The Secret Life of Objects in the Immanent Art of Morandi Or: How art shows us how to write about art if we only let it

On Giorgio Morandi: Masterpieces from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation
The Estorick Collection, London, 6 January – 28 May 20239,

10,000 words
by Paul O’Kane Spring 2023


“Happy New Year to you, too. Thank you for your kind words about … they are much appreciated, especially in these challenging times … I note for instance, that in the text you previously sent me, that your particular take on Benjamin’s famous and oft-cited essay and in particular on the concept of ‘aura’ as ‘something that may have an unreachable value even when it is close-to-hand’, still tells me that you cleave to the transcendent in art, while …’s feet are firmly planted on the ground… Best wishes … “

An editor recently explained and excused their decision to not publish my art writing on the grounds that I had somewhere cited a famous passage from Walter Benjamin in which Benjamin defines the aura (of a natural object) as: “ … the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it (the object) might be”. The editor said this was proof that I: ” . . .continue to cleave to the transcendental in art” ? But is it? And if it is, what does that mean about art writing today, and about my value as an art writer? That is partly what this long-form essay aims to discover.

Of course, quoting someone else’s words and ideas does not make me or my own words or ideas synonymous with the cited person and their words and ideas, and I suspect that I was merely using those words and ideas to compare with those of others and of my own, in order to explore something in a rounded way.

Hence, I here continue to suffer a sense of injustice regarding this decision, as well as missing opportunities to publish in, and to have my ideas disseminated and appraised within that particular journal.

Paid, professional and prestigious publishing opportunities like that are increasingly hard to find, and this makes it more painful. But of course, I have mostly written, for the past 25 years or so, for the love of it; the love of art, of writing, of art-writing. But it is the sense of injustice and of being misunderstood and misrepresented which is the greatest pain and difficulty for me here and now.

The same editor’s comments also seemed to suggest that I did not sufficiently emphasise ‘the political’ in my writing, but the fact that I have class-migrated, from someone who grew up on a council estate and left school with one ‘O’ level, to becoming an academic, with a PhD, who has published 2-3 hundred professional articles and a handful of books, means – I would argue – that myself and my art writing are always, intrinsically ‘political’ and always make reference to the social context of the art that I write within and write about.

Meanwhile, this political aspect of my writing does not exclude me from also asking other and different (i.e., other than and different from political and social) questions about that very same art, and of exploring the possibility of addressing political and social questions obliquely, imaginatively, creatively –  as the best art and art writing (including Benjamin’s) has surely always done.


Despite currently having no commission or destination for an essay or article (which diffuses my momentum somewhat), I recently did what I used to do in the years before I was able to publish; I scoped-out the London exhibitions listings to see what took my fancy. This was, it should be said, a rare day on which I felt justified (having recently completed a significant task for my university employer) in indulging myself in some art viewing and art writing. I had carved-out a special day for myself, beyond the demands of academia that generally absorb most of my time, energy and creativity.

In searching for the right show to visit, I took into account that this would also be a rare opportunity to go out with my artist partner and share an enjoyable, as well as professional experience. And so, having shown some interest in one or two contemporary art group shows, I noted that the Estorick Collection in Highbury and Islington was staging a show of Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, drawings, and prints. SOLD! Morandi might not be an emerging contemporary artist but he fitted my bill on this occasion. I thought he might offer an opportunity to soothe my art-writer’s wounded spirit and ego, bruised by the demanding machinations of the university and by the aforementioned refusal of a certain editor to continue to consider or accept my offerings.

I hadn’t visited The Estorick Collection for many years and I used the clever Transport For London Journey Planner website to determine my route, which consequently involved a new encounter with the Great Northern train line. It  runs from Moorgate, near the financial heart of the city, out to Hertfordshire, but it stops on the way at Essex Road, a station I had never visited before but which is five-minutes’ walk from the Estorick Collection.

I cannot recall the how, who, or when of my initial introduction to Morandi but I suspect it was affirmative and that Morandi was recommended by an art tutor, a colleague and/or friend. It is difficult now to approach his works in any truly critical, sceptical, or dispassionate way. Instead, I prepared myself as a kind of fan or admirer and approached Morandi’s paintings with a certain reverence – a pre-judice of sorts – bound to confound any attempt at clear-headed, dry-eyed, objective judgement (which, in any case, I do not believe really exists).

As Morandi is not an emerging artist, his work does not require my pen, my judgement, my critique or my encouragement. Reams have surely been written about Morandi, most of it, I suspect, quietly adulatory. And so, this writing returns me, at this time of personal creative crisis, to the roots of my relationship with art writing, one that feels now like a love affair or friendship.

No one needs any more writing about Morandi, and it could be argued that the present paucity of my professional publishing outlets is proof that no one needs another art writer either; after all, we can all write today. We are wired-up to a keyboard for much of our waking time and we all have access to virtual pages and typographic software that makes our writing look authoritative and professional, compared to our more socially divisive handwriting.

We also have access (for a few pounds, or at the flash of a press card) to The Estorick Collection, its website, and oodles of other internet-archived info about Morandi should we need it. Out of all this access we can each create a platform, perhaps a regular Blog, that stands-in as our very own, self-edited, self-published, freely and internationally available journal, through which to disseminate our ideas, our persona, our angle, and our style.


To write about Morandi then, despite my attempts here to frame the event in personal and idiosyncratic terms, remains a somewhat predictable event. Despite my wish or ambition to ‘bring’ something new and different ‘to the table’ (in-the-know Morandian pun intended), it seems unlikely that I will be able to do more than add a few more words and ideas to the volumes of already written about this artist and his work.

And here we might refer back to Walter Benjamin’s slightly arcane and esoteric claim that aligns ‘aura’ with ‘distance’. Benjamin was writing there about ‘natural objects’, but if we replace these with the ‘cultural objects’ of Morandi’s paintings, as well as the cultural objects (ceramic tumblers, pitchers, vases etc) that they describe; and if we then try to apply Benjamin’s claim, we might agree that these objects, previously and literally distant from me, and now brought literally closer by the staging of this temporary exhibition, nevertheless maintain what Benjamin claimed to be a (metaphorical, but not necessarily metaphysical) ‘distance’ arising from the ‘aura’ of their various cultural framings and contextualisations (their social and cultural context), as works of art that are revered and valued in both aesthetic and monetary terms, framed here and now by the Estorick Collection as a highly respected institution – but only as much as they are framed and thereby ‘distanced’ by the significant reputation that precedes them and which it is all but impossible to remove from our sight and our evaluation.

A 1990s soul-jazz-Latin classic song is titled Something in My Eye and this might well describe the experience of seeing Morandi’s paintings, or those of many canonically established artists whose work it is difficult or impossible to see and evaluate without the interference of the reputation that precedes them and which we are here equating with Benjaminian ‘aura’. All the love and admiration that has been directed at these paintings over many decades has accrued as the cultural ‘aura’ of these cultural objects, which –Benjamin might concur – creates an inevitable (though I would argue metaphorical rather than metaphysical) ‘distance’ between us and them, even as they are literally brought closer to us by means of the temporary exhibition in our home city.      


