguably one that is parallel, to that of process of the artist working through the production and making of their works. Added to this there is an inherent strangeness to bringing works together in a group exhibition, and as Jo points out instability, an ambiguity, or a seesaw, between constructive and destructive relations. Here it seems as with many contemporary group exhibitions the curatorial direction is devised to provide stasis, a temporal resting, in this sense an active present (or drown-ing) rather than a finite or concluded one (drown-ed). There also appears to be an active forth term and that is the title of the show, which also being the title of a book brings with it (in shorthand) the entirety of an altogether ‘other’ narrative. This narrative is one that I, in writing and thinking through this conversation, have often placed centrally, but as Jo quite correctly points out it is also one that sits peripherally to these works, and one that sits outside of them altogether. Ballard’s writing is neither the subject of the works nor their rationale for their being, it is merely an offered lens (and perhaps foil) through which we may consider the works, collectively and individually. It would be interesting to consider in this sense to what level the title of Ballard's book prefaced (or followed) the curatorial conception (or translation) of the exhibition.


Arne De Boever

I find it interesting that “time” is an important element in what all three of us have said, so far, about the works. Whether it’s about the time of an origin or the time of the copy of a copy of a copy (in what Charles has said), or about the time of a before or of an after (in Jo’s remarks), time seems to be operating in the paintings—and in Ballard’s novel—in a fascinating way. Thinking a little harder about Ballard’s title, as Charles invites us to do, I think we might want to focus, perhaps, on the time of the apocalypse that it evokes, or—in more general terms—about the time of a crisis, a global crisis that we are supposedly all living today. Charles suggests that we think of this in relation to the curatorial gesture that brought these works together. I think that by connecting these two questions—the drowning world/curating—he raises a very important question about the importance of curating in a time of crisis. Curating comes, of course, from the Latin curare, which means “to take care”. Curators are people who take care—of artists, of artworks. I am wondering, when Jo mentions certain disasters that have recently occurred, what discourses and practices of care are needed in the aftermath of such events, and how art can contribute to such care. Spike Lee’s recent sequel to When the Levees Broke shows that New Orleans still has a long way to go in terms of its recovery after Katrina; who knows what the consequences of the flood in Pakistan will be, not just in Pakistan but also in terms of Pakistan’s relation to the West. It seems that there is something important here about representations of sovereignty, such as in McKeown’s paintings, or representations of neo-liberal governmentality, as in Davis’ On and On, but also about the sedimentational—and generational, perhaps—work of Terry Shave. They evoke different types of care in a time of crisis, and force us to think through what careful work in a time of crisis might look like.


Joanne Lee

In Arne’s last comment, he suggests we might focus upon the time of apocalypse. At present we’re not short of representations of such times – the cinema continues to prosper in telling tales of humanity’s destruction, as well as those listed in the opening statement there are countless others from special effects blockbusters to more psychologically nuanced visions of humanity on the brink (perhaps 2012 and The Road offer useful polarities.) My own longstanding fascination with such films derives partly no doubt from an early exposure to 70’s disaster movies, but also from the circumstance of moving to live in Sheffield in the late 1980’s when for a time it seemed more famous for having provided the setting for post-nuclear war film Threads, than for its once thriving steel and cutlery industries. Some years later the city appeared again in The Last Train, when a meteor strike had wiped out the majority of human life, and a few survivors are seen warding off rabid dogs amongst urban decay. In both cases, it was very curious – and troubling – to see the actual city in which I lived as it might appear in some apocalyptic future. (Though in fact, owing to the recession, for a time large parts of the industrial city were almost as derelict in reality as on screen…) It strikes me that Ballard’s novel is very different to most tales: his concern isn’t really with the struggles of people to survive, but instead attends to the way the characters embrace their various fates. (In this perhaps, one might see a relationship to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.) The de-evolutionary urge is portrayed as inevitable, welcomed even, and the experience of reading the novel isn’t one of horror, but rather we revel in the luxurious descriptions of nature reclaiming the earth. The image of London beneath water and jungle foliage is more extreme than Richard Jefferies’ 1885 story ‘After London’, when England is depopulated after an unspecified disaster, and the city is over taken by vegetation, but in neither case does the author seem to view this as a tragedy.


