Truths Written With The Help Of Figures by Jon Sharples
All you need is a little faith, trust, and pixie dust… or so said Peter Pan, as I was reminded when watching the 1953 Disney classic with my four-year old niece recently. Which of those three ingredients seems the most fanciful today? We live in the age of bad faith – a term borrowed from contract law to describe our shameless society in which we have become desensitised to accusations (or proof) of dishonesty, falseness, and lies. And the most celebrated new technology of the past decade is blockchains and distributed ledgers, the essence of which is a mechanism to remove the need for people to trust each other. It’s been a cliché of cultural studies for most of the time since the Peter Pan release to worry about a contemporary world ‘saturated’ with images in which our material desires, aspirations and political views are manipulated by the malign forces in control of those images for profit and power. You’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t trouble my niece with any of that, but as I watch her handle an iPad far more expertly than my dad does, I can’t help but worry about what her journey through “third nature” will be like without even the memories of the pre-internet world that my generation has.
What is this “third nature”? You may be familiar with Marx’s theory of man’s alienation from nature and Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács’ notion of a manmade, mechanistic “second nature” – that is, nature under capital, governed by laws of society like “supply and demand” and “marginal utility”, as inexorable and objective-seeming as the laws of nature themselves. When discussing this body of work and the title of this show, Tom Harker referred me to McKenzie Wark’s book Sensoria, an anthology of ‘thinkers for the twenty-first century’ with Wark’s commentary on their writings. Wark describes third nature as follows:
“History is a process in which collective human labour transforms nature into second nature to inhabit. On top of which it then builds what I call third nature made of information, which not only reshapes the social world of second nature but instrumentalises and transforms what it perceives as a primary nature in the process.”
So third nature is a new form of extractive commoditisation – not just of nature, but of social relations themselves. Once it was the men who owned the commodities who topped the rich lists but today it those who own the information. This historical shift is delightfully captured in Tom’s little painting JPG, based on a photograph of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of American oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty, who was once the richest man in the world. To cut a long and gruesome story short, in 1973 JPG III was kidnapped at the age of 16 by mafia while living in Rome. When his grandfather wouldn’t pay the $17million ransom demanded, the 'Ndrangheta demonstrated that they had not come to play by sending JPG III’s ear in the post along with a note saying that more body parts were to come if the Gettys didn’t pay up. Shortly afterwards, his grandfather agreed to pay no more than $2.2million – the maximum amount that his attorneys advised him was tax deductible – and lent the remainder to his son, who was to repay the sum at 4% interest. The resulting, earless, three-quarter portrait of JPG III taken in the immediate aftermath is a harrowing image. In Tom’s hands, depicted like someone out of the Twilight Saga or one of Elizabeth Peyton’s indie boys, the painting is a nod to the missing ears of art history and the Getty family’s pivot from oil to JPEGs twenty years later. It is a masterpiece of metaphor and wordplay, typical of Tom’s deep well of visual and cultural intelligence.
Capitalist Realism and the RCA: Is There No Alternative?
Another pictorial and verbal joke plays out in Dentured Servants, with a surreal cast of characters doomed to perform their caricatured roles for all eternity, fixed in an inescapable and orderly line and at the constant call of mechanised initiation. A bit of legal and etymological history for you – an “indenture” is an agreement between two parties, particularly for indentured labour in which a person is contracted to work without salary for a specific number of years (it is estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of European immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and the American Revolution travelled under indentures to pay for their ticket across the Atlantic). The term comes from the medieval English "indenture of retainer" – a legal contract written in duplicate on the same sheet, with the copies separated by cutting along a jagged (toothed, hence the term "indenture") line so that the “teeth” of the two parts could later be fitted together and matched to confirm authenticity (an early form of verification replacing trust). Tom is very political but it’s not the sort of politics that wears colours, waves banners or stomps around in big boots carrying a megaphone. When discussing this work, he told me he was thinking about people being trapped their basic material needs. In previous centuries it was food, which is now cheap, but today in London it is housing and the need to pay rent that forces people to stay on the treadmill of productivity. If you were to design a system of social control or political manipulation, then our current approach to housing would be a great place to start – if you own property you almost can’t help to become right-leaning and if you don’t then you have little choice but to toe the line. Whilst at the RCA, Tom was acutely aware of a majority who did not realise their own privilege and lacked empathy for the working class. And, worse, that in many settings it felt like a breach of etiquette to speak openly about class consciousness, and so the surreal novelty of this sort of painting stands in for the conversations that have otherwise proved impossible to have.
