Hungry Ghost in the Soft Machine - Doug Harvey
Rendezvous with Density - Doug Harvey
Folk Festival - Ken Pratt for Wound Magazine
What lies beyond the Romantic - Steve Felmingham
Fetish, Anti-Fetish, Thing - Vincent Deary
Destinies Entwined - Mark Pilkington
Tender Vessels Book Review - Ken Hollings
 



Excerpts from: Hungry Ghost in the Soft Machine: Reanimating Art with Ward & Wright
by Doug Harvey

...Ward & Wrights’ ambivalent relationship to Romanticism has been an ongoing and evolving aspect of their collaborative and individual oeuvres – their sumptuous Transromantik installations teased out the common Romantic underpinnings of Nazism and Disney World, after all, while their Destiny Manifest project equated the mythology of western expansion – essentially an Edenic return in spite of the genocide and ticklish use of eminent domain – with the despair and cannibalism of the Donner Party’s doomed journey. These are the kind of historical associations typically used to discredit Romanticism in academic contexts, with the implication that cannibalism, genocide, and Race to Witch Mountain are the inevitable outcome of inherent flaws in the Romantic Weltanschauung.

As with the specific case of Western mystery schools (a history itself deeply entangled with that of Romanticism), W&W’s strategy is to simultaneously critique the shortcomings and abuses of Romanticism while laying prior claim to the fundamental philosophical ideas emcoded in its symbolic vocabulary. While the superficial narrative result can be a bleak, at times despairing view of humanity – as evidenced by frequent references to Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds -- it is undercut, and even superceded by the sheer psychedelic gorgeousness of the work...

...Which is pretty much where we find ourselves today. In the face of the imminent collapse of Western Civilization, with academia and the Art World vigorously policing their spurious claims to radical cultural authority, we are called upon find new models of artmaking that value all meaning, and locate the source of significance as below: subcultural, subconscious, decentralized, collectively authored, empirical yet indeterminate, and open to revelation. With their honoring of folkloric aesthetic vocabularies, their non-oppositional encompassing of complex verbally-based literary and philosophical realms and love of shiny things, their history of collaborative social experiment and advocacy for the viability of small scale group politics (both in their own work and within their communities), and their productive model of sensory-grounded human intellect that recognizes its continuity with the rest of nature, Catharyne Ward and Eric Wright have, in Tender Vessels offered a walk-through manifesto for the future of art, and the components for a makeshift coffin-raft to carry us to the next shore...

 
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Rendezvous with Density

When people talk about Los Angeles as an important art center rivaling New York and Berlin, I usually just smile and nod. They’re right in a sense -- LA is the quintessential postmodern city, and therefore the ultimate postmodern art center. I’m not usually one to use the P-word, but in this case it actually means something. Modernism itself, as an expression of a utopian endgame, directly correlates with the European westward expansion, and faces the same dilemma – what comes next when you’ve reached the end? Frank Lloyd Wright nailed it when he commented “It’s as if someone tilted the continent to the west and everything loose slid into Los Angeles.” Los Angeles is the terminal point of western culture, a dysfunctional hive whose creative profile has accrued from wave upon wave upon wave of pilgrims drawn by the myth of the west, hoping to squeeze a last few moments of revelation or revelry before the sun sinks forever.

Los Angeles is the last place I ever thought I would live, and art criticism the last job I could have imagined myself doing. As I wrote in one of my earliest pieces of critical writing (one I imagined would be one of the last) “Criticism is a closed circuit of unintelligibility formed by the fear of looking stupid or unfit for one’s job” That was written at the Banff Center for the Arts, high in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, while participating in a summer residency program alongside Cathy Ward and Eric Wright who teamed up there. At the end of the summer we all headed back east, more or less. Yet within a couple of years here I was in LA, and in another 5 or so, actually earning a living producing those very same closed circuits of unintelligibility. Ironic no doubt, but the fact is that in spite of its being a postmodern art center, the LA “art world” continues to model itself on 19th and early 20th century ideas of planned obsolescence and addictive consumerism, hustling furiously as if there were some place left to go. The truly postmodern LA art scene, as exemplified by such endeavors as the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, overlaps only occasionally and uneasily with the marketplace.

