Time goes by so fast and unnoticed. Was it last year or the year before, was it spring, summer, was it autumn when Tytti invited me to the book fair at the Whitechapel gallery? I only went because I wanted to spend time with her and her boyfriend Paul.
I don’t go to these kinds of events as a viewer, to enjoy art and to be inspired. I go there as a fellow art practitioner. I survey. I measure my chances of being endorsed by an art institution and being promoted by them. I wonder what these kinds of events matter, if being on show there would really be a desirable achievement. I walk around, browse and think about the relationship between art and its establishments. I logically ask ‘what is art?’, sigh quietly to myself and glance, with my mind’s eye, at a few theories which attempt to answer this question. I hover around the few phrases that crystallise the thoughts of the chosen path with my practice. I remember the poignant question one tutor in Art School threw at some visiting artists giving their talk:’ How do you see your practice in the context of contemporary art?’ I shiver and, in my mind, draft my own answer. I get tangled in the nuances of ‘artspeak’. I despair.
After wandering about the various publishers’ tables I went to the Whitechapel Gallery’s own bookshop. A book on the centre table caught my eye. I recognised the author, Paul O’Kane. I had gone to a few of his lectures at Camberwell. After one lecture I said, frustrated, to a tutor that it is impossible to take notes from O’Kane’s lectures because he just rambles on. This tutor, I can see now how patient he was with me, said that O’Kane is one of the few old school lecturers left who have this style. Then the penny dropped. C.S. Lewis! I have read similar lectures that those of Paul O’Kane’s when I have read and enjoyed C.S. Lewis’s essays, some of which are his lectures at Oxford and Cambridge. Remembering this I picked up the book, read the back of it and bought it.
I first read it on my trip to Wales. Or was I in England? I stayed at a hostel at St Briavels castle, close to the ancient English/Welsh border. I walked along the Offa’s Dyke Path and, on the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien, visited Puzzlewood. I read the book after my walks, some in pouring rain, some better weather, in the castle’s old kitchen, now a lounge. It was all so quaint and lush, so achingly English. I now have to reveal a little secret: in these past two years I have travelled quite extensively in the UK and photographed the British landscape with my Bronica 645 medium format camera. I don’t yet know what shape this project will take but, as with the London Archive, I have wandered, rambled (one of my favourite words in the English language) and taken the photographs with some sadness. I was very lucky to be surrounded by the kind of people that I was during the EU referendum campaigns and its result in 2016. As a result, I have developed a crush on the Brits. I have begun to love this bizarre and beautiful country. Therefore, as with the London Archive, I have taken those photographs with a sense that I might be collecting them as something to take with me if I move elsewhere. With this all going on in my mind, overwhelmed, I read ‘Where is that Light now?’ rather slowly, occasionally looking at a Harry Potter’sque white owl above the fireplace. I knew that I would come back to the book. Recently, I happened to pick it up just at a time when I had gotten vexed about the state of my life.
In ‘Where is that Light now?’ Paul O’Kane defends the artist’s right to make art almost as a play, for its own sake, as a way of life. He, for example, points out that the critics artists thrive to impress and appease, more of than not, write their reviews with their personal ambitions in mind as well as explores photography’s dialogue between the personal and the narrative. He writes beautifully, with the kind of finesse, poetry and clarity that I can only hope to master one day. I fear that I might do his writing injustice by paraphrasing it as I have done above- by using words like ‘defend’- for his treatment of the subject is more skilful than the usual discourse of academic arguments. Perhaps it is better to quote the text on the back of the book ‘...the writing comes to question established contexts for art and proposes an alternative – art as a personal vocation or “way.”’
I have since started following his weekly blog ‘A few words a week on Art and Life in London’. I found his thoughts, his writings and the way he writes a relief and inspiration because I haven’t been able to reconcile my decision to not join the game of the Art World, as I saw it, and the pressure from everyone (it seems) around me to pursue art in a certain way. For it to have conventional results, something reminding of a career, upheld by art institutions and viewed as well as commented on by figures such as art collectors, dealers and art critics. In his blog O’Kane writes about these subjects and continues to propose an alternative.