One of my favourite works in the show is Trois Rois, a striking image of three huge lobsters sitting on, or levitating slightly above, a table set with an ethereal formal dinner service. It’s a scene of greed-is-good Baroque excess that could almost have come straight out of a Dutch still life painting, or painter-turned-filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. These are not, however, the blazing cadmium red cooked lobsters of Willem Claesz, but the glistening, inky, obsidian black of lobsters alive but sitting on death row. Look closely and you will see that the tablecloth is patterned with fragments from Picasso's Guernica – another film reference, this time to Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 apocalyptic science fiction action-thriller set in the south of England in 2027, with a global pandemic having rendered the entire human race infertile. The planet is in a state of collapse and the youngest person on Earth, so say the TV reports, has just died at the age of 18. The UK ‘soldiers on’ as an authoritarian island state, the last remaining holdout of some modicum of civility in the world, attracting desperate migrants fleeing disease, civil war and nuclear devastation in their home countries. But they arrive to a hostile environment of xenophobia and state-sponsored paranoia in which citizens are encouraged to inform on illegal immigrants and those who shelter or employ them. Refugees are demonised, caged, hunted down and incarcerated in coastal concentration camps. (If you haven’t seen it, search for ‘Only Britain Soldiers On’ on YouTube for a short clip and a flavour of why it feels so grimly prophetic watching from Britain in 2021.) Anyway, back to Picasso – there’s a memorable scene in the film in which Theo (the main protagonist, played mostly unconvincingly by Clive Owen) visits his powerful cousin Nigel, who is in charge of the Ministry of Art, a sort of cultural ark located in a bizarre compound in Battersea Power Station (although in the film the interior entrance is immediately and ironically recognisable as the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern), hoarding the West’s masterpieces of art history. The scene is described on the very first page of Mark Fisher’s 2009 bestseller Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (one of the key texts that popularised the now ubiquitous term “late capitalism”) as follows:
"Cultural treasures — Michelangelo's David, Picasso's Guernica, Pink Floyd's inflatable pig — are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artifact. This is our only glimpse into the lives of the elite, holed up against the effects of a catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation. Theo asks the question, 'How all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?' The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism: 'I try not to think about it'."
With no future to speak of, the past has become meaningless, and, in the dead space of Nigel’s bureaucratic penthouse dining room, Guernica, Picasso’s furious, moving, anti-war protest at the destruction of that Basque town by German and Italian fascists, has been emptied of all import and reduced to wallpaper. No cultural object can retain its power when there are no longer new eyes to see it. It’s a punch in the gut and Tom’s direct quotation of it leaves me wondering how pessimistic he really is about the redemptive power of art in our current circumstances.
Fisher wrote that, watching Children of Men, we are inevitably reminded of the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, which was what he meant by his phrase ‘capitalist realism’, namely that “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. He goes on to say:
“Once, dystopian films and novels were exercises in such acts of imagination – the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living. Not so in Children of Men. The world that it projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it. In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist. In Children of Men, public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and stalking animals (one especially resonant scene takes place inside a derelict school, through which a deer runs). Neoliberals, the capitalist realists par excellence, have celebrated the destruction of public space but, contrary to their official hopes, there is no withering away of the state in Children of Men, only a stripping back of the state to its core military and police functions.
The catastrophe in Children of Men is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart. What caused the catastrophe to occur, who knows; its cause lies long in the past, so absolutely detached from the present as to seem like the caprice of a malign being: a negative miracle, a malediction which no penitence can ameliorate. Such a blight can only be eased by an intervention that can no more be anticipated than was the onset of the curse in the first place. Action is pointless; only senseless hope makes sense. Superstition and religion, the first resorts of the helpless, proliferate.