Ward and Wright are exemplary of the first generation of artists who came of age after the end of Modernism, a movement that equated the quasi-narrative arc described by the constant redefinition of “art” with the spiritual and socio-political evolution of our species – a classic mistaking-the-map-for-the-territory error that, like the even more literally cartographic hubris of confusing America’s wagon-train gluttony with the triumph of anti-imperialism, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. So it was with no small pleasure and anticipation that I first heard of Ward and Wright’s plan to recreate the doomed trek of the Donner Party -- that great dark myth of the journey to the promised land inexorably mutating into the ultimate consumerist act – and that it would bring them to Los Angeles and the auspices of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

As long as you are following a road (or any linear narrative construction for that matter), your attention is focused on the immediate future, the next curve, the horizon. But once the trip is completed, you can look up, and back, and consider your journey as a totality or a gestalt; you can see the big picture. In terms of postmodern art practice, this means one (or two or many) can realize one’s vision from a simultaneity of any number of points along what was previously perceived as an unbreakable chain of cause-and-effect events. In their previous Transromantik collaborations, Ward and Wright collapsed the Baroque with post-punk rock decadence, Germanic nature-fetishism with biker tattoo aesthetics, Rousseauean Romanticism with carny sleaze, disrupting the received meanings and hierarchical status of each of the isolated elements, as well as the rationales by which they were subsequently dismissed as historically passé. This plunderscopic strategy continues in the array of strategies put in service of the Destiny Manifest corpus – from the gorgeous and evocative romantic landscape pastiche of the Destiny Manifest -Eden’s End canvas to the looped video sequence of Purgatory which finds our protagonists trudging endlessly across the great salt flats of Utah, a Beckett-like loop of transcendent futility that only hints at the performative and earthwork aspects of this mule-train Gesamtkunstwerk.

Beckett is an important reference point – an artist who recognized the end of the world as we know it before almost anyone, and thought it was funny. I have refrained from articulating the implicit socio-political critique in Ward and Wright’s oeuvre partly because it is a pretty clear and available reading, but mostly because it isn’t really the big picture. To critics still entrenched in Modernism’s diminishing cannibalistic returns, Beckett seems ‘absurdist’ and ‘nihilistic.’ For artists like Ward and Wright, the line drawn by the Donner Party is absurd, yes. Tragic, yes. A powerful metaphor, yes. But it is only one of a nearly infinite number of possible lines connecting a series of points to create a generative mythic engine from which a cornucopia of vividly sensual psychic nourishment spills forth.  Uncontained by the linear chains of Modernism, or America, they stand outside history with one foot propping the door open, inviting us into a bleak and barren landscape paradoxically seething with a dense saturation of creative possibility. It’s a new frontier, baby. Better stake your claim!

Doug Harvey - 2005
 
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Cathy Ward & Eric Wright – Folk Festival
by Ken Pratt for Wound Magazine

Cathy Ward and Eric Wright have produced joint and individual bodies of work spanning almost two decades in which the engagement with folkloric motifs and content, recently receiving renewed interest because of its attraction for a younger generation of artists, has been a been a point of frequent return for them. In the individual and joint works of Ward and Wright, this interest spans national boundaries and local cultural sensibilities. American, English and German folklore, underground and outsider traditions are as likely to crop up. In many ways, their engagement is quite physical, the imagery often drawn from places to which they travel. They are artistic practice as a form of road movie.

