The Oyster's Earrings

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

We've Moved!

It was recently brought to my attention that googlers searching for 'The Oyster's Earrings' are still being directed to this site, rather than the shiny new one that has been up since April. That new site, for your information, is here:

See you on the other side,


Monday, 25 May 2009

The F Word

George Orwell had this to say about the poetry of W.B. Yeats:

Translated into political terms, Yeats’s tendency is Fascist...the theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is true that “all this”, or something like it, “has happened before”, then science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes for ever impossible. It does not much matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to an age of tyranny.

Orwell was paying particularly close attention to Yeats's poem "The Second Coming", which characterises history's movement as one of 'Turning and turning in the widening gyre'.

If history moves in spirals then progress is impossible: it's an analysis that feels strangely appropriate for one of the most divisive publications on the British market at present: Conor McNicholas's weekly music magazine NME. The cover of the 05/05/09 issue contained a phrase that would rank highly in a hypothetical list of "The Most Glib Statements I Have Ever Encountered in the Media" (along with "Blackberry for Everyone", displayed in the window of a T-Mobile store in Glasgow). The phrase ran as follows:


Not only does this analysis feel utterly redundant - surely Fleet Foxes were last summer's Fleet Foxes? - but its logic is also deeply dubious. For, like the contemporary culture industry, with its constant reiteration of old themes, styles and crazes under the "Retro" rubric, it subscribes to the selfsame cyclical view of history that Orwell finds so troubling in Yeats's writing. While purportedly celebrating innovation, the NME actually apotheosises the past by figuring it as a pair of shoes that are repeatedly filled, vacated and refilled. The more things change, the more they stay the same - this is the implicit message of the NME's obssession with all things emergent.

It's tempting, then, for those who loathe the NME with a passion - and there are many such individuals, not least among the generation that is the magazine's prime target demographic - to have done with it and label the publication Fascist (this is not a generational instinct - viz. Jennifer Saunders in a December 1982 episode of The Young Ones directing the term at a party-crashing Father Christmas). Mutatis Mutandis: "Translated into political terms, the NME’s tendency is Fascist...the theory that music moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of real innovation." Tempting, but perhaps not advisable, as such labelling has recently been recognised as deeply problematic. Fallacious even: Mike Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies, known colloquially as Godwin's Law, penalises those who revert to a Reductio ad Hitlerum form in order to win a debate, based on the adage that, 'As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one'. Godwin explains his creation thus:

In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers' insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning...invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope).

To safeguard against this 'particularly silly and offensive meme...and perhaps to curtail the glib Nazi comparisons', Godwin's law recommends that we consider the use-value of an argument to be nullified once the Reductio ad Hitlerum rears its ugly head. So where does this leave me? Where does it leave my contemporaries that dislike the NME even more strongly than myself? Is my instinctive equation (I came up with the bare bones of this argument in a supermarket queue the instant I had read that headline) of Yeatsian fascism with one of the cornerstones of British music journalism just another contender for the award of my own devising, "The Most Glib Statement I Have Ever Encountered in the Media"? I'll risk it: for the stock it sets in historical reiteration; and for the truly conservative core it retains while paying lip service to innovation, I hereby declare the NME to be - in the Yeatsian mode, and with a small f - fascist.


Orwell, George. "W.B. Yeats (1943)",
The Occidental Quarterly Online, May 12, 2009. [accessed 25/05/09]

Yeats, W.B. "The Second Coming",
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, ed. Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 2006.

Godwin, Mike. "Meme, Counter-meme",
Wired, issue 2.10, Oct 1994. [accessed 25/05/09].

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A Seasonal Non-Sequitur

For many, the joys of summer are signified by the phrase 'cloudless skies'. I, however, side with Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, whose manifesto affirms:

WE BELIEVE that clouds are unjustly maligned
and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it.
Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

Clouds are undoubtedly one of the highlights of the natural world. And their formation obeys one of the most poetic principles of physics: like pearls and the bubbles in champagne, they condense around atmospheric impurities known as 'condensation nuclei'; particles that are anomalous,
unwanted, adulterated.

