I have two new enthusiasms to blog about. A little over a month ago I went to the wedding of my friends Miriam and Martin, near Hamburg, in Germany. Ioana and I took a couple of days to explore Hamburg and visited the Kunsthalle, where we saw an exhibition of the Belgian photographer Geert Goiris. Seeing Goiris’ photos for the first time was one of those ‘wow’ moments. His website has all the ones I in the exhibition, I think – check them out! Goiris seeks the extreme edge of civilisation. He journeys to places like the Arctic, Spitsbergen, Iceland, Scandinavia and deserts. There he may sometimes present nature in her pristine state (images of ‘whiteouts’ in the Arctic recall Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and Erased De Kooning), but the strandline of civilisation is never far away. An image of variously coloured shipping containers spaced out on the snow, a snowstorm in the background eliminating the boundary between the land and sky, is a particular favourite. The containers appear to hover in an indeterminate white space. It looks like a minimalist abstract painting (perhaps by Raoul de Keyser). Other works, in the same series, focus on the Russian ship which took Goiris to the Arctic and her crew. images are striking in their economy and observation. Stark and beautiful. They are surreal in the way that they make the familiar strange (“[…] like the surrealists, I don’t locate the bizarre next to daily life, I place it in daily life”, he says). Great wit and keen observation are evident: a collapsed and decayed cactus in the desert resembles a huge hideous spider about to pounce; a view of a lava field (in Iceland?) dusted with snow resembles, for all the world, a stormy sea; the boarded up windows of an abandoned hut in the wilderness look as if they are mirrors reflecting the landscape, so closely do the tawny landscape and the grain of the plywood match each other. Echoes of Magritte, who loved to confuse land, sky and sea. Some of his images of volcanic rock echo Dali.
Another way in which Goiris seeks the extreme of civilisation is through his theme of abandoned modernist structures, especially those with a futuristic, utopian feel to them, like Futuros and other UFO-like structures. A glade of spherical water towers (I think), which look like queer mushrooms, is particularly surreal – have they been converted into homes? Running through all of this work, and one of the things which I think compels me to it, is a sense of melancholy. Surrealism was always about melancholy. There is a beauty about melancholy. I think Goiris’ work will become a touchstone for me, as it has a number of the elements I am striving for: a great formal simplicity but with nevertheless a great deal of feeling invested in it (no formal coldness here; Goiris even uses the words ‘romanticism’ and ‘sensationalism’ about his work); a sense of melancholy in the fragments of civilisation; an interest in landscape, particularly wilderness, and the interface between wilderness and civilisation; and a keen eye for the uncanny.
These musings reminded me of, and to an extent helped me make sense of, the experience of walking under the cliffs at Flamborough Head from Filey Bay and coming across fragments of smashed plastic objects nestling among the chalk boulders: fish crates from Hudson Bay, children’s buckets and spades, toys, flip-flops, floats, bottles and jerry cans. For some reason, it was very moving. All the things lost in the sea at the other end of the bay ended up here, smashed to pieces by the sea and the rocks. The sea was doing its own version of Michael Landy’s Break Down (where the artist fed all of his possessions through an industrial shredder). There are places which function as a kind of ‘exchange zone’ between wilderness and civilisation, where the products of civilisation have to be broken down and converted into the idiom of nature: plastic buckets have to be made like pebbles, worn down in the same way as flints. This is the mirror of the process by which we convert wilderness into our idiom, by imposing roads, buildings and electricity cables on it. We digest nature and nature digests us. (Though the poisoning of the sea around mid-Pacific islands by minuscule fragments of poly bags testifies to the unpalatability of much that we produce).
The other enthusiasm I intended to write about in this blog (which has got longer than I intended, as usual) also came by way of our trip to Hamburg. It is a small toy museum, called Die Dachboden Bande (‘The Attic Gang’) in a converted warehouse in the Speicherstadt. It is really more like an art installation, designed by its founder to express philosophical ideas. Old toys, many broken and dusty, are piled up without any labelling or the organising principles we associate with a museum but in the manner of an attic. The visitor explores this magical, haunting and unsettling space in order to make up his or her own narrative from the highly charged objects and arrangements. Again, a wistful melancholy is the feeling that reigns. It reminded me of a Jan Svankmajer film and of the Skogar Folk Museum in Iceland (the latter was also the creation of one man and the objects in it have a similar kind of potency). Ioana had a field day, as she loves toys. Dachboden Bande has a nice website, here.