American Eric and British Cathy met on the acclaimed international residency programme at The Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada in 1989. Their shared interests meant that they have continued to produce bodies of work in a range of media that have touched on these folkloric topics in numerous ways. Americana and the American West, for example, crops up in the eclectic mix of practices they deploy. Their work dealing with the American West is not an isolated topic but, instead an expression of their broader interest in the visual languages of folklore and popular cultural iconography that they have traced through a range of contexts.

Perhaps the name, “Transromantik” under which a number of these projects were authored is the strongest clue. The concern with much of their work, whether dealing with German folklore, or whether addressing ideas about the American West, is the tradition of Romanticism that runs through the various cultural contexts they examine. Perhaps, more accurately, they are preoccupied with how grand romantic ideas are transformed and inevitably thwarted in their translation into popular visual languages, the lofty aspirations coexisting within a layer of kitsch.

Works drawn from “Destiny Manifest” and other series of work dealing with the West demonstrate Ward and Wright’s penchant for materials and forms that refer to the populist renditions of these iconic tales lapsing kitsch. “The Salt Bride”, for example, presents a nineteenth century bridal bonnet crystallized in salt and presented in the style of a drawing room curiosity in ironic opposition to the grim realities of its inspirational source. Other works, such as paintings on wood or landscapes that become sculptural through painting them onto stuffed three-dimensional canvases highlight the appropriation of much darker histories by cuddly populist culture; the dark realities of the real histories of the West offered up as a souvenir.

The notion of the lost paradise or Utopia that fails to deliver is a rich seam in the narratives we have come to know about the American West. Cathy Ward and Eric Wright tackle these directly, such as in the “Destiny Manifest” project that concerns itself with a true story of a wagon train of nineteenth century pioneers duped into pursuing their dreams by racketeers and finding only hardship, hunger, death and cannibalism. The work, realized in a range of media from sculpture and painting to film and photography concerns itself as much with the illustrative media languages that we expect to be deployed in recounting such tales as it does with the simultaneously macabre and romantic content of the story.

The use of such visual languages is also at the heart of a body of painting works by Eric Wright in which the art historic languages of European portraiture are appropriated into portraits of Country and Western stars. Here, the blurring of the private and public in personal stories of hardship and heartbreak –an essential ingredient for any real country star- is reworked into a kind of heraldic language more usually associated with the depiction of European nobility.

By contrast, Cathy Ward’s series of documentary photographs of wax works dummies show us images that are very much about the West telling itself stories about its own past and alleged history. Photographed in various American ghost town waxworks during their extensive road trips across the USA, the immediately obvious artificiality of the dummies only serves to raise questions about the histories of the West they act out in staged tableaux. The folklore is immediate and very real, instantly recognizable to any of us from a deluge of media versions. So strong is the similarity between these forlorn tableaux and the film depictions that we are drawn to ask about the relative depth of self-awareness in what stands for a historical past.

A similarly sprawling set of practices is brought into play when they take on other regional folkloric traditions, as is seen in the works that reference English folk culture, drawing on Cathy Ward’s own roots in Kent. Or, the works that refer to German folkloric culture inspired by various travels in Germany.

Such works often take on the form of sculptures in which a single tree is the starting point. Ornaments, paint and other decorative techniques are applied in a process that slowly transforms the once living thing into an art work. Numerous works, often with a black patina and deploying traditional brass decoration such as horse brasses and beaten brass platters refer to the once identifiable regional culture of Kent that has slowly been assimilated into the sprawl of London and the Thames Estuary. The once individual and separate regional identities of England, as documented and discussed in numerous early twentieth century documents and artefacts, has been subject to the same pressure that has slowly seen many regions in Europe melding into an apparently homogenised nationalised culture.

These sculptures draw on the coincidental regional tradition for using black – as ribbon or wood stain- in its decorative palette. Yet, in Ward & Wright’s hands there is a sense of the funerary about them, perhaps indicating a sense of loss at the passing of these local folklores and foibles of tradition. They may be foreboding, but they are hardly sombre and humourless. There is an air of conscious camp in operation, as evocative of English popular culture as age-old tradition. They suggest, for example cheap horror films in which the local folksy customs inevitably turn out to be cover for some deranged local cult that breastfeeds werewolves by moonlight and wants to slaughter the infant children of the local bobby to appease some arcane deity or for general pagan kicks.

