Catherine Annabel on Ivor Wolfe, The Italian Townscape

 Ivor de Wolfe (Introduction by Erdem Erten and Alan Powers) The Italian Townscape (Artifice Books, 2013)

This is an odd book in so many ways.  To begin with, its author’s name is not Ivor de Wolfe but Hubert de Cronin Hastings, a major figure in architectural publishing and yet ‘one whose life story and ideas have been difficult to reconstruct’.   The photographs are credited to Ivy de Wolfe, in reality Hastings’ wife Hazel.  Why the pseudonyms?  We are not told.

The design and typography – jarring to contemporary eyes – are exactly as they were for the original publication in 1963.   There is no index or bibliography, and the headings range from the general (‘The Street’) to the mysterious (‘Fire’) or baffling (‘Constipation’).    It’s not a coffee table book – the images are often beautiful, but not glossy, and are composed to show us what Hastings wants us to see – not buildings per se but ‘foils, focal points, fluctuations, vistas closed and vistas open, truncation, change of level, perspective, silhouette, intricacy, anticipation, continuity, space, enclosure, exposure, the precinct, profile’.

The introduction is at pains to emphasise what we should not be looking for in this book, asking us to take it not for what it might have been but for what it is, a visual polemic, a challenge to professionals who forget what really matters – what the result of their planning looks and feels like ‘when the statistics are converted into buildings in 3D and the citizens have moved in’.  As such, its relevance today is obvious,  as we continue to seek ways of ‘living at high density in walkable cities with high quality public space’.

It’s strange that people are absent from or incidental in most of the images.  Yet in Hastings’  towns, trades, cafés, paths and people are elaborately and productively interlaced (he reclaims not only ‘congestion’ but ‘constipation’ as positive ways of describing that interlacing), in ‘subtle harmonies’, where the streets belong to those who are on them rather than those who are merely going through them.   We see those people in the corners of images, clambering over statuary in the town square, or asleep on a step.  And his first profile is of washing – ‘ beautiful, gleaming, human washing’ – which he associates with the first view of the town, the public life of its private lives.

The text is sometimes arch, straining for humour or controversy, and betrays its age both in style and cultural assumptions.  However, one forgives these faults each time one stumbles across moments of fascinating perspective and insight.   As the (often highly critical) introduction says, ‘the vision is still a compelling one’, and the book remains ‘the most lucid, illuminating and entertaining product of one individual’s quest for an elusive Utopia in which man and nature would exist in a harmonious dynamism.’   A recent article in Hastings’ journal, The Architectural Review, whilst acknowledging the limitations of the Townscape movement and the peculiarities of the man himself (variously described as wilful, eccentric, and a lover of conflict and controversy), also sees it as a  cause that deserves to have another moment:  ‘For all its past influence, the Picturesque movement is often seen today as no more than bedraggled clumps of cobbles and bollards lost in decaying 1960s housing estates. Now, when architecture is dominated by object buildings, and urbanism by traffic engineers, Townscape’s humanism and respect for context deserve reappraisal.’[1]

For Hastings, ‘Townscape’  was ‘an art which is open to anyone to practise, innocent as it still is of professors and hence of expertise.  …  Sole requirement, non-blindness – curiosity of eye (one’s own) – directed towards the greatest of all artefacts, town (the humanae environment) as opposed to nature (the world without man). ‘  These Italian towns, upon which standardisation has never been imposed,  are places in which people did once enjoy living, maybe still do, and through wandering around them with that curiosity of eye, rather than seeing towns as places to get out of or to Hausmannise, we might rediscover the pleasures of urban life.

Ivor De Wolfe, The Italian Landscape (Artifice, 2013).

RRP £24.95 / €29.95 / $39.95

ISBN 978 1 908967 09 1

The Italian Landscape

Visit Artifice’s website to purchase The Italian Landscape 

 

Paul Allender on David Evans’ The Art of Walking: A Field Guide

As someone who has walked regularly since being a child, I initially approached this book with some scepticism. Walking as art? Yet another attempt by the cunning contemporary conceptual artist to re-appropriate everyday life as art, I thought.

However I soon got over this – the book is full of so many different ways of looking at and thinking and talking about walking that it drew me in. First impression highlights were an illustrated Norwegian map entitled Searching for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Regina José Galindo’s bloody footprints in Guatemala City, Bruce Nauman’s Slow Angle Walk, Jeremy Deller’s Manchester procession and Sophy Rickett’s photographs of women pissing in male postures in London streets. A definite lowlight for me was Franko B’s I Miss You – but I never could see the point of that performance.

So, on to a slightly more considered view of the book’s content. I love the old-fashioned feel of the first 7 pages – Peter Liversidge’s very familiar typewriter-written pithy proposals. And his suggestion, adopted by the editor, of having 5 empty pages at the back of the book for readers’ notes is lovely.

This book is comprehensive. It is divided into 7 sections: Footprints and Lines, Writers and Philosophers, Marches and Processions, Aliens, Dandies and Drifters, Slapstick, Studios, Museums and Biennales and Dog Walkers. One of the quite elusive and intangible ways in which I like or don’t like or feel indifferent about books is their ‘feel’. This one definitely has a good feel. It combines photographs, texts, drawings, newspaper clippings, maps, diagrams and artworks in a way which resembles a meandering walk on a day when there is no pressure to get there.