This is also the principle that informs the music of the Argentinian actress-turned-musician, Juana Molina (pictured below). Her subtle, off-kilter songs condense around "mistakes", as she explained in a 2006 interview with the Independent's Phil Meadley:

"I had a problem at this big folk festival in Seattle when the rented keyboard I was using wouldn't load my music samples. The audience were waiting a long time and a few yelled out that I should just sing with my guitar, so I started to sing the keyboard parts with the voice, and it sounded great. So when I returned to the studio I decided that I should sing like the keyboard notes, and that the behaviour of the singing should follow suit. Even if it was out of tempo or didn't fit with the other notes, I had to sing it. So a new world of de-tuning and out-of-time notes opened up to me. I discovered that the note that didn't work at the beginning becomes so beautiful that you build everything around it. It's like the story of the ugly duckling that grows up to be a swan."

A profoundly skewed song such as "La Verdad", from Molina's third album Son, is as beautiful as any pearl or any cloud. I don't long for cloudless skies this summer, not when so much of what is great in this world is founded on imperfection.


"The Manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society". [accessed 13/05/09].

Meadley, Phil. "Juana Molina: A Musician Taking Flight",
The Independent, Friday 21st July 2006. [accessed 13/05/09].

The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire

'This will never end 'cause I want more
More, give me more, give me more'.

With these lines opens one of the most remarkable records of the year so far. Fever Ray (Karin Dreijer Andersson)'s "If I Had a Heart", the first of the ten tracks that make up her self-titled debut album, is ostensibly sung out of a dark place: the distorted voice sounds demonic, the title suggests a lack of humanity. Thus, Mark Pytlik of Pitchfork justly describes the song as 'a shivering, timely meditation on greed, immorality, and lust for power that dovetails nicely with AIG and Madoff '. But whatever "If I Had a Heart" may have to say about the banking crisis, I personally find its opening lyrics redolent of a wholly different concern: that of narrative. However demonic the delivery, these lines are in many ways the right way to open an album. They imply an unquenchable desire which will drive and sustain the musical narrative about to unfold. It has to end, despite the vocalist's assertion of the contrary; but it will not end before its' time: 8 songs in, Dreijer Andersson sings, 'it ain't over/I'm Not Done'.

The well-behaved Chivalric lover knew that wooing wasn't all about results. There was a finer art to be had out of "making love" in the Medieval sense - that is, courtship - than in the contemporary sense. In the most unexpected places, the influence of the Chivalric code is still felt today. It exists in every Richard Curtis film, strung out on sustained desire whose realisation signals the end of the story. It is written into the majority of serial television dramas, which defer narrative consummation by ending every episode with a brief 'Next Week On...' teaser. Wish-fulfillment is the enemy of narrative. This is why Madame Bovary, Flaubert's 'novel about nothing', features a wedding very early on, too early on. Boundless greed is the healthiest of narrative principles; our imaginations have been weaned on what Milan Kundera, in a short story of the same name, calls The Golden Apple of Eternal Desire.

Two exhibitions in the recent history of Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery stand out for their involvement with these issues: last summer's blockbuster, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's The House of Books Has No Windows; and Claire Barclay's Openwide, which closed on the 12th of April. Both exhibitions used the same vocabulary of stagecraft. Barclay's exhibited works - including the specially-commissioned "Subject to Habit" (above) and the objects from across Barclay's career assembled in a sort of site-specific mini-retrospective entitled "Openwide" - looked poised for performance; their component parts resembled props from some arcane ritual. Crucially though, they never did perform for us. They remained in an elegant state of poise.
Most of Cardiff and Bures Miller's installations, on the other hand, actually did spring into activity, resembling personless dramas; uniting light, sound and found objects into short performances that were repeated over and over. They were noisy, kinetic gestamkunstwerks, where "Openwide"was mute and inanimate. But Barclay's work was not stagnant - it required the imaginative input of the desiring viewer to give it life, to break the poise. In Cardiff and Bures Miller's "The Killing Machine" (pictured below), the desiring viewer's task was blunter and more straightforward: the poise could be broken by pressing a big red button.