Editors of art journals are of course within their rights to banish metaphysics or what they perceive to be aspirations to transcendent thinking about art from their pages, in order, perhaps to maintain a certain loyalty to, or remit regarding, judgements on art that they feel should be restricted entirely to the rationalist and materialist realm. Many modern and modernist artists and commentators who lived through the upsets of postmodernism may have become more ardently materialist as a result, and by way of compensation. But no position in art can ever remain dogmatic or pedantic for long. In fact, it is one of the great attractions of Walter Benjamin’s thoughts that they are ready and willing to challenge and undermine even themselves in order to purposefully avoid any thoughtlessly dogmatic position.

This point reminds me of Benjamin’s writings on Moscow in the early 1920s in which he seemed to have more to say about the significance of snow and about locally produced toys than about endlessly rationalising revolutionary meetings taken place and presuming to shape the world. You can also find Benjamin’s mischievously deconstructive approach at work in his Theses on a Philosophy of History (one of the last things he wrote) as he ceaselessly undermines both religious and political images of time, progress, Marxism, Hegelianism and modernity.

I suspect that metaphor and rhetoric, which are always present to some degree in every attempt to describe and evaluate art, whether as accurately or as personally as possible, are themselves transcendent functions of language, and therefore aspects of the longest traditions of art criticism. I am aware that self-consciously modern and modernist authors did strive to streamline a modern style and to boost their modernist credentials by reducing their use of adjectives and pruning all things florid; and also that, in the modern era, with its own modern model of truth, rhetoric accumulated a negative patina and came to appear anachronistic.

We could argue that the pre-modern urges, that modernism would purge, remain perennial and pervasive aspects of every art writing, and of every writer’s will-to, or attempt-to, convince others of the value of their experience and opinion, using all the tricks and skills (modern or not) of language, and of their own language. Thus, rhetoric Is more or less candidly perpetuated and practiced in a state of what might be called modernist denial; while rhetoric, like metaphor, might be regarded as transcendent, even akin to a certain metaphysics that pervades not only all art writing, but all of writing per se.

Given that I have already confessed to the probably pre-judicial failure of my ability to respond negatively to Morandi’s paintings; and given that I am reconciled to the inevitability of my own use of both rhetorical and metaphorical devices in writing about Morandi’s work, I will try to proceed, keeping my ‘feet’ as firmly ‘on the ground’ as I  can (N.B. these inverted commas refer to the fact that the editor in question here used this metaphor in claiming that their journal progresses and perambulates in a more sure-footed manner than do I, apparently (and again) because of my assumed tendency to “cleave to the transcendent in art”.

As I have already said, there is no need or good reason for me to write about Morandi, and I cannot expect to contribute anything particularly new or influential to the field of Morandi research, other, that is, than my own peculiar, particular, and yes subjective angle. Having made a long journey from unqualified school leaver to much published Dr. and Senior Lecturer etc. I can’t seem to help valuing those aspects of my perspective and judgement that are most unusual, individual, and different. In fact, I see it as my duty to represent equally disadvantaged others following a similar difficult social trajectory to my own, by striving to articulate and share whatever difference I might have to offer, as the special contribution I am able and willing to make in return for the rich education and opportunities I have received along the journey of my unorthodox career.

Moreover, I cannot see the point or purpose of ‘art-writing’ (deployed as a verb) if it is only to shore-up and defend a certain community who perhaps – for all art’s rhetoric about ‘challenging’, ‘questioning’ etc. –  do not like to have their boat rocked, and who maintain a certain, reassuringly constant and stable power and authority over the realm of art – or at least a certain portion, niche, or corner of it.

Surely there is much more to art than this, though, to be fair to the editor in question, who mentioned this too, none of us, and no one journal, can ever expect to accommodate the whole of art, or even approximate all of the art worlds-within-art-worlds, with all of their corresponding forms and habits of judgement and evaluation  – but, given the unprecedented complexity of the 21st century vistas opening up before us, can we, after all? Or should we not at least try?

Art and judgement are intrinsically linked. For something to be what we commonly call art necessarily involves judgement. Meanwhile judgements about art play a large part in establishing communities and marking their boundaries, providing their gateways, gatekeepers and shibboleths. Then again, there are artists – Walt Whitman comes to mind, as do practitioners of the Baroque – who might reach out with open arms to attempt to embrace some untrammelled (N.B. “trammelled” was another word used by the editor in question) universalism that aspires to a kind of de-subjectivisation or attempted objectivity, a realm that is not that of the subject, but is nevertheless served by the subject.

Such ideas may also conjure the unfashionable ghost of postmodernism, but I suspect it can already be seen that, here in this text at least, postmodernism is not regarded as something offensive to modernism and modernists; not a temporary aberration in, or challenge to the modernist narrative; but as a far more revolutionary paradigm shift that I unashamedly, endorse and feel that many others deny or live and work in denial-of.


I have always been uncomfortable with the title of ‘researcher’, even though much of my writing is now allied to and intertwined with my university role.  ‘Researching’ sounds more scholarly and academic than I have ever felt myself to be, perhaps because I feel I can never retrieve that missed and non-existent secondary education that might have laid some necessarily scholarly foundations within me (though I very much doubt that any but a small few at my poorly-funded Catholic, council estate boys’ school ever felt any such benefit, even if they attended, while I did not).

Rather than ‘Researcher’ or ‘Scholar then, I therefore prefer to introduce myself as an ‘artist, writer and lecturer’. and this distinction is important because, far from the ‘transcendent’ tendency of which I have been accused, I believe my writing and ideas to be unusually immanent, precisely because, deprived of the kind of education that might make others readily assume and presume the value, purpose and coherence of their writing (a position that I would call transcendent), I have to use writing (and every time I write, despite doing-so professionally since 1997) as a material process, out of and from within which I can attempt to create some kind of comprehensible and possibly valuable meaning.

I have also and always regarded my art writing as a practice. It emerged out of a seven-year stint in a live-in studio (funded by London Borough of Lambeth housing benefits) in which I tested as many media, processes and identities as I could before conceding that writing was perhaps my ‘strongest suit’, and also best suited to my fragile socio-economic standing (I could at least afford the paper and pencil with which I made my art.)

Today, through writing (I would say, rather than through ‘research’), I continue to feel that I produce or uncover words, thoughts, and ideas of which I was not aware before I started that particular piece of writing; words, thoughts and ideas that I did not know that I knew before I wrote them. And it is this pleasure, and thrill, of witnessing writing as it evolves and appears, almost inadvertently, unconsciously, sometimes precociously or uncannily, from and within a honed personal and material process, that is the core motivation for all of my art writing.

Above, beyond and despite any of more utilitarian, professional, or commercial purposes we might assume, it is this pleasure for which I primarily write, and I can see here, and perhaps concede that some might find this process inexplicable, irrational, and perhaps ‘transcendent’. What I love most about it (my very own material method, discovered and honed in a studio and in relative isolation) is that it occasionally gives me access to new possibilities of thinking and writing, a process which to me is close to the essential purpose and attraction of art, whether modern, pre-modern or post-modern.

N.B. I am also an untrained musician and find that a similar process occurs there, creating and discovering new possibilities not because I am educated in those skills but on the contrary, because my lack of education means I have to treat every occasion as a new occasion, and all material as something to be manipulated util it begins to make sense or lead somewhere. Again, I would call this an immanent rather than a transcendent process.

