Head over to Barbican tube station and then take the short walk down the road and up the ugly concrete walkway to get to the Museum of London which is still guarded by that horse with the rather silly looking roundels stuck to its sides. Somewhere on my travels I’ve seen adverts promoting a photography exhibition here and, since I’m already scheduled to go to the Barbican Centre – which, rather curiously, is putting on another photo show immediately after the last somewhat disappointing one has just ended – I thought I might as well stop off here first and try to fling the proverbial pebble to terminate a couple of art-birds, if not quite simultaneously then one after the other and in double quick succession. Coincidentally, there was also an item on the radio this morning about another temporary display at the Museum that’s been so popular the curators are thinking of according it the ultimate accolade of permanent residential status. And, that being the case, I figure I’d better nip down and try and see it now before the bureaucrats get all hostile and try and kick it out.
And what, I hear you ask, is this amazing attraction that is bringing in the crowds, titillating the tourists and wowing the kids? Could it be some iconic artistic masterpiece or wonderful new example of super-sophisticated cyber technology? No, don’t be silly, it’s actually just a lump or two of slimy sludge scraped from the sides of the infamous Fatberg monster which is not, as its name might suggest, the corpulent villain from the latest Marvel Comics movie. In fact, it’s the compacted adiposal waste arising from a decade’s worth of culinary misbehaviour whereby restaurants, fast food outlets and ordinary individual amateur home-cookers tipped the excess gunk from all their greasy spoon fry-ups and experimental sauté sessions straight down the plug hole. Sliding untreated into the capital’s sewerage system, apparently this ugly detritus slowly and silently congealed and coagulated into one single mighty clump the size of ten double-decker buses, twelve great white whales or the entire House of Lords, until it was recently discovered and then slowly dismembered by a team of specially trained operatives using pick axes, pneumatic drills and enough Fairy Liquid to fill ten Olympic swimming pools.
Sounds impressive, although, when I actually get to see the Museum’s display of this horrorful symbol of capitalistic excess and consequent moral decrepitude, it’s all a bit disappointing. I thought maybe the beast would be a ten-foot tall snarling hulk held in check by sturdy chains and watched over by a dozen machine-gun-wielding heavies all nervously fearing a replay of the famous last reel of King Kong where the mighty ape escapes into the urban night and starts trashing the city. Instead of which, I find that the dangerous fatty blob has been desiccated and shrunk into what looks like a small gray amorphous lump of discarded concrete, albeit with a couple of Jamie Oliver’s severed fingers sticking out. Ok, I think maybe that last bit was an illusory trick of the light that…
Anyway, having had enough of all that absurdist diversion I get back on track for the Museum’s other somewhat more substantial show, London Nights, a selection of around 200 snaps from about sixty snappers working over the course of the past eighty or so years, and selected to show a slightly less familiar, slightly more darker, side of the capital. I suppose, not unsurprisingly, most of the shots are in black and white, with the emphasis on former but with sufficient shades of gray to add colour to the compositions although, I have to say the ensemble as a whole struck me as being just a bit bland and run-of-the-mill. And, indeed, the most memorable images are in some ways the most clichéd with three examples summarising three consecutive decades – the dome of St Pauls’ rising above the smoke of the Blitz; Piccadilly Circus illuminated by the bright lights of its famous adverts; and the glare from a rather harsh looking lady of the night who would perhaps have preferred to remain in the shadows.
Most of the other imagery is similarly pretty much as expected, tending to either stress the loneliness of the twilight hours – with picturesque scenes of empty office buildings and lights reflected in the desolate puddled streets – or else the forced conviviality of those out to enjoy their night on the town – with excited revelers packed into dingy pubs or relaxed toffs lounging in private clubs. All in all, I suppose it’s not a bad show but there’s nothing here that’s very surprising or, dare I say it, enlightening and I think I would have been a bit disappointed had I had to pay the full £12 entrance fee. As it is, I managed to get a ticket discounted down to £6 to take into account my age and unwillingness to pay the recommended voluntary contribution. Well, as I explained to the young lady at the ticket desk, I’ve donated enough over the years so that, like Tony Hancock, it’s the lapels of my suits that always go first…a comedic reference that I could tell was utterly lost on her. And even when I tried to explain about the everyman from East Cheam and how in years gone by donors to good causes were rewarded by little paper flags that were attached by pins to the…oh well, I just don’t thinks she was very interested.
No matter, next stop is the Barbican Art Gallery where two female documentarians from two different generations have each been given a floor to show off their stuff. First comes Dorothea Lange and even if you’re not familiar with the name then you’ll almost certainly recognise one of her works, the Migrant Mother, since it’s become the quintessential poster image of 1920s Depression Era America. And rightly so for the picture of the poverty stricken mother with her clinging kids perfectly personifies not just the gritty grimness of the baleful economic situation but also the stoic determination to overcome it. Ironically, Lange had such a natural flair for making lyrical compositions that whether she’s recording striking dustbowl landscapes; farmers and families displaced by the contemporaneous social crises; or some of the Japanese-American citizens interned after Pearl Harbour – another controversial political episode in America’s chequered history that she recorded in detail – all her photographs look beautifully framed and perfectly structured. It’s a pretty stylistic characteristic that perhaps occasionally jars with the often depressing subject matter that came under her activist scrutiny, but then I don’t think she was just trying to produce simplistic propaganda. Rather, the main practical role of her work was to draw attention to, and then illustrate, the long-form articles that appeared in the great picture story magazines of the period. Either way, Lange’s imagery remains compelling.
By contrast, Vanessa Winship’s photographs, that occupy the upper floor at the Barbican, tend to reject the formalistic approach and structure and, presumably in an effort to find what might be considered to be a more accurate reflection of the newer, less certain Post-Modern, post-millennial world in which we all now live, take an altogether more oblique view of things. Her approach seems to be to skirt around a subject taking pot shots at different unrelated aspects so that even after I’ve looked at all her evidence, I still feel I know about as little of the true situation in places unfamiliar to me like Turkey, Georgia and the Balkans as I did before I joined her tour. Although maybe, in retrospect, it wasn’t such a good idea to try to see quite so much documentary photography work in one day, as my concentration certainly started to lapse when looking at the Winship productions and I don’t think my few comments above probably do justice to her talents as a contemporary chronicler of cultural concerns.
If I get a chance I think I’ll try to go back and take a second look but, in the meantime, I’m in desperate need of a bit of light, colouful relief and so cross town to get to the Gagosian gallery for a special display of the late works of the recently departed Howard Hodgkin. It’s a terribly poignant and utterly marvelous display that shows the great old colourist repeating all the old painterly tricks and tropes that he spent such a long and productive life developing and defining. Except that this display clearly shows him to be slowly losing control of some of his motor functions and editorial sensibilities. So the paint is still slapped on and streaked and layered but without any of the care and precision that once helped make his work as sweet and sharp as a bag of sherbet lemons. Looking at all the sloppy brushmarks here today I couldn’t help thinking of that great iconic scene from Lear where the old King is – ok, I admit it, I’m bluffing – the cultural reference that actually came to mind was the bit near the end of Space Odyssey where the computer is slowly disconnected and decommissioned leaving the once mighty HAL reciting nursery rhymes as he gives up and goes gently into that goodnight.