Art too has had its recurrent fascination with apocalypse, whether from a religious perspective, or in more secular terms. (The Apocalypse exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2000 brought together a host of such works.) Art works do not (cannot?) compete with the special fx-laden approach of big budget cinema, but may offer alternative ways of considering what relationship we have with the possibility of our own ending. Perhaps art works seem disappointing in comparison to the intensities of 3-D film or immersive computer games, but I’d want to argue that the uncertainties of our experience in encountering art allow an enduring and complex response. If you’ll forgive the long quotation, James Elkins has written of this experience: ‘I love that opaque stubbornness, the way pictures push back against any attempts to say what they mean, and I especially love the grip they continue to have on my imagination when I succeed in understanding them according to some normative method of interpretation. The most interesting moment is just after interpretation, when it becomes apparent the picture has eluded even the most sustained and eloquent accounts that could be lavished on it. Like water running through a sieve, interpretations inevitably fail, and wash away. In their place is the picture, and once again it says nothing. But at the same time, and from the instant that an interpretation notices what it has missed, it is possible to return and think again about that moment of meaninglessness.’ 1 As Arne has helpfully reminded us, the curator’s job derives originally from the idea of taking care, and I want to think about this in the light of Elkins’ observation. Perhaps an obvious response to what careful work in the time of crisis might look like, would be that it should address certain subjects or locations directly, and that its role should be instrumental in some way making positive change possible. I’m certainly not against activist practices or those seeking directly to attend to matters of concern, but I do want to argue that the uncertainties of art making and viewing can in themselves be a critical opportunity for exploring our place in a world that is always uncertain and frequently in crisis. Elkins’ clearly articulates the multiplicity of art’s ‘meaning’ and demonstrates how that complexity can be analysed but also simply encountered and experienced. When I look at the images of The Drowning World exhibition on this blog, (a different experience I know, to actually being with the works as they are installed in Stoke there seem to be conversations between certain pieces (perhaps Dan Davis’ antenna is communicating with - or on behalf of - Michelle McKeown’s mysterious queens, and Terry Shave’s titular barn echoes in the subject matter of another of Davis’ paintings). There are narratives, but they are shifting, sotto voce, such that it’s a little like listening to a story via the crackle of a distant radio station. In an era when popular imagery so frequently tends towards the blatant, and the immediately obvious, here I’ve been enjoying remaining with these uncertainties, and embracing their imaginative potential: there’s space for me as a viewer to think and to wonder, a state which philosophically speaking, is said to precede knowledge. Whilst one is still wondering, then alternatives responses remain possible. Perhaps the role of the curator is to be sensitive enough to the potential of the works, such that they are not made to communicate one-dimensionally? To be honest though, for me the virtue of art lies somewhere in the sheer awkwardness of certain works to refuse the neat boxes into which any of our critical or curatorial strategies place them: art is surprisingly tough stuff!

  1. 1.Elkins, J. On pictures and the words that fail them, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp 276-7.


Charles Danby

I would like to return to ideas of time. I am curious on two accounts, the first is the nature of time in respect of the novel itself. I am wondering about the deeper implication of this format on us as writers in discussing these works, and in the visiting audience in viewing these works. The novel commands a duration of time much greater than that of the novella or short story, and I am interested as to if this slows down our engagement with the works. Does the extension of time back to Velazquez in the case of Michelle McKeown appear more emphatic? Do we spend longer trying to decipher the transitional state of the numbers / written language within Davis’ `time clock? Are the pauses of the segments that divide Terry Shave´s work somehow stretched? The second conception of time that I am still curious about is the ‘resolved’ time of cinema, thinking about this through the gateway of Ballard, in respect of the disaster movie genre. It seems to me that the shift of sci-fi that Ballard solicited through his early writing, The Drowned World included, infusing the fantastical of the future with hard-edged social observation that he underscored with dark pathos, impacted on development of the genre. The disaster movie in the more modern and popularised sense of Hollywood is one in which there is a resolution of the dying or self-destructing (drown-ing) world, a world that repeatedly is ‘saved’ rather than drown-ed. So this returns us to the liminal site that Arne first describes, perhaps represented by the fold (in all senses) in the works of McKeown, evident in the divisions of Shave´s paintings, whereby the pictorial segments themselves become secondary amplified´ lines, and in the dry sharpness of ‘know-ing’ humour that seems to underscore Dan Davis’ works. So in this sense all the works may be said to exhibit an avoidance of resolution, or offer us the aspiration of the drown-ing rather than the circular verdict of the drown-ed. To bring this to the frame of Jo´s observations of the ‘real’ and ‘actual’ disasters of today there is perhaps a parallel sense of ‘aftermath’ that can be drawn upon. For Ballard´s protagonists in The Drowned World the floods have come, for us today when faced with the frame of ‘disaster’ we often gaze upon it from the remoteness of the West, the Western process of aftermath becomes all to easily an activity of saving, of salvage, and in this sense of resolved (or resolving) conscience.


