Perhaps an attempt at escapism from the drier aspects of academic study, Seeing Serendipity endeavours to examine a range of experiences relating to aesthetics of the everyday and unconventional encounters with art. From the joy found in childish medieval graffiti to the subtle pleasure in watering plants, I aim to prove that enriching aesthetic experiences aren’t exclusive to frequenters of the National Gallery or those with V&A tote bags. Essentially a fortnightly train of thought set in motion by serendipitous encounters with street art, rolling hills, or music overheard in a kebab shop at 2am.
Paper-Mache Goldfish and a Communist Princess
How the BBC’s purchase of an East German children’s film left a generation both awe-struck and traumatised
Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Christel Bodenstein stars as a spoilt princess in The Singing Ringing Tree, a classic of East German cinema. Photo: The Singing Ringing Tree, 1957.
A princess clutching a singing tree flees from a menacing sorcerer dwarf across a painted landscape, all in an attempt to have her hair colour returned from green to blonde. The events depicted in Das singende klingende Bäumchen (The Singing Ringing Tree, 1957) sound more like a particularly concerning dream than a film produced for children. Granted, Disney in the 1950s was producing some trippy viewing material, including the dragon scene in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and pretty much the whole of Alice in Wonderland (1951). But crucially, these films are cartoons; they exist in a world visually distinct from our own. The Singing Ringing Tree blurs this boundary: resulting in golden antlers taped to a horse’s head, gigantic paper-mache goldfish and a terrifying man-bear hybrid.
The infamous man-bear creature. The Singing Ringing Tree, 1957.
The Singing Ringing Tree was produced by the DEFA, East Germany’s first and only state-owned film studio. The film’s plot is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm tale, Hurleburlebutz. A redemption story, it follows an arrogant princess who breaks her promise and refuses to marry a prince after he gifts her a mythical singing tree. Due to various magical promises made to an evil sorcerer, the prince is transformed into a bear and the exiled princess loses her beauty. This can only be restored once she learns the importance of treating all creatures with love and respect. The film version might be summarised as a bizarre attempt to convey a tenuous socialist message through German folklore. The BBC purchased it in 1964 and the characters were given a voice-over by the comforting tones of Tony Bilbow, BBC broadcaster and film critic. The film was chopped into three episodes and broadcast in black and white as part of the Tales from Europe series which ran throughout the 1960s and 70s. Of all the films shown in this series, The Singing Ringing Tree reigns supreme in its infamy. A generation of Brits can recall cowering behind the sofa, or at the very least left with a distinctly uneasy feeling.
The Princess first attempts to flee the evil sorcerer on a giant goldfish. The Singing Ringing Tree, 1957.
I do not believe the confusing storytelling, nor the thinly veiled communist propaganda, can be blamed for such a reaction, but rather the overall unnerving aesthetic of the film. The DEFA during this period did not have the means with which to produce cartoons, yet made the decision to produce a fantasy film nonetheless. This decision resulted in countless amateur-looking props and sets akin to hastily assembled stage scenery. The film also serves as an excellent example of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect, wherein objects with human-like features generate an eerie and disturbed emotional response from the observer. The goldfish with forward-facing eyes and the furry, partially obscured face of the man-bear achieve such an effect with disquieting ease.
Running back through the nightmarish stage-set lands. The Singing Ringing Tree, 1957.
The film has made an indelible impression on the minds exposed to its eccentricity via the BBC. In 1997, The Fast Show made a spoof satirising its inexplicable strangeness. A 2002 BBC Radio 4 special interviewed those who had watched the series when young, describing the experience as ‘one of the great traumas of post-war childhood.’ There are The Singing Ringing Tree fanatics who fondly recall their first viewing, and those like my Dad who only remember the chilling whites of the eyes of a man in an ill-fitting bear costume. The cultural impact made by The Singing Ringing Tree can only be speculated upon, but I believe there is evidence of its distinctive aesthetic permeating pop culture through The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007), itself setting a stylistic precedent in various forms of visual media. Whether remembered as fear-inducing or as a seminal work of kitsch cinema, The Singing Ringing Tree possessed the rare ability to strike a (dis)chord with millions.