The Truth in Painting
It’s difficult to look at any painting of shoes, including Tom’s Fake Trainers, without being reminded of art history’s most famous pair of shoes, Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of peasant boots from 1886. The fame of that painting derives not so much from the painting itself, but from the philosophical and art historical debate it inspired, spanning most of the twentieth century. Half a century after Van Gogh’s initial creation, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger described the painting as follows in his essay The Origin of the Work of Art in 1935:
“From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.”
So Heidegger sees many layers of meaning, but in the end he sees an artist not really representing a specific pair of shoes but conceptualizing and presenting the essence of “shoeness.” It’s the kind of thing Alain de Botton does all the time when talking about art, which is to take one of his pre-existing syrupy homilies, illustrate it with an old master and tell us that it was all the old master's idea in the first place. (Of course it’s much easier to impose sense on things retrospectively than it is to do so in the fast-moving present, which is precisely why nostalgia is so addictive.)
In The Still Life as a Personal Object (1968), art historian Meyer Schapiro launched a distinctly art historical attack and took Heidegger to task for misunderstanding Van Gogh’s subject matter. Why did he think these were the shoes of a peasant woman? Schapiro, painstakingly researching the correspondence of Van Gogh and his associates in detail, set out to prove that they are not women’s shoes and that Heidegger’s overactive imagination had got the better of him and led him into some inexcusable erroneous projection. He then had his own go at reading the painting:
“His [Van Gogh’s] own shoes he has isolated on the ground; he has rendered them as if facing us, and so worn and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes. […]
Van Gogh has an exceptional gift of representation; he is able to transpose to the canvas with a singular power the forms and qualities of things; but they are things that have touched him deeply, in this case his own shoes — things inseparable from his body and memorable to his reacting self-awareness. They are not less objectively rendered for being seen as if endowed with his feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait, that part of the costume with which we tread the earth and in which we locate strains of movement, fatigue, pressure, heaviness — the burden of the erect body in its contact with the ground. They mark our inescapable position on the earth. To “be in someone’s shoes” is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For an artist to isolate his worn shoes as the subject of a picture is for him to convey a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not only the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as “a portion of the self ” are van Gogh’s revealing theme.”
Needless to say, Schapiro operates precisely within the tradition Heidegger seeks to dismantle in The Origin of the Work of Art. From Schapiro’s perspective, Heidegger fails to apprehend or acknowledge the privileged place of the creative individual, “the artist’s presence in the work.” The shoes belong to Van Gogh not so much because he may have worn them but because by painting them he has suffused them with his own subjectivity. They are his in the same proprietary way that Mont Sainte-Victoire belongs to Cézanne. Philosophical fancy, lack of art historical rigour and carelessness of observation, Schapiro asserts, have led Heidegger away from this truth.
In 1977 Jacques Derrida stepped in to referee the spat between Heidegger and Schapiro with his text Restitutions, later expanded and published in his book The Truth in Painting. Derrida saw the truth neither in Schapiro’s nor in Heidegger’s encounter with the shoes, taking the view that both had fallen into error in seeking and disputing who wears the shoes, and in adopting the traditional paradigm of painting – realism and representation. Both assume that the shoes must belong to a real correspondent person – a peasant or Van Gogh – which the painting merely depicts or represents. Derrida leads us to reconsider the essence of art and whether art is merely a representation of real things or an entity – its own reality – in itself.
The best clue as to what Derrida really thinks is found in the way he seizes upon a statement in a letter written by Cézanne, namely, "I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you" as both a highly idiomatic statement and a powerful model of idiom. As Rosemary Hawker has set out, “this short sentence is able to refer simultaneously, and in a manner that escapes adequate translation, to three relations of truth and painting: first, to Cézanne's knowledge of the truth of the medium; second, to the truth of the world as rendered in painting; and, third, to the truth about painting as told through language. In turning to Cézanne's statement, the idiom in painting, with which Derrida began, has now become the truth in painting.” In short, the truth is that painting is about painting, both to the artist and to the viewer, at least as much as it as about anything else. Derrida didn’t quote Marshall McLuhan to say that the medium is the message, but he could have done.
