"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

31 October, 2008

Just call me Cassandra: Ross, Brand, Assisted Suicide & how Auntie finally lost the plot...

This image: copyright: BBC

Regular readers are now invited to call me Cassandra. In every post over the last six to eight weeks, I have suggested that editors – picture & otherwise – would be digging out (& paying good money for) all those slightly frothier stories to leaven the now heavy old daily bread of market meltdown, R-R-recession, clocks going back, climate change & the ‘null point’ mambo which is Westminster.

Yet there has been a decidedly surreal twist to the headlines of late. Metropolitan snow in October? Nat Goldsmith fingers ex-mate Osborne for hanging with dodgy oligarch? Peter Mandelson in ermine? But in wildest dreams, could anyone seriously have conjured up the “storm in a teacup” fiasco that is the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand "Mucky Messages" saga?

To date, I have remained neutral on "Manuelgate", leaving the sticky involvement of divisive opinion to titans of media analysis, such as Gordon Brown & David Cameron.

Not that I cannot see the Vaudevillian attractions of the story: its two classic villains - lisping dandies, Wossy & Bwand; token good guy, Mark Thompson – (who should actually wear that metaphorical dog collar full time;) innocent victim, Andrew Sachs, a much-loved national treasure, familiar from a thousand reassuring voice-overs, not to mention his role in the ultimate classic comedy series. Add to this cocktail, Sachs' childhood escape from Nazi Germany. It’s a very potent formula – even before you throw in granddaughter, Georgina – (AKA Voluptua of the Satanic Sluts, now, of course, represented by PR "guru” Max Clifford). Some how, I keep expecting BBC Biz Ed. R.Peston to pop up somewhere in this headline story.

Until recently, the only winners in the entire row were Associated Newspapers, whose Mail on Sunday organ kicked up all the fuss, splashing with the story on October 26th, more than a week after the original broadcast was aired (with only two formal complaints to the BBC).

But last Wednesday, I finally allowed myself to get angry. “Manuelgate” led every single BBC News bulletin for more than 48 hours - & was also prominently flagged by many other headline media outlet programmes. On the very same day, Debbie Purdy, 45, (below) an MS sufferer from Bradford, failed in the most recent chapter of her bid to get the High Court to clarify the law on assisted suicide. Debbie remains compos mentis but is now mainly confined to a wheelchair. Not at all unreasonably, she wants clarification on whether or not her husband, Omar Puente, would be prosecuted, were he to accompany her to a Swiss euthanasia clinic.

By any reasonable criteria, Debbie Purdy’s story would have led every news bulletin that day. Our ageing population, increasingly sophisticated palliative medicine and general anxiety about facing the vexed question of how we might all eventually shuffle off this mortal coil should be far more generally discussed & debated. Instead, editors chose to focus on the Ross/Brand/BBC saga. At the same time, a human catastrophe of extraordinary proportions is unfolding in Congo. But how many papers will that sell?

27 October, 2008

Poppies, Heroes & the Kindness of Strangers

This image: copyright PA

It’s that time of year again: when no ambitious – sorry, self-respecting – news reader or other talking head would dare to be seen without a poppy proudly displayed on their lapel. Fitting then, that quite a few newspapers today ran with the equally obligatory pictures of the ecstatic return from Helmand Province of 2 Para to their anxious loved ones, back in Colchester.

In almost any other context, these happy family snaps, radiating relief, joy and love, might verge on the banal. Yet in the current climate of doom, gloom, the R-word, encroaching winter and myriad other reasons not to be cheerful, it is not difficult to sympathise with picture editors everywhere, scratching their heads about appropriate images with which to run.

Fifteen soldiers who were members of 2 Para or attached to the unit did not make it back home. The average age of the fallen was 24 years old. They included Private Daniel Gamble, a rifleman and Pashto speaker, who died, aged 22, in a suicide bombing attack on June 8th, the 100th British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. Pictures like the one below, showing the repatriation of 19-year old Private Charles Murray, killed in the same attack, just don’t seem to make the front page quite that often. A memorial service to remember 2 Para’s fallen heroes will be held on Thursday, October 30th at St Peter’s church in Colchester.