I do however recognise something of my own approach in that of the arch- or original essayist Michel de Montaigne who felt qualified to venture an ‘essay’ or ‘try’, regarding anything (i.e. not just a recognised area of expertise). Montaigne felt confident, it seems (perhaps driven by sheer enthusiasm) that the very process of writing, or ‘essaying’ would always lead him to some new (new to him at least) and valuable (hopefully to others) observations and contributions.

Please allow me then, and please allow me to please  allow myself, to write, or at least try (essais) to write something here about Giorgio Morandi, if only for the love of Morandi and for the love of art writing.


I was about to begin this paragraph with the words ‘In Morandi’s paintings . . . ’, but hesitated long enough to question the initial assumption that his paintings have an ‘in’, an ‘interior’, distinguishable from an exterior. I hesitated long enough to question the assumption that ‘in’ is an appropriate way to address Morandi’s paintings.

The Renaissance theorist Alberti famously associated paintings with windows, claiming that they offer  an experience and serve a purpose like that of looking through a window, at or into another scene, place, space or world. But is that the case with a modern painter like Morandi, and is it the case for modern painting in general?

Perhaps one of the changes that makes modern painting modern is the fact that it no longer considers this analogous ‘window’ to be present or operative in and as modern painting. If we no longer look as if ‘through’ a modern painting, can we also claim that modern paintings, like those of Morandi, have any interior into which we look? If not, then what could be more appropriate language here?

It might feel equally uncomfortable to say that we look ‘at’ Morandi’s paintings, as this suggests that they are harder, flatter, more resistant and less absorbent than they seem (though this ‘seeming’ is admittedly questionable). ‘At’ suggests a wall, a dead-end.  ‘At’ aligns them, somewhat incongruously, with those paintings, painters, isms and theories  that, or who, explicitly champion flatness, surface and superficiality as modern values. But those are issues that never seem to have excited or troubled Morandi. In fact ‘at’, ‘in’ or ‘through’ all seem inappropriate when describing these paintings. Am I therefore looking ‘with’ these paintings, or perhaps always looking ‘for’ them? Perhaps that will suffice, so let us try again.

Looking ‘for’ Morandi’s paintings … no, it sounds as if the paintings, frames and all, have been lost when they are clearly here in this exhibition. Perhaps we  could say then that we ‘look upon’ or ‘look on’ to Morandi’s paintings, as we might ‘look on to’ a scene; e.g. as an elegant house with portes-fenêtres ‘looks on to’ its garden; or as a cheaper, bleaker urban apartment might ‘look on to’ railway sidings.

But perhaps we have dallied too long and too much with this preliminary detail, interesting as it might be. Looking ‘on’ or ‘upon’ Morandi’s paintings, we might think that we know what we are going to see. He famously painted similar things in similar ways, for many years – decades in fact. His paintings, as collected here for this show at The Estorick Collection, do not emit any sense of struggling for innovation, nor any record or dynamic narrative of increasing achievement against odds.

Such a story could surely be told by a larger, biographical survey exhibition like that made for and about Cezanne running contemporaneously on the other side of London at Tate Modern. You know the kind; replete with introductory sans serif wall texts, in consumer-bite-sized paragraphs, or as profound-seeming sound-bites and philosophical quotes writ large against coloured walls. These increasingly formulaic shows tend to be divided chronologically, into rooms dedicated to various phases, changes of style, epiphanies, and acknowledgements of significant artistic and social influences, as we are led, sometimes exhaustively, from the artist’s jubilant juvenilia through their heyday and on to their elderly etiolations, and final rage against the dying of their own particular light.  

All of this seems inappropriate to the Morandi we know and – yes –  love’. Rather, what counts is seeing his perhaps immanent consistency, constancy, and repetition across a long, apparently timeless period of his creative life, lacking biography and narrative, as if eschewing the axiomatic modern belief in the concept of ‘progress’ and painting despite all the significant time and times that passed while he patiently painted.

Artists like Julian Opie, Michael Craig-Martin, and On Kawara come to mind here as having similarly alighted, at a certain age or stage, on a certain technique and subject matter that sufficiently satisfied them, and which, henceforth, no-longer required ‘development’ or ‘improvement’. Morandi might be a champion of all such artists blessed with the experience of going beyond (mere) trying; beyond progressing, in order to as it were ‘fly’ (and here, admittedly, a certain transcendent tendency on my part might be exposed); to ‘fly’ or ‘cruise’ perhaps, beyond ‘question’, ‘enquiry’, and ‘research’; even beyond ‘experimentation’, satori, or eureka moments, towards a personal, self-imposed, private academism that begins to make art consistently, for a certain reason that is, above all, sure; a way of making art that is highly personal while popularly and critically acclaimed, and at heart made for the simple love of making it, for the fulfilment of a gentle sense of vocation or duty, thus closing a circle that has maturely explored and exhausted enquiry, trends, professionalism, and contemporaneity, only to return to the original childlike impulse and justification for making art. 


What Morandi usually and famously depicts, is – we know – a modest cluster of small vessels, perhaps ceramic and glass (it is not always clear) tumblers, vases and pitchers. As a result, it might seem as though both life and art depend upon our ability to contain and consume liquids – water, juice, or wine perhaps. And yet the scene is also and always dry, there is no beverage to imbibe, none to be seen, no half-full or half-empty glass that might symbolically serve as a clichéd metaphor of an optimistic or pessimistic outlook. The only trace of moisture here is that which must have been an attribute of Morandi’s paint before it dried, and which, in drying, ceased to be malleable or subject to change.

In its fluid state, Morandi’s paint was once equivocal, becoming, transient, transformative. Once dried it became unequivocal, permanent, fixed, perhaps even historical or monumental. Between these states, the fluid and the fixed, is, we might argue, ‘the painting’, i.e. ‘the painting’ (deployed as a verb) that is not the object but the act of painting, the event that every painting also is and which every painting records.

A particular and personal quality of time is fixed and framed here, a particular and personal image of a time whose precedents and referents might include the philosopher Henri Bergson, or the 18th century French rococo painter Jean Siméon Chardin, with whom Morandi must have often been compared. A quiet space, a certain place, a plain and undramatic light that tints a range of liminal tones and hues – pale greys, pinks, lilacs and mauves. Morandi’s tentative palette becomes a stage for the tense event of painting; an event perhaps not so different, distinguished or disconnected from this event, this event of art writing (and subsequently of your reading); the here and the now of this very event of art writing.

This is not to claim, of course, that my modest (currently troubled, unconfident and struggling) art writing is equivalent to or similar to Morandi’s paintings, or those of Chardin, but merely to attempt, as I have many times before, to erase the line or heal the wound that otherwise opens-up between a work of art and any writing ‘about’ that work of art; a divisive act that might itself be accused of perpetuating a ‘transcendent’ (even this ‘about’ being, after all, a kind of transcendence) position, profession and tradition that are both relatively local (we could say parochial) and relatively recent in that they are rather modern and not something we would simply and easily find in e.g. the 18th century art writing of Diderot.

Should we then not aspire to a 21st century immanence, as well as to a certain ekphrasis; always aiming to produce a work of art made in response to a work of art, while accepting and acknowledging that our art, our writing, and our art writing are all of the same world and that therefore none truly transcends the other. And should we not remember or rediscover this whenever we don the mantle of, wear the costume of, take on the role and responsibilities of art writer?

