Manufactured Oasis: The Next Best Thing

Manufactured Oasis: The Next Best Thing by Emi Kodama 

You can find out more about the artist here.

I picked up this little book at the start of a small European adventure early last year from Boekie Woekie in Amsterdam. It was the start of the trip and so I hadn’t yet run out of money and justifying my purchase was easy; it’s only a wee thing so fit fine in my bag, with a blank white cover and text that immediately felt pertinent. I don’t know why but I’m always drawn to books with a blank cover. It seems to make me more confident that what lies within will be interesting. (In the image I’ve stuck in my hand too, for scale.) The physical whiteness and cleanness of Manufactured Oasis echoes the artificial sparseness we glimpse within: a immaculate sink, painted leaves, shaped hedges and plastic flowers. The book uses images and text from across the globe to explore civilisation’s relationship with the wild. Admittedly, spelling it out like that steals some of its charm - part of the joy here is the fragmentation of the text, the jumps between time and place that leave you disorientated but invite a second reading and a third. You’re never really sure where you are, or rather, where you are meant to be. Through these shifts, sprayed grass in sun-parched Canada is linked to the artist’s mother dying her hair, we seem glimpses of the author but we’re not sure who exactly we’re listening to, and when. Is this fiction? Is this real? That question, I figure, is fundamental here. A framed painting (that I immediately presume to be mountains or lakes) is hidden behind a shirt on a hanger. Nemo the neighbourhood cat explores the yard jungle with no memory of the wild. There is constant tension between a desire for wildness and the eerie comfort of artifice; with every image comes an immediate search for nature. 

Kodama isn’t critical of urban/suburban life necessarily but something about the framing here makes me feel claustrophobic. Perfect, unsettling scenes condensed tight into the white page. When I read the words ‘I realize I haven’t seen a field of grass in a very long time’ I start to feel uncomfortable. But I think what separates Kodama’s contemplation of wild and artificial from being condemning is a resignation to commit. It is with hesitancy that Kodama isolates these details. They are intimate spaces somehow despite their immaculate strangeness (the text perhaps, the nostalgia there softening - ) and it’s refreshing to not have the ‘wilderness’ presented as an escape and as a solution. When we are introduced retrospectively to a school teacher prepared at any moment to escape into the wild, with camping gear packed and ready to roll - Kodama hints at a brief sense of fear, a desire to be alone in front of the TV: safe, comfortable, artificial, content. This notion that raw nature is so accessible is presented as faintly ridiculous and the wild waiting beyond a vague threat. Somehow together these fragments of experience go some way to exploring the complexity of our relationship with the wild and the domestic. Most of us, I imagine, sit somewhere on the line between being repulsed and comforted by fake flowers, manicured lawns, framed pictures of mountain ranges we would struggle to enjoy in real life. Real life. You know what I mean. And in this uncertainty Manufactured Oasis shows its strength. It does not feel, to me, that Kodama is pointing her camera at urban environments and shouting and cursing and criticising those with fake flowers on their table. It is not with ridicule that we revisit Mr Harris ready always to leave, or Reiko’s mother preparing a foldable toilet for the end of the World. Kodama’s observations are not cruel. This book is sensitive and quiet, playful perhaps, and these images and excerpts linger for a moment wondering instead ‘isn’t this strange, where we find ourselves right now?’.

I don’t know if this has been a review as such, more of a pondering - but I want to start writing about the things I’ve been looking at as being forced to focus my thoughts means forging something more meaningful from my relationship with words and pictures. I have a good few more texts I want to re-visit from 2018 to get me going but going forward I’d like to offer this kind of interaction out to the world. Perhaps that seems strange, but I know that making things for me is a way in to a conversation. It’s sometimes tricky to know how people read your work, if they will read your work and often people are unwillingly to divulge how they respond. It’s easy to look at something and quickly forget the flesh of it, our attentions so often pulled ten ways at once. If you’ve made something and you want to hear thoughts, let me know - my undivided attention is something I can offer right now, happily, for free. Have a lovely Tuesday.