Comrades carry Pte Murray’s coffin. This image: copyright Daily Mail

On Sunday, Defence Secretary John Hutton told BBC1's Politics Show that Afghanistan was the front line in the fight against international terror, adding it was "impossible to tell" how long troops would be deployed there, but conceded that it could well be "decades".

Click on the following link to go to a comprehensive Roll of Honour of British Troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 compiled by the team at www.britains-smallwars.com.

The troops – fallen, wounded and still serving – took centre stage on Sunday 26th October, when I joined 20,000 other runners to raise funds for charity at the Great South Run in Portsmouth. Help for Heroes (set up only last year by Bryn and Emma Parry to help servicemen wounded in Afghanistan & Iraq) had managed to assemble a veritable army of charity runners, including a bunch of young men in full yomping gear and three teams of eight who pushed a Land Rover around the entire 10-mile course in the teeming rain and wind. Just a quick glimpse of them was all the incentive I personally needed not to give up...

To be honest, I was extremely nervous, not just about running but about touting for sponsorship in the current climate. Despite being woefully ill-prepared, I actually managed to finish in around 1.44, and, thanks to the generosity of friends (both IRL and many of my just as good mates from Twitter) and the magical powers of Justgiving.com, I've raised a significant amount for the Cancer Campaign at the Royal Marsden where Nick, my brother-in-law, was treated earlier this year; his lymphoma is now, thankfully and thanks to the Marsden, in remission.

Anyone doing anything at all for charity would be mad not to set up a fund-raising page at Justgiving. When I ran the London Marathon in 2001, I spent weeks trying to get people to make good their pledges. This time, within hours of sending my link by e-mail, I had already far exceeded my original £500 target. At time of writing, I’m already up to £1500 and the donations are still coming in!

Next time, I’d like to raise funds for Help for Heroes too but I reckon the X-factor gang's take on Mariah Carey will probably bring in a fair few quid. I’d give the link here - if I didn’t feel that the enterprise smacks a little too much of Simon Cowell’s particular, high-waisted, brand of cynicism. Nevertheless, I hope they raise millions for an excellent cause & additionally, some awareness of what British troops are facing in these remote and alien theatres of war. For now, I’ll stick to proudly wearing my own poppy.

20 October, 2008

Examining the Image #22 – Palin & her Fey Doppelgänger – Harbinger of Doom?

Republican VP candidate Alaska governor Sarah Palin watches Tina Fey’s now notorious SNL impersonation alongside executive producer Lorne Michaels
This image copyright Dana Edelson/NBC

I’ve been wanting to take a look at the photo-journalistic phenomenon that is Sarah Palin since John McCain announced his shock decision to appoint her as his running mate. However, I didn’t want to choose one of the cheesy beauty pageant or scary moose-hunting shots which, compulsively, morbidly fascinating as they are, simply do not stand up to much scrutiny or analysis.

Then I saw this surreal shot of Palin watching Tina Fey doing Palin, albeit at one remove, split by a screen, but with all the heavy symmetrical resonances of the identical red jacket, curiously dated lapel brooch, serious-yet-come-hither specs & quasi-permanent Cherie Blair rictus.

The Cholmondeley Ladies Anon. 1600-1610.
Image copyright Tate Gallery

This type of close figurative symmetry, as seen in the famous 17th portrait of the Cholmondeley Twins above, has a long and complex tradition in the history of art while the theme of the lookalike or Doppelgänger is traditionally associated with issues of identity and duality.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): The Two Fridas 1939
This image: Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Trust

The word Doppelgänger is also often used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself peripherally, in a position where there is no chance that it could be a reflection – one of the visual tricks which help to give much of René Magritte’s precise Surrealist paintings their peculiar attraction.