Arne De Boever

I like both your remarks very much, and I think they are fascinating, precisely in our “own” time. I very much agree with Charles that in these paintings, and perhaps especially in Davis’ work, one is somehow suspended in the time of the disaster, its present continuous. Mckeown’s work flirts here with the past; one could see in Davis and Shave’s work an engagement with the (people-less?) future. But in a sense, these no longer matter, since what the works indeed open up is some kind of intensified present that includes traces of both. Time is, in this sense, indeed unresolved in these paintings (a highly potentialized "now-time", to recall Walter Benjamin's provocative notion), producing a kind of temporal disaster of painting which reflects, one could argue, “our” time—a time of catastrophe(s), as Jo initially pointed out. This relates very much to Charles’ remark about time and the novel, the novella, the short story, and the question of cinema, painting, and time. If the history of modernity is a history of technology that produced a speeding up of time, to such an extent that we need a veritable dromology, a science of time, to understand it (as Paul Virilio has suggested), I think such a history raises essentially different questions than the question of speed (even though speed is, of course, a wildly interesting question). I would say that since the question of speed and the speeding up of modern time is unavoidable, the issue is more precisely: “what are we going to DO with our time?” With all the time that becomes available because of the speeding up of life through technology? If my computer somehow enables me to do certain aspects of my work a lot faster than someone in the previous century doing the same work could operate, the interesting thing might not so much be the different speeds at which both of us operate, but the different uses that both of us can make of our time.


Here, the time of painting becomes particularly important, since it remains, at least for these three painters, a SLOW time. I.e. it is perhaps because of developments in modern technology, because of the time that modern technology frees up, that these painters can take it slowly in terms of their art practice, and produce their layered, and generational (as I was suggesting with respect to Terry Shave’s work earlier on). I think such a work, and the experience of such a work that we have when we perceive it, whether online or in the gallery, is essential to our time. Most of my meetings with Dan Davis have been part of relatively speedy trips that I make through Europe. Caught up in the speed of my travels, I am always stunned by the slowness with which Davis produces his canvases. I write much faster than he paints, and this décalage is characteristic of our collaboration. Paint needs to dry; words arrive dry on the page, on the screen of my computer. But to observe the painter, or the novelist who works for years and years on her or his work of art, is to experience a question of extreme care that resonates in our time, which is a time of attention deficit disorder and a loss of care, especially generational care. I can refer you here to a recently published work by Bernard Stiegler, titled Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, and to a fascinating artwork, Sophie Calle’s multimedia installation Take Care of Yourself. If at Mckeown and Davis refer to the political discourses of sovereignty and governmentality that have been so effectively analysed by Michel Foucault, the question of painting’s time in our time is one that links up with Foucault’s late work on the care of the self, on aesthetic and ethical practices of care-taking in a globalized situation of disaster. I consider works like Davis' Antenna to heaven and What We Call Civilization in this context. If these two works testify to the speed of modern time, seeing them as part of this show and the drowning world that it evokes makes us realize the slow work that was done on them.


I also wonder in this context about the potential differences between our time of crisis and previous times of crisis, for example the periods after WWI or WWII. One could hardly argue that we are currently going through a world war as we used to know it; there is, of course, the war on terror. But the war we are in is more of an economic war. What might the relation of time to economy, in this context, and of painting, perhaps art in general, to economy? Is the art world drowning in the face of the crisis? Is it flourishing? From where will the libidinal energies come through which artists will be able to practice their work in this time, in this world, a world that is drowning?