Wish-fulfillment came too readily in these installations, and the result was a creeping sense - intended or otherwise - of dissatisfaction and alienation. Some of Cardiff and Bures Miller's narratives, such as "Opera for a small room", were very long; but even so they could not contain the longevity of a Claire Barclay installation, whose imagined narrative lasts as long as desire permits it. For better of for worse, Barclay's installations occupy the position of a chaste White Knight, humbly beseeching our consideration with all the thrill of ambiguity, while those of Cardiff and Bures Miller are sexual deviants with no concern for formalities. This may be why it was the latter that was selected for the festival season: amid all the surrounding hubbub, instant-yet-slightly-disappointing gratification carried more weight than chastity ever could.

It's difficult to avoid the negative connotations carried by both sides of this debate. Either we allow greed to be our guiding principle and favour the chivalrous installations of Claire Barclay, or we accept culture as just another dazzling spectacle which sates our desires before they grow monstrous, but - perhaps - weakens our imaginative faculties at the same time. Difficult, but possible. For the Golden Apple of Eternal Desire may have left our economy in ruins, but it is also part of what makes us human, by turning us into readers and not just receptors. There is no escaping it; in art, as in love, the ellipsis will always prove more compelling than the full stop...

A different version of this article appeared in The Student, 17/02/09.


Pytlik, Mark. "Fever Ray: Fever Ray",
March 20, 2009. [accessed 13/05/09].

Kundera, Milan.
Laughable Loves. Kent: Faber and Faber, 1974.

Friday, 24 April 2009

How to Disappear Completely

Dear Readership,

The next two articles I have in mind are, to borrow David Byrne's words, 'kinda big'; so I am a little averse to undertaking them with exams ongoing. In the meantime, here is a review of the current exhibitions on display at Edinburgh's Ingleby Gallery.


Despite the generally subdued, melancholy atmosphere of all of the works in the Ingleby's partial retrospective of the late American photographer Francesca Woodman, there is considerable variety within this collection. One recurring theme, however, is such that - in light of Woodman's suicide at the age of 22 - I can't resist linking to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's semi-autobiographical short story about madness and depression, 1891's "The Yellow Wallpaper". This is the notion of hiding, of creeping into nooks in space. Gilman's protagonist does just this. Confined to a single room for the sake of 'The Rest Cure', she has little else to do but study the room's eponymous wallpaper intently. Gradually losing grip of reality, she comes to believe that there are women trapped in the paper:

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over [...]
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern--it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.
They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!
If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.

The narrator's intense identification with these phantasms means that by the end of the story she is found, by her husband, 'creeping' on her hands and knees, along the walls, mentally 'inside' the wallpaper's pattern if physically excluded:

I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!
I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.
For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.
But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.

The parallels with Gilman's work are evident in many of th
e works in this display, though perhaps none more so than this 1977 image, part of the artist's Space2 series.

In all cases Woodman appears to want to embed herself in some impossible portion of space - behind the wallpaper, between the fireplace and the wall, inside a tree trunk. She is in the process of disappearing into domestic space without a trace (in a discussion with friends yesterday, we hit upon the idea that perhaps the only effective way to imagine your own inexistence is to picture the room you are stood in, empty). This does not read solely as the image of self-annihilation Woodman's biography might suggest, though - I am aware of the limitations of reading prophetically from hindsight. There is undeniably an element of that in Woodman's work, but it is intermingled with a desire to know the magical in the everyday - to embed oneself not just in a vanishing point, but also in a fantastical 'Second World' of the imagination. This is visible in Woodman's more surrealistic images, images such as "yet another leaden sky, Rome, Italy, 1977-78", below.