Ray’s a Laugh: A Timeless Insight into Strained Family Relationships
Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Richard Billingham, Untitled (RAL 28), 1994.
Richard Billingham’s photobook Ray’s a Laugh was published in 1996 to critical acclaim. The series documents the lives of Billingham’s parents, Ray and Liz, in their Black Country council flat. Ray, at first glance, is distinguished by his alcoholism and reclusive tendencies. Liz by her unkemptness, her hoarding of naff trinkets, and the grim menagerie of animals under her care: seven ratty-looking cats and two dogs. The photographs had been lying abandoned in plastic bags before being discovered by Billingham’s Sunderland University tutor, who encouraged him to reconsider their use.
Richard Billingham, Untitled (RAL 6), 1995.
The series has been regarded as a poignant, uncomfortable insight into the British underclass; social realism turned ‘squalid realism’. I would refrain from categorising it as documentary photography, as this implies Billingham had a preconceived idea of what he wanted to convey with the photographs. I don’t believe they were taken with the intention of ‘exposing the British societal underbelly’ or providing shock-factor as, unfortunately, they have often been described. In fact, the notion of their ‘shock-factor’ indicates the privileged position of so many in the art world. They were simply taken to serve as references for Billingham to paint from during his art foundation course. Paintings he could never bring himself to finish, because the change of medium seemed to sap the life from his subject matter. The photographs therefore have an incredibly refreshing quality to them – a lack of pretence.
Richard Billingham, Untitled (RAL 49), 1995.
It is safe to say Ray and Liz had been neglectful parents to Billingham and his younger brother, Jason, who on one occasion was taken into care. This strained relationship is portrayed with profound authenticity. In flipping past each image, Ray and Liz’s true, three-dimensional characters are revealed. There’s a tenderness that surfaces in certain photographs. In one, Ray receives a plate of egg and soldiers gratefully, a loving look overcoming his face. Another shows a look of ecstatic joy from Liz as she feeds a newborn kitten with milk from a syringe. These are complex people who are clearly capable of expressing love, appreciation, affection, and Billingham depicts them as such. There’s no sense of vilification or overwhelming resentment from Billingham, but an almost therapeutic acceptance of his upbringing and the people behind it. A stoicism in the face of an unfair reality.
Richard Billingham, Untitled (NRAL 13), 1996.
Billingham’s lingering, arguably unwarranted, affection towards his parents manifests itself in the very title of the photobook. Given the book’s dark and emotionally complicated subject matter, ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ initially comes across as slightly dismissive. As many know, it’s far easier to dismiss problematic people whom we love as silly and harmless than to directly address the damage they have inflicted. It’s also a product of pity. Billingham recognises his parents as shaped by their own demons; alcoholism, obesity, depression, as well as social factors – inadequate social housing and limited opportunities – which give the work an inherently political edge. Billingham escaped poverty, but acknowledged in a 2019 interview for The Guardian that “statistically, I should be in prison, dead or homeless.”
Richard Billingham, Untitled (RAL 36), 1995.
Billingham’s powerful debut photo series explores the timeless, universal issue of coming to terms with the relationships forged with parents, and the transgenerational trauma that follows
Richard Billingham, Untitled (RAL 36), 1995.
Music from The Killing Fields
Cambodian Rock: a genre weaponised, a legacy that humanises
Wednesday, 13 January 2021
In the grainy texture of 1960s video footage, a woman dances to the twanging guitar of surf-rock. She is stylish, dressed in high-waisted flares and a tank top, her hair teased into a voluminous black beehive that bobs to the rhythm. Each hip flick and shoulder roll exudes confidence, playfulness. This type of go-go dancing would have been at home in one of the teeming nightclubs on LA’s Sunset Strip. But this is Cambodia. The room is panelled with bamboo, as is typical of a traditional Cambodian stilt house, and the vocals are sung in Khmer. The clip is from the 1969 film The Joy of Life, written and directed by Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia during French colonial rule. Sihanouk, with an eclectic skillset which included filmmaker and singer-songwriter, was a fierce proponent of the burgeoning music scene in Phnom Penh from the late fifties onwards. The Cambodian Rock he championed is an extraordinary music genre: technically excellent in its musicianship, captivating in its sound, and bittersweet given its abrupt demise.
