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Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon’s new book, Suppose a Sentence, will be published in September.

‘Linderism’

Brian Dillon, 7 May 2020

On5 November 1982, the post-punk group Ludus played a gig at the Haçienda, the Manchester club run by Factory Records and best known today for its association with New Order and the Happy Mondays. Ludus were a more exotic proposition: jazz-schooled, scratchy and fronted by Linder, a visual artist whose songs channelled her decade-long engagement with second-wave feminism, as well as...

At the Jeu de Paume: Peter Hujar

Brian Dillon, 9 December 2019

The​ American photographer Peter Hujar once told a friend who was feeling unattractive: ‘As you’re walking along, say to yourself: I’m me.’ Hujar’s subjects seem to have heeded the same advice: they exhibit a self-possession tending to the monumental. You can see it in his 1981 portrait of the actor Madeline Kahn. Hujar posed her in an empty studio, wrapped in a...

You enter​ Mike Nelson’s installation The Asset Strippers, Tate Britain’s latest commission for its Duveen Galleries (until 6 October), through a pair of wooden swing doors salvaged from the old Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital on Bolsover Street. For several years, Nelson has been acquiring industrial machinery and related artefacts from online auctions and liquidation...

The Palais de Justice​ in Brussels is a product of civic and architectural delirium, a Circumlocution Office looming over the historically working-class Marolles district like a sinister, secular basilica. It’s bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, covering an area of 26,000 square metres, with reputedly the largest accumulation of stone blocks in Europe. Its architect, Joseph...

At Tate Modern: Joan Jonas

Brian Dillon, 2 August 2018

Joan​ Jonas bought her first video camera, a Sony Portapak, also known as the Video Rover, on a trip to Japan in 1970. In the history of video art, there is no more celebrated piece of kit. It’s said that on its release in 1965 Nam June Paik was the first artist to start using this newly consumer-priced set-up. Andy Warhol’s videos of the same year (including a dazed portrait of...

At Tate Britain: Queer British Art

Brian Dillon, 6 September 2017

On​ 28 April 1870, Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham attended the Strand Theatre in London, where they made a spectacle of themselves, catcalling from their box to various men below. As the giddy pair left and approached their carriage, a plain-clothes detective stopped them: ‘I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire.’ Stella was indeed one Ernest...

At the Ikon Gallery: Jean Painlevé

Brian Dillon, 31 May 2017

Acera bullata​ is a species of hermaphrodite sea snail or slug, discovered on coasts from Norway to the Mediterranean. It grows up to six centimetres long, has a brown or white shell and a speckled body that may range in colour from grey to orange. In sheltered bays, these molluscs settle into fine, soft mud or muddy sand, where they mate in undulant chains, half a dozen at once. When...

Claire-Louise Bennett

Brian Dillon, 19 October 2016

There are​ many ‘nice’ things in Claire-Louise Bennett’s fiction. The narrator – she seems to be the same person in all twenty stories – is hardly up in the morning before the nice things press on her: ‘Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice,’ she says in ‘Morning, Noon & Night’. ‘It ought not to be too ripe – in fact...

At the Foundling Museum: Found

Brian Dillon, 10 August 2016

The Foundling Hospital​ was established in Bloomsbury in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, ‘for the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’. Strictly speaking, they weren’t foundlings: the parents, or more usually the mother, had to hand over their offspring and were instructed to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other...

I cycled​ to the Design Museum on my secondhand Carlton: a ten-speed club racer built in Worksop, Nottinghamshire in 1979 and later outfitted (plastic mudguards, ugly rack, slightly chunky tyres) as a light touring bike and ideal commuter. It is pretty much the bicycle I wanted when I was 14 – you might guess: it’s bright red – but then I ended up with a...

At the Royal Academy: Ai Weiwei

Brian Dillon, 7 October 2015

Among​ the more modestly engaging works in Ai Weiwei’s spectacular and somewhat dispiriting exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 13 December) is a framed wire coathanger, stretched and bent to form a face in profile. It is recognisably the face of Marcel Duchamp, especially if you know his Self-Portrait in Profile, from 1957. Ai made Hanging Man in 1985, two years into a decade-long...

Duchamp

Brian Dillon, 29 August 2013

‘I am not dead; I am in Herne Bay,’ Marcel Duchamp wrote to the painter Max Bergmann in August 1913. If you know the north Kent resort today – its decayed seafront and sad amusements – Duchamp’s presence there may seem absurd, his reassurance not entirely convincing. But the postcard he sent Bergmann shows the town in its prime: a place lately promoted from a staging...

