Ippolito Salviani: Aquatilium animalium historiæ. Courtesy MAPP / www.mappeditions.com
Appearing in Varoom Issue 20, The New Wave Sci-Vi is a brief and broad essay about illustration as a model for the understanding of and interest in scientific theory shared by many contemporary creatives. With particular focus on those who attempt to visualise that which is paradoxically unseeable (physics, mostly), I ask questions about whether imagination is superfluous in light of the accuracy of photography and the seeing-doing machines that have replaced our hands and eyes. Also tested are words like “truth” and “authority” up against certain mediums and their subject matter, some notions of complicating reality by making simplifying diagrams, and finally the false veracity of imagery that adopts a scientific language made by those who have no education in that field.
All points beautifully illustrated by the work of Renaissance physician, Ippolito Salviani, Brendan Monroe, Katie Scott and many others featured in The Where, The Why, and The How, plus words from the two latter named illustrators and Catherine Draycott of Wellcome Images.
Finally, having used it in my dissertation and again now with happy abandon, I’m going to go ahead a claim the coining of “Sci-Vi” as a term.
A very specific sort of head injury: an interview with Chris Ware
Of everything and anyone to me, Chris Ware is of infinite interest. Shortly before leaving It’s Nice That I was fortunate enough to interview the man mostly responsible for my going to art school and his answers feature, in part, in an article in the latest inception of the studio’s magazine, Printed Pages.
Highs of this highlight include some typically self-effacing comments and opinion on things like the Kindle (“it’s like having someone breathe warmly into my mouth. Very unsatisfying”) and architecture as a time machine (“I wonder sometimes how things are different for people who grow up without such harsh geometry, and how it affects their memories and sense of self. I guess I’m not going to know; it’s too late for me”).
For the effect in full buy the magazine but for here and now, some Qs and As…
Do you find that your literary world is populated by the same group of people or do they leave you when you’ve stopped watching them?
“That’s a pretty great question. No, sadly, they sort of linger around, asking me why I’m making such dumb decisions or laughing at me behind my back, etc. I think it’s called “self doubt,” and I suppose I’m doomed to live with it for the rest of my days unless I sustain a very specific sort of head injury.”
Your work is very meticulously observed – are you ever surprised by something you’ve just drawn or a piece of work you created long ago?
“Mostly, I’m surprised at how bad it is, and how wildly charitable I’ll be to it in my memory, granting it all sorts of subtleties and textures that simply are not there. It’s a terrible thing to experience, this inability to assess one’s own work accurately. I always figure that the self-doubt will help me on this score, but it never does. On the other hand, I used to be surprised that anything I did actually worked out at all, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that the mind is an incredibly organised, cross-indexed mechanism, essentially structured by language; if one trusts oneself, art and writing (and comics especially) is simply a way of making that structure visible. (I read somewhere recently that new brain research suggests that the synapses in the brain aren’t actually a mess of spaghetti, either — they’re apparently organised as a grid, which is good news for us cartoonists.)”
Reading Building Stories [Ware’s latest comic magnum opus] is not a conventional or even casual task (particularly for western readers) - is breaking it up into the multilinear elements a distraction from or a reminder of the fact that nothing really has a traditional conclusion?
“Somewhat, and also that there’s no real beginning, and how we structure and edit our memories and experiences to make us into “what we are.” Really, everyone, all the time, is writing fiction; trying to imagine what your co-worker’s home life or his or her secret motivations are or what the President or famous actors’ lives are like is all fiction writing. And the more you learn about someone, the more you edit and move around the stories, but the best part is that still, no matter how much you learn, your vision is still a construction — to say nothing of your vision of yourself, of course. (I’m starting to sound like an Intro to 20th Century Literature class, so I’ll stop here.)”
Jason Jägel for McSweeney’s. Quarterly issue no. 40
For Varoom Magazine’s latest issue (sings to the tune of “rules”) I wrote a piece profiling the use of illustration across McSweeney’s publishing platforms. For How Illustration Shaped the ‘Literary’ I spoke to a number of McS regular illustrators – Kelsey Dake, Jason Jägel, Matt Furie and Keith Shore – as well as Editor and Senior Art Director Brian McMullen. Issue out now.
GIF #2: Isaac Button, Country Potter
Bison sculpted from mammoth ivory. Found at Zaraysk, Russia. About 20,000 years old. The Zaraysk Kremlin Museum, Zaraysk, Russian Federation
Ice Age Art at the British Museum, written for Critical Writing in Art & Design interview at the RCA:
Objects of art last a long time. Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind made me think what might have become of the objects displayed had they been found any earlier, in a time when their meanings would still be undetermined but the significance of what they revealed about our evolution was understood. In the past humanity has lost objects or killed great numbers of itself over such things that claim to stand for much less than being tangible proof of the modern mind at productive, imaginative work. Even if Harrison Ford hadn’t left the holy grail behind, it’s paradoxically unknowable as to whether a human might live forever. And yet, right this moment, we are able to receive sophisticated communication from people who died 40,000 years ago because the objects of art they created are hovering silently in pools of halogen ambience at the British Museum. It’s in this light that their extraordinary forms incised by unknown hands reveal a world “drawn with intention”, that was not only inhabited but imagined.
Along with time, the meanings of all the small things exhibited in Ice Age artare lost. Works of art can not be returned to where they were made or found and if they had a use in rituals which we still perform, then it is completed by a shadow of the thing. In this way we understand these objects not by experience but through evidence, similarly, when such a unique opportunity to see the “real thing” is presented, for the sake of preservation, it can not be by any natural light.