For some historical context: twentieth century Cambodia underwent a series of complex political and cultural shifts. Throughout his reign, Sihanouk fought for greater autonomy from French rule. 1949 saw a treaty passed recognising Cambodia as ‘independent’ within the French Union, which amounted to little change and ultimately fuelled anti-French sentiment. By the time true independence was achieved in 1953, dissatisfaction and ill-feeling had grown by a dangerous degree among the Cambodian populace. The relationship forged between Cambodian people and Western cultural influences over the following years became increasingly strained and deeply political.
Baksey Cham Krong, believed to be Cambodia’s first guitar band (c. early 1960s)
The woman with the enviable dance skills in Sihanouk’s The Joy of Life is Pen Ran, a giant of the Cambodian Rock music scene. A kind of Cambodian Brigitte Bardot, Ran is a product of the sixties sexual revolution. Her lyrics are intelligent, subversive and flirtatious, and demonstrate Ran’s awareness and celebration of her own sexual appeal. She has left a wonderful oeuvre of songs with appropriately scandalous titles, including I Want to be Your Lover and There’s Nothing to be Ashamed Of. One of Pen Ran’s most popular tracks, I’m Thirty-One, was ingeniously produced in response to her more conservative industry rival, Ros Serey Sothea’s I’m Sixteen. It details Ran’s contentment at being an unmarried, successful thirty-one-year-old woman and her relief in not having succumbed to pressure from her parents to marry a boring man for the sake of social acceptance. Ran’s questioning of gender roles is just one example of the subversive topics given a platform by Cambodian Rock.
Album cover of a Pen Ran record. Ran is remembered for her outstanding musical creativity.
The brilliance of Cambodian Rock goes beyond mere ‘novelty factor’, an inevitable reaction in the West given its unique blend of traditional Eastern and modern Western pop music. Cambodian Rock is good in its own right. It is important to acknowledge that Cambodia was already a proudly musical country before Western pop influences. The importation of Western records and the opportunity to tune into American radio stations during the Vietnam War merely added fuel to the fire. The speed at which people in the Cambodian Rock scene mastered foreign instruments such as the electric guitar and organ is a testament to their outstanding musical ability. And I stress mastered. You need only listen to the beautiful composition of Sieng Vanthy’s Console Me, featuring an adept execution of electric guitar enhanced by the characteristically East Asian control of strings. Or Pen Ran’s Snaeha, which utilises the tro, a bowed Khmer folk instrument, to deliver a cover of Cher’s Bang Bang that challenges the primacy of the original.
Album cover of a Sinn Sisamouth record. Sisamouth was known as ‘The King of Cambodian Rock.’
Whilst Phnom Penh’s music scene flourished in the fifties and sixties, Cambodia’s political world darkened. Three decades of political turbulence followed the end of French rule in 1953, including the infamous period of 1975-79 in which the Khmer Rouge – a self-described Marxist-Leninist party – initiated a genocide killing up to three million people, roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In March 1970 Sihanouk fell out of favour due to his failure to keep the chaos of the Vietnam War from spilling over Cambodia’s border. As a result, Cambodian Rock became inescapably politicised. Musicians generally sided with the Khmer Republic, the pro-American government, during a civil war against the communist Khmer Rouge. The years leading up the Khmer Rouge’s victory in 1975 saw an explosion of musical creativity involving the introduction of funk and soul influences and a diversification into hard rock, psychedelia and acoustic folk. Some musicians, such as Yol Aularong, have since been described as proto-punk for producing music that directly challenged and mocked the conservative values held by the Khmer Rouge. A brave feat considering the ruthlessness of the winning party. With the triumph of the Khmer Rouge at the end of the civil war in 1975, Cambodian Rock was swiftly snuffed out along with the participating musicians.
