KURT SCHWITTERS AND A MERZBAU / RUBBISH, JIGGERY POKERY AND THE WISE BROS........
Our drawings in the Schwitters exhibit in Tate Britain?
It would seem that some drawings and / or general involvement by David and Stuart Wise concerning the removal of Kurt Schwitters former Lake District Merzbau to the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle in the mid 1960s has caused a minor storm in a teacup with radicals, especially individuals around Principia Dialectica who suggest we should put the matter straight. So here goes......
March 21st 2013 and an email to Nik Holliman
Regarding the drawings in the Tate Gallery exhibition of Kurt Schwitters in early 2013 well some funny business seems to have taken place. I was initially emailed by Gordon Moir in Newcastle in late 2011 saying he'd got a few drawings / photos of mine. Gordon who was in the Castoriadis inclined Solidarity group was briefly a flat mate in Newcastle and I hadn't heard from him in decades. Stuart wrote quite a longish thing on him in his Newcastle reminiscences which are available on the RAP web. Anyway I was delighted to hear from him (see enclosed copy of my answering email). Almost immediately there was an email from this guy called Rob Airey enclosing PDF copies of drawings attributed to me. I'd forgotten I'd done them but then clearly remembered I had. I then realised via a quick check on the Internet this Rob Airey was curator of the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. Anyway I then sent him a long email (copy enclosed below).
I DIDN'T HEAR ANYTHING MORE FROM EITHER OF THEM.
I was rather surprised as both replies from me were pleasant enough even when writing to such an arsehole as a curator. Then I heard of the Schwitters exhibition and began to put two and two together. It would appear I'd been hoodwinked and I suspect money was involved and for some reason I wasn't informed. Alas it seems part of that old Newcastle trajectory - so here I am again regarded as the same old piece of shit – treated with disdain and not worthy of being levelled with. Initially I had to get away from Newcastle in the late 1960s because on a blacklist and police in hot pursuit, but what's going down now? Simple snide rubbishing and perhaps a rip off? After all I'd specifically told the art establishment they were my technical drawings; so why the peculiar question mark before my name in the Tate? What are they trying to hide? Also I noticed Stuart's name wasn't mentioned even though he had more to do with the Schwitters Merz barn than I did!!!!! Plus ca change.
(later Nik was to send a letter to the Tate Gallery pointing a few things out)
April 30th 2012
Dear Rob Airey,
Thanks for your email. Yes I did some drawings plus I took some photographs of Schwitters Merz Barn as requested by Richard Hamilton who recommended I do some of the initial work knowing my interest in Dada. I think most of the drawings were connected with the cow bier location amidst the Lake District Fells though I'm not fully clear about this. My bro' (Stuart) may have done some drawings too as he cleaned the installation up together with Fred Brookes. I do remember I was initially very impressed with the outside of the relatively new barn – in comparison say to a Wordsworthian barn circa 1800 – when the farmer took us up the steep grassy path to it. As for the interior, well, I was initially struck by the smell of the cows which still occasionally inhabited the place and noted the patches of cow dung on the coloured, plaster relief looking so pleasantly dilapidated. Maybe sheep used the place too but it was the presence of the cows which particularly delighted me. (Incidentally there were no cows in the barn when Roger Westwood and I looked at it though there was plenty of trampled hay on the floor so perhaps sheep also used it or maybe it was simply a general over-wintering venue.) I know I did a quick sketch of a pretend cow next to the Schwitters simply to suggest the dung but whatever happened to that I just don't know.
I distinctly remember I really liked the farmer as he was genial, voluble, clued-in and obviously really liked Kurt. Much later I couldn't help but reflect on the openness of the Lake District's 'peasant' locals, so responsive, so open-minded and therefore it came as no surprise to learn later that both Wordsworth and De Quincey married local gals. Obviously that splendid tradition was still continuing in the time of Kurt Schwitters simply because he didn't seem to have experienced any prejudiced anti German sentiment, not forgetting this was during and just after the Second World War. He also could easily have been discriminated against as a dangerous eccentric and that seems never to have happened either.
I know I was very impressed with the location – still very vivid to me – so even at the time I thought it was wrong to move the Merz Barn to the dead space of a museum in Newcastle simply because of the co-incidental brilliant strangeness of its location. Obviously if the Merz Barn had stayed on the fells – and it is the best of all Schwitters Merz Barns largely because of the general environmental ambience – it would so easily have fitted in with the radical romantic early 19th century imagination; in fact an extension of that anti-artistic formal disposition in an unforeseen way. Its imprint on the Lake District would then have possibly been inseparable (if you like) from De Quincey's opium experiences say, in Grasmere churchyard and the birds he revived with his "doddenum" (as his children called his laudanum ), Coleridge's translations from the German of Kant's central thesis regarding the triumph of unadorned nature over artistic representation, plus perhaps Wordsworth's emphasis on the pre-surrealist, other worldly quality of the Lake District (especially the stillness) in comparison to the Swiss lakes; a comparison which Wordsworth emphasised somewhat. (Was this in his Notebooks?)