The statues, pendants and decorated tools (and every work of art ever created since) are the result of something which happened to the brains of Homo sapiens between 100- and 50,000 years ago; the emergence of aesthetic creativity. “As imagination bodies forth,” announced Shakespeare’s Theseus: “The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” The poet’s pen, the painter’s brush, a stone axe – each possess the power to show, transform and then project their interpretation of the world through time. This notion of art as a magical ritual is frequently referred to in the exhibition texts and opens a mental channel for the viewer who can make sense of the need to reveal our own world to ourselves through making things to put in it. In A Runaway World,Edmund Leach stated that the people capable of taming their cold wild world with cave art and objects had the ability to “take nature to pieces and recreate it”. This, I think, is one of the BM’s crowning achievements with this exhibition; by revealing a brain with the potential of “storing, reproducing, reinventing and communicating observed realities”, they erode 40 millennia and overlay our minds with the exact same latent “divine inventiveness”, as Leach referred to it, that Ice Age man had at his disposal.
Closing that gap makes contemporary comparisons simple: Work from the likes of Picasso, Henry Moore and Henri Matisse are notable with the same v’s and p’s reserved for describing the creation of their palaeolithic antecedents; primal, primitive, vital, visceral. Implying, however, that these modes for expression are the origins for abstraction and cubism is hard to swallow without the notably absent tall glass of critical explanation. It’s distracting then that a photo of Picasso’s curiosity cabinet is shown to include a cast of the oldest ceramic figure, reminding us that “they invented everything” (which he is quoted as uttering on entering the caves at Lascaux) and more famously, “there is no past or future in art”.
If making things is what makes us human, having vague thoughts sets us further apart from the beasts. Baking into clay or whittling from bone these ideas of self-awareness appears to be less about changing the world than recognising an order or pattern in it. How quickly we understand this way of thinking by looking at the carvings and drawings is astonishing, especially when we recognise ourselves. Female forms dominate the first part of the exhibition with their swollen breasts, fat backs and overtly fertile bodies in degrees of abstraction which create levels of uncertainty “more intriguing than depictions of reality”. Women, like the animal figurines that appear later, are a point of intense fascination beyond the obvious. Firstly they are naked and it was the Ice Age and so we are happy to assume “nudity was an artistic convention”. Secondly they are caricatures of their own femininity, in the same way animals are depicted with a butcher’s understanding as walking slabs of meat or spear-tip away from being a pair of boots.
A little imagination and the Duchamp effect went a long way in identifying potential mediums from which these highly observed forms might be ingeniously and empathetically revealed. Misshapen stones, bones, elbows of antler and tapering mammoth ivory leant themselves nicely to dynamic forms like the fluid bodies of reindeer mid-swim; its tail, spine, neck and nose naturally in line, antlers flush in relief to its body. Such attention to detail only emphasises the intense preoccupation we had with animals in a way we can never truly understand today having domesticated or brought about the extinction of their descendants.
Maybe the objects were too interesting to just look at or there were too many school children in the way of the blurbs, but the quiet and aesthetic communion between objects in their cabinets failed to translate to me the vast geographic and wildly disparate points in time from where they had arrived. In some cases it was thousands of miles and over 10,000 years separating artefacts but, in this exact moment, they are just a few inches from each other. Unconscious or deliberate, it only makes the collapse of space-time in the weird upper library room at the heart of the museum all the more remarkable.
This week I have mostly been doing lettering for Joe’s comics. Peeled eyeballs for upcoming DUCK.
Duck by Joe Kessler coming soon from Space Face Books
Calligraphy by Bryony Quinn
Don McCullin knows how to talk to a camera and so David and Jacqui Morris let him in their retrospective, consciencious documentary. The photographer recalls in steady tones that do not colour the still black and white images of war and humanity, his principal coverage of conflict from the late 1960s onwards; beginning with his “baptism of war” during the civil war in Cyprus and not-quite ending with his violence-free portraiture of the English countryside (since the film’s completion, McCullin has returned to Syria).
This film opened up a big gap in my imagination when I consider my (thankful) lack of first hand experience and my and the rest of society’s contemporary position of being more informed about home and overseas unrest than ever before. It then filled this hole in a confusing, helplessly affecting way with the face-clawing horror of McCullin’s subjects who stare at you dead, alive or mentally detached and somewhere in-between. Also hard to reconcile is the terrible fact that each image is the smallest fragment of time experienced by just one man who has somehow held on to his moral integrity and empathy and the implicit trust of others who look to his photographs for the truth.
At one point McCullin describes an image of two South Vietnamese soldiers left to their injuries on a hell-hot road, eyes open, their wounds “melting into the tarmac” and in the levelling greyscale of a black and white image, their blood is as much a part of the dirt as their chance for living is. His timing is as uncanny as his eye for composition and so the clarity of his subjects are delivered in the medium of devastating aesthetic effect.
Dust Storm, Stratford, Texas, April 18, 1935. Photograph courtesy of NOAA George E. Marsh Album, April 18, 1935. (One of the 100 images used in Trevor Paglen’s archive for the distant future.)
On the occasion of his latest project launching from a remote Kazakh cosmodrome, I got to speak to Trevor Paglen for a piece now on Nowness about The Last Pictures. TLP: An ironic wink at extra-terrestrial beings who may one day come across it, the archive functions as a cave painting in space, a prescient epitaph for an extinct civilization, or as Paglen puts it, “a silent film for the future”. More here.