Saturday, October 19, 2013

Hackney Seen Again in Clerkenwell

This post continues some reflections on Tom Hackney's exhibition Tremors that was shown recently at the Breese Little Gallery in Clerkenwell. We let you know that it was on here, and began to look at it a fortnight ago here.
Gallery view of Tom Hackney's exhibition (now closed) at Breese Little. 
Last time we pored over one particular theme in the exhibition: chess grids. We began with one of Tom's 8x8 paintings - by now familiar - of a Duchamp game. Inflation set in, 8x8=64 units became 48x48=2304, and the additional detail enabled us to see a complete game as if reading its score. You would think that the artist might have taken a well-earned breather after so much hyper-tessellation. But far from it; Tom has squared up to a new theme, and with a second wind has produced the evocative piece below. It is shown below as large as possible within the blog frame to enhance its impact and its feeling of distance and dislocation from its subject matter. You can also now see, just, that the individual cells are hand-painted.

  © Tom Hackney 
Not the moves of a game, but two out-of-focus players and their set. The work must surely display the "Tremor" of the show's title, either as camera shake or as atmosphere (a word that Tom has used), but we'll come back to the raison d'être of the picture after first examining its methodological foundations. But we should tread carefully as we know from our encounters with Tom Hackney that in his work appearance, method, theory, and history are all interconnected, and it is unwise to de-couple any one aspect from the others. But with that in mind let's briefly trace some antecedents in this recent work of Tom's, and do a kind of potted Who Do You Think You Art?

Here two other pieces from the Tremors show are juxtaposed. We saw the one on the left a few months ago back here, and the one on the right last time.

Left: Tabula Acrylic on printed reproduction 42 x 32 cm (2013)
Right: Chess Painting No. 31 (Michel v Duchamp, Strasbourg, 1924) 48 x 48 cm Oil on Linen (2013)
© Tom Hackney
Tabula is in a line of descent from work by the extraordinarily prolific post-war German artist Gerhard Richter. There are issues aplenty to be read into it, or projected onto it: the authenticity of synthetic colour; the search for order in chaos; the limits of visual discrimination; the digitisation of everyday life. Tom's work is in fact an over-painting of a print of a Richter, which adds another layer of associations, literally, by quoting Richter back at himself as it had also been the latter's practice to paint over photographs. It calls up another question about the relative values of craftwork (Tom's) and industrial process (as a Richter gives the appearance of so being).

Painting over photographs? "Hyper-realist" over-painting, a technique that Tom adopted in an earlier phase a few years back before the chess, puts me in mind of the embellishment of celebrity image by Photoshopping and digital enhancement; although, contrastingly, the "pixellation" suggested by the The Chess Players is used by modern-day media to hide and to obscure identity. Either way something happens - and doesn't - between the photograph and over-painting (or under-painting and "gloss") which shrouds the former as enigma.

That carefully randomised surface of Tabula seems to be resolved in Chess Painting No. 31, which is loaded with coded significance. It tells a story, albeit that you need to be able to organise it perceptually so as to read it - as we saw last time. It re-calls, or re-plays, another game of Duchamp's (a figure of some historical significance).    

So the roots are all there: tessallation, painted photographs, chess thought, moments in history (moments with a history), embedded stories; all the ingredients that we can trace in the two photographs, pixellated and over-painted, of two historically significant figures, devoted chess players Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin as displayed in Tremors.

LeftThe  Chess Game (Berthold Brecht vs. Walter Benjamin, Denmark 1934)
Right: The Chess Game II (Berthold Brecht vs. Walter Benjamin, Denmark, 1934)

Both: oil on aluminium panel; 30 x 30 and 28 x 35 cms respectively.
© Tom Hackney
Brecht (1898-1956) and Benjamin (1892-1940) were two anti-fascist cultural warriors in Germany before WW2. The former was a dramatist and poet with a mission to politicize theatre and its audiences. Benjamin was a philosopher and literary theorist, making his living from journalism and criticism - maybe best known for his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" of 1936 which, sometimes presciently, sometimes obscurely (or so it appears to me), explores how photography and printing have changed our relationship to art, along with other issues in the emergent mass media of film and radio. Brecht went into exile in 1933 to Denmark, moving on again a few years later to avoid arrest by the Nazis, eventually to the States (returning to the GDR in 1945). Benjamin was less fortunate and, on the run but feeling himself cornered on the French-Spanish border, took his own life in 1940. 
The two had become firm friends (as analysed in Dr. Erdmut Wizisla's book detailed below) and spent considerable time in each other's company, including on the Danish coast in 1934 when they were photographed playing chess, chez Brecht. Two of these photos are the foundation of the works above. In fact there is a third - see all three in the Appendix. Brecht wrote to Benjamin two years later in 1936, hoping he would visit again, tempted by more chess. He wrote "The chessboard lies orphaned, and every half hour a tremor of remembrance runs through it: that was when you made your moves". And there is the source of the title of Tom's Tremors exhibition. The explanation of "every half hour", incidentally, is that, not having a chess clock, they moved at regular 30 minute intervals.

The line has some especially poetic elements...lies orphaned...tremor of remembrance...suggesting that the set itself is pining for Benjamin's return. And that surely is the "atmosphere" (Tom's term again) pervading the distance between Brecht and their games two years earlier, between the two now-parted friends, and suffusing the whole episode.  The "pixellation effect" is especially evocative in creating a diffusive mist of memory, a shimmer of nostalgia - a glimpse of a scene through the veil of years. Or from beyond the vale of tears: after Benjamin's death Brecht wrote a poetic lament that recalls them together "at the chess board  seated in the pear tree's shade".  The paintings are extraordinarily effective in these terms - as I see them, anyway.