It feels somewhat counterintuitive to write about a topic inseparable from genocide for a column with ‘serendipity’ in its title. But I would argue that Cambodian Rock is shamefully under-discussed and that it humanises the countless unnamed victims of a regime which is likewise under-discussed. We see the humanising quality of cultural relics in objects like the diary of Anne Frank, which has for generations acted as a tool to inspire empathy via a first-person account of the impact of the Holocaust. Or in the way Rohingya Muslims are today using music to convey the horrors of their on-going persecution. The body is ephemeral, and those of the Khmer Rouge’s victims have melded with Cambodia’s landscape in the miles of mass graves known as ‘The Killing Fields’. By contrast, when music is enjoyed and appreciated, it encourages a preservation of the memory of those who made it for years to come: documentaries are made celebrating the genre, compilation albums and radio shows are put together by admirers.
The first Cambodian Rock musician I ever came across was Sinn Sisamouth. His Krowm Maek Ler Dey is a stunningly melancholic, meandering melody infused with grief due to its tragic context. I am yet to find music more extraordinary than this, or music more worth sharing.
A fleeing soldier clutching an electric guitar. Photograph used in John Pirozzi’s 2014 documentary ‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.’
Huoy Meas – Nek Na Min Rom (Who Isn’t Dancing)
Huoy Meas – Unique Child
Pen Ran – I Want to Be Your Lover
Pen Ran – Jombang Jet
Pen Ran – Oun 31
Pen Ran - Snaeha
Pen Ran – There’s Nothing to Be Ashamed Of
Pen Ran – Why Follow Me
Ros Serey Sothea – Flowers in the Pond
Ros Serey Sothea – Heaven’s Song
Ros Serey Sothea – I Will Starve Myself to Death
Sinn Sisamouth – Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten
Sinn Sisamouth – Eh Na Tov Tahnsor?
Sinn Sisamouth – Krowm Maek Ler Dey
Sieng Vannthy – Console Me
Playlist link - Spotify
Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Perhaps the appeal of Millican Dalton is that his drastic lifestyle change fulfils the fantasy of the office block-bound weekend walker: those for whom a lungful of Lake District air temporarily clears the mind of deadline worries and mortgage woes. Dalton’s life story may serve to satisfy a common modern yearning, which is similarly reflected in the booming sales of ‘Nature Literature’ and demand for nature documentaries. More importantly, I believe what makes Dalton such a compelling individual is that he has grown increasingly relevant since his death in 1947. As a strict vegetarian, pacifist, advocate of self-sustainability and promoter of the outdoors as a tonic for both physical and mental health; his basic principles expand to encompass a whole life philosophy, which accounts for the rather cryptic social maxim inscribed on the cave wall at Borrowdale. Although clearly influenced by Romantic ideals, such as Rousseau’s pessimistic view of modern civilisation, Dalton’s principles align more with that of certain branches of 60s counterculture. Strikingly ahead of his time, his lifestyle acts as a precursor to the Flower Power movement and boom in communal living organisations to arrive twenty years later.
The low-impact lifestyle promoted by Dalton is also particularly relevant to a relatively new branch of ethics, environmental aesthetics, which explores the link between our respect for natural environments and appreciation of their aesthetic qualities. Awareness for environmental issues is now often raised through visual media. For example, those who may enjoy the outdoors at a distance, preferring to experience nature via the screen of a smart TV and the comforting narration of Attenborough. It can be argued that the modern disconnect with nature is best remedied with an aesthetic, rather than solely intellectual, experience. With a dire need to instil a sense of collective responsibility for the natural world, environmental aesthetics is an invaluable tool for prompting an emotive response to the climate crisis. Due to this I predict in the ensuing years, with increasing attention paid to the relationship we have with the natural world and our aesthetic experience of it, Millican Dalton will no longer be as obscure as on the day I stumbled into the Borrowdale cave.
Millican Dalton at the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, 1940.