A long and self-indulgent ramble about warning signs and change

This post has been written in three stages, annoyingly, as I was initially interrupted and then managed to delete an hour’s worth of rambling by closing the window (the internet window, not the physical inside/outside breeze-keeper window, but I guess both could be an obstacle) so, we can start this post (and the glorious new year) with a change of format - from now on I’ll type these posts into a word processor and copy them in. Probably the most boring resolution that’s ever been published, and a damp as all hell way to introduce a new year, but so is life. Where to begin? I only posted twice last year, which is a shame. Perhaps you don’t think it’s a shame, faceless reader, but whatever the responses to any of this stuff there is something about the nature of writing that allows me to process my thoughts in a particular way which I find useful. I say something to this effect every year but I want to write more in 2019. I am thinking of trying to write a little bit a day, not to publish or post anywhere, there is just a catharsis to typing that takes me back to the unpublished LiveJournal account I kept as a teenager, and the satisfying urgency that comes with a furiously clacking keyboard.

My most recent post received some attention and sparked some debate and whilst it amazes me to think of so many people reading my words the discussion that took place in the aftermath took a lot of energy to digest. It was illuminating and I think I would like to write more on some of these ideas in the future, but for now I don’t think it would be particularly helpful to linger longer on a topic which I assume has been momentarily dissected enough. I will say I wish I had had the time to be more present in the debate, at the time, to flesh out my points and untangle some of the uglier dialogue. Art discourse needs to diversify and adapt and the internet is a platform that goes some way toward allowing traditional hierarchies to be subverted, giving you a voice if you feel able to use it. As I mentioned in the end of the post I felt for the first time that I was able to use it. I am grateful to everybody who contacted me to assure me that was a good decision because it’s easy to assume blame in spaces you feel you might not be welcome. December was a total fucker from start to finish, as I will touch upon later in the post. It wasn’t a bad month, it was often fantastic, but I felt permanently stretched and anxious like some strange waning ghost. There simply wasn’t any time. But enough for now. I realise I am rambling and that’s not what this post is about. At the end of the day it was thrilling that what I managed to get down coming away from that talk (yes – whilst picking at some sweet potato stew) was read, shared, considered, criticised and discussed. Thank you.

But onward - things have changed and there is much to recap. I’m writing this post from my parents’ tiled white porch on a quiet street in Torbay, Devon. There is an orange plant behind me and I have a cup of coffee. I have come here to type something because for the last weeks of Christmassy relaxation I have felt a bit adrift and as I have said, typing things to nobody has always been a way of getting them sorted. I have moved out of Edinburgh. It is a beautiful city with some strange grey enchantment that bewitched eighteen year old me the moment I got off the train. I guess at some stage during the latter half of 2018 I realised that the pace I had set for myself was too much. It was a situation entirely self-made, entirely of my own doing: I simply took on too much and expected too much and wanted somehow for everything still to be perfect. My expectations were unrealistic. There were a  number of times I walked away from a perfectly banal conversation in the corridor of a gallery, or the aisle of a supermarket, racked with anxiety that I had mis-performed, consistently in some weird frenzy and at the same time tired. There were moments where I registered on some level ‘I should be really interested in this’ but found only a lack, a gap somewhere in my energy that left me feeling exhausted and my jaw locked in a ‘don’t be a dick’ grimace as somebody I liked tried to talk to me about something I liked and I had to consciously choose to not tell them to shut up. That’s surely a signal. I couldn’t relax, ever, and I became impatient and moody. Sometimes I woke up with a sense of dread at missed opportunities before the day had even begun. Realising that this wasn’t working meant pushing through a feeling of failure and accepting that I wasn’t able to juggle everything forever but you HAVE TO TRUST YOUR GUT in situations like this before you run yourself into the ground. It was a waiting game where I felt for a while like I was going to snap and ruin something because I was trying always too hard to squeeze something out of an empty bottle. Yes, that’s me, the empty bottle. I don’t know why I’m analogising myself as an old bottle of ketchup but it feels right so I’ll stick with it. (I don’t even like ketchup that much?)

