Though the degree to which hair can disgust is undoubtedly lessened by being mediated through photography or print, it nonetheless has a certain hold for me at least. I think it’s the connection with fairy tales and a sense that it’s in some way magical. I know nothing of spells at all apart from the opening lines of Macbeth but there’s hair right there, as far as I recall, so my mind makes that connection whether or not it would be borne out by, you know, actually looking stuff up. And of course, hair can stand in for the body. And in this lithograph by Kiki Smith, I think I’d argue that it stands in for both the artist and the process of recording in that the hair becomes a kind of drawing. Indeed, in this image the hair is Smith’s; the print is one of a folio of work in which Smith used imprints and photocopies of parts of her hair, face and neck as the basis for making prints.
At first glance, especially through the window of an expensive jewellery shop*, Mona Hatoum’s Hair Necklace might appear to be delicate beads made of spun metal thread. A closer look – or knowing the name of the piece – would immediately give the game away though and this delicately beautiful necklace would immediately become somewhat less appealing. A single string of beads as a necklace isn’t exactly unusual. And the idea of carrying a lock of a loved one’s hair in a necklace, specifically a locket, is hardly new. Combine the two ideas though and you get something rather less commonplace and much more interesting. Hatoum’s hairball beads are undeniably beautiful. There is an extraordinary filigree delicacy to them. Nonetheless, those odd stray ends disturb. And the realisation that this is hair – real hair – inevitably offsets the aesthetic appeal.
The relationship between painting and photography is has also been explored by Wolfgang Tillmans in work made over the last decade or so. For Tillmans the work starts and ends with photographic process, but in making the images the fundamental notion of photography as drawing with light is used to make images that feel much closer to painting than photography. These are large-scale, painterly abstract pictures are made without a camera; the photographic paper simply records the light Tillmans directs at it.
The relationship between painting and photography lies at the heart of Gerhard Richter’s practice, from paintings made from found photographs to photographs of paintings made from, yes, photographs, this is territory Richter has explored more thoroughly and from more directions than perhaps any other artist. The Detail paintings, started in 1970, explore the nature of painting and the way in which we so often experience the complexity of the painted surface rendered smooth as a photographic surface. In these paintings, Richter has taken small details from paintings made with a heavy impasto and reproduced these, massively enlarged, as smooth painted surfaces. In Detail (Red-blue) a small area of heavily textured paint is represented as a three metre wide painting.
The end of summer is in sight and everything is starting afresh. It might sound odd, but Autumn always feels like the start of something new to me. Certainly, it’s the time of year when my thoughts turn to what to show a new intake of students. Some things don’t change much of course, but there are always works I’ve come across recently (many of them probably written about here already) or things I know well but now want to talk about differently. I’ll need to get my art history hat on pretty soon but before that I get to show a random selection of art to help get some ideas going and, with luck, defy a few expectations and destroy some preconceptions. All of which means that in a way I’m quite surprised to find myself trawling through Gerhard Richter’s Overpainted Photographs, but it’s a body of work that somehow always seems relevant.
Langlands and Bell, Air Routes of the World (Day), 2001
Air travel baffles me a bit. I sort of get the physics of the thing (not really, that baffles me too, but I get that it works) and rationally I know that everything’s really tightly controlled and monitored but looking up at the vapour trails on a clear day or watching planes coming in to land at Heathrow what I really don’t get is how the planes avoid each other so consistently. In a way, I suppose the sky is bigger than it looks but even so… The vapour trails don’t lie: that’s some complex dance going on above us.
In the hands of Langlands and Bell, air routes become a map of the world that effectively talks of global communication rather than geography. Mapping the world – or a section of it – according to where planes fly shows which cities are of global importance but with a few oddities in the mix in the form of hub airports which countless people pass through en route to somewhere else.
If there’s a hellishness to When Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity that makes it possible to see Mark Wallinger’s journey through the underground as a journey to the underworld, then his work Threshold to the Kingdom can be seen as representing an altogether better passage to a different world. The journey here is a simple one – through a set of automatic doors into the arrivals hall at London City Airport – but it is made in slow motion and to the accompaniment of glorious choral music which gives the arrival an uplifting feel. Some are greeted by friends, others pass through to continue their journey alone but there is a feeling of calm even when it briefly looks like paths might converge and collisions occur.