A similar interplay of humour and seriousness is evident in the works that draw on German folkloric traditions where the references to Romanticism’s grand gestures are as likely to nestle with darkly humorous reflections of the appropriation of folk culture by the nazis. Or, the nod to popular culture is filtered through historical decorative traditions such as in the installation “Beau Roque” in which masterfully painted portraits of heavy metal legends are hung in ornate frames against a stark, primarily black wall covering taken from Ward’s wild and detailed drawings of hair. The heavy metal subcultural codes relating to wild and long hair and its comparisons with the rakes of the Baroque achieve a synthesis in the parody form of the historic decorative style.

The immediate impact of this work is that it is playful and fun. But, contained within it is the evidence that both Ward and Wright are highly skilled in traditional artistic techniques as is evidenced by her drawings –from which the wall coverings have been printed- and his paintings. It is therefore important to recognise that their individual practice, though sharing similarities with the jointly authored work does not always deal with the same content or conceptual issues.

In Eric Wright’s painting, for example, we find the same interests and preoccupations with the Romantic, the folkloric and the popular and yet, as traditional paintings, these are contained within single canvases –or series of canvasses- in which the structure of each painting conducts its discussion in a more contained form. The dialogue with art historical traditions such as portraiture in the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and its dissipation or unconscious appropriation by popular cultures is a recurrent theme. We see imagery –such as decorative banners deployed in certain painting genres- repurposed for colloquial sayings or lyrics. The naturally staged nature of the portrait is employed as a means of discussing the theatricality it later assumed, quite literally, as stage painting or painting deployed to a more popular cultural end such as decoration or advertising in the nineteenth century, particularly in the evolving United States.

One of the key drives that seem to be involved in Eric Wright’s painting practice, is the examination of how the shift in image making with paint translates, inevitably as it shifts between surfaces and contexts. Working with both traditional painting on canvas and painting on to the kinds of surfaces that we generally associate with folk art, decorative kitsch or outsider art –such as wood- it is almost as if Wright is plotting how the imported European traditions and orthodoxies of art evolved in the pioneer context of the United States. Away from the refined salons of the colonial east coast, both imported folk traditions and ‘high’ art traditions -mixed in with a few local influences and observations of this new terrain- informed what would later emerge as tangential and disparate notions of artistic expression in locations ranging from weird religious communities to logging towns; frontier pre-industrial cities to the outsider’s shack in the woods.

Eric Wright seems to be frequently deploying techniques in which value judgements are difficult to make and not easily able to be adhered to stable yardsticks. He often makes it impossible for us to work out whether the work is ironic sophistication or genuinely a piece of outsider art. Only by piecing together the clues that are on offer do we begin to understand what is less of a Deconstructivist practice and more of a ‘reconstructivist’ practice in which available visual languages cannot purely be judged from the canonical perspective of European philosophical thought but are, instead, pitted against the fundamentally autonomous traditions growing out of disjointed and isolated settler and fringe communities.

Cathy Ward, by contrast, approaches drawing from the three-dimensional perspective of her background as a sculptor. This might not be so evident in the ongoing works involving detailed, swirling depictions of human hair morphing into all kinds of forms. But, it is deeply evident in a more recent body of work in which found objects, such as a sink or a bath, become the paper on which she effectively draws with human hair. Understandable as objects within the Beuysian tradition of anti-sensual –or just plain uncomfortable- materials that absorb strong humanistic connotations, works such as ‘The Age of Reason’ or ‘Sunk’ play games with the viewer’s immediate expectation. What we might assume is a readymade at first glance, in fact reveals itself to be carefully manipulated, the hair standing in place for the crosshatch lines of a pencil forming quasi-abstract but hardly naturalistic drawings on the familiar surfaces.