I realise that when I use these analogies that might seem ridiculous outside of my head and when I lay my brain out on the internet I run risk of being accused of melodrama, or being criticised and sneered at and I guess all I can say is I’m not saying this for pity and it doesn’t come from anger and I don’t think I’m exaggerating. I am conscious I want to steer this blog toward photography and away from my labyrinthian insecurities but tis the season for self-analysis so let’s have one last hurrah. I understand I created that situation for myself and hopefully reading about that realisation might help others identify warning signs that they’re about to burn out. The internet is a fantastic platform for honesty, one that doesn’t need physical or sentimental closeness. I celebrate when I see others’ insecurities talked through online not because they are feeling that way but because it offers insight into the existing vulnerabilities all around us, complex situations which so much of our digital behaviour tends to condense, abbreviate and filter. I don’t know why but it’s easier for me to type this out here than talk it through with someone in the next room. That’s just the way it is. I recognised that the pace of life I had mapped out for myself was on a time limit and I acted to make changes. It’s ok to identify when things aren’t working. I was fortunate enough to have people around me to remind me of that and after ten years of graft to have the resources to put an escape route into place. Maybe reading about that might be useful for somebody else. It’s ok to need a change.

So - after three months of learning and searching, in the final fortnight of the year I bought a second-hand minivan and drove 465 miles from Edinburgh to the Westcountry with my cat strapped into the passenger seat and my life’s possessions jammed into the back: duvets, a handful of christmas bits, picture frames, way too many coats and a whole side of smoked salmon. When I reached my family home, ten hours later, I was met with love and comfort and pride. Christmas is always a weird (lovely) dynamic of suspended reality and nostalgia but I am coming to learn that accepting love  when you have learned to live alone for so long bears challenges of its own. Why is it that accepting affection makes me feel awkward? What is it about being cared for that makes me feel like I’ve failed? I understand, of course, that these challenges are a privilege, that the situation I have managed to retreat to is a fantastic gift and that I need to adapt. I guess when you have adjusted to being independent and making things happen on your own accepting help feels a bit wrong. It’s a new thing to navigate; being an adult child in a family home. If I manage my money with sense I can use this time productively: to apply for a career within the creative industries or else use my qualifications to travel, to visit loved ones I don’t get to see enough, to remember parts of myself there wasn’t space for in last few years of hard work, to reflect on all the fantastic achievements and opportunities 2018 meant for me and my peers, to appreciate the family I have and the home I haven’t seen enough the last few years, to remember how to be quiet and still, to focus on making work and looking at work and reading. But - leaving my city, the structures I had built around myself, the fantastic network of friends and colleagues and peers and support that I worked hard to deserve during 2018, will be difficult. Is proving difficult. Was always going to be difficult. Difficult things are important too.

I feel like I’ve mumbling been here forever and need to send this out so I can get on with applying for jobs and opportunities to build the next step. The main thing now is channelling the energy I have used for the last year, which propelled me into such a strange state of restless productivity, into new avenues and territories, whilst remembering that Edinburgh is still there. There is so much I managed to produced last year that I need to re-visit and re-package and get online and out there in print. In the last week of December I finished a new book: a goodbye of sorts to Edinburgh the place (a goodbye to the people would have taken too much paper) titled You are bizarre and beautiful and I will love you forever. I will be finishing the first run over the next couple of weeks and will update with where and how they will be available for purchase. I will also be sorting through the archive of photo books and zines I have managed to amass over the last years and intend to write a little about the ones that particularly stood out for me. I am writing that here so I am committed to doing it, because that’s how these New Year reflections work right? I am excited to see what happens. I have hope that concentrating on this time and its potential, where I have the space to sit in a porch for hours and type this nonsense to nobody/everybody/myself, is a gift.