And then an interesting example of 'objective chance' took place (that coincidence which is perhaps more than coincidence and as extolled by Classical German Philosophy, the Surrealists, especially Breton and even later – and surprisingly – by Debord). The Schwitters affair took place in the mid 1960s and of course, Stuart helped considerably in the Merzbau reinstatement and lengthy conservation (matching up colours etc.) By then the short lived Icteric experiment was taking off and then after the fire and fury it provoked (together with early King Mob) I was more or less forced to leave Newcastle and went to London quickly orienting towards Notting Hill. I found a cheap bed sit in Notting Hill and to my surprise a little later I realised was exactly the house in St Stephens Crescent that Kurt Schwitters had lived in on the run from Nazi Germany. It was in this place that Kurt conducted some gentle, amusing comments on English mannerisms e.g. "When I am talking about the weather I know what I'm talking about" etc. and the character of "Wantee" was invented obviously based on the endearingly friendly cockney woman who was always asking Kurt "would you like a cup of tea". I am sure the same person was still there in the late 1960s as an old dear in this friendly down home house was always asking me if I'd like some tea!
Anyway I digress. I don't know if these notes will be useful.
Best: Dave Wise
Below: The offending drawings
Above: The loosened up technical supplements were based on a way of drawing learnt in the engineering classes of Co Durham's sec' mod' mining schools. Obviously these technical supplements were little more than pieces of throwaway functional scrap paper and yet they've now become canonised as art. As a friend said apropos the drawings, "Is there nothing un-sacred."
A little later and a relevant addendum....
That some of Kurt Schwitters connectedness with the Lake District should have rubbed off on the brief moment that was Icteric in Newcastle from 1966 to the summer of 1967, is hardly surprising. It did have an indirect influence on a mocking, primitivist, marquette we constructed and positioned out in the wilds of Northumberland. We photographed these blush making efforts and sent them off the Dick Higgins of the Something Else Press in New York with a view to being published in a book he was preparing on fantastic architecture. We have gone into this slightly embarrassing episode elsewhere on the RAP web so there is no point in repeating it here. Apart from anything else, we were mindful that Huelsenbeck had considered Schwitters a petite bourgeois and just not of the same calibre as other German Dadaists like Johnny Heartfield, George Grosz but especially Franz Jung and Johannes Baader, the latter two engaging in daredevil, highly imaginative interventions, despite Jung harbouring Bolshevik illusions. Baader would eventually be banged up more or less permanently in psychiatric institutions, and which might well have saved him from certain death in Hitler's concentration camps.
What provoked Huesenbeck ire in particular was the fact Schwitters was a landlord in 1930s Hamburg and had evicted a tenant so he could extend his Merzbau upstairs onto the first floor. A little later and Schwitters had shown a similar compliant tolerance of the English art scene which, though not backward when compared with Nazi art, was certainly so when compared with Germany during the years immediately following the First World War. In our naïve, though probing way, we were reliving vital perceptions handed down to us from the past; a past that could all of a sudden come alive and the revolutionary project resumed as if preserved in aspic. So we were delighted to learn through an ex Os Cangaceiros guy exiled in Berlin that in the early 1990s, Johannes Baader amazingly still alive and kicking was still the commendable madman of old. He had responded to the fall of the Berlin Wall like it was 1919 all over again and the German Revolution in full swing. He had journeyed around Berlin sticking up posters that read in big letters, ALL POWER TO THE WORKERS' COUNCILS. Jeez, we couldn't help but be impressed despite our conviction that to try imposing the original councilist project on today's society is plain bats because it fails to recognise the socially destructive, ecologically toxic nature, of most work and production.
And then we found something even more necrotic that once more brought Icteric and Schwitters into an opaque proximity that was at once apparent to us but will be to very few others. The dumb fuk installation artist in question is one Laure Prouvost a contender for the Turner Prize and who had a video installation running throughout the Tate Britain 2013 Schwitters exhibition. In this pointless video she invents a relationship between herself and Schwitters. In other pieces, the influence of Icteric is obvious; Prouvost revamping motifs without, it goes without saying, acknowledging their origins. In a typical karaoke performance we sing along to an acknowledged original. However the kind of karaoke practised by Prouvost postures as the original whilst the original begetters sink into oblivion, their names never to be mentioned on the public stage. The heist is perfected when the copy becomes the original, the shyster the honest broker and stealing, restitution. Let the prize money roll in tribute to this turning upside down! In a recent exhibition at the Whitechapel art gallery M/s Prouvost exhibited a shoe with a legend posted above that read "this is the shoe found being carried by hundreds of butterflies from Italy to Central London on the day of St Buitano." In a video clip butterflies were seen 'puddling' on the same shoe which, if not deliberately staged for the camcorder, had doubtless congregated there to sup up the nitrate- rich human sweat. (See As Common as Muck on the Dialectical Butterflies web as well as photos on the various Icteric webs on Revolt Against Plenty). Elsewhere there's an obviously staged film clip of fish with strawberries in their mouths and there's even a photo of a slug with the word 'Lux' in the corner (Lux evidently is some wanky avant-garde film/image collective).