On Opera and Britney Spears
Exploring a Wagnerian approach to pop music.
Wednesday, 25 November 2020
Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan und Isolde in the first production of the opera. Munich, 1865.
Several months ago, on a particularly rowdy night-bus home from Brixton, I was listening to When I Saw You by The Ronettes. I had hoped the comforting harmonies of early R&B pop might muffle the sound of a drunken argument playing out two rows in front of me, but I found my mind wondering to another musical genre all together. The Ronettes were a seminal girl group in early sixties Pop music. Although suitably kitten-heeled and beehived, the trio didn’t find fame until March 1963 when they were signed by visionary record producer Phil Spector. The following years saw the release of several tracks that demonstrate Spector’s innovative ‘Wall of Sound’ music production formula. When I Saw You is one such track. It is an archetypal Doo-Wop influenced R&B song: a sentimental romantic narrative crooned in the melodious tones adored by the 1950s teen. The most extraordinary feature of When I Saw You arrives in the last ten seconds of the track, with a motif of descending strings lifted directly from the Liebestod in Wagner’s tragic Tristan und Isolde, an opera which had premiered almost a century earlier in 1865. I had heard of Spector’s self-described ‘Wagnerian approach’ to rock and roll, but happening across this musical exchange – a nod from one master to another – was enlivening. It also gave an uncomfortable bus journey an unexpected silver lining.
The scope of influence that Spector’s desire to create “little symphonies for the kids” has had on the history of pop music cannot be overstated. Several of Spector’s developments, including the ‘playing the studio’ compositional technique and the very status of music producer as auteur, have become naturalised elements in music production. Another essential development in the story of pop music as we know it lies in Spector’s knack as a businessman. He recognised the spending power of the American teen and catered precisely to their tastes. This is evident in the storylines of the songs he penned for girl groups, which are invariably centred around high-school crushes and whimsical accounts of first love.
Spector’s Wall of Sound formula aimed to mimic the operatic drama of rich orchestral layering and achieved this through the use of large ensembles and echo chambers. Another Ronettes track, Be my Baby, features a bizarre experiment involving multiple pianists playing in synchrony to acquire this novel depth of sound. Crucially, this Wagnerian approach to sound played superbly through the analogue sound systems of the era, blaring out richly and distinctively from jukeboxes, causing his tracks to stand out in the record stores habituated by his teenage audiences. For five years, Spector played maestro to this adolescent demographic, producing over twenty-five top forty hits from 1960-65. This emphasis on the purchasing power of the young buyer has also become an established and crucial element of the pop music industry.
Spector’s firm hold on the charts didn’t go unnoticed by others looking to make waves in the industry. Brian Wilson, the lead singer and creative mind behind The Beach Boys, was besotted with Spector’s methods. After obsessing over the technique for several years, Wilson released the highly experimental Pet Sounds LP in May 1966. A reaction to both Spector’s work and the instrumental diversity in The Beatles’ Rubber Soul produced the previous year, Pet Sounds is now considered one of the most influential LPs ever produced. Although The Beatles’ Revolver certainly experimented with sound production, I don’t believe the band offered a comprehensive retaliation to Pet Sounds until May 1967 with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles decisively marked the union of innovative studio practices with the idea of the album itself as a cohesive work of art; an intriguing evolution of Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. A century after Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s orchestration techniques continued to inspire, prompting a quick succession of musical megalomaniacs who came to define the pop music genre.
Still from the music video for Toxic, 2004. Courtesy of VEVO.
Pop music is often overlooked and undervalued as a source for exploring the convergence of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and considering the infiltration of themes of mass-production and commerce into the art world from the sixties to the present day. As someone born in the late nineties, the undisputed Princess of Pop and Queen of Commercialism for me is Britney Spears. Britney’s ‘all American girl’ stylisation in her early career, her iconic dancing and distinctively girlish vocals have combined to make her an ultra-marketable entertainer in the twenty-first century. As a carefully curated performer designed for mass-consumption, Britney’s music powerfully demonstrates Spector’s legacy. Her music also bears the lasting influence of Spector’s contributions in sound engineering. With its numerous cultural allusions, from Blade Runner to Marilyn Monroe, the 2004 music video to Toxic acts as a masterful postmodern pastiche of pop culture references. Although probably quite different form the artistic legacy Wagner had in mind, it is nothing less than a noughties Gesamtkunstwerk.