At Tate Britain: ‘Phantom Ride’

Brian Dillon, 4 July 2013

Simon Starling’s film installation Phantom Ride, commissioned by Tate Britain for its vast Duveen Galleries, takes its title from a cinematic fad of the early 1900s. Cameras and cameramen were hitched to the buffers of trains, and latterly trams, and filmed the track and scenery as they hurtled along. An early phantom ride was typically a single shot, just a few minutes long, which...

Eileen Gray

Brian Dillon, 23 May 2013

The best-known photograph of Eileen Gray was taken in 1926 by Berenice Abbott, whose sitters had lately included Cocteau, Gide and Joyce. Gray was 48, but looks younger: her hair is cropped, and she seems to be wearing a tailored suit. It is hard to imagine anybody looking more sleekly tuned to the modern than Gray does here. The perfect profile, the flying-helmet of dark hair, the slightly...

At Tate Modern: Klein/Moriyama

Brian Dillon, 22 November 2012

There are six people in the photograph, but only one of them knows it. A young woman in a crowd on Fifth Avenue in 1955 finds a lens in her face. People are not yet afraid of being photographed by strangers in the street; still, she leans away to her right, averts her gaze from the man’s impertinent Leica. Or so it seems: it’s hard to tell where she’s looking –...

In the Turbine Hall: Tino Sehgal

Brian Dillon, 27 September 2012

For the past decade or so Tino Sehgal has been making museum-bound work that flexes definitions of ‘work’ and ‘museum’, and threatens to flummox that frequently harried personage, the ‘spectator’. Visitors to a Sehgal show may expect to be buttonholed, charmed, cajoled or ignored by the dozens of ‘interpreters’ – not quite actors, nor...

At the Hayward: ‘Invisible’

Brian Dillon, 2 August 2012

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the...

At Tate Britain: Patrick Keiller

Brian Dillon, 7 June 2012

A static shot, as always. On screen, in the sunshine, a bright yellow combine harvester is toiling across an Oxfordshire wheatfield like a paddle steamer in reverse, churning up a mist of chaff and dust. The machine growls very slowly out of sight – any second now the scene will surely cut away. But here it comes again from left to right, the camera still unmoving and far enough from...

At the V&A: Cecil Beaton

Brian Dillon, 5 April 2012

In 1950 the great American fashion photographer Irving Penn wrote to Cecil Beaton, for whom he had recently sat, praising his ‘vague clairvoyance, the gentleness of not meeting the subject too head-on’. Beaton himself put it more vividly: ‘I coo like a bloody dove.’ It required a particular quality of cooing to coax from his royal clientele the florid, uptight, boring,...

At the MK: Daria Martin

Brian Dillon, 9 February 2012

‘I cannot abide fuzzy plants, or plants of a certain texture … Just looking at them sets me off,’ an off-screen male synaesthete complains in Daria Martin’s Sensorium Tests, the central work among the US-born and UK-based artist’s 16-mm films at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes (until 8 April). I suppose many or most of us nurse comparable sensitivities to those...

At the MK: Gerard Byrne

Brian Dillon, 23 March 2011

‘About twelve noon on 13 November 1951, at a distance of about 200 yards, two distinct humps … something like a couple of ducks, not anything like a porpoise, or a walrus, or a whale, which have been suggested.’ Accounts of sightings of the Loch Ness monster, which provide one wryly mediated source for the Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s exhibition at the MK Gallery in...

At Victoria Miro: Francesca Woodman

Brian Dillon, 20 January 2011

In 1972, at the age of 13, Francesca Woodman photographed herself sitting on the end of a sofa at her home in Boulder, Colorado. The room looks like a studio; Woodman’s parents were artists, and there’s a sliver of easel behind her. A grey blur seems to issue from her half-raised left hand and flood the bottom of the black and white picture like a fog. The blur has been generated...

Adam Thirlwell

Brian Dillon, 22 October 2009

The Escape is Adam Thirlwell’s third book. His first novel, Politics, was published in 2003 and won some acclaim for its energetic smut and (less frequently) for its alternately faux-naif and overreaching prose. He followed it in 2007 with Miss Herbert, a vagrant disquisition on the nature of style in the novel that had the feel of a lot of flashy undergraduate essays determinedly...

Sense of Self

Brian Dillon, 5 June 2008

We learn a lot about ourselves at the moment when we lose our balance. In the canon of philosophical pratfalls, a tumble taken by Montaigne, and recounted in his essay ‘On Practice’, is among the most instructive. Out riding one day with his retinue, Montaigne was seated (as M.A. Screech’s translation has it) on ‘an undemanding but not very reliable horse’. A...