The paradox of Francesca Woodman's work is that it figures retreat-into-the-imagination (whether willed or brought on by mental illness; for better or for worse) as a literal vanishing act, even as her works snowball towards an increasingly singular visual identity. The maker's mark is present in 2 untitled works, both produced in Providence in 1976. In one, 3 naked women cover their faces with images of Woodman's face - a reversal of the artist's philosophical camera-shyness; in the other, another naked woman - perhaps the artist herself (for, like in so many of Woodman's works, we don't see the figure's face) is seen s
at by an Yves Klein-style body-imprint. But these are notable exceptions, and for the most part the works in this exhibition function on the paradigm of redress-through-escape, of incessant-creation-through-incessant-self-abnegation (That this conclusion arises from autobiographical precepts is a necessary hypocrisy). In the exhibition's final work the artist is nearly out-of-frame, she sticks out her arm as if to wave goodbye.

Also on show at the Ingleby is Tommy Grace's show Dummy. Three rather eclectic thoughts coloured my appreciation of these works: the knowledge that 'show-throughs' could be a source of bawdy - and sometimes subversive - humour in the newspapers of
Fin de siècle Paris; the joke, 'what is the last thing to go through a fly's mind as it hits a windscreen? answer - its arse'; and certain Tintin frames involving newspapers. The first and second relate to the works "Recto Verso (day & night)" and "Recto Verso (dawn & dusk)" (both 2009), which present the (largely unviewed) back-sides of Michelangelo's sculpture groups "Day and Night" and "Dawn and Dusk" on opposite sides of thin kozo paper, allowing the light shining through them to create a 'show through' effect; and enacting a comically graceless (no pun intended) 'arse-through-mind' implosion, collapsing these sculptural masterpieces into 2-dimensional images that look as if they need to be awakened by 3-d glasses.

The latter thought is pertinent to the collages "Volodorper", "Dolum" and "Greeking" (again, all 2009). These make play with Lorem Ipsum, the graphic design industry's 'standard dummy text', which is seen in newspapers read by the characters in Elipse/Nelvana's animated television adaptation of
Hergé's Adventures of Tintin (1991-92). Tintin, in all its media appearances, is an interlingua comparable to this 'dummy text'. Its images are exportable to all manner of contexts; its protagonist was even labelled by the creator of the series, Hergé, as the 'degree zero of typeage' (for more on Tintin-as-dummy, and, indeed, Tintin-as-incessant-self-abnegator, see Tom McCarthy's superb text, Tintin and the Secret of Literature). But embedded in the title of Grace's show is a mocking attitude towards such attempts at international interlinguas. Perhaps the artist, owing to his 'alter-ego as a graphic designer' (that's according to the exhibition's information leaflet), is simply sick and tired of Lorem Ipsum, in which case these works too have a certain bitter humour to them. However, that mocking attitude is also arguably turned towards Malevich's Suprematism and other similar internationalist avant-gardes, which are referenced here by the geometric patterns Grace uses to construct his collages. Grace may take his place among the mass of artists renewing criticism of early 20th-century utopianism.

Francesca Woodman and Tommy Grace: Dummy run at the Ingleby Gallery until 13th June.


Perkins Gilman, Charlotte.
"The Yellow Wallpaper". (accessed 24/04/09)

McCarthy, Tom.
Tintin and the Secret of Literature. Croydon: Granta, 2006.

Thanks to Chris Tregenza for his input.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

A Non-Seasonal Non-Sequitur

Edinburgh's winter-stung youngsters recently begun to brave the elements for another season of working and feasting on the Meadows. Not all that long ago, the air temperature was so inclement that numerous gigantic snowboulders, created in the first flurries of snow-enthusiasm, were able to survive for weeks on end even as the grass around them grew greener. I can't help seeing these creations as Winter Proxies, versions of ourselves that are physically capable of - even physically dependent on - being outdoors in the extremes of the Midlothian winter. Especially so in the case of the host of snowmen, who peopled and stood watch (as do, we may imagine, the Inukshuk of the Arctic or the Moai of Easter Island) over a landscape that many of us were pushed to forswear for weeks (except, of course, for the time it took to build the snowmen). Here, then, is a catalogue of some of the characters that served us well as Winter Proxies, lest we forget.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Lost in the Paradise