In Praise of Shadows: Beauty Growing from the Realities of Life
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Illustration by Himarni Bronsword
Usually, I’m not one to celebrate the arrival of autumn. I envy those who appear to revel in the oncoming bleakness; unfazed by the fleeting daylight, excited by the opportunity to buy anything remotely pumpkin-spiced. This year, however, having left for London in the summer, arriving home in South Manchester for lockdown meant arriving to a place transformed. The city had been entirely engulfed by the ochre hue of early November. This transition had completely escaped my notice in London, owing to life being dominated by concrete and the constant sense of being pressed for time.
In his seminal work on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki explores issues such as how we interact with darkness, and the degree to which we appreciate our given surroundings. First published in 1933, the essay pays particular attention to the contrast between Japanese and western aesthetics during a period of encroaching western influence on Japanese design.
Tanizaki argues that certain qualities of Japanese culture are at odds with the infiltration of western technologies, which had become inescapable in Japan’s cities by the 1930s. Several examples are given; including the phonograph, which Tanizaki argues cannot convey the most valued qualities of Japanese music, those of tonal nuance and reticent softness. Similarly, the effect of electric flood lighting on the traditional Nō and Kabuki theatres is described as detrimental to their enigmatic beauty, as the use of masks and the subtle iridescence of the costumes are enhanced by low light.
Tanizaki muses that if such gadgets had not been ‘borrowed’ from the west, the Japanese may have developed them naturally, independently to accommodate local tastes. The fountain pen, for example, might have had a noiseless tufted tip with jet black ink, never blue, seeping down steadily from the handle. The term ‘national temper’ is used to illustrate the key variable here. The West is characterised by Tanizaki as striving for never-ending, often needless, improvement. A desire to master the elements and dominate nature. Traditional Japanese design, by contrast, seeks harmony with the inevitable. Architecture utilises darkness in the shadowy eaves to reveal the subtle beauty of a painting. A lacquerware bowl is prized more highly once it has been tarnished through repeated use and handling. Although it may be practical to light a room with electric bulbs, or have a bathroom made up in dazzling porcelain tiles, Tanizaki holds that “the quality that we call beauty...must always grow from the realities of life,” and sometimes, life is dingy.
This strikes me as an incredibly noble frame of mind. And an excellent example of how aesthetics can express a general cultural attitude. The Japanese term shikata ga nai, although without a direct translation, roughly means ‘it cannot be helped.’ Again, this extends beyond itself to embody an entire approach to life. Shikata ga nai can be uttered in situations as trivial as being overtaken in a supermarket queue, right through to tragic and life-altering events. In the same vein, the aesthetic concept wabi-sabi is derived from Buddhist teaching and embraces impermanence and imperfection. A dignified resignation to things beyond our control has shaped the Japanese concept of what is considered beautiful.
This way of thinking is slowly being given a new lease of life in the west. Practicing mindfulness is certainly a burgeoning trend, with a flurry of apps for guided meditation emerging over the last few years. We are increasingly coming to realise that the industrial and domineering relationship the west has formed with the environment, as described by Tanizaki, has catastrophic effects both external, as evidenced by climate change, but also internal, as our collective obsession with conventional notions of success, productivity and constant improvement take their toll on mental health.
Sakai Hōitsu’s painting of a persimmon tree is to me one of the most evocative depictions of autumn. The branches are spindly, warped and imperfect. The few remaining leaves are dying yet elegant, beautiful in a different way to their summer selves. In Praise of Shadows provokes thought on alternate approaches to appreciating beauty. One that is grounded in reality, and which can extend beyond aesthetics to support a healthier frame of mind. Perhaps I shouldn’t wince at the first sign of ground frost, but instead joyfully anticipate the crunch of footsteps on frozen grass.
