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This is War/Gerda Taro/On The Subject of War, Barbican Art Gallery 17 October 2008 to 25 January 2009

Although the Barbican's current show is billed as three interlinked exhibitions on war and photography, the overall experience adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. As a result it makes more sense to deal with it as a single entity rather than three separate displays. The key works are Robert Capa's most famous photographs and a video installation entitled The Casting (2007) by Omer Fast. Fast has filmed an American army sergeant recounting two incidents from his life: one story concerns a short relationship with a woman who enjoyed cutting and burning her body with knifes and cigarettes; in the second the soldier describes accidentally killing a civilian while on duty in Iraq.

One side of Fast's double screen projection gives visual cues about the way in which the two stories told by the same man have been cut together. The soldier wears different tops as he recounts each tale, and this provides a more reliable indication of which story he is telling than the smooth running audio track. On the second screen Fast is shown listening to the sergeant recounting these tales. Fast's reactions appear a little incongruous and it gradually becomes apparent he is being filmed watching a playback of the soldier telling his stories rather than actually interacting with him. With each cut a single shirt worn by both men but at different times, jumps from one screen to the other. The shared garment is disconcerting given that the two men are physically very different from each other; the soldier is heavily build with cropped hair, whereas Fast is wiry with an unkempt barnet and a scruffy beard.

In contrast to the deliberately glitchy double screen projection showing Fast and the sergeant, the other sides of the two screens carry slick shots of actors posing as subjects from photographs illustrating the two intercut stories; their slight movements serving to emphasis the 'fake' nature of these very carefully composed pseudo-stills. In the course of the film Fast explains he is interested in 'the way that experience is turned into memory and then the way that memories become stories'. His simple but effective strategies for undermining any belief in the veracity of what he offers viewers are even carried over to the explanatory materials about his work, which it appears falsely claim: 'Fast has used as source material pictures of the war found on the internet…'

After seeing Fast's film, most viewers will find any belief they may have held in Capa's photographs as straightforward historical documents viciously undermined. This is reinforced by the display of Capa's work, particularly iconic pieces such as The Falling Soldier (1936). Debate has long raged over whether this image shows a real death or if it was staged. The 'evidence' provided in this exhibition suggests that Capa was taking a series of staged battle shots of loyalist troops, when the soldiers he'd deployed for this piece of chicanery came under fire, resulting in the death of the man shown in his best known image.

While the juxtaposition of Capa's photographs and Fast's video installation proves effective in all instances, it works most powerfully with the best known pictures, precisely because we are forced to reassess familiar material. A lab assistant rushing to get Capa's famous D-Day pictures (1944) developed for publication put the negatives in a hot drying cabinet without any ventilation. As a result many them were the ruined and the remaining photographs blurred. Although this blurring was accidental, it still adds to the impact of the surviving images by making them appear more urgent and dramatic. While this particular deviation from strict documentary convention was not the result of a conscious decision, it still proves Fast's point that both historical memory and the images and stories we use to aid it are always at some level problematic.

However, while historical understanding may be fraught with difficulties, this exhibition certainly doesn't reject it out of hand as a pursuit. The display of pictures by Gerda Taro enriches our understanding of both the Spanish Civil War and Capa (since she worked so closely with him), but it also stands up very much in its own right. If anything Taro's pictures are more intimate and better composed than Capa's. Taro was killed in 1937 while covering events in Spain, and while she never produced anything as iconic as Capa, she easily equals him in terms of quality. Capa's best known pictures have been reproduced so often that they are almost banal; an accepted if not always understood part of our cultural and historical landscape. Thus the danger of staging a Capa exhibition is that our familiarity with the material will prevent it challenging us. A trap which is deftly side-stepped by the juxtaposition of Fast and Capa's work.

Moving on, Geert van Kesteren's 2004 pictures of Iraq provide us with a measure of changing conventions within the field of photojournalism. Kesteren, of course, shoots in colour, whereas Capa worked principally in black and white; partly at least due to differences between contemporary and mid-twentieth century print technologies. Likewise Kesteren's informality of approach takes many of its cues from contemporary fashion photography, which in its turn owes a debt to Capa. This loosening of distinctions between image making genres undermines any sense of the veracity and authenticity that photojournalism was once expected to convey.

While hardly essential to the success of this show, Kesteren's contribution is nonetheless fitting. An-My Le's film and photography of American troops functions as a contemporary highbrow contrast to Kesteren's photojournalism. Le's work is well made but adds very little to the overall effect of the exhibition. Indeed, Le suffers at the hands of the curators who have used her as padding. That said, her work still looks like a triumph when seen next to Paul Chan's Tin Drum Trilogy, which is screamingly bad. Since Fast is one of a handful of contemporary artists producing film works to a consistently high standard, I can only assume Chan was included as a typical example of the endless glut of incompetent video work on show in galleries throughout the world.

The second part of Chan’s trilogy, Baghdad in No Particular Order, delivers exactly what it promises… what looks like an unedited holiday video. There are ill composed shots taken from a moving vehicle, schoolgirls singing, a market trader selling books, a teenager showing off her collection of western pop ephemera (with the emphasis on major stars like Britney Spears), men making traditional music, female militia members, shots of shops etc. Given that Chan has been lauded for his political activism by some sections of the art world, the only shock comes at the end of this video where Peter Lamborn Wilson is credited under the heading 'Ministry of Advice'. Wilson is a prominent advocate of paedophilia and has spent years confusing politically naïve college kids by dressing up right-wing ideas derived from the 'traditionalism' of Rene Guenon and elsewhere as 'anarchist liberation' (he usually does this under the pen name 'Hakim Bey'). Fortunately Chan's video slop and dubious political involvements don't ruin what is otherwise a very sophisticated show.

