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Saturday, 09 January 2016
By Simon Withers, Gallery Assistant
Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth installation shot. Photo Andy Keate.
The new year may already be old news, but here at Nottingham Contemporary an air of “in between” persists, as we prepare for the launch of our new season. Thus, I’ve been considering my favourite show of the year gone by, and the exhibition I elect is Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth
This show aligned my interest in contemporary art and ancient history, specifically the period between the rise of Julius Caesar and the end of the western half of the Roman Empire in AD476, when the Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, the first King of Italy. During the exhibition I undertook a number of Spot Talks in Gallery 1, a room dedicated to Roman architecture and Baroque artefacts. These talks seldom touched on the elevation of Caesar; principally they explored possible reasons for the demise of Rome. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that I would mention the trajectories of a number of the mad, bad and debauched emperors.
It was Edward Gibbon1, I believe, who conceived the notion of the “fall” with reference to Rome. I take it to signify the defeat of an idea: the idea of an all-encompassing order fashioned by reason and diplomacy. And, for several centuries, Rome may well have embodied this ideal. It has been suggested that the Empire was at its zenith in the early third century AD, and it is possible to believe that the world up until that point may never have known such prolonged peace and prosperity. But in AD218 the young Elagabalus (the sun god) donned the imperial purple, and proceeded to surpass some of his forebears in the arts of inhumanity.2
Historians have posited numerous explanations for Rome’s demise, but artists, poets and storytellers have mythologised it. One of the most striking myths is that by the sixth century BC the population of the city itself was zero.3 This was the period in which Pablo Bronstein chose to present the Via Appia in his sequence of fantastical drawings in Gallery 1.
If you ever have the opportunity to spend a day walking4 the Via Appia Antica in modern-day Rome you will discover a thoroughfare once lined with proud family tombs and burial places.5 This ancient road, with its ruined Roman masonry, is imbued with history. 
I have visited the Italian capital many times. On one tour of the Appia my wife and I encountered no more than three people6 throughout the entire day. This absence of inhabitants, this desolation, can be romanticised upon. Likewise the idea of Rome and her fall.7 This lost great city and empire – was she destined to be mourned over? 
The forthcoming show at Nottingham Contemporary will inevitably provoke similar questions. On Saturday 16 January we present Monuments Should Not Be Trusted, an exhibition of over 100 artworks and objects from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, dating from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s.
OHO/Marko Pogačnik, Rolling Stones Matchboxes (detail), 1968. Marinko Sudac Collection.
This exhibition will no doubt give me cause to reflect upon another of my travels – to Yugoslavia in 1986. This was only a few years before the Balkan trauma of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I was fortunate to visit the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik before it was besieged for seven months and suffered significant damage from shelling. In Mostar I walked over the magnificent old bridge built by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. In 1993 how many of us watched the footage of this treasure being destroyed? 
My thoughts return to that day on the Via Appia and the feeling of melancholia. The end of history continues. 
1 The citations and notes in Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire are famously lengthy and discursive. They provide the reader with fascinating glimpses into the author’s thought processes, and are, from time to time, humorous, idiosyncratic and opinionated.
2 Think Colonel Gaddafi to the power of ten! And read Caligula: Divine Carnage – Atrocities of the Roman Emperors by Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed, a book that confirmed my thinking that this sun god wished to be a hermaphrodite.
3 Although not accurate the number is perhaps telling. Estimates for Rome’s population by the third century AD vary, between one and four million. (Note, Roman censuses did not take into account women, slaves and those who wished to remain anonymous.) By the latter half of the sixth century, with many of the aqueducts and drainage systems in disrepair, the city’s populace succumbed to malaria (look to the Pontine Marshes!) and fell below 50,000.
4 Make it a Sunday (as it is closed to traffic then), take a packed lunch and plenty of water.
5 Exit the modern city via the Porta San Sebastiano, visit the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, and venture underground into one of the catacombs of San Callisto or San Sebastiano. Take in as well the Tomb of Caecilia Metella or the Tomb of Priscilla. Several of the structures that appeared in Pablo Bronstein’s drawings called to mind these drum-shaped monuments. To view something of a similar nature take a look at the Circus of Maxentius, erected by the eponymous emperor (regarding whom, see the civil wars of the Tetrarchy).