Sakai Hōitsu, Persimmon Tree. 1816. The Met Museum, New York.
Miserable, Wild, Distracted - 1350
Wednesday, 28 October 2020
Illustration by Himarni Bronsword
An hour and a half journey from the perpetually busy entrance hall of King’s Cross station is the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ashwell. Stepping across the threshold, you are immediately enveloped by the serene space between stone floor and lofty vaulted ceiling. The mere mention of ‘medieval architecture’ conjures up images of tall spires and gothic arches. But opportunities to understand the people behind these buildings; their worries, flaws, humour and character, in essence, their humanising traits, are rare.
Built in the early 1300s, St Mary’s is one of several UK churches with excellent examples of medieval graffiti. These unofficial, oftentimes clumsy etchings come in the form of anxious prayers from those suffering through the Black Death, archaic Christian symbols and occasional rude village gossip. Whilst one section of stonework is inscribed with sombre life advice, another playfully suggests that ‘Barbara is a regular young vixen.’ When walking around the church’s graffiti-laden pillars, you quickly encounter a breadth of emotion. Another favourite reads Archidiaconus Asemnes; ‘the archdeacon is an ass.’ A few feet away from this, stood in the aisle, a group of gilet-clad locals discuss the best recipe for shepherd’s pie. To witness two such informal exchanges of information, over six hundred years apart yet in such close proximity, is an uncommon and striking experience. It’s particularly unusual to find these instances of self-expression dating from a time when most visual culture is characterised by strict adherence to style and the anonymity of the craftsperson. Archidiaconus Asenmnes breathes life into the scatological humour found in Chaucer and the satire in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
During my visit, restoration works were taking place in the bell tower. Florescent orange street barricades had been hauled in and polythene dust coverings hung phantom-like across pillars. A small Sony radio blasted out a tinny rendition of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven, giving rise to a surreal moment of 80s goth meets 14th century gothic: Pop culture permeating cultural heritage. Here arises the issue of displacement.
Personally, I revel in instances such as these; cases of the contemporary world interacting with the archaic. The prospect of Ashwell’s medieval graffiti being presented as artefacts in a museum setting, clinical and serious, would no doubt sap the life from them. The delight they generate is arguably more a result of their present context in a building which maintains its status as beloved community hub rather than their standalone existence. However, this presents a problem of accessibility. Ashwell, like many villages in the Home Counties, is made up of a very obvious demographic, which is about as white and middle class as the average cast of Midsomer Murders. It is saddening to think that a trade-off would have to be made between an enlivening context and wider demographic accessibility. Sadder still is the fact that placement in a museum would not completely solve this problem; a 2019 government survey suggested that ethnic minorities were far less likely to have visited a museum or gallery in the last year. I won’t insult the study of museology and demographic interaction by attempting to explore it further here, but it is certainly important to bear in mind.
In short, this serendipitous encounter is not without its limitations. It would be difficult to happen across historical graffiti without prior knowledge of its existence. The last ten years has seen an increase in attention, with Matthew Champion’s Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches acting as a helpful field guide for those interested. What surveys such as these acknowledge, but fail to explore thoroughly, is that these works have been disregarded for hundreds of years. They certainly defy the western artistic canon’s notions of artwork and craftmanship from the middle ages, and many would contest categorising them as ‘art’ at all.
This classification conundrum is an appropriate introduction to a column seeking to emphasise the value in everyday aesthetics; in the experience of an object as opposed to, for example, its status as an artwork. Seeing these strange scrawlings was thought-provoking, joy-inducing, and revelatory. Illuminating the personal lives of the medieval layperson and our historically dim understanding of their internal worlds.
High on the wall beneath the church tower reads ‘Miserable, Wild, Distracted - 1350.’ Three words that would be equally at home on a pub toilet door. A binding thread of human boredom and frustration, winding its way down through the centuries, perhaps resonating with a yawning child reluctantly attending Communion today.