Thursday, October 22, 2009

Martin Parr, Collector and Historian



The other day I was in Tyneside to review an exhibition about T Dan Smith, and while there myself and the I.T girl (who was coming along to take photos, before deciding the weather was too awful to do such a thing) popped into The Baltic to enjoy the wonders of the Urban Renaissance. There was soon to be a Damien Hirst retrospective, but luckily we didn't have to suffer this. What there was, however, was Parrworld, which led to me and I.T, usually so politico-aesthetically sympatico, disagreeing on something. This isn't necessarily because I disagreed with her hostility to Parr and all his works - the words 'irony' and 'end of history' were mentioned - but because I am entirely a sucker for this sort of thing, for these decontextualised collections of political-aesthetic tat. In short, Parrworld (as profiled by this Guardian video) is an exhibition of the man's vast collection, to coincide no doubt with the equally vast (and frankly covetable) book of said collection. Here we have an array of postcards of postwar architecture, the seaside, holiday camps or in commemoration of sundry disasters; a huge collection of photobooks which includes everything from El Lissitzky to Robert Frank; photography, often of Britain, including John Davies' astonishing English landscapes (more of which presently); and, most famously/notoriously, a vast collection of political ephemera in vitrines - the Saddam loo roll, the Bush N' Bin Laden geegaws, Sputnik inkwells, Miners' Strike commemorative plates.


First of all, I have very little time for Martin Parr as a photographer, with the possible exception of the Signs of the Times book (which, much like Abigail's Party, is both a compendium of snobbery and agenuinely chilling insight into Thatcherism). Myself and Joel Anderson have a sort of refrain on our Urban Trawl for Building Design - 'nah, that's a bit Parr', a way of stopping ourselves. This happened first when we saw a bustling farmer's market with nostalgic red & white stalls spreading out from Southampton's Bargate. Fuck that. Too picturesque. We established a strict policy of no 'local colour', no people doing interesting things, no ooh-look-we're-so-eccentric-in-England, but instead tried to make the photographs as wilfully blank as possible. But in that we might well have been influenced by case for the defence #1, Boring Postcards. I don't really give a shit whether or not Parr himself or his audience think Boring Postcards is funny, a nostalgiafest analogue to Crap Towns. When I saw it for the first time I thought it was shockingly beautiful, a hauntingly still document of popular modernism, and it marks (along with the Birmingham scene of Broadcast/Pram/Plone) the first obvious example of the now common the-future-didn't-happen-after-all aesthetic, the revisionism that placed 1950s civic centres and swimming baths along with the Radiophonic Workshop in the area where rock & roll and pop formerly sat. Indeed, I have my own burgeoning collection of 'boring' postcards, and am consistently awed and impressed by the supposedly mundane places that were once considered worthy of a mass produced piece of card. For this if nothing else, Parr has done history some minor service.


Parrworld is too much, far too much, and if I weren't an inveterate collector of tat myself (it occurred to me looking at all this that, in the unlikely event I ever ended up wealthy, I would build up a collection much like this, albeit perhaps without the Obama breakfast cereal and so forth) I would probably be far more hostile. My first response was a consumerist one - oh wow, look at all this beautiful stuff, looking round eagerly at postcards, at silver-coated books on the steel industry of Soviet Kazakhstan, at Yuri Gagarin memorial pens, whatever. Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again. But what relation does all this stuff have to the aestheticisation of politics? The room with the cases full of Soviet space program whatnot, War Against Terror memorabilia and Miners' Strike posters and plates places all of these things on the same plane. They're all of curio value, and by implication so are their politics, both are fundamentally as picturesquely eccentric as his own photographs, examples of our 'foibles' (as Parr himself puts it). I'm still trying to defend Parrworld as we cross to the Newcastle side of the Tyne, and notice that one of the Miners' Strike posters decorates the front of the Baltic. 'VICTORY TO THE MINERS. VICTORY TO THE WORKING CLASS'. It's like being punched in the guts. In a city which once had some sort of pride in its politics, in an area which dreamed of socialism and self-education, all that becomes a striking, historically rueful what were we thinking? advert to be placed next to the ad for the Damien Hirst show. The very fact it's there is a sign of the working class' neutralisation, the fact that those in the yuppiedromes which tower along the Quayside don't fear it any longer - or at least, that the poster reassures them they no longer need to be afraid.

21 Comments:

Blogger Giovanni said...

Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again.

True enough, but then of course the fact that somebody is collecting these arfetacts means some day somebody else may reclaim them and put them to different use. They are documents after all. By the same token, yes, reducing socialist memorabilia to kitsch collectibles may be the ultimate indignity, and signal the yuppiedrome dwellers that there is no longer anything to fear, but it may also reactivate some memories - objects to remember with, and all that.

That these items were saved for the wrong reasons needs not matter, or at least it matters less than the fact that they were saved.

Looking at a truly amazing photo of factory workers leaving a Pirelli factory in 1905 recently, I was reminded that some of this history survives thanks to the other side - the Pirelli archive in this case.

10:04 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Yes, if someone looked at that poster and it reactivated something, then good - but it seemed a huge declaration of defeat to me. But I might have been backing down from an argument I shouldn't have backed down from.

10:07 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I agree with you - in the way its currently organised (from what I can glean from your account) that collection defeats us. But I'm glad that its artefacts were saved. Somebody still needs to do that work, and often it's the wrong people for the wrong reasons. I need not remind you that many of the Stenberg brothers posters exist in only one or two copies in private collections that are hardly managed by Bolsheviks.

10:14 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

(I suppose it boils down to my not being so concerned about the absolute evil and finality of cultural misappropriations since becoming a postmodernist. I'll get my coat.)

10:19 pm  
Anonymous Pop Fop said...

I'm so with you on the boring postcards. The Phaidon books ('Boring Postcards' and the German 'Langweilige Postkarten') are always right at my computer desk for perusal. I personally find them quite interesting and for some reason calming.

Here is a digital collage I made with a picture of one:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2201/2047934293_f2be26569e_o.png

2:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"working class' neutralisation"

ah the romantic view of the working class from the literatti lives on!

3:09 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I wish it did live on, old chap. Now I'm just off to walk me whippets.

10:46 am  
Blogger Half-a-man said...

That postcard of the M6 is genuinely beautiful. That service station deserves to be venerated - regardless of the fact that its Burger King is woefully understaffed - when I first saw it, it was breathtaking.

2:17 am  
Anonymous BalticDryIndex said...

I agree with Giovanni on this. I think we often underestimate the latent power that the historical/collective folk memory possesses - perhaps because it tends to skip generations than move in a continuous flow.

At the end of the day, the lifeblood of neoliberalism was Ponzi credit, and as that leaks away so will the political and cultural ideas that have dominated the landscape over the last 30 or so years. This will open up the space for many older ideas and notions to re-emerge from hibernation. Not all of them will be good ones, of course, but then that is why politics will become more vital.

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