I have long believed , and theorised that what happens in the act of art writing (that still retains, in the 21st century, some sense of criticism, journalism and judgement); or perhaps I should say what should happen, or what I believe happens in my own art writing; is that writing ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘with’ or ‘about’ art is just as influenced by the art as the art is influenced (at least in the sense of changing how it is perceived) by the writing.

Art writing must therefore enter, on every occasion, unguardedly, into an open and vulnerable dialogue with art, and in a way that allows for transformation of itself by that art. At the same time, a work of art is always open, available, and susceptible to the influence or enhancement of itself by any art writing that is directed at, or to it. I therefore feel justified in comparing here my own quietly placed and gently paced moments of art writing (elsewhere on this Blog site I have written of “slow criticism”), with and within the acts and events of Morandi’s painting, acknowledging that only these particular paintings could have led me to this particular appreciation and reappraisal of the moment, the place, the event of my art writing.


To go a little further, I would like to explicate – for the record, or perhaps in my defence – some more (and long-) established thoughts on the relationship between art writing, art criticism, art, and judgement. When I first attained what I then regarded (and which various editors confirmed to be) a ‘publishable’ standard for my art writing (c. 1997), I recall a certain anxiety and curiosity regarding the placement of judgement within my texts; i.e. the presumption to judge and evaluate – which then seemed to relate to a different era, a different century perhaps – within my writing. In a relativised, postmodernised climate or milieu, I could see that there was little or no place for the patriarchal, modern figure of a connoisseur, guide, or guru of art and its theories, histories and criticisms. And yet I suspected that my art writing, and probably all art writing, nevertheless retained some sense of judgement and evaluation, however subtle or mealy-mouthed it might now  be.

Ironically, around that time, while preoccupied with this issue, I made an ill-judged experiment, to try (essais) or test certain ‘waters’ for myself and about which I had not been educated, by publishing a thoroughly negative review of a show of emerging artists (said to be reviving the sculpture tradition), only to subsequently regard this essay a blot on my own career’s copy book and as a moment in my writing career of which I will never be proud. That experiment’s only value it now seems, to me and perhaps to others, was to provide a little further proof that the age of the explicitly negative review is over, and that trying to revive it for the sake of my own understanding of my own craft was irresponsible, and at best merely provocative.

But like the philosopher Nietzsche, who impressed me as an MA student, I suspected that value per se is not so easily eradicated, dismissed or ‘transvalued’. It might, in fact, always be concealed or subtly interwoven within our every utterance or articulation. Our evaluations are not ‘things’ that we ‘have’ (a priori?) and then subsequently give voice to, but are, rather, events that emerge (a fortiori?) through and during the event of our utterances or articulations, and are therefore events that we need to (and need to learn to) allow to appear; events that we can invite and welcome within our writing, sometimes despite what we might believe, might currently believe, or might at least believe that we believe.

The art writer, like the artist, and as well as the artist, allows the possibilities and limitations of their particular skills and materials – their time, space, process, knowledge, culture, motivations, aspirations etc.– to inform and transform all of these (time, space, process etc.) bravely, freely, entering into a generative event, the outcome of which must remain unknown at least until it is regarded as ‘finished’ (though of course any ‘finished’ piece of writing only begins, at that point of supposed completion, to be available to numerous, and perhaps infinite ways of reading, interpretation and translation, all of which then transform it further.

To return to the question of judgement or evaluation, laced within (and therefore never explicitly expressed) any piece of postmodern-ised art writing, I also came to a conclusion in the early stages of my published art writing that it might just be my adjectives and adverbs that betrayed my judgements and valuations, even to myself, and that this might be satisfactory and sufficient.

Given that, at some point, I would ‘complete’ a piece of art writing and hand it over to the wider world of readers to interpret; and given that I am writing in a postmodern-ised, relativistic age, in which authoritative judgements and explicit evaluations are, or seem, incongruous and anachronistic; given these points it seems satisfactory and sufficient that I should entrust any judgement or evaluation implicit in my art writing to ‘the writing itself’ – if I dare say so without being accused of being overly-abstract, cleaving to transcendent values, being mysterious, metaphysical, rhetorical or perhaps prone to magical thinking.

More specifically (if it might help to resist such judgements) I might claim and trust my judgements and evaluations to be revealed in and by the use and influence of adjectives, adverbs and all those other writerly devices that emerge in my (and all of our) art writing without consciously judgemental effort, without any strategic or explicit cultural positioning, and all-but despite my actions, my art writing and its event, which is, in turn, immanently determined by my tools, habits, processes and a certain, gradually acquired ‘knack’ – as the English say.

N.B. it may be worth noting here that, the great attraction and empathy that I, and millions of others, might have found in and with. Walter Benjamin’s art writing, might just be proof of his own ultra-materialist and perhaps immanent approach to the same. How else could we explain the extraordinary diversity of his experiments and attempts at producing new content by deploying new forms – see e.g. his radio plays, the form of One Way Street or of Theses on a Philosophy of History, The Arcades Project etc. etc.


Giorgio Morandi – given the materials and processes of paint and of painting, rather than writing, ink, pen, computer, keyboard and typing – may, we suspect, not need to worry about judgement and evaluation to the same degree as the art writer. It is hard to see in his works any immediate sense of judgement or evaluation, and yet does not every artist work with or at every work of art with some form of invisible, superego-istic, real or imagined judge perched on their shoulder, constantly whispering guidance, seeding fear, or bolstering bravura?

Then again, has Morandi not chosen certain objects and places, rather than certain others, to paint, and paint, and paint repeatedly? Has he not, as we might also assume, selected certain paintings rather than others to represent and to uphold his own valuation of what a ‘good’ or ‘finished’ Morandi painting might be?

And so, does this particular way of clustering and representing these particular kinds of objects, not respond to and broadcast a certain innate (nay immanent?) or prescribed judgement and evaluation, even if only to say that these objects, painted by Morandi, take on a ‘modest’ or ‘endearing’ quality?

And are there then ‘adjectival’ marks, tones and procedures at work, not only in my, or our language of interpretation, but also in Morandi’s paintings? Are painting and art writing not then equally capable of, and fallible to some form of inevitable judgement enwrapped in our processes and embroiled in our every attempt to represent or simply describe?

And is there not then, for the art writer, an infinitely subtly shaded ‘grey-scale’ (perhaps an entire colour-wheel) of nuanced judgements and evaluations, always available and in-play, and that is restricted only by the quantity, quality, ability and potential of our words, their composition, their readings and their readers, just as there is for the painter’s literal and actual colours, brush-marks, tones etc? And isn’t this then, a description of an ‘immanent’ rather than a ‘transcendent’ approach to art writing?


Before I run out of time and space (though no-one is actually waiting for this wholly un-commissioned and un-welcomed work, made purely – or almost purely – for the love of making it; no-one has enforced any boundaries of word-count, deadline etc. upon its evolving long form; though, and given all we have said above) we should try, or try again here, to add a few modest descriptions to the aforementioned reams and tomes of writings previously inspired by encounters with Morandi’s art.