It is interesting to note, for example, that whilst Ward’s individual body of work does include an interest in the folkloric in documentary terms such as in the various series taken at b-list waxworks in small-town America or of the fading traditions of the decorated seaside ‘food van’ of British seaside towns, this is far less evident in her individual practice. In the ongoing drawings of human hair, collages made in New York where she lived there in the 1990’s or in the more recent larger sculptures, the discussions are, in fact, different. Certainly they deploy a similar humour to that which we find unfolding in the jointly authored works, but these are much more works that seek to engage with European notions of form, content and manifestation after Neo-Expressionism. They are, in one sense, very upright and proper works that conduct their discussions through established traditions arising in British art in the 1950s and 1960s and European art of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Hers is less work about making images and more about making meaning directly from specifically deployed materials and form. They are, in fact, gestural and, sometimes, those gestures just aren’t polite.

 
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“Transromantik” - “What lies beyond the Romantic?”
by Steve Felmingham

Cathy Ward and Eric Wright both come from a background of self taught painting, and significantly both have spent time working for the Disney Corporation on the production of 'Sleeping Beauty'. Their collaboration on the construction of the forest of Transromantik owes much to a tradition of painting that has more to do with theatre and popular 'folk' art than what is now called 'outsider' art. The art world is notoriously difficult to rebel against - as soon as a position of antithesis is found, the art world, amoeba like, envelops it as something refreshing and 'new'. Now that
'outsider' art is accepted and 'in' as far as post-modern culture is concerned, TransRomantik is succeeding in lifting the lid on another 'unacceptable' area of culture (just as Jim Shaw's recent show of junk-shop paintings at the ICA have now achieved high art status) and presenting
something which to most people is, if not completely ignored, then positively recoiled from. This is art that the art world would prefer to remain hidden - we are immune to the sight of evisceration and blood in gallery settings but souvenir wooden clogs are a different matter.

Kitsch can be acceptable in many circumstances when it is sufficiently ring-fenced and contextualised- either in the mind of the viewer who is aware of their own post-modernity, or in it's physical placement. What Transromantik does however is to up the stakes to a much higher level. By constructing a forest of kitsch, we are effectively being denied a context. Like a genuine forest, the sky is not visible, we cannot see very far into the distance, and we become immersed in the experience of being amongst trees. This is fine in nature, in this forest however it is the sensation of horror and entrapment in a varnished faux world of folk art that is uppermost.

Why are our reactions so deep and automatic? It always seems to be a particular kind of Bed & Breakfast or fusty one star hotel that still finds it acceptable to display, without irony, those varnished wooden mementoes from old Bavaria or Switzerland, which either hang keys or tell you the barometric pressure as a kind of sideline to their main effect, which is to induce in the viewer a kind of suffocating nausea. This has more to do with associations which we bring to these ubiquitous objects than any fault of the object itself. That a framed technicolour postcard view of Neuschwanstein mounted on a dark brown 'log slice' of wood with a cheap barometer can have this effect on the soul is remarkable, and it is a reaction which Ward and Wright have exploited in full.

Our discomfort is intangible and associative - whereas they have dared to carry their investigation to the centre of what one could call the dark heart of the European psyche, in their revelation in 1999 at the 'Hofbrauhaus' beer parlour, Berchtesgaden, Germany. It is no coincidence that this region is also the seat of one of the darkest hours in Germany's history, German National Socialism, because it is this which forms one of the connections which starts to explain our reactions to the culture which surrounds the trees in Transromantik. This place represents things hidden and denied, as well as being a point of pressure, or recognition, in our unconscious which has far reaching consequences carrying well beyond recent 20th century history.