Happy New Year everybody. XO

P.S my resolutions are: stop drunk smoking, take time to be slow, try and enjoy driving, and always, every year: work hard, make things happen.

Why listening to Andres Serrano tonight was a bad idea

I’m going to write this post as naturally as I can in the spur of the moment and hope it is coherent enough to make sense to somebody, maybe, but strap in cos it’s probably gonna be a long one and I’ve been up since 6AM. I’m just back from listening to Andres Serrano speak about his work at the Royal Society for Physicians on Queen Street, Edinburgh. I have a Tupperware of re-heated sweet potato stew inbetween my hands as I type, so if there’s gaps in the flow it’s because I’m taking a minute to eat. I am, as I have stated before in this blog, fortunate enough to volunteer at Stills: Centre for Photography, a fantastic resource and hub for Scotland’s photographic community at all levels of interest and success. This means that I was able to attend today’s Andres Serrano talk for free (it would usually be £8). I do not for one second criticise Stills for organising this event or for hosting the show (which I actually find quite interesting) and cannot reiterate enough my gratitude to Stills for operating as a platform for Artist Talks and general photographic discourse. As a Centre for Photography, this  kind of event is a goal - or perhaps not even goal - but something exciting and vital and an opportunity which would hurt to be missed. But, personally,  listening to Andres Serrano talk about his work tonight was a bad idea. Sitting in that red room with its marble pillars and intricate ceiling and concealed central heating (which I have to come learn, is the sign of true decadence, the kind of decadence you worry you’re not fit for) I had the sinking feeling of disappointment that settles around a group of people when they hope to be in some way enlightened, or in some way impressed, or in some way have their expectations of themselves brought higher by another’s commitment to excellence and sensitivity, and instead are met with the void of self-satisfied nonchalance. 

My favourite of the works Serrano showed tonight? The milk, the blood stuff, the bits where it felt like he was experimenting and trying to create something and playing with ideas that didn’t belong to him yet. Trepidation perhaps. Whatever it was it wasn’t very good, and that made it good. I dunno. From then on I felt like I’d heard it all before. It’s that creeping feeling of vague dread that descends when somebody re-affirms everything you recognise as flawed in an industry, the bits you were trying to tell yourself aren’t true or at least don’t have to be true going forward. I’ll try and list the things that made me uncomfortable, because lists are supposed to make things less difficult and less scary: 

          - he defined paying someone to do what he wanted as ‘collaboration’, in an attempt to answer someone’s question about the power imbalance inherent in photographing the homeless

          - he detailed an act of compassion (pity) at being unable to photograph Siamese twins in way that ‘was beautiful enough’ because their house ‘smelled funny’ and they owned a dog with no back legs(the crazy thing here is that he presented this anecdote as if he had truly done something heroic, if he had mentioned this in a moment of self-scrutiny, as part of a dialogue about power and money and images and representation, it would have been gold dust hot shit let’s talk about this vulnerability in admitting you are imperfect yes yes yes let’s listen to eachother and all leave with a bit of a broader understanding of how we can think about our actions, but no, look at this great thing I did, cost me $1000 and a great deal of fucking emotional hardship having to try to make them look decent but hey I’m a good guy, like HOW would your conscious even think to spin that anecdote like that?)