In one of the first notes on this journal I wrote that in order for me to untangle myself from the suffocating Art School way of thinking, I would have to investigate everything I do with a different vocabulary and outlook but that I didn’t know what this was. Later I added, frustrated, that I was simply unable to find another way on my own. I am now glad to write that I don’t feel quite so alone in this quest anymore.
© Carita Silander
These are odd times, times to which a project like the London Archive doesn’t seem to belong.
Or so I thought as I began to draft this text. As I mulled over the kind of arguments employed to knock each other over on the chess board of conceptual art debate and I saw where the above statement was in danger of taking me, I re-phrased it.
These are indeed odd times. Political farce here in the UK, political turmoil elsewhere, the far-right gaining ground everywhere and then the looming global disaster caused by climate change; a state of affairs to which a project like my ‘London Archive’ doesn’t, at a first glance, seem to belong.
At a first glance my photographs are beautiful. To an Art School undergraduate however, this is not an achievement but criticism. Is beauty an illusion, something that blinds us from seeing the dirt, the horrors around us? Does it numb us, cast us under its spell so that we stay docile? Is it an easy way to please the crowds? Is it an indulgence, is it luxury? I will leave those questions here unanswered, and therefore to be contemplated.
As well as being an art project to be viewed by members of the public (and by this, I mainly mean my friends and family) London Archive is also a personal project. I feel very uncertain about the future and photographing, which to me is active seeing, is a way to cope. I have an innate need for harmony and order. I seek it consciously and unconsciously, sometimes compulsively. Therefore, having remembered the reason why I am collecting an archive of photographs of London and having remembered why it is said that people photograph: to remember, to immortalise and to preserve something from the imminence of loss, I added ‘at a first glance’ and thus rewrote this text and redirected my thoughts from apathy and defeat towards resilience and hope.
I have wondered what I will end up saying when I will be asked by future generations what I did during this time, like the question ‘what did you do during the World War II?’ posed to previous generations. More vainly perhaps I have wondered how much the London Archive will weigh in the eyes of future generations. My guesses are based on nothing but assumptions. How am I to know what kind of a story will be told about our times in the future? Who will be the victors who will get to define the past? The best I can do with my art work is to stay true to myself, to my human experience where my work stems from, regardless of how relevant the outcome is in the discourses of contemporary art.
As I am getting nearer to the final stages of this project, I am going to present a few photographs from the archive. Most of them are runners up for the final edition of about 120 images to be exhibited, i.e. photographs that I have edited out but only because there was a better photo of the sub-theme they represent. Although perhaps to promise to ‘present’ is misleading. I know that I won’t write about the photograph in question but around it. It is somehow in the nature of photography, this bent to allusiveness in the presence of blatant life-life detail and I embrace it wholeheartedly.
I have to admit though that the reason why I embrace this poetic license is that I struggle to act as a guide to my images in the manner established by art institutions. I have in the past rebelled against it. At its worst, I felt, it is a mixture of ‘artspeak’ and ‘mansplaining’: art jargon explained condescendingly to the viewer, as if they were blind and dumb. Although I still find it frustrating, I am coming around to it because I think that despite, or perhaps because of, our visual culture, we are visually illiterate. We have become accustomed to consuming images by their face value, so to speak, when underneath the surface, if we look a bit closer, the story is more complicated than it appears at a first glance.
© Carita Silander
Preamble to the London Archive Articles
I asked a few friends and members of family to choose a photograph from the London Archive they would like to know more about. As this premise is my own devising, I have taken the artistic liberties necessary in answering this question. Bar a few exceptions, the result is a series of short essays combining a brief outline of historical information, consideration of photography as a medium as well as an account on how I ended up taking each particular photograph.