These objects stand as products of a kind of a cultural 'rock family tree' - they are about connectivity, but also they are about arrested development. They are at once deeply unsettling on many levels, whilst at the same time being quite beautiful and somehow morbidly fascinating. Instead of literal roots, these trees have instead grown from a particular kind of mid-European monomania, which moves from Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the builder of fairytale castles and his connection with Wagner, through to Caspar David Freidrich, Hitler and Walt Disney. In the case of Ludwig, his monomania led to an 'excess of taste' which directly inspired Disney's visions and the castle in Sleeping Beauty. It is a particular sickness which has strong resonances in American culture, with figures such as Howard Hughes, Elvis and Michael Jackson springing most readily to mind, an inheritance which Jeff Koons has readily exploited. In the case of Disney, the cultural transplantation of the Ludwig vision was helped by massive emigration from war-torn 20th century Europe of animators and designers from Germany to the safety of the US. But Transromantik's more ancient provenance lies with the brothers Grimm, and before that with German tree worship, the Weinachstsbaum (Night of the Sacred Tree) tradition which we now associate with Christmas. The connections spiral out from the Bavarian centre carrying to the deepest past of our forest dwelling ancestors and the modern shadows of the ancient rituals we play out now at certain times of the year. The electric shock of recognition we receive from the Transromantik forest is a product of this weight of folk memory inherited from generation to generation, and the recognition that we introduce the Tree into our homes every year as a matter of course.

The analogy with the Christmas tree is only partly apt. This has greenery, branches and the smell of the forest. The trees in the Ward and Wright's forest are denuded of branch and leaf, like shell-shattered limbless trees in a wartime landscape of trenches. They have been appropriated and removed utterly from their context, bewitching us in with the language of old- time kitsch before we realise that these trees have thorns and sharp bones for branches, and that even the woodiness of them is removed from our touch by thick layers of varnish. These trees operate like way-markers on the long road from Bavaria and the Berchtesgaden through the mountain passes to the film lots of Walt Disney.

Where does this leave us now, in our squeaky clean new century of designer ideals and heavy post-modern irony? Look in the 'Playstation' in the living spaces of every urban sophisticate and you will find the same polarities of good and evil played out, with perhaps even more seductive
power over our imaginations and just as many dark forces and endless forests as Disney had.

The difficulty here is that unlike past generations we have become almost completely divorced from our environment and the natural world, and so the Disney inheritance is serving to arrest us, Peter Pan-like, in a state of perpetual childhood. The fairy stories which traditionally operated as bridges between childhood and adulthood, as a moral rite of passage for the child, have now lost their meanings and are recycled back at us. The imagery used in the trees of the Transromantik forest is that of the Germanic/Mid-European mountain forest paradise which was traditionally bought by tourists in order to remind them of what they had lost- glowing unpeopled landscapes and halcyon mountain-scapes. It is no fault of the pictures somehow that they have become laden with the baggage of a European psychosis in their journey through to the present, where they filter down to the lowest levels of society in the boot-sales and charity shops. Attach to this loss of innocence as well an association with the heartland of German Nazism, and a powerful conflict is in place which stretches out across the Western Hemisphere and wherever Disney, nicknamed 'Mauschwitz' by
it's employees, has spread its tentacles.

 
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Fetish, Anti-Fetish, Thing

"They looked for it outside themselves, but it was only to be found within."
-C Baudelaire, "What is Romanticism?"

Insides Out.

Perhaps we recall Dante's Forest of the Suicides, each object standing stark in independent space, petrified totem of itself, no foliage to conceal the wood from the trees, from us. Dante’s trees would stand and scream and bleed. So might some of these. Others would run with gold, or laugh, or play a music box tune. One could kill, another weep. But to linger for too long in the notion of a forest would be to go astray and we must move into the idea of the Clearing.

