From September to December I had planned to walk across the North Caucasus from Dagestan to North Ossetia in South Russia. I had spent a year learning Russian and researched the history and culture. Instead of going to Russia, I decided to do an MA at Wimbledon.
I watched this quasi ethnographic film by Dennis O’Rourke about Western Tourists in search of tribal life in Papua New Guinea. It is critique of modernity and western tourism. The tourists come across as the more ‘primitive’ in mind than the local tribes people.
Cannibal Tours caused me to consider making paintings where I would imagine that I had done my trip to the North Caucasus. It would play on Western ideas of the ‘Other’ as an inferior people to be studied as written about in Edward Said groundbreaking book Orientalismand how we can view areas of the world as places of adventure that we understand through stereotypes, perhaps throwbacks to colonial thinking.
Read parts of Orientalism by Said.
Continued researching history and politics of the N Caucasus, read Dagestan, Russian Hegemony and Islamic resistance in the N Caucasus Ware and Kisriev, Let our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough, A Dirty War by Anna Politkovskaya.
Daily visited Website Caucasian Knot http://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/.
Read Pushkin's Poem A prisoner of the Caucasus.
The Caucasus area has always been seen as an ‘other’ place in the Russian conscience. A land of beauty and savagery, a place to escape to. I read this article on the poem. https://thecaucasuscalling.com/2015/07/08/pushkin-the-caucasus-in-russian-literary-imagination-part-ii/. Pushkin's poem invented the Caucasus in the minds of Imperial Russians.
Read A prisoner of the Caucasus, this time a short story by Tolstoy. I also watched the film called A Prisoner of the Caucasus by Sergi Bodrovs an updated version of the Tolstoy novel set in the first Chechen war in 1994.
I Saw the brilliant satirical work Marriage A-la-mode by Hogarth in the National Gallery. A series of six paintings. Depicting the debauched lives of the english Nobility.
I considered I could paint a six part satire on tourism inspired by Hogarth and following the narrative of The Prisoner of the Caucasus, to update the ongoing series to the 21st centurary in Paint.
Seminar on Gerhard Richter and Terror
Robert Storrs article discusses Richter's work 'October 18, 1977. This Seminar opened my eyes to new ideas of the issues surrounding photography and painting, the misleading potential of photography, its place in the media and public conscience, its inability to show life as paint does.
Changed tack of research to consentrate on the relationship between painting and photography
Read Camera Lucida. His view on the workings of photography. The punctum and the studium. Can this approach be applied to painting?
Was recommended to read Regarding the Pain of Ohers. Discovered the early war photograph by Roger Fenton Valley of the shadow of Death. Read an article by the film maker Errol Morris https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/
Fenton moved the canon balls onto the track to make a more dramatic photo. I was struck by the painterly action of this to produce a more powerful photograph. Researched Paul Nash (see contextual practice essay)
David Ferris lecture at LSE Why Painting Matters. More ideas of the relationship between photography and painting. Is painting art or object? (See Contextual Practice essay)
Imperial War Museum
I saw Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Stanley Spencer. An astonishing painting of eight Panels. Spencer spent a month at a shipbuilders in 1940 documenting the work with sketches for the war effort. The details of the machinery is incredible as is the depiction of the skilled of the workers, all dressed in tweed.. Somehow, through Spencer's rendering of the human form, all workers seem to be acting as a single unit. The composition of the figures and machinery is a masterpiece.
I also saw the work Bolan Market by Mark Neville. He was embedded with British troops as a war artist in Afghanistan. He filmed local people from an armored vehicle as it drove through Bolan Market in Helmand. He slowed the film down to a six minute video work. The reaction of the locals to the British army, an occupying force, is very revealing. An ingenious way to show a local opinion in an area apparently too dangerous to engage with the people in person. I read this Guardian article on the subject https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/video/2014/jul/16/afghanistan-life-bolan-market-helmand-mark-neville-war-artist-iwm-video
Enrico David at Michael Werner Gallery
Transformation, surrealism, humor seem to be key to David’s work. Half recognizable human figure with grotesque expressions merge with iron rods, they metamorphose with steel insects, small cannon balls lie on the ground the ground. The drawings are vaguely human, they are smeared with something like bitumen. I was puzzled until I released the humor.
A way Forward
Have started to formulate a way to move forward with my painting by taking this relationship between photography and painting as a starting point. The use of a material culture could be used in a way, like Nash’s surrealism, to suggest ideas. Mixing objects that don’t quite fit with each other and put them in places where they don’t quite belong. Elements too of Francis Bacon removing photographic references from all context to really get an idea or a 'fact' of a thing also plays into this. I could combine this idea with a painterly documentation as shown by Spencer. Also thinking about painting not merely as an image but an object. Can this objecthood be used to give an image more strength?
Travelled through the North Caucasus for two week with a local photographer to test these ideas.
My Photo of a cemetary in the village of Kubachi, Dagestan
Painting ideas from things I repeatedly saw in The Russian Caucasus
Gravestones, water bottles, antique water carriers, plastic barrels, water trucks, sacred springs, war memorials (water bottles) truck boot sales, hands on top of mosques , Koran stands, old women carrying onion sacks, women in black mink coats, black boots and pink and yellow scarves, little girls with fingers in ears, fear of wolves and bears, wolf skins, 4 flat capped men in Ladas. Cold looking police and military, hand clasped over kalashnikovs, military vehicles. Splayed sheep carcasses, flowered thermos flasks, high rise flats in canyons, frozen rivers. Eagles. Children with Father Christmas masks. Political figures, historical and curent painted large on buildings, on cliff faces. Arabic inscriptions no one can read. Pure white frozen rivers.
The Split Canvas
Read Ryszard Kapuscinki’s book The Other. A polish journalist and travel writer states that every person of a different culture one meets in foreign lands is in fact two people. Firstly he/she is a person with universal human needs, desires, hopes and memories as you the travelers has. The second person is one of a different culture from you, a different way of speaking, a different set of cultural references. The two people, no matter how well you know them, will never merge exactly. They will always be a foreigner to you and you to them. This idea may sit awkwardly with Said’s notion of ‘orientalism’ but I think this in most relevant with the fleeting interaction of the traveler.
I think I can demonstrate this idea in painting by having two panels to each painting and having a gap or split between them. If a figure were in the middle of a Canvas it would show this split experience of travel. There is more than Kapuscinki’s notion to be seen here. The panel split, in terms of paintings depicting Dagestan, can also show the religious split of Sufism and Salafism which is one cause of the violence that is endemic in the region. It can also show the cultural difference and agitation between Russia and the Caucasus region and more generally the split between east and west, us and them, referring back to Said. From a personal point of view it can relate to my trying to record what I see as an artist and perhaps actively seeking the 'other', the adventure.
This split also breaks up the image, it forces the painting to be both image and object, it takes a figure out of context as a whole and abstracts it. Perhaps it even makes it more of a ‘fact’ as Bacon would have said. It definitely adds an extra punctum.
I found George Bazelitz was doing a similar thing in the 60s in his Fractured Works. They were mostly split horizontally to primarily ‘abstract’ the figurative form. they also stand for the divided Germany of the time.
Work in Progress