I was lucky to see an exhibition of Regina José Galindo’s Who Can Erase The Traces?  Its inclusion in this book brought back the memory of seeing the film of her walking the streets of Guatemala City barefoot and stopping every now and then to step into a basin filled with blood so that she leaves a trail of bloody footprints, representing the thousands of civilians murdered by the army over decades. It is a very powerful performance.

I don’t know that much about Bruce Nauman’s work but Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) of 1968 has whetted my appetite for more. He writes: “If you see yourself as an artist and you function in a studio and you’re not a painter…if you don’t start out with some canvas, you do all kinds of things-you sit in a chair or pace around.” The black and white photograph is a beautiful blurred image of him doing just that, walking in a studio in a posture of angles.

Jeremy Deller’s Procession combines processors from different walks of life in Manchester: Scout and Guide marching bands; former mill workers; dancers; players of exotic instruments; mobile libraries; Stretford Rose Queens; the Ramblers Association; Gay City Strollers; mascots from all of the local football teams; The Unrepentant Smokers and many others, all brought together to celebrate the ‘strange glory’ of Manchester. I wish I had been there.

There is no written commentary on the three black and white photographs of women hitching up their skirts and pissing like men, their knees bent, in the streets of London by Sophy Rickett in 1995. They are simply entitled Old Street, Vauxhall Bridge and Silvertown and are strangely seductive while opening up so many questions: why are they doing it?; how are they doing it?; are the pictures a comment on the City and its buildings, symbolic of financial capital, or on the behaviour of men in the streets or both or neither? They are fascinating, enigmatic pictures which open up a space for thought and discussion.

Finally, for this review, Richard Long’s famous A Line Made by Walking of 1969 is treated as slapstick by the curator Dieter Roelstraete in 2010. He associates it with the deadpan ‘dumb’ humour of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. Interesting.

The Art Of Walking, a field guide is a great book. Great to dip into and great to read and great to look at the pictures. If you like walking and art and you can afford the price, £16.95, buy it.

Paul Allender, 2013.

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David Evans (2013), The Art of Walking: A Field Guide. Black Dog Publishing: London, £16.95

Buy The Art of Walking here.

Luke Bennett on Tim Edgar’s Insect Theatre

The day I heard I’d be getting Tim Edgar’s Insect Theatre to review I finished reading Nick Papadimitrou’s Scarp. In the closing stages of that book Papadimitriou offers up an appendix-like set of field notes. Within those stream of consciousness jottings appears the following arresting paragraph:

“This isn’t some TV-series or drama-workshop universe. This is the real world, Sir: the realm of ants swarming on kerbstones and wasps tapping against the window at dawn. There are sandy mounds behind the brake-drum factory; a myriad of insects dying in drainage ditches or under wheels. They click in their death throes as they are torn by mandibles, stamped on by children, squashed under tyres by roadside verge. The world is a fiery storm roaring at the base of the hedge – flames spreading, invisible in the tussocks.”

Insect Theatre violently drags the spectator into the tussocks. In Edgar’s close up images of dead flies, the spindle trails of spent spider webs and the death-field detritus of broken wings, legs and other shrivelled insect matter we journey into an unrelentingly Hobbesian state of nature, a world of devastation and desiccation-into-dust.

Accompanied by four short essays by anthropologist Hugh Raffles, the book manages to achieve an even bleaker tone than Papadimitriou. The air is chilled by Raffles’ opening depiction of the death throes of a fly as it surrenders “in muddled exhaustion”, stuck fast on a flypaper, and things get no warmer in the tone and staging of Edgar’s images, for even his colour images have a muted, decay ridden palette. The abject effect is also achieved by focussing exclusively upon dead insects – dead defeated insects. This book does not present a valedictory account of the heroic life of rampant insects. The victors are not seen here. These scenes are aftermaths of insect wars, and only the victims are left on stage. This conjurors a strange horror-absence effect , for the victorious protagonist is absent, the sensation of viewing these images is a bit like stumbling into a giant’s cave and its litter of strewn bones. Will the giant return and trap you as you gaze on at the remains of his last meal?

Many of the images show rampant web, a shroud-like dirty gossamer tightly wrapping the trapped insect carcases. These death-bundles are attended by tendrils of web striated across the frame, taught and full of ominous lines of vibration-cord, still capable of signalling to the predator off-stage. Careful where you tread next, you might awaken the monster beyond the page.

The viewer becomes uncomfortable partly because here is dirt as art, but also because of the scale effect of dragging the viewer into the scene. Edgar’s pictures shrink the viewer down to insect size. And strangely this is achieved through removal of human reference points. This isn’t a Honey I Shrunk the Kids world, where the insects are shown living in small corners of our world. No, the absence of such collateral renders this a more alien place, one that is terrifying (and perhaps beautiful in an odd way) in its own terms rather than through any clear association to a ‘background’ human world.

Tim Edgar (2013) Insect Theatre, Black Dog Publishing: London, £14.95

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Visit Black Dog’s site to purchase Insect Theatre.