6 All native, two of whom were riding an old, rasping Vespa, bumbling along, trying to remain upright on the worn, interlocking stone. The Appia had suffered greatly in more recent times, not least from serious pillaging of both its marble and the tufa. Some – but by no means all – of this sacking can be blamed on urban regeneration projects. Which reminds me of a local tale of woe. How sad it is to know that the Palladian Nuthall Temple was finally levelled to make way for a slip road at Junction 26 of the M1 motorway.
7 To my mind, the “fall” does not convince. Rome as a political centre had been abandoned long before Alaric sacked the city in AD410. The Western Empire did not so much fall as disintegrate. One may consider the Battle of Adrianople in AD378 to be the beginning of the decline and Romulus’s deposition as the last emperor, in AD 475, to mark the conclusion. So less a fall – certainly not a revolution – and more a state of evolution.
Monuments Should Not Be Trusted begins on 16 January and runs until 4 March. For more information on Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth, including media coverage and videos of the artist in conversation, please click here.
Posted by fohouse at 13:33    COMMENTS
Thursday, 24 December 2015
By Simon Withers, Gallery Assistant
Sun Ra (1914-1993): The Cosmo Man, installation view. Photo Peter Anderson.
For the current exhibition, Alien Encounters, I have undertaken Spot Talks in the weird yellow room devoted to the sights and sounds of Sun Ra, the Afrofuturist Renaissance entity from Saturn. These talks gazed into the world of British space rock. In this strange and amazing galaxy bands produced music composed of lengthy instrumentals, experimental guitar and keyboard sounds dominated by electronic organs and synthesizers. There was also much theatricality. The Ladbroke Grove circle that included Hawkwind and Gong fashioned acts in which outer-space lyrical themes intermingled with ambient resonances, poetry and liquid light shows. In the case of Hawkwind, integral to the performance was interpretive dance by Stacia, who performed topless or stark naked, her body decorated with iridescent or luminescent paint. 
Space rock emerged out of the 1960s psychedelic scene in Britain and was closely allied with the progressive rock movement of the same era. Groups such as Pink Floyd have frequently been fused to the space rock sphere, although Syd Barrett, perhaps the original acid casualty, claimed that he had no particular affiliation to science fiction, and it is possible that compositions such as Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun were more concerned with inner than outer space. Similarly, Roger Waters commented in 1987 that “The space thing is a joke, none of those pieces were about outer space.” 
The use of the recreational drugs LSD and Mandrax (a tranquilliser affectionately named “mandies” or “mandrakes” in the UK) facilitated journeys through the doors of perception to Never Never Land. In America, the Ken Kesey “Acid Tests” had a significant impact upon the LSD-based counterculture of the San Francisco area and consequently on the hippy movement. This was the creative context of the Grateful Dead, Silver Apples, Fifty Foot Hose and the United States of America, bands that also drew inspiration from the American electronic scene, composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Edgard Varèse, as well as from cinematic depictions of the future like Destination Moon (1950), Forbidden Planet (1956), Barbarella (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (also 1968).  
My journey and the title of my talk, I Hear a New World, emanated from a concept album devised, composed and recorded by Joe Meek in 1959. Meek was a pioneer of experimental pop, but he is possibly best remembered for two incidents that made the papers. The first (and happier) was his 1962 Number 1 hit Telstar, performed by in-house group The Tornados. Telstar was the name given to various communications satellites, and that year one of these relayed the first television pictures, telephone calls and fax images to Earth from orbit, gifting Meek a topical title for a truly infectious single. (Telstars 1 and 2 continue to circle the Earth to this day.) Meek’s second claim to fame (or rather notoriety) is the tragedy that occurred in 1967, when he shot and killed his landlady before then shooting himself. 
The space programme fascinated Meek, and Joe was among the crowds who gathered in central London to welcome Yuri Gagarin to the capital in 1961. He believed that life existed elsewhere in the solar system and the aforementioned album was an attempt to create a picture in music of what might exist in outer space. 