Derrida is suspicious of the general assumption that there is a realm of “truth” existing independently of its representation by signs. We are used to treating signs as distinct from and inessential to the phenomena they represent, rather than as inextricably bound up with them. This conception of truth and reality as existing outside signs derives in turn from a deep-seated prejudice in Western philosophy, which Derrida characterizes as the “metaphysics of presence.” This is the tendency to conceive fundamental philosophical concepts such as truth, reality, and being in terms of ideas such as presence, essence, identity, and origin—and in the process to ignore the crucial role of absence and difference.
All of the above is the world’s longest setup for what I want to say about Tom’s painting Fake Trainers which is to say that it’s easy to dismiss it at first glance as one of the ‘slightest’ works in the show, but that in my view it is a highly sophisticated, multi-faceted, Derridean visual essay on the nature of painting. The reference to ‘fake’ trainers might relate to the proliferation of counterfeiting of the sort of £800 Balenciaga trainers that appear to be depicted, or as a criticism of the sort of art world poseur who might wear the real thing. It also seems to assert that any painting of trainers is inevitably ‘fake’ and to pre-emptively mock anyone who might try it on by claiming to discern the “accumulated tenacity of his slow trudge” or any other Heidegger-esque embellishment. Derrida poured scorn on Heidegger and Schapiro for their apparently unquestioning shared belief that the Van Gogh shoes were a pair, which is a good reminder than whenever we face a lack of information we simply fill the gap with what we already think we know without batting an eyelid – not deliberate fabrication, just a subconscious instinct. Here, Tom has provided very little visual information about the second trainer – really just a suggestion that it’s there – but we willingly step into the breach because we know that trainers come in pairs. The loose paint handling and exaggeratedly Caravaggesque chiaroscuro of the composition beat us over the head with the fact that this is a painting above all else, but in the context of Derrida’s concern regarding the metaphysics and fetishisation of ‘presence’, it seems especially fitting that this is a picture created by the removal of paint, a negative image – an elegy to ‘absence’.
Don’t Look Now
The title of the largest work in the show – Don’t Look Now – is a direct reference to the seminal 1973 horror film of that name in which a married couple grieving the death of their young daughter by drowning are ultimately led to total ruin by their failure to read the clues that the fragmented, watery and fatally unreliable visual landscape of Venice presents to them. In the context of the painting itself, the phrase also relates to our collective compulsion to look at horrific things and our inability to look away even when we know we should. The image signals its untrustworthiness at every turn. The scale is confusing – is this a toy van amongst the weeds or the real thing? Where are we? The white van seems quintessentially English and could easily be the same one that Emily Thornberry literally had to quit the shadow cabinet for tweeting sneeringly about in 2014. But the undergrowth and the size of the leaves do not look like plants native to the UK. The boundary between the subject of the painting – death – and the object of the painting – the van – has completely disintegrated. The skeletons appear to be performing a joyous danse macabre at what has happened. The whole scene reminds me of the maniacal perversion of Crash by J.G. Ballard in which humans seek the intersection of the organic and inorganic and the blending of man and machine in the most appalling ways. It’s genuinely dark, but also funny, with the grim reaper tending more towards the comic cliché of Scary Movie than a genuinely nightmarish vision of death. It really shouldn’t work, but it obviously does, and the magic ingredient that holds it together is Tom’s exquisite paint handling. The whole narrative, such as it is, is really there as an excuse to make certain kinds of marks in paint. The gradient of the dirt on the white van is so seductive, and translates so satisfyingly well into paint, that the mind is far too distracted to quibble over the logical inconsistencies that the eyes are presented with.
Tom has spoken eloquently about the fact that while we all know that painting is often illusion, distortion and fiction, amongst the acknowledged duplicity there is the inherent honesty in the modest physical materials that paintings are made of. Paint and canvas occupy the same physical world that we do and are fundamentally relatable, down to earth, and instinctively recognisable as the sort of stuff we handle from childhood and as sharing the same material reality of own bodies and bodily functions. Paint is sensual in a way that operates involuntarily on the nervous system before the deliberate business of applying the intellect can begin. In his writing on Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze compares Bacon to Marcel Proust, and finds some commonality in how each used the concept of involuntary memory as a way of bringing the truth to light. The most famous example of this in all of Western literature is the episode in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time in which Proust’s narrator involuntarily recalls an episode from his childhood in vivid details, triggered by the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. The narrator contrasts this episode with memories retrieved by "intelligence", that is, memories produced by putting conscious effort into remembering events, people, and places, and laments that such memories are inevitably partial, and do not bear the "essence" of the past.