Obvious choice, and the perfect prototype of Installation. Of course for Heidegger the Clearing is the place of unveiling, where Being literally dis-covers itself. So what is revealed, unveiled in this clearing? Well precisely the veiled object. One is reminded of Hegel's bizarre definition of a plant - an animal with its organs on the outside. However here what the objects, 'the trees', bear on their outside is all their symbolic determinations - it is almost as if, as objects, they leave us nothing to do as viewer. The work of fantasy, normally accomplished by the gaze, which transmutes this tree into a demon, this one a sylph, all the poetry of the tree is already accomplished by the trees themselves, which are fantastically overdetermined. So paradoxically these apparently sensual, gorgeous objects achieve a sublime banality, an inert completeness - all the work has been done here, you need bring nothing to this encounter. As such, what we are confronted with is the process of gazing itself, it is the gaze incarnated, clinging to the surface of the object. One is reminded of the ultimate failure of hardcore pornography, where, as here, nothing is left to the imagination - eventually the observed process becomes surgical, abstract. To sustain ones erotic involvement it is eventually necessary to eroticise this very absence of eroticism. Something similar happens here - with our fantasy enacted before our eyes, with our insides out there, projected, embodied, completed -what are we to do?

Nature herself is projected "Only in the light of a Nature which has been projected in this fashion can anything like a fact be found"- Heidegger.

Hyperromanticism/Transromanticism/ Hyper-Realism

That Truth has the structure of a fiction, that the Real requires a minimum of fantasy for reality to appear as such, is no new notion, Heidegger is merely iterating the founding trope of transcendental idealism, of Kant, that cold father of Romanticism. Romantic licence takes its cue from our exclusion from The Thing, our exile in the phenomenal. Potentially cosy option, make believe, lets make it up, the soft core porn of Romantic Landscape Painting, Nature in the knickers of Notion. But take it further, push Romanticism to its limit, objectify the process of objectification and we move beyond fetishism into an uncanny other realm, that of the Thing in itself. Husserl defined the Thing as the ideal limit of all its possible modes of perception, an asymptotic point. A fetish brought to such a pitch of completion, or in a state of such almost perfect (over)explication, begins to approach the status of The Thing, as Romanticism, taken to the logical limit, returns to its Kantian roots, and becomes the only kind of realism we can ever have. Let us recapitulate the pathway that takes us to the Thing’s unveiling in the clearing of this exhibition. Beginning with the deployment of the standard tropes of romanticism, the work repeats its founding gesture, overloads the object of the gaze until the gaze itself emerges from the object.

The trees have eyes.

Looking back, we encounter our inability to see the thing beyond the act of seeing, and in this clearing the thing itself emerges as a beautiful lie.

Vincent Deary 2000

 
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DESTINIES ENTWINED

Monday, June 29 1846

Louisville, Kentucky. After two years travelling and two years painting, John Banvard unveiled his Grand Moving Panorama of the Mississippi River. Described by The Louisville Morning Courier as “destined to be one of the most celebrated paintings of the age”, the 12-feet-high, 1300-feet-long canvas depicted detailed scenes of Mississippi life, sketched by Banvard as he sailed the river’s 2300 mile course as a trader between 1842 and 1844. 

Wrote an enthralled friend of Banvard’s: “The remarkable truthfulness of the minutest objects upon the shores of the rivers, independent of the masterly and artistical execution of the work, will make it the most valuable historical painting in the world, and unequalled for magnitude and variety of interest, by any work that has been heard of since the art of painting was discovered.”

Perhaps so, but the people of Louisville needed more than hyperbole to get them to part with their 50 cents. The Panorama’s opening night was entirely free of visitors.

1200 miles northwest of Louisville, at Cottonwood Creek, Wyoming, near what is now Guernsey State Park, the Boggs Company wagon train, consisting of an estimated 100 vehicles, bedded down for the night.

Two days earlier, one of their party had written: “We arrived here on yesterday without meeting any serious accident. Our company are in good health. Our road has been through a sandy country, but we have as yet had plenty of grass for our cattle and water… Our provisions are in good order, and we feel satisfied with our preparations for the trip.” The author’s name was George Donner.