All these images have their origins in the Icteric experiment, even down to the references to none existent saints, a guy in Icteric even inventing an intentionally barmpot Icteric saint. At that time Trevor Winkfield of Icteric was way ahead of the pack in introducing Eric Satie to an uncomprehending English speaking world, Satie creating the piss-take esoteric cult of "Saver of Souls of the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus, Foreman". From his bed sit 'abbey' he would excommunicate people and issue edicts, whilst concurrently weighing notes, producing the forerunner of the endless loop and never-ending performance and generally taking music apart at the seams, beginning with the ditching of barlines. Satie would also eventually join the Communist Party – indeed was even on the party's central committee whilst dressing as a 'bourgeois functionary'. Maybe it could be said that Satie would have been better off with the anarchists but there again in terms of total critique were the anarchists that much better at the time? For certain Satie was stumbling towards greater coherence but his was also a world in flux, just as the mid sixties were beginning to be and anything was possible. Given the world is running out of time and money, and the extraction of adequate surplus value becoming more and more tenuous, this should more than be the case today but in fact isn't, people frantically engaged in putting together one day what will only be destroyed the next as that endless loop gyrates ever more crazily in our heads and the final curtain prepares to fall on the world.
Laure Prouvost also won the Max Mora prize for women artists in 2011 and which included a six month residency in Italy, the work produced in Italy to be exhibited in the Whitechapel art gallery in 2013. The Max Mora prize says much about the changing status of women and glass-ceiling feminism. Max Mora is an Italian fashion house, and was opposed to the aristocratic ethos surrounding haute couture from its founding in 1950. Its rise to becoming an international company parallels the rise of contemporary feminism, only really taking off in the 1970s. It aimed to produce designer, easy-to-wear clothes in luxury fabrics for the 'new woman' market, the woman who has turned her back on traditional roles but is not in revolt against capitalism, in fact appears to be able to take it or leave it like a Max Mora fashion garment, the firm's director stressing "our customers are led by fashion but are never its slaves". Laure Prouvost fits that bill to perfection.
M/s Prouvost also worked as an assistant to the late auto-destructive artist, John Latham who, of course, was familiar with Icteric, continuing to praise the experiment whilst we increasingly grew ashamed of it. Right up to the end, Latham remained stuck in the same groove becoming, after an initial flurry that got him the sack from St Martins School of Art, a tiresomely repetitive, bogus anti-establishment figure whose TM was book burning, the front of his house in South London made over to resemble two giant books, their intertwined pages emerging from the facade. Given the rise and rise of London property prices, this was big bucks Merzbau and Schwitters a seedy, Rising Damp landlord in comparison, Merz, in any case, never a subverting of Commerz, rather its continuation through the valorisation of detritus.
In 1966 Latham formed the Art Placement Group (APG) that aimed to position avant-garde artists in industry thus, in principle, enabling them play a central role in production and that would result in a more imaginatively driven capitalism. This half baked idea, originating in the continental Fluxus group, would have rightly been laughed to scorn and dismissed out of hand by the Situationists. However, at the time, radical critique was just to say in the wings here, so this ridiculous idea was never given the thumbs down it truly deserved. And when a radical critique finally did break in this country, and Latham found himself in the firing line, it lasted all of ten minutes, an avant-garde update of Olde Englande that gets ever more 'olde' with each passing year, eventually sweeping all before it.