So, after a sequence of works (the grids) that showed us chess from the inside - the very thought of chess - here we have it from the outside. We see now real people play the game, and we encounter the poetic idea that the pieces are sentient (if that's not too fanciful). They are excited enough to tremulate at the idea of realising their purpose in life; they tremor at the very thought of chess - in resonance with the players themselves.  The two Chess Games introduce a dimension of human inter-subjectivity that is absent, apparently, from the Tom's previous chess-works, which are otherwise relentlessly, well, cerebral. We should note, however, that there are other works in the exhibition which also, it seems to me, evoke absence and memory that are similarly affecting: Reverb and Tract - over-painting again, but of texts (by or about Richter, I think).

Left: Reverb. Printed reproduction, light box. 37 x 29 cm (2013)
Right: Tract. Printed reproduction, light box. 37 x 29 cm (2013)
(framing added - MS) 
© Tom Hackney  
If, indeed, that is how you want to see them. We have learnt though these conversations with Tom that he isn't so much interested in (which not the same as "dismissive of") the emotional or aesthetic experience that his work engenders in the viewer as in expressing, or giving form to, the notion that information is embedded in materials (texts, LPs, chess scores, and photographs), and that these carry, embody, and can call up, real events that may be "re-played" time and time again. He doesn't so much want to evoke inter-subjectivity, as explore the conditions, the underpinning, that supports it and makes it possible.

That was me presuming to speak for Tom again. Let's instead let him speak for himself, making a direct reference to the genesis and function of The Chess Game pictures. This reflection reveals another trigger for  the "pixellation"...
" Yes, I struggle a bit with the context of nostalgia. I see them [the pictures - MS] as restaged historical material, as with a contemporary interpration of a Brecht play. The images, and all that they represent, are recirculated. The pixellation came about partly as reflecting the format I received the source images from the Brecht Archiv in Berlin, and as a way to connect to the images & material as a translator (pushing around black and white paint on a grid)."
....and here we return again to the idea that Tom's way of doing art is to act as "conduit" (his word, from the gallery's exhibition note) which unpacks, transforms and then "re-stages" historical "data" and makes them visible as art-works - and it is this new production that we can then appreciate and interpret as we may. But like a Brecht play, we are also obliged to step back to see what is going on.

For me it's been a fascinating and, as always with Tom's work, a challenging exploration, and I'm so pleased that we have arrived at the Brecht-Benjamin episode (incidentally Brecht's interest in the game was briefly noted by Morgan Daniels on our blog here a couple of years ago), which shows chess as a flesh-and-blood inter-subjective activity taking place in the real world. It is so refreshing to find an artist who treats the content of chess seriously for its own sake, and who doesn't regard the game as mere decoration for other themes. Just before we close I'd like to thank Tom once again for engaging with the chess community in explaining and discussing his work: here's to his next exhibition.

There is a delightful coda to all this, as hinted at last time. The Brecht vs. Benjamin chess game, captured in the three source photographs (and thanks to Brecht Archiv in Berlin for permission to reproduce them), has been imaginatively reconstructed, analysed, and annotated by two British chess enthusiasts (and Brecht/Benjamin scholars) Andrew McGettigan and Peter Buse. The game fragment appeared in two articles in the journal Radical Philosophy in 2010 and can be found respectively here and here. Andrew gives a more general assessment of the game and its context. Peter's commentary - by his own admission, slightly tongue in cheek - focusses rather more on the quality of the moves. Andrew, incidentally, produced the particular translation of the "pear tree" line above (the full four-line poem is given in his article).

Looking at what we can see of the game one can't avoid the impression that the protagonists of 1934 were of rather modest chess strength - though, even to obtain this level of competence would have required some time and application to the study and practice of the game. They were both clearly beyond enthusiastic beginner level. There is an indication that they were familiar with Nimzovitch's ideas - in the French Defence anyway; in this connection please see the Information Request right at the end.
Here is the suggested reconstruction - all 12 moves of it - together with just a few of Andrew and Peter's notes (AM and PB respectively), adapted and reproduced with their kind agreement; perhaps these will tempt you to read their excellent articles in full, linked above. The notes are accessible to any non-chessers looking in - use the navigation buttons under the diagram to re-enact the moves of the game. Regular chessers may like to make their own assessment of the likely grades of the players - expressed in modern ECF currency.

With thanks to: Tom Hackney, and the Breese Little Gallery; at the Brecht-Archiv, Anett Schubotz and Dr. Erdmut Wisizla; also Andrew McGettigan and Peter Buse.

Dr. Erdmut Wizisla. Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht - a story of a friendship (2004). English translation by Christine Shuttleworth (2009), Yale U. P.
Andrew McGettigan. Benjamin and Brecht: Attrition in friendship. Radical Philosophy, May/June 2010.
Peter Buse. It was better not to know. Radical Philosophy, September/October 2010.

The three original photos of Brecht and Benjamin in 1934, courtesy of the Brecht-Archiv. Photographer unknown. All pictures © Brecht-Archiv.
The position after 8...Qxf6 by Benjamin.

Benjamin, knight in hand, about to play 9...Ne7

The position after 12. c3 as Benjamin ponders his own 12th move;
that, and the rest of the game, are lost to history.  

Information Request
Judging from the game above, and their interest in the French à la Nimzovitch (e5 Advance, and …Bb4), Brecht and Benjamin might have had some form of exposure to his ideas. Note also that all three were in Denmark at some time in the couple of years before his death in 1935. If anyone could shed any light on this connection, for example magazine or newspaper columns etc that they may have read, and/or in which he was writing, please contact Andrew McGettigan via the comments box. Thanks.

Relevant previous posts about Tom Hackney's work

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