          - the way in which he battled this hardship was to buy costumes from a costume store and put them in fancy dress

          - when he stated he didn’t research places or people or events before deciding to make work about them/ whilst representing them

          - when he said he was never interested in photography as a craft, that he saw the equipment as needless mechanics, that he chose to only shoot film but paid someone else to set up his shot and process his pictures

          - when he ignored his printer’s quip about his work by reminding him ‘I pay you to print so print me something’

          - when he acknowledging changing the title of a work from ‘Citizens of Brussels’ to ‘Denizens of Brussels’ because this particular form of homelessness was more ‘theatrical’ and ‘out there’ than the ‘normal homeless guy’ hardship he was used to in NYC (arguably using language to shape his ‘collaborators’ as animals, aliens, as opposed to people) 

          - when he discussed his work about torture, re-iterated that he makes very direct work and once it’s produced he lets go of any responsibility toward it, talked briefly only about how important it was for him to act as the torturer, and did not use this opportunity as a platform to draw attention to any single current event, past event, or instance of torture which would bring the issue into public discussion

          - his total lack of thought or introspection in response to any of the questions that tried to engage with his work on any kind of political or socially conscious level, or really any level at all, despite being paid what can only be thousands and thousands of pounds to produce work by an organisation that clearly states their ‘Utopian’ purpose as driving the creation of politically conscious work

         - a total lack of acknowledgement of art as an industry (business) and  money as a motivating factor when making work, despite Serrano’s prints selling for more than the average house, only therefore emphasising money and value as part of his vast power, the mentionless elephant in the room 

And this is just what I can remember. There was just so much in here that I don’t want to celebrate about the art industry and celebrity culture that it didn’t even make me think ‘oh wow Andres Serrano you’re so controversial, you’re such a character, you are just a total fruit loop barmy creative weirdo’ it just made my legs ache with that particular sadness and fury you feel when you’re proved time and time again that things are hopelessly stacked against you and there is so much wrong with the system you want to be part of that perhaps you were never meant to peek your head in and maybe you should just get out now whilst you can still identify the awkwardness you feel applauding a man who reaps vast sums of money from art he seems reluctant to engage with or commit responsibility to. 

I was thinking of asking Andres Serrano a question when there was time for this at the end of the talk, and many came to mind.  I wondered why he had an equal amount of slides showing his own semen to that of the work he was representing displayed at Stills and why in a limited timeframe and with an entire career to cover he still felt the need to prove to the room his ability to catch his own jizz on film. I also considered what it was about his work that he enjoyed exactly if not the craft itself, the political power, the social potential, the use of the camera as a vehicle for research and understanding, self-reflection, whether he realised how exciting it was for the Gallery to be showing such provocative work and why he had so very painfully little to say about their significance or why they should be seen and should exist and why he felt motivated to take them. I half-wondered what advice he could offer to fledgling photographers as a key to success, as a starting step on the ladder to opportunity, that wasn’t simply throwing money at it. Usually in answer to this question you can expect someone in a position of earned authority to say something like ‘learn the ropes and master your craft!’ or ‘do your research and then do some more!’ but Serrano made it quite clear he subscribe to those ideas at all.

I’m writing this to feel like I have some input anyway. I don’t want the celebrated members of the art industry, the ‘winners’, to just be the people with all the money and all the ego and none of the answers for the difficult questions. I don’t want to listen to somebody else tell me all the ways in which they have used images to re-affirm their existing ideas, I like to hear people admit they were wrong. I like to think people are consistently realising how they could have approached things better. And I like to think that perhaps we are moving (globally, technically, politically) toward a community that celebrates sensitivity and imperfection and vulnerability and learning and reflection above displays of power. I like to think that but that doesn’t mean I believe it’s the truth. Some days I do. Tonight I guess I don’t. Again, I re-iterate that I don’t resent the exhibition and I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend tonight even if just to expand my own dialogue about what I respect and what I resent about how the art world works. But I won’t pretend that this kind of Artist Talk gives me much hope, or gives me much insight, or makes the art world and the gallery wall feel any more mine or any more accessible.

I used to feel that all this conversation belonged to someone else, to other people with more time, more money, more connections and more knowledge  but I guess I’ve made progress somewhere because hey, I’m here, I’ve written something down and I’m throwing it out there. The only way we can expect things to change are if we contend them.  I’m going to go now because I have to be up even earlier tomorrow but just wanted to get it all down. 

Thanks for reading, if you did. XO

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