We have already used words like ‘clustered’. ‘modest’ and ‘vulnerable’ when referring to Morandi’s representations of ‘humble-looking’ kitchenware, but it also strikes me (or at least struck me during my visit to this show) as significant that when Morandi painted flowers in a vase (which, I learned, he sometimes did to create gifts for friends) the vase was invariably more interesting to Morandi than the flower. The vase (at least in the single example of his floral gifts displayed in this show) was at least more idiosyncratic, more perverse, more ‘Morandi’, and therefore and thereby more lively and more compelling than the relatively desultorily depicted flowers.

The relationship between flowers and beauty, flowers and art, flowers and aesthetics, flowers and judgement (thinking here of Kant and a certain rose) is perhaps more dense and more difficult to unpack than the relationship between vases and beauty, between vases and art, vases and aesthetics, judgement, evaluation etc. The ground is less well-trod but might, if pursued, tell us something (if we only let it) about the particularly modern value of Morandi’s art.

The Romantic poet John Keats famously used the form of ekphrasis to respond, in poetry, to a ‘Grecian urn’. More recently contemporary artist Grayson Perry has proclaimed the postmodern value of pottery, pots, vases, and the model of the potter as worthy of the realm and status of fine art. There has also recently appeared a wave of ceramic contemporary fine art made by artists like Jesse Wine, Jonathan Baldock or Marguerite Humeau (to name a few). But we are not contriving a ceramic canon here so much as querying why, in Morandi, it should be that mostly ceramic vessels, of a quotidian kind, should absorb this artist’s attentions, and even his affections, at the expense of the flowers and liquids that the same vessels might, could, or should contain?

I suspect that an expert flower arranger, an exponent of Ikebana perhaps, would assure us that a vessel or container for flowers is just as important and integral to an ‘arrangement’ as are the flowers contained; just as a wine connoisseur could argue for the importance and influence of an appropriate vessel from within which to sniff and drink a valuable vintage. However, Morandi – at least on the evidence of this selection of works – is not much interested in the aesthetics of flowers (that might interest the recipients of his little gifts) but fixated on the relatively unsung glories of largely utilitarian-looking vessels that might be occasionally pressed into the service of displaying flowers, or which might have other uses.

Morandi’s objects huddle, often unnecessarily given that there is usually plentiful space around them into which they could be deployed. Today they might call to mind refugees crowded into inadequate dirigibles, or – closer to Morandi’s own lifetime – figures from the 20th century Italian diaspora squeezing onto trains and ships to escape poverty or hostile ideologies.

Thus we, our writing, and perhaps the artist himself, are drawn into anthropomorphism (a form of transcendence?) by these otherwise dumb, inanimate objects. And if we are not humanising them we might choose to animalise them as a series of small creatures gathered in a ‘clutch’, ‘brood’ or ‘litter’, sometimes embraced or overseen by a more maternal-looking, larger vessel that might stand-in for the artist himself.

Meanwhile, among the generally plain and stubby figures are one or two more graceful-looking vessels, reminiscent of ladies in lace. These are slightly more sensuously shaped, more pleasing to the eye perhaps, and yet ultimately all the vessels belong out of sight when out of use, and probably stored in a cupboard, or in or on a dresser, as part of the belongings of a certain house, home and family, modestly marking its history, stories and traditions, its  legacies, ancestry etc.


In his subtly moving film Summer Hours (2008), director Olivier Assayas tells the slow, touching story of a bourgeois family undergoing the process of losing their mother, and subsequently the family’s much-loved home, along with its modest, tasteful, and quite valuable collection of art and objets d’art. One design object finds its way to a prestigious national museum of art and design. Another is mistakenly inherited by the family’s long-established cleaner who is unaware of the object’s cultural value in the bourgeois context. Some small paintings by Corot are destined for auction, and hence to a collector, but these are also desired by one of the sons, who sees them as heirlooms, symbolically linked to maintenance of the family line.

Having watched this charming movie more than once, I came to realise that it is not the tale of the family, nor of individual family members that it tells, rather it is the story of these objects, their own journey through their own ‘lives’ which might well be longer and more consistent than the lives of the human beings in the film.

These objects, along with their placement, displacement and context, not only strongly influence and determine the status and class of the family and its members but will also have their own ups and downs, rises and falls, perhaps births and deaths. Revealing this might have always been the aim of the director and writer.

Similarly, with Morandi’s objects, a domestic scene, a family and its story are gently alluded to – by the vessels, by a table, a wall, although the presence of any human beings always remains implicit and oblique. It is as if these objects, when not utilised in the usual ways intended for them, can lead lives – and perhaps more privileged, revalued lives – of their own. The artist’s task then becomes to describe, not ‘life’ (a transcendent abstraction according to philosopher Gilles Deleuze) but this life, the secret life of these objects, that is neither Morandi’s life nor that of the wider Morandi family.

Of course, very little in the narrative sense,­ occurs in the ‘lives’ (to again anthropomorphosise) of these objects. One day, we might imagine, they either are or are not selected, are or are not clustered, are or are not introduced to others, poised or posed in a certain way, sometimes in the middle of the table, or lightly too close to its edge, and for a certain amount of time (hours, days, weeks?) just like any other artist’s model, while subject to the sensitive affirmation of being re-cognised and translated (represented, described), by the artist – by his brush, palette, paint – made into an image, a kind of tribute or minor monument perhaps.

Nevertheless, a certain dis-individuation, often, and almost always occurs, wherein the particular and peculiar process undertaken by Morandi seems to blur, glitch, or otherwise confuse our reading of where one object begins and ends and another object (or sometimes their context (the table, the wall) begins and ends. It only takes a slight, eccentric extension of a plane of colour to disrupt our common sense of what and where one thing is and what and where is another.

Is the artist then suffering from some form of visual stigma or scotoma? Is he at fault? Is there something he believes that he sees that we do not habitually see? Something that he allows us to see and to also believe?


A painting by Cézanne (Still Life with Plaster Cupid, c.1895), whom Morandi admired, famously shows, in the depiction of certain domestic objects in a kitchen setting, the artist playfully confusing the audience’s eye (in a subtle version of the endless plays and puns deployed by Picasso perhaps). A humble onion, sat on a table, sprouts greenery that, due to a certain diagonal line that is apparently ‘behind’ it, seems to allow this greenery to sprout onto another visual plane, leaving us uncertain as to where it exists in the spatial logic of the rest of the painting or somewhere else (within another depicted paining perhaps).

Perhaps a Cezannean ‘glitch’ like this (and maybe Cubism too) liberated Morandi from loyalty to his own knowledge of the limits and bounds of the individuated objects at which he was looking, and their relation to their contexts. Then again, Morandi might imply that individual things, different from each other, and distinguished as objects set against and within contexts, are not so individuated after all.

Perhaps contexts can be objects, and objects contexts? Perhaps all ceramic vessels come with a material memory of the shared processes of throwing, moulding, firing and glazing from which they are all derived and which they thus have in common, thereby constituting the single object of ‘all ceramic vessels’?

Then again, the apparent ‘glitches’ in Morandi’s representation may be more to do with a modern, or modernist fascination with questioning – particularly via painting – visual perception (again a quasi-Cubist approach). What we might call the ‘Morandian glitch’ then, frees the eye from a knowledge that informs and therefore constrains it, and invites both eye and mind to roam and wander, gracing, tracing and playing with the precious gift and experience of vision itself.