Michael Ondaatje

Brian Dillon, 13 December 2007

On the Petaluma Road, in the former Gold Rush territory of Northern California, a man inherits a farm, marries a miner’s daughter called Lydia Mendez and adopts a four-year-old boy from a neighbouring farm, whose parents have been murdered by a farm hand. His wife dies giving birth to their daughter, Anna. He leaves the hospital with two girls: the second, Claire, is the daughter of another mother who has died in childbirth. He raises all three children as his own and now and then, Anna later remembers, embraces them ‘as any father would’. The boy, Coop, however, begins to move away in adolescence, restoring an old cabin nearby that belonged to his adoptive grandfather, and dreaming of the gold that might still be found in the riverbeds. He becomes ever more distant, and more fascinating, to Claire and Anna.

Gardens in Wartime

Brian Dillon, 26 April 2007

In 1944 and 1945, John Brinckerhoff Jackson surveyed the French and German countryside for the advancing US army. At the military intelligence training centre in Maryland, Jackson had been taught to see the territory he surveyed as an empty stage on which certain choreographed actions were to be performed, and others improvised in the event that the enemy, or the land itself, threw up...

Hugo Hamilton

Brian Dillon, 23 March 2006

I owe what sense I have of the power of the word to a man whose power depended on words failing him. The first time I heard the term ‘West Brit’, it was spat out by a florid-faced teacher at a suburban Dublin school in the early summer of 1981. He was, I suppose, feeling harried: a week earlier, the stick with which, stuttering to a stop, he would, thin-lipped, beat us, had been...

From The Blog
16 December 2013

‘I always assumed I would simply be forgotten and disappear from view,’ Saul Leiter said late in life, at a time when the colour photographs he had taken half a century earlier were hardly ever off the pages of magazines, and countless online slideshows celebrated his ‘lost’ views of mid-century New York. Leiter, who died on 26 November (a week short of his 90th birthday), spent his last decade genially playing up to his new status as rediscovered colour pioneer.

From The Blog
14 December 2012

In August 1971 the US Postal Service wrote to Phyllis Johnson, the publisher of Aspen, an arts and culture quarterly then in its sixth year, to inform her that the magazine’s right to reduced postal rates had been definitively revoked. Aspen, which is the subject of an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3 March, seems to have fallen foul of Title 39 US Code 4354 on several counts, not least the journal’s increasingly intermittent publication schedule.

From The Blog
4 September 2012

At John Stezaker’s studio in Kentish Town an entire wall is given over to a photographic archive the artist bought about thirty years ago. Britain’s cinemas had been going out of business for decades, and with them the picture agencies that supplied the industry with film stills and actor portraits. Stezaker snapped up the contents of one such doomed establishment, but has done nothing with them since. (Though he has plans, he says.) Look around the studio, and you get a queasy sense of the fate that might await those black-and-white prints. There are forgotten starlets half decapitated, neatly enucleated character actors, scenes from long-lost B-movies invaded by lurid portions of landscape or Kodachrome bouquets. And here and there a scalpel, threatening the surface of an intact print.

From The Blog
3 August 2012

A few years ago I wrote to Chris Marker about Staring Back, a book and exhibition of his photographs. Many of the two hundred images, made across half a century, were of political protest: from demonstrations against the Algerian and Vietnam wars to marches in response to the electoral success of the National Front in 2002 and the liberalisation of French labour laws in 2006. I was hoping – rather against hope, given his well known attitude to publicity – for an interview on the subject of his portraits of protesters, maybe even a meeting at his legendarily crammed studio in Paris. A reply came back within minutes; Marker was simply too busy: ‘crushed under my present grind’. He was happy to reminisce by email about his visits to Ireland, but if I needed a thread through his imagery I would have to unspool it myself.

Letter

Ruin Lust

3 April 2014

In her review of Ruin Lust – an exhibition at Tate Britain that I curated with Emma Chambers and Amy Concannon – Rosemary Hill writes: ‘Among the most recent works … there is … little direct engagement with ruins’ (LRB, 3 April). It’s a shame she doesn’t mention Rachel Whiteread’s photographs of the demolition of a tower block in Hackney, Laura...

‘Essayism’

Adam Mars-Jones, 8 March 2018

The essay​ can seem to be the cosy heartland of belles-lettres, a place where nothing urgent is ever said. Recently, though, publishers have seemed willing to take on and even promote this...

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Hypochondria

Hilary Mantel, 5 November 2009

I once knew a man, a Jamaican, who when he first came to England always answered truthfully when asked ‘How are you?’ A bit sniffly, he might reply; or he would describe his...

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