René Magritte (1898-1967) La Reproduction Interdite 1937. Copyright ADAGP Paris/DACS London 2006/V&A

In many cultures, a Doppelgänger seen by a person's friends or relatives portends illness or danger, while seeing one's own Doppelgänger is often an omen of death. They are also frequently regarded as harbingers of bad luck.
While the jury is still out on the wisdom or otherwise of Palin’s decision to play along with the Saturday Night Live crew, there can be few politicians who did not ultimately rue similarly irreverent depictions or imitations.
Cartoonist Steve Bell’s decision to have John Major’s underpants on the outside of his trousers springs immediately to mind while Liberal leader David Steel reportedly blamed his squeaky pocket-sized Spitting Image puppet, cuddling up on David Owen’s shoulder, for the downturn in his career.

07 October, 2008

Reading the Runes: Damien Hirst, the new Saatchi Gallery & what Market Turmoil means for the Art Market

Yue Minjun: this image copyright Arario Gallery; all rights reserved

Not that long ago, my personal party trick to engineer sudden & stunned silence at any boring West London dinner was to announce that: “Harry Potter was derivative, simplistic, poorly written, sub-C.S. Lewis drivel”. Believe me - for many months, nay – years, even, it was completely & utterly effective.

More recently, a good way of poking the hornets’ nest, particularly at any inter-generational gathering, has been to mention the name of the particular black beast that is Damien Hirst. Please! Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I think Hirst is extremely, extraordinarily, preter-naturally, clever, a more than worthy Warhol de nos jours.

My other half, on the other hand, thinks the boy Damien is just brilliant and I now fear he might possibly kill to have even one of the most mundane spotty paintings on the wall in our downstairs loo. Together, we debated the myriad merits of the Boy Hirst, as we meandered around ArtLondon last Saturday, held this last weekend in the august confines of Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital in Chelsea (London, England).

We actually queued with sundry other "art lovers" to get in at 10.55am; yet, if we hadn’t had free tickets (courtesy of a gallery from which we long ago bought a small print) would we even have bothered? All of these newish London “art fairs” have suffered in all sorts of ways lately, particularly since the initial sheen of most of the YBAs has inevitably dulled & the credit crunch has meant that £30, including catalogue, for two adults to wander round a chilly marquee, looking at poorly hung pictures, seems rather less attractive than a hearty meal at the local Italian.

Roman Black Gallery were showing one or two of Damien’s Skulls & Butterflies, but, alas, they were beyond our budget. Perhaps they were hoping to ride the tidal bore of the recent, and now notorious, Sotheby’s 15th September £111m Hirst sale which, with 20-20 hindsight, it appears, managed to pip global financial meltdown?

What may or may not be happening in the art market is well worth a look, given that ‘art’ is now – (with a CNN-estimated annual $4 billion turnover) the biggest legal global economy which is still fundamentally unregulated......

An indication of art market resilience emerged last weekend at Sotheby’s recent Hong Kong auction, the biggest art sale since the credit crisis started. Unsurprisingly, sales were far less robust than expected, with most buyers opting for cheaper artists and earlier works; many lots by top Chinese names even failed to sell.

A 1990-1991 untitled oil scene of Tiananmen Square by Yue Minjun (see above) fetched HK$6.6m - yet two works by Zhang Xiaogang and key lots by Zeng Fanzhi all went unsold. Conversely, on Saturday, Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi's ‘Sorry Hero, Saya Lupa’ - featuring Superman and Batman - fetched HK$4.8m, eight times its pre-sale estimate - a record for Southeast Asian art.

Charles Saatchi has, to date, managed to remain well ahead of the art market game. It will be interesting to see whether his newest exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the latest incarnation of the eponymous Gallery, moved from St Johns Wood, to Lambeth, and now to Chelsea SW3, catches the Zeitgeist.

The following link takes you to Waldemar Januszczak’s interesting perspective on the new gallery & the state of contemporary Chinese art -