So, to return to the editor’s criticism of my apparently too ‘transcendent’ approach to art writing, I wonder if I have here allowed Morandi’s painting to charm and seduce me into committing the error of making fanciful, rhetorical statements that invest my experience with unjustifiable and un-scientific transcendence, or even metaphysics? 

If so, might I defend myself by claiming that I succumb, in fact, only to the lesser vices of metaphor, analogy and alliteration, of adverbs, anthropomorphism and adjectives, but not necessarily transcendence or metaphysics.

And if so, might I appeal to be welcomed back into a certain (in my insecure case, rather  desperately wanted and needed) sense of professional belonging and community by the relevant cultural gatekeepers, if only on the grounds that I might just be a valuable maverick contributor, a follower perhaps of Alfred Jarry’s strange notion of ‘pataphysics’ ,which he playfully and oxymoronically, but effectively defined as a ‘science of exceptions’?

I can be scientific, rational, materialist etc. as long as (like Jarry, or indeed like Walter Benjamin) I can also be allowed to explore the wider realm of exceptions to rules.

Similarly, I am ready and willing to confess (as I have done above) and even change my ways, canceling my bad habits, in order to remain inside, not outside of, the noble community of art writers, if only by representing what the highly respected writer and thinker Maurice Blanchot called ‘the community of those who have no community’ – particularly as I believe it may well be this community (that of those who have no community) that I believe that I enter and re-join on every occasion upon which I find myself involved with a piece of art writing.

Hopefully it can be seen that, for me, serious art writing, like serious art, always requires this kind of adventure, journey, and gambit; this risk of falling and potential loss; but if possible also this rescue and flight into unknown territory (if that is, again, not too transcendent an image); a flight into that which is not as yet, or was not previously, my or anyone else’s territory?

As I often tell my students, ‘I first write myself into trouble, and then write myself out of trouble again’. Whether that has happened successfully or not here, it is too soon to judge, but that is certainly another important aspect of my method, and it is in the latter part of the process (writing myself out of trouble) that I believe I might make a contribution, a difference, a change, to and for myself, to and for art and to and for art writing.

It may be true that, again for me (for this is all surely, and admittedly personal, subjective, creative, ungrounded and unfounded in any standard scientific sense), science, physics, reason and materialism are not enough (and of course, not something I ever studied at school as  – I realised as I grew older – I did not receive any formal secondary education).

I do believe in science and physics, but only as I believe in all other aspects of my experience. I ‘believe in’ science and physics as an ever-increasingly, marvellously sophisticated human toolbox by means of which to operate in and on a broader experience that also includes the un-scientific, or less scientific – which is where I am willing to follow Alfred Jarry.

I am also willing to follow writer/artists like Rushdie, Murakami, Borges and Calvino into the realm of the ‘magical’ as, even if I do not believe in magic, I think of the ‘magical’ in terms of the rarity of fortunate coincidence, and the inexplicable ways and means by which e.g. art, love, and creativity are or can be pursued and developed by the most and least experienced and qualified, introduced by barely explicable means into newly enhanced experiences and understandings.

Morandi’s paintings, with their apparently purposeful, seemingly intentional ‘glitches’; and perhaps precisely in and by means of those glitches, might offer us exceptions that become vehicles, passages, ways to go and to go beyond any literal, commonplace, habitual or rational representation of our surroundings, in part by never allowing us to forget that this is always a particular and an ‘exceptional’ way of painting, in the hands of a particular painter; never allowing us to forget that this mis-leads us in a most inviting manner, into a peculiar, particular and exceptional ‘truth’ of its very own.

But then, but now – to finish this paragraph with a question, that perhaps shows the whole of the above to have been inadequate, insubstantial a self-defence – but then, but now, is this ‘truth’ then also shamefully transcendent and therefore unwelcome among this collection of thoughts?


We also see in this show, some paintings that are less typical of the Morandi we best know, and this is usually because they precede his long, ‘classic’ phase of consistent and repetitive production. One of these earlier paintings shows the influence of De Chirico, who, as a proto-Surrealist, or Surrealist avant la lettre claimed, embraced and endorsed by Surrealism, explicitly trumpeted the ‘metaphysicality’ of his own best-known paintings. De Chirico’s enthusiastic use of this term might be helpful to us in understanding what a ‘transcendent, or metaphysical art or art-writing might be, might contain or might look like, and this might, in turn, illuminate an accusation that my own writing is, in being too “transcendent”, also too metaphysical.

Along the way, of course, we might gain a further opportunity to explore any realism, Surrealism, materialism, physicality, metaphysicality or transcendence implicated by Morandi’s paintings.

For De Chirico, a ‘metaphysical’ painting seems to have been one in which worldly objects and physical spaces are described quite accurately, figuratively, but in such a way that they are also clearly not real. The Surrealists attributed Freudian or dream-like qualities to them, but whether De Chirico would have conceded or consented to this I am unsure. Suffice to say that what De Chirico  (who interested Morandi at one time, though only perhaps as much as Cezanne also interested Morandi) adds to the realistic depiction of objects and places is something widely recognised but enigmatic – inevitably difficult to explain.

We might claim that De Chirico imbues what he depicts with ‘atmosphere’, something that even the most scientific among us might find it hard to deny that we have experienced, even if it remains an un-scientific or irrational concept.

Other ‘metaphysical’ aspects of De Chirico’s ‘metaphysical’ paintings can be found within long, deep shadows, ponderous Romanesque arches, reclining classical statues, and passing steam trains, all of which play their part in endowing his scenes with a particular temporality, one that seems to weigh heavily on all that it pervades.

Then there are certain displacements of scale and distortions of perspective, perhaps multiple, slightly jarring perspectives. Now, perhaps it can be seen that we might be able to understand how Morandi, influenced in turn by De Chirico and Cezanne, found his own metier by considering yet refusing both, and developing his very own analytic (Cezanne-ian) and metaphysical (De Chirico-esque) fusion.

So, can we go further and call Morandi metaphysical? It seems incongruous, and the claim is perhaps cancelled by the relative rationality he brings to his also quite scientific, Cezanne-ian observations. And yet there does seem to be in Morandi more than ‘meets the eye’, more that is than a relentless materiality; more we might say of a restless hyper-materiality or meta-materiality, one that even vibrates, refuses to be placid and still, willingly observed; one that refuses to be an object – and perhaps this leads us beyond ‘mere’ physics and ‘mere’ materiality.

Can we then call Morandi ‘Cezanne-ian’?
Only in the sense that, in ways similar to Cezanne, he seems to have isolated himself and repeatedly addressed the same ‘subject matter, evolving and then using the same technique in a seemingly or quasi-scientific way. Orthodox European art history tells us that such a ‘way’ led Cezanne to a uniquely grounded system of personal representation, one that eventually came to be a crucial influence upon and progenitor of the arch-modernist abstract line or family of modern painters. Many  of these – apparently influenced by Cezanne’s own, relatively clear-headed, dry-eyed method – sought to expunge mystery, emotion, irrationality, and yes, metaphysics and transcendence from their works. However, as a contemporary wave of revisionist art history and critical curating might show, there were many unapologetic metaphysical and transcendental modern abstract painters too (see e.g. the current Tate exhibition of Mondrian and af Klimt).