In mid-April of that year Donner and his family, along with those of his younger brother Jacob and James F Reed – totalling 31 people in nine wagons – set out from Springfield, Illinois. They were heading West, to California, the promised land described by Lansford W. Hastings’ in his 1845 book The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California:  

“In a word, I will remark that in my opinion, there is no country, in the known world, possessing a soil so fertile and productive, with such varied and inexhaustible resources, and a climate of such mildness, uniformity and salubrity; nor is there a country, in my opinion, now known, which is so eminently calculated, by nature herself, in all respects, to promote the unbounded happiness and prosperity, of civilized and enlightened man.”

On 19 July, George Donner led a breakaway wagon train to meet Hastings himself, who would guide them through the Hastings Cutoff, named after himself: an alternative route West that ought to have shaved hundreds of miles from their journey. They missed Hastings, and what began as a shortcut lead only to unimaginable hardship, despair and death. 

Things swiftly improved for John Banvard, however. After the ignominy of his opening night he offered local sailors a free show. Before long they were recommending the slow-rolling Panorama, and the artist’s lively narration, to their passengers and fellow traders who flocked to it in droves.

Flush with success, Banvard added more scenes, extending the canvas to 2600 feet and his monologue to almost two hours in length. By the end of 1846, Banvard’s epic had relocated to Boston, where dramatic lighting and a piano accompaniment were added to the show. Over the next six months a quarter of a million people would see it. Banvard became a rich man and an international celebrity. In Britain his show was enjoyed by Queen Victoria (in a private audience, of course) and Charles Dickens.

For the Donner party, these were six months of elemental hell. Exhausted first by the treacherous Wasatch Mountains on the western edge of the Rockies, then by the desolation of Utah’s Salt Lakes, the 87-strong party was finally trapped by blizzards at the Sierra Nevada. By 29 April 1847, when the last members of the party reached safety, 41 were dead. To stay alive, the survivors had eaten leather, animal hides, bones, pets and, ultimately, each other.

Today the sorry tale of the Donner expedition is part of American folklore, while John Banvard remains largely forgotten, his creation lost to time. But both stories are entwined in Destiny Manifest, a major new exhibition of works by Catharyne Ward and Eric Wright. Through sculptures, film and, at its heart, a panoramic canvas of near-Banvardian proportions, their project explores the landscape of promise and disaster that was the American frontier.

- MARK PILKINGTON

 
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Tender Vessels - Book Review

It seems to be increasingly the case that if you wish to find a reasonable account of current events, visit an art gallery; artists tend to be more reliable investigators of the state of human affairs than the average journalist these days. Should you prefer poetry to headlines, however, then you should look no further than the work of Cathy Ward and Eric Wright. Published by Strange Attractor Press in association with Galerie Toxic of Luxembourg, Tender Vessels offers sumptuous documentation of one of their more recent shows. As always, their work demonstrates the extravagance of artists who don’t waste the smallest thing if they can possibly help it – everything is used and nothing is wasted. The result in visual terms is a kind of post-industrial folk art, offering a detailed glimpse of lives spent in the shadow of dark and terrible forces.

In this particular case, Ward and Wright examine the baleful influence of industry and empire as historical processes – a theme ably discussed in the accompanying essays by Mark Pilkington and Doug Harvey respectively. Punctuated by quotations from Milton, Melville and Defoe, and illustrated with photographs of rituals and riots, Tender Vessels is a mixed-media show in which the richest materials appear to have been thrown together either by shipwrecks or sacred rites. Economic progress is consequently revealed to be just another tribal fetish fashioned to protect us against the coming storm. Those who recall the elegant tourist-centre trash of Ward and Wright’s Transromantik project may be tempted to believe that, swimming against the tide of history, Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has finally had her revenge.

-Ken Hollings

 
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