Secretary of the Invisible (review of 2008 Marine Hugonnier show)

The Empty Grave of Kurt Schwitters

Psychedelic Art & 1960s London Drug Culture

London Art Tripping

What Is Violence? Why Curate?

Paint It Black (Stewart Home provides an overview of his work)

Palingenesis of the Avant-Garde (on attempts to go 'beyond' 'art')


Stewart Home & Gabrielle Quinn performance mid-eighties
Random gallery image of Stewart Home.

2009 portrait of Stewart HomeStewart Home telling it like it is... Photo of Home in Kilburn (London) by Kerstin Rodgers.

Brion Gysin, Calligraffiti of Fire, October Gallery 11 December 2009 – 7 February 2009
Brion Gysin (1916-1986) joined the French surrealist movement in 1934 shortly after arriving at the Sorbonne as an undergraduate. The following year he was expelled from the group and his drawings were removed from a surrealist exhibition where he was showing alongside Dali, Duchamp, Ernst and Magritte. He'd been wrongly suspected of having made parody portraits of surrealist leader Andre Breton. In due course Gysin moved on from surrealism and his mature works dating from the mid-1950s onwards emerged from his studies of both Japanese and Arabic calligraphy.

The centrepiece of the current Gysin retrospective is the first UK showing of his final work, a 16.4 metre long 'makimono' called Calligraffiti of Fire (1985). A makimono is a portable Japanese hand-held scroll that folds down for easy storage; by massively increasing the scale of this domestic object, Gysin ensures it cannot be used in the traditional manner. According to supporting material provided by the October Gallery, Calligraffiti of Fire should be viewed from right to left, since the whole is too long to take in from a single glance. The show's curator Kathelin Gray has observed that Gysin's calligraphy dances off the end of the picture. While this is a credible reading of the piece, when the panels are viewed from left to right, the calligraphy just as pleasingly jumps into the painting.

Gysin's painting is an abstract re-interpretation of various calligraphic forms; it is not readable script. In many of his pictures these painterly reconfigurations of Arabic and Japanese calligraphy cancel each other out, since they run across the picture as well as up and down it. As the title Calligraffiti of Fire implies, this late work is a meeting of calligraphy and graffiti, and in the occident the latter is generally read from left to right. There is no reason to restrict ourselves to a right to left 'reading'. The picture is among other things a parody of a makimono, and part of its richness is the dialectical tension that emerges when it is simultaneously - or at least sequentially - subject to both occidental and oriental modes of 'interpretation'.

As in many of Gysin's pictures, a modified paint roller has been used to lay out a grid pattern, and this serves to constrain the warm colours and the 'calligraffiti'. The monumental scale of Calligraffiti of Fire and the work's beautiful orange hues - which can be interpreted as representing the sun – might be misread as a conventional expression of the sublime if the grid was not there. The grid serves to remind us that art, magic, and aesthetic convention, are all socially constructed. In this piece, Gysin succeeds in uniting the supposedly mutually exclusive categories of the beautiful and the sublime, and combines these with elements of the comic picturesque. The scale and relative looseness of the calligraphic elements in this work render them both more energetic and more openly comic than in any other of his pictures.

Calligraphic elements in a number of Gysin's works have been interpreted as his own initials rendered backwards and distorted. There are certainly shapes in his Calligraffiti that can be read as reversed Gs. Like this monumental piece, the smaller paintings in the October Gallery retrospective reveal the incredible sureness of Gysin's brush strokes. The footage of him painting included in Anthony Balch's short film The Cut-Ups (1966) shows that when making his work Gysin never hesitated because he knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it. There is a remarkable similarity between Gysin's smaller pieces and Henri Michaux's visual work, which is perhaps not surprising given that both men were psychedelic explorers who in their youth had been impressed by surrealism. But Gysin is an even better painter than Michaux because his pictures have greater depth.

It is sometimes tempting to reduce Gysin's art career to a series of iconoclastic gestures culminating in Gallifgraffiti Of Fire, a painting that destroys both occidental and oriental notions of pictorial space. Gysin was also the creator of the Dreamachine (1961). He called it: "the only work of art designed to be seen with closed eyes." It produces flickering patterns of light that induce alpha rhythms in the human brain and thereby facilitates lucid dreaming, or in Gysin's terminology a 'drugless psychedelic experience'. Two examples of the Dreamachine (1961-2008) are on display at the October Gallery; theoretically they ought to render Gysin's painting obsolete, but personally I prefer his pictures to these kinetic sculptures.

Gysin's art is currently best known to, if not always fully appreciated by, those interested in the beat generation and the 1960s counterculture. He invented the literary cut-up, later made famous by William Burroughs, in which pages of text are sliced up and randomly rearranged. Many of those intrigued by Gysin's work suffer from a literary bias, but it was as a painter he best expressed himself, and the same visual orientation that induced him to apply the collage technique to text. The October retrospective is a timely reminder that above all else, Gysin should be remembered as a painter of considerable substance.