Back down to Earth and to the land of Albion. The year is 1970. The month is July; the place is Worthing in Sussex; the happening: Phun City. This three-day festival of “kosmic” rock ’n’ roll is widely considered to have been the first large-scale free festival in the UK. Organised by one of the luminaries of the London freak scene – the UK Underground anarchist Mick Farren – Phun City also has the distinction of being one of the most shambolic and financially disastrous occasions in the history of festivals. 
Funding for the event was withdrawn at the last moment, but it went ahead regardless, with free performances given by The Pretty Things, Mighty Baby, Kevin Ayers, Edgar Broughton, Mungo Jerry and the proto-punk outfits MC5 and Pink Fairies (who liked to strip off while performing too). The Beat poet William S. Burroughs also put in an appearance. Ironically, the one group that refused to play for nothing, and so didn’t perform, were Free. The English counterpart of the American Hells Angels provided security. 
The Pink Fairies were perceived as a revolutionary group and directed most of their activity against the music business. They supported the underground press, the gay liberation movement and other radical causes by way of fund-raising happenings. As at Phun City, the Fairies often appeared at festivals for free, or established a “next door” event in opposition to a commercial one. But by the start of the 1970s their world was a-changin’. Twink – the drummer, singer and songwriter – has stated that, as far as he was concerned, flower power disappeared almost as abruptly as it began. He felt that as early as 1967 the air of excitement had been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of defeat; the money men had moved onto the scene and commercialised it.
Yet it was still rather too strong for some. The chief public health inspector, Mr E.T. Oates, said of Phun City, “The whole thing was offensive and obscene in many ways and you would have been surprised at some of the people there. There had been university people from America, Oxford and Cambridge and ordinary decent people. They just wanted to do what they wanted to do and they did it. I just cannot understand it”. 
Phun City was certainly chaotic. The audience was effectively left to police itself, and it is fortunate that a shooting of a girl did not result in her death. 
This ought, perhaps, to have been anticipated. The previous December, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California had seen considerable violence among the crowd, culminating in the death by stabbing of Meredith Hunter. These events, captured on film for awful posterity, took place to the sound of The Rolling Stones and are often held up as marking the beginning of the end of the hippy dream. 
Yet as Todd Rundgren sang, “a dream goes on forever”. So the spirit of hippy space rock continues, through the jams of Pinkwind and the music of Gong, Here and Now, UFO, Magma, The Orb, Simply Saucer, Zolar X, Von LMO, Chrome, Ra Can Row, ST 37, Ozric Tentacles, Spacemen 3, Loop and Factory Records’ Ad Infinitum, who only ever recorded one single – a cover of Joe Meek’s Telstar.  
While discussing my research into space rock with a colleague I began to consider the genre’s wondrous album artwork. Inspired by the journalist Steven Johnson and his eulogy to the emergence of the internet’s “curatorial culture”, I headed off into cyberspace to seek out my top ten LP covers.
I quickly encountered the curator’s eternal conundrum, however. How to choose? I decided to freak and simply go with my first instinctive reaction. Unfortunately I had to leave out Weekend Party, with a picture of Jane Fonda in a space suit on the cover, as well as The Ames Brothers LP Destination Moon, Khan’s Space Shanty, Blast Off! by Ferrante & Teicher, The Very Best of Nimoy and Shatner, The Spotnicks in Jazzland, Party Interplanetire and Robots-Music: Volume 3
There’s a vast universe of space rock art out there, just waiting for intrepid explorers. Here I present my own discoveries under the title Simon’s Nomenclature of Spaced-Out Albums.
Flying Teapot: Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1 (1973) - Gong
Clear Air Turbulence (1977) - Ian Gillan Band
Out There (1958) - Betty Carter
Out-A Space: The Spotnicks in London (1962) - The Spotnicks
Never Never Land (1971) - Pink Fairies
Goodnight Vienna (1974) - Ringo Starr
The Space Ritual Alive in Liverpool and London (1973) - Hawkwind
Telstar (1962) - The Tornados
Trip to Mars (1958) - Jack Parnell
Phenomenon (1974) - UFO
This piece was inspired by Sun Ra (1914-1993): The Cosmo Man, part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Alien Encounters season, which can be seen until 31 December.
Posted by fohouse at 10:49    COMMENTS


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