Perhaps, as we said at the start of this writing, there is nothing that can be said about Morandi, by me at least, that would contribute any further to his reputation or understanding. I have, like most commentators I suspect, been unable to criticise, but have rather maintained a slight sycophancy or fandom throughout the above, while in some ways discovering, or rediscovering a model or mentor in Morandi, not for how to paint but for how to conduct art writing.

Perhaps any art or artwork might have sufficed at this time of my personal crisis and need, but it just happened that, as I processed the painful implications of an editor’s refusal, I just happened to give myself a day-off of my University duties, also taking a rest from the particular demands of the ‘the contemporary’, and attended an exhibition by this, perhaps unfashionably canonical modern painter, whose works proved capable of motivating and shaping this rather long text.

Yes, there is nothing to be said about Morandi, but perhaps that is why I am writing about him, reminding myself, in the process, quite why I have always written and quite why I write, which is perhaps not so different from the underlying reason that Morandi painted. In both cases, it is, in the end, for the slightly mysterious love of the act, the process, the revelation, discovery and yes the invention. It is ultimately all for the love of writing, for the love of painting, for the love of art and of art writing.

We could go further here and suggest that Morandi may have only become satisfied by his own paintings, by his own process and technique at the point when he also knew that they ‘said’ nothing and could say nothing. Not only do paintings not write or speak, but they also do not necessarily ‘say’ anything, and this crucial conclusion might be reached only by and through attention to those wavering, slightly unnerving ‘glitches’ that seem to ‘pull the rug from under’ any sure-footed certainty that we might have expected to have been provided by such otherwise overtly and purely physical paintings of such prosaic objects.

Yes, it might be said that we finally arrive at our most important and committed writing, and at our best painting, only when we discover how to paint or to write when or where there is nothing to be said, but also where and when no one necessarily wants, needs, likes or values our art or our art writing. Only then might we write or make art relieved of the burden of appreciation, along with the burden of content, import, discernible value and more.

For the art writer, the art-wordsmith, or for the art orator, might this then be a form of ekphrasis, or perhaps the gateway to a form of unabashed rhetoric? Perhaps, but then, I have long suspected (see e.g. my 2009 PhD ‘A Hesitation of Things’) all writing and speaking to be a form of rhetorical activity about which we should feel no shame.

Have I here lost touch with reality, materiality, physicality and rationality? Have my feet ‘left the ground’ (to again invoke one of the editor’s own metaphorical criticisms). Is my ‘head in the clouds’ when I write and speak of art and of Morandi’s art in these ways? Does all of this betray a certain unexamined but innate “cleaving to the transcendent in art” ?

Perhaps, but if so then that is probably illustrative of my attempts to attain what I have elsewhere called a ‘holistic relativism’, a postmodern-ised attempt to grasp ‘the all’, or the whole, without care for conflict, positionality or orientation; a way of referring to the (transcendent? metaphysical?) whole that I have long felt must inevitably be considered and must be at stake in our most ambitious art and art writing; a ‘whole’ that I feel I must address, bravely, and without fear of encountering and ‘handling’ a possibly maddening level of complexity and responsibility.

Might this be a way to manage and contain today’s increasingly complex ‘multitudes’ (as Walt Whitman, followed more recently by Bob Dylan, claims), without being tied, like a suffering silent-movie starlet to this or that narrow and unwavering track; to this or that particular culture or club, whose gateway and threshold, it seems, I am still not allowed to pass through or remain beyond or within, despite forty difficult years attempting a class-migration; and despite twenty five years of publishing art-writing (plus my PhD, teaching experience etc.); and even though so many of the peers and colleagues who might pass such judgements on me may have never had to think, seriously of for long, about passing through that gateway, simply because they might have been born into and within the cultural territory that this gateway repeatedly, and in ever-changing ways seems to bar me from accessing,

My proposal, set out implicitly above, is perhaps a request to be included, albeit on the basis of being an occasional and slightly exotic visitor, a peculiar and slightly awkward maverick. If so, it might be worth mentioning here that preceding this editor’s accusation of “cleaving to the transcendent in art” I also had some of my recent papers and presentations referred to (by people whom I like to think of as my peers) as “wry”, and as “hilarious” when I had intended them to be nothing of the sort.

My art writing will, I hope, always respond (and I hope has always responded) honestly and anew to each encounter with each art and artist; to itself, as well as to each editor and journal, in a way that is informed and shaped, not by any prescribed agenda, any cultural club to which I might or need to belong, and not by any fixed or habitual position or set of prescribed and established rules, but instead always informed and shaped by the particular event, the particular encounter, the work itself, the work as it appears to this particular art writer at this particular moment, as if (and as much as this is possible) pre-washed of all that is supposedly or expertly ‘known’ about it; cleansed (again, as much as possible) of all that has been previously attributed to and claimed for it, all that has been said, written and established about it. This, to me, approximates a decanonising of canons per se, a decanonising of canonism and canonology.

Thus, I hope that my art writing will always be shaped and formed by the art that I write-about, just as much as my writing might, albeit modestly, slightly, re-shape and re-form the art it addresses. As I have said above, if any judgement or evaluation occurs in that process, I hope to contain and maintain it as confined within perhaps no more than a particular use of adjectives and adverbs, and my own deployment of whatever other textures and nuances that might shape my sometimes inspired and otherwise carefully chosen language, and I would call this an ‘immanent’ approach.

In Morandi’s paintings (as mentioned elsewhere in this text) there is often a sense of space around his objects, but often little or no space between those objects, despite the wider space into which they could spread if they or the artist so wished. Are they perhaps agoraphobic-ly scared, or afraid of being different, of being alone perhaps, or of standing out? Are they afraid of being singled-out as a thing, an object (thinking here of the Japanese social maxim: ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’), as an identity or singularity? Does Morandi therefore bring into question their ontological status? Do they gather so tightly that, like people and buildings, on trains or other forms of crowd and crush in modern life, they even begin to fuse? This is also the point at which realistically representative figuration begins to become abstract. ‘Things’ fall apart only to become more abstract forms.

In Morandi’s best known paintings we no longer see things or objects, fronts, backs and sides, tops and bottoms of vessels, set against, on, or within a certain space or place. Instead we see planes, tones, hues, shapes and marks contained by the wider vessel of the frame, and by the vessel of the event of painting.

This event of painting is not so much transcendent or metaphysical as it is molecular, even quantum-mechanical perhaps; not meta-physical but rather super– or hyper-physical. With an absurd modesty, and extreme passivity, domestic things ‘give-up their ghosts’ and come to Morandi to confess, under the scrutiny of the concentrated eye and the animating brush, to an abstract molecularity that makes them anything but familiar, domestic, comforting and reassuring.

Perhaps a form of Surrealism has taken place too, and after all; or rather a ‘pata-realism’ (following Alfred Jarry’s ‘pataphysics’ or “science of exceptions”). If so, this might confirm Walter Benjamin’s claim or implication that all objects, whether natural or cultural (or objects that are both or in-between) can – if we approach and explore them in a certain open-minded manner –  reveal another value, a greater value (and here they may indeed begin to transcend), a value other than that with which they are routinely awarded in commonplace or strictly scientific and rational experience and explanation, i.e. other than they are awarded by common sense or addressed in common parlance.