'Meu nome é Gal'
- Gal Costa

Their names are Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos and Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun respectively. In my imagination the two have a great deal of overlap. It has to be down to more than the fact that the music of the former - more commonly known as Gal Costa - provided a musical backdrop for my discovery of the latter during the summer of last year. Never mind the that the two are separated in birth by 160 years, an ocean and a language; by differences of medium, culture and politics; as well as by that essential disjunction between the land of the living and that of the dead. Just listen to Gal's 1971 live recording of "Falsa Baiana", included on Wrasse Records' 2007 compilation Gal Favourites, alongside a reproduction - or, if you have the resources and the time, the original (in the National Gallery, London) - of Vigée-Le Brun's pitch-perfect Self-Portrait in a Silk Hat of 1782; and try telling me that the two pieces don't possess precisely the same atmosphere.

It's an atmosphere of supreme clarity, luminosity, and graceful spontaneity; of what Matthew Arnold might have called 'Sweetness and Light' had he been granted the opportunity to develop an interest in both Rococo painting and Música Popular Brasileira. In Gal's case, this accomplishment seems all the more commendable given its historical context. 1971 saw Brazil suffering under the military dictatorship of Emílio Garrastazu Médici. It also saw Caetano Veloso, Gal's long-term friend and collaborator, still languishing in his London exile for his leadership of the subversive multi-disciplinary Tropicália movement, alongside one Gilberto Gil, later to become Minister of Culture under the Lula administration. Gal's prominent role in this counter-cultural phenomenon puts her at a distance from her French counterpart: as well as gaining admittance to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, Vigée-Le Brun served as court painter to Marie Antoinette for a period of 6 years until 1789, when she was forced to flee France after the Revolutionary forces arrested the royal family. The graceful spontaneity of her self-portrait - executed 7 years before the Revolution - may be a direct result of her priveliged position as a belle of the Ancien Régime; Gal conjures Sweetness and Light out of thin air in a climate of anti-intellectual reprisals, economic catastrophe, official censorship and state-sponsored torture.

These historical factors may be hard to ignore when experiencing the two works together. Never mind. What the two artists share is something more profound, though for this it'll be more helpful to consider a different Gal Costa song. "Meu nome é Gal" was released on the 1969 album Gal. Its Portuguese title translates - you might have guessed - as "My name is Gal". Its lyrics initially read like a personal ad:
Meu nome é Gal
E desejo me corresponder
Com um rapaz que seja o tal

(which translates thus:
My name is Gal
And I wish to make contact
with a boy who would be 'the one'
Gal then lists those she admires (Veloso and Gil are top of the list) and sketches a brief profile of herself: 'My name is Gal, I am 24 years old...I believe in God, I like dancing, the cinema'. Simplistic as this may seem, the delivery lends it a real gravitas. By the end of the song, when Gal screams,
Meu nome é Gal
E não faz mal!
(And It's OK!)
It feels like something mildly transcendent has gone on: a powerful act of self-affirmation, perhaps of what Coleridge called the 'Primary Imagination' ('a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM', Biographia Literaria). If this idea seems overly theological, then at least concede that there is something incisive, lucid and invigorating in the way Gal presents casts her own identity. For it is precisely this mode of self-presentation that she shares with Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. Though the painter co-opted the iconography of an earlier painting by Rubens - the 1622-25 work 'Le Chapeau de Paille', also in the National Gallery's collections - for her own self-portrait; she very successfully makes this iconography (and here I risk paraphrasing Simon Cowell) Her Own. She is her own woman, in charge of her own depiction as well as her livelihood. She is neither flippant nor stern; the delicate poise of the ostrich feather in her straw hat is elegantly counterpointed by her firm grip on the tools of her trade, the pallette and the brushes. The presentation holds flair and substance in perfect balance. Incisive, lucid and invigorating.

Though a whole spectrum of ideology may lie between the artistic circles with which these two women chose to afilliate themselves, their trajectories were essentially the same: both eventually attained such prominence within their respective circles that they were able to become not only artistically self-sufficient but self-definitive. Through the myriad overlapping voices of their times, they could shout, 'I am what I am! And it's OK!'

thanks to Anna MacSwan for help with the translations

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