In his writings on Proust, Deleuze agrees with Proust that truths remain arbitrary, abstract and incomplete so long as they are based on the “goodwill” of deliberate thought, in much the same way as you can’t rely on the getting the whole truth from a friend, as the exercise is compromised before you’ve even got going. He goes on:
“This is because philosophy, like friendship, is ignorant of the dark regions in which are elaborated the effective forces that act on thought, the determinations that force us to think; a friend is not enough for us to approach the truth. Minds communicate to each other only the conventional; the mind engenders only the possible. The truths of philosophy are lacking in necessity and the mark of necessity. As a matter of fact, the truth is not revealed, it is betrayed; it is not communicated, it is interpreted; it is not willed, it is involuntary.
The great theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is that the search for truth is the characteristic adventure of the involuntary. Thought is nothing without something that forces and does violence to it. More important than thought is "what leads to thought"; more important than the philosopher is the poet. […] The poet learns that what is essential is outside of thought, in what forces us to think. The leitmotif of [In Search of Lost Time] is the word force: impressions that force us to look, encounters that force us to interpret, expressions that force us to think.
The truths that intelligence grasps directly in the open light of day have something less profound, less necessary about them than those that life has communicated to us in spite of ourselves in an impression, a material impression because it has reached us through our senses, but whose spirit we can extract…”
This to me is the special terrain occupied by painting in that it appeals to our senses before our intelligence and forces us to think rather than serving up answers on a plate. For me the colours, textures and freshness of paint handling in Tom’s work act like Proustian triggers dredging up associations I wasn’t even aware I was carrying around, along with a faint sense of déjà vu, and when that happens it feels like it comes not from my brain but from the pit of my stomach.
Proust himself spoke of "truths written with the help of figures" rather than mere illustrations or narrations of the past. Painting flatters the viewer by recruiting them to collaborate in the essential task of completing the image, and Tom is a master of deploying open-ended possibilities and inviting viewers to resolve the ambiguity themselves. A great example of this is the figure in Tom’s Lake Swimming painting, not only because of the inscrutable expression on the figure’s face that gives nothing away, or the brown water that does not encourage the usual associations with leisure that come with swimming. The way that the water provides a pretext for some glorious, cubist abstract mark making, with limbs dismembered from the figure’s body, serves to crank up a feeling dissociation and alienation, perhaps depending on the conclusions the viewer has reached about the other aspects of the image.
This is not just any strawberry…
Looking back at advertising images from past decades, it’s possible to feel nostalgic for the earnestness with which advertisers used to try and affect consumer behaviour and aspirations. Change the World is based on an image Tom has taken from old Rolex advert whose slogan was “A Rolex will never change the world. We leave that to the people who wear them.” which seems a charmingly innocent and hopelessly optimistic notion today. The green skin of the figure, however, is a strong hint that something has gone badly wrong since and calls to mind the online conspiracy theories and folk analysis of the likes of David Icke (who believes the world is run by alien lizards), who now attract a huge following.
Analagous Strawberry and Pool Alligator both speak to different ways in which man’s estrangement from nature has reached new extremes – the former in relation to the near pornification of food that comprehensively severs it from its origins in the natural world, and the latter, in its reference to ‘chlorine’, laments a visual culture of airbrushed, disinfected, ultra-hygienic images and the increasingly sanitised gulf between our online existence and the natural world.
One thing is clear and that is that the depth of our retreat into third nature has made us gravely exposed to disaster. Even in the face of ecological catastrophe – the devastation of nature, the poisoning of the oceans, the erosion of human habitations and the slide towards to the extinction of all species other than our own – societies seem unable to summon the imaginative and political energies needed to prevent the inexorable deluge. To put it as I recently heard the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage express it, if we don’t act soon then all we will be left with is people to regard each other but with nothing to say and “we will have transformed our window onto existence into a mirror and when that has happened who will dare look themselves in the face?”
And on that cheerful note the alligator brings to mind the ticking crocodile in Peter Pan and reminds me that time is chasing after all of us. I won’t tell my niece if you don’t.