Meanwhile from1975 to76, Latham would be employed by the Scottish Office's Development Agency to come up with ideas about what to do with 19 massive shale heaps in Lothian left behind by an industry that used to extract oil from the shale and that would then be turned into paraffin. Latham, not surprisingly, immediately acknowledged their beauty and argued that they be left as they were and be designated monuments. Or rather not quite as they were, the innately 'superior' perception of the artist changing them into "process sculptures", a piece of elitist fanny that even the Scottish Development Agency would endorse when its chief planner said "the product is not an art work but a report by the artist on new ways of looking at chosen work areas". (The seismic effect of 1968 is still being registered in the unlikeliest of places even in the mid 1970s, and one can but wonder how different things might have been had the same art/non-art criteria been applied to the pit spoil heaps of South and West Yorkshire - but we are running ahead of ourselves). However Latham did manage to save 4 of these 'bings' which over the past four decades have become environmentally valuable and which now offer research opportunities to conservation bodies. (We can't resist adding the same won't be happening on the afore mentioned, 'ecologically sound', spoil heap makeovers of the noughties). Despite a developing interest in time (Latham being made an honorary member of the Imperial College of Science and Technology solely on account of his fame as an artist, scientists unable to deal with the vexed question of aesthetics other than through the medium of the artist and art product / commodity). Latham was unaware that wild life was already taking to the spoil heaps in a big way. Having been brought up amid pit spoil heaps, and other industrial shales from a very early age, they were not only landscapes that nurtured our imagination but places in which nature was free to roam. These industrial commons left an indelible impression upon us and, throughout out lives, we have yearned for their return to something like their former state on an ever deeper level. Thus at the time of Icteric we idiotically set about constructing miniaturised pit heaps: 35 years later we would be filming the threatened Dingy Skipper on the fast disappearing pit spoil heaps as their amazing wild life fell victim to domesticating, colossally expensive, so-called 'ecological' makeovers, Big (and little) Green, as usual, saying nothing and turning a blind eye to suicide capitalism. Expressed in a reactionary way, the real point of what we were doing during the brief moment of Icteric, got waylaid by art and the exhibition space and would only begin to come out years later in our vain efforts to save the Dingy Skipper on the former pit spoil heaps. Unable to move beyond his initial insights, Latham would stitch together the panoramic shots he took of the Scottish oil shale 'bings', the result amounting to something of an unspoken homage to Icteric in his 2005 Whitechapel gallery exhibition.
Though we literally gag at the thought of ever calling ourselves artists, we are slowly coming to the conclusion that to charge anti eco, greenwash opponents with cultural philistinism is the most potent weapon in our armoury. Especially where it concerns the destruction of nature rich brownfield sites, an inventory of wild life species that will be destroyed is of little consequence besides that of a wide ranging knowledge of the cultural avant-garde of the 20th century and its continuing fall-out. The fact that Latham's "process sculpture" remains a keystone to the preservation of other threatened 'bings' (businesses want to use the valuable shale for building material) is something we can learn from and cynically use if it helps achieve our conservationist aims and does not require we surrender our principled opposition to the likes of Latham and similar artistic coteries, providing we then clearly expose our put-on cynicism.
Latham would remain a prisoner of passive aesthetics, of the viewer with bad eyesight and no hands, of money, fame, flattery...and female studio assistants. That said the APG did want to materially engage with industry (though certainly not with capitalism) and therefore a tad different to today's satiety of artists in residence and who generally tend toward much more traditional conceptions of art .............. . Latham once had the makings of a mover and shaker, but in the end his life is a squandered life. And perhaps that is source of his appeal to those who also betrayed their better selves.......people like the equally ridiculous ex-King Mobber, Phil Cohen who still finds Latham's crap challenging recently promoing it alongside other, even more conventional, shit buttressed with quotes from post modernist arseholes like Derrida while continually blowing his own pathetic trumpet. (See the Phil Cohen Website http://philcohenworks.com / ). In fact Phil Cohen is one of the by now sizable army of bedraggled 'returnees' mimicking late 1960s radicalism minus the essential cutting edge and covering up all the shit they've been involved over the last 35 years or so. As a respectable professor don't forget he once not so long ago thought Thatcherism was inevitable, striking miners quite ridiculous and we in the UK were in desperate need of a new Winston Churchill. Mysteriously all that has now been air brushed from history as the new fad of 'radicalism' is proclaimed.
Most of the above information revolves around sub-artistic rip-off in one way or another so perhaps it's worthwhile mentioning a liberating crime we committed in those far-off days. One dark night as Icteric was morphing into direct action and its 'members' becoming more aggressive, a number of us broke into Richard Hamilton's Newcastle studio and nicked a number of his things, more as trophies than anything else. Really there wasn't much there but we did purloin a couple of his old etching plates later putting them between the heavy rollers of an old lithographic press producing passable black and white reproductions. We did it for the cheek of it without thought of pecuniary gain as none of us were into money making in any serious way. In big trouble with authorities and in flight from Newcastle as the late 1960s ended we left much of our gear behind. It seems the etching print outs were taken by our elder brothers who had aggressively turned against us horrified by our opinions and actions, especially our anti-art activities turning us over to the forces of an increasingly nasty reaction in its many disguises. Ever after we had little or nothing to do with them until their deaths as we couldn't forgive their intensifying philistinism. We now find through the Internet these etchings have been sold off for nigh on twenty grand! So in no way were we ever to be in receipt of the proceeds of a 'crime' that wasn't about money in the first place for indeed our 'crime' was about something else entirely; more an add on to our anti art activities. As for criminals we would suggest a different interpretation or, as a friend said of us recently, "strange, intense, criminal agitators of the heart" - a comment he picked up from Kerouac's Big Sur. We were more than flattered............