Finally, Morandi’s objects are small, contained by a small table, in a small area, of a small room, and yet he has rendered them in such a way as to be simultaneously both close and distant, both accessible and ineffable, thus purposefully ambiguous, but always in a way that I would prefer to translate as ‘immanent’ rather than as ‘transcendent’.



‘Slow Criticism’ anybody?

The Accurate Perception Available When Our Eye Becomes Single.
Richard Ducker and Ian Thompson, with Sarah Sparkes.
3 Dec till 18 Dec 2022. Thames-Side Studios Gallery
London SE18 5NR.

I recall it was a cold, cold night, and our journey, beyond our usual urban parameters, seemed to make it all the colder. We were heading out, beyond New Cross, beyond Deptford, beyond even Greenwich to those wilder, less cosmopolitan and less historicised lands more than half-way to Woolwich. We watched the bus’s digital display while looking for the stop at which we needed to alight, meanwhile checking with the bus driver just to be safe. When he finally set us down after an unusually long ride, we found ourselves in the edgelands of London, monopolised by wide roads, roundabouts and industrial buildings.

Following instructions translated from Google into my pocketbook we found ourselves walking down a dimly lit side road, heading – my instincts told me – towards the river. Eventually we came to an industrial complex where a security guard pointed out our final destination. Then, through a perspex panel in a steel door, we glimpsed the face of a friend who opened-up and welcomed us in.

After the usual post-pandemic near-hugs and quasi-kisses we settled into some catch-up chat, oiled by wine and encouraged by nibbles before entering the gallery space proper. There, the artist Richard Ducker had set out a scenario at least as bleak as the journey through Southeast London that we had just completed. The space retained its original industrial character and purpose, with high, thin walls and perhaps a peaked or slanting roof? I don’t recall such details clearly, but perhaps it is acceptable to write about art that we cannot fully recall? After all, is any art writing ever fully current, comprehensive or complete?

Perhaps a slightly patchy memory, and the slightly mystifying effects of passed time, just provide another, slightly more historical way for us to look at and evaluate art? Art doesn’t run to the same timetable as the rest of the world, and so, it seems OK to me to write some ‘slow criticism’, even about a show almost entirely from memory and in retrospect, and for no reason other than to experiment, again, with the tradition of art writing and the lingering possibilities or impossibilities of a 21st century art criticism.

To continue, the artist had built what he called ‘bunkers’, i.e. objects that looked a little like five-aside football goals but which provided a floor bound screen on which digital video images were projected. Their scale, form, and the angles at which they were set, brought to mind a video installation made by Hiraki Sawa at Chisenhale Gallery some years ago.

Richard Ducker and Ian Thompson, with Sarah Sparkes, ‘The Accurate Perception Available When Our Eye Becomes Single’, multi-screen installation (film still), 2022

Other videos were projected in more familiar ways, directly on walls or monitors – again, I can’t recall accurately. The artist’s images were mainly black and white, and so, where and when a splash of vibrant colour occasionally intervened, it had a significant impact, as if allowing a kind of exotic otherness into an otherwise austere, homogenously grim scenario.

These works were the product of several artists in collaboration. First there was the image maker (Richard Ducker), who had collected and edited the video elements. Then there was the sound artist, or music composer (Ian Thompson), who had created a sensuously sonic dimension, which, while operating in its own way and its own right, inevitably enhanced the images and confirmed the installation’s evocation of places and times where humans might fear to tread – all depicted in inescapable loops.

Then there was a performance artist (Sarah Sparkes) who, I believe (and again, I might be recall inaccurately) appeared briefly in one of the looped videos wearing a vividly coloured costume and also performed in the space in special weekend events.

The ironic mirroring of the journey to this out of the way gallery with the remote desolation found in the carefully composed sound and pictures, soon became a repeated observation in our chats with other visitors. It felt like a hardcore night-out for committed art-appreciators, and not for the feint-hearted. A baleful poetics haunted the given space, in which an epitaph seemed to have been scribed for a humanity that had exhausted its capacity for hope sometime back in the first nuclear age, and before the era of colour TV.

The images seemed to be (and I hope the artists don’t mind if I guess here rather than research or consult) derived from certain remote and uncivilised places in the South East of England (Suffolk, Essex, or Kent perhaps?) associated with the production of nuclear power. These non-sites retain a ghostly sense of an abandoned future, of surpassed technologies and faded belief. And all of this is woven by these artists into a weird manscape, seemingly inhospitable to the hardiest life-forms and resistant to nature’s tendency to overwhelm all obstructions to its purpose.

Having toured the various screens and contemplated the ‘bunkers’, monitors, and other elements of the installation, we found ourselves negotiating with other visitors the best way to get home from this obscure venue. Our return journey involved another barren bus ride, but this time fortunately diverted via the Millennium Dome (site of another lost future, that of New Labour) where the state-of-the-art Jubilee Line underground train service finally provided us with the kind of safe, fast, brightly illuminated and thoroughly modern way home that we felt that we deserved, following a memorable trip to the edgelands of London, but also to the limits of humanity, and on to the extremities of these three artists and their collective imagining.

Dunhill & O’Brien’s ‘Modern Object’ (and closing talk) at postROOM, London

Shielding, 2022, blue upholstery fabric, wood, wadding, insulation material. And gallery installation view.

Reflecting on and projecting re my Blog, I came to thinking about how it was probably at its best when conforming to tight parameters, i.e., with a maximum wordcount of 750 words per week, published by noon every Sunday, using only B&W images (as a means by which to synthesise hugely diverse visual information) and featuring some kind of ‘review’ or thoughts upon art and culture, while laced with the thoughts, the persona, and in a way the diary of that ‘ONLY YOU’ who has become both myself and the reader, morphing into a persona who is not only of and for the writer, but also of and for the reader, providing a special kind of encounter where the audience or reader is carried along with the writer while also carrying the writer along.

However, I had better get around to writing about something other than writing itself.

Yesterday was frosty in London and my partner and I crossed London quickly by tube, unavoidably aware that a big football match, a national cultural event, was in the offing. We travelled to Islington, not a part of town we visit often but home to a couple of galleries run by friends of ours. I was able to show my partner the delights of Camden Passage, once an intriguing warren entirely made up of antique and bric-a-brac shops, but now significantly modernised and gentrified with trendy cafes and the like, though still retaining some of its original charm.

This is also the part of town where my mum and dad wooed each other, meeting for movie dates on Islington Green after finding each other while working at the same pipe factory (the smoking kind) called Comoy’s, not far from Angel. My mother was working there because her working class family were based around Chapel Market and the area between Kings X and Angel. My father, Seamus (James) O’Kane, had migrated from Ireland and taken any job he could find while applying for a more promising position in the lowest ranks of the British civil service. He inadvertently fell in love with local girl Evelyn Reed and the rest is (my family) history.

In Chapel Market, where my great grandmother once lived, there is now an art gallery run by a friend named Yuki Miyake and named White Conduit Projects . It has a unique, largely Japanese-art-and-culture-related agenda. But our destination on this occasion was a little further North up Essex Road to ‘postROOM’, a gallery situated in the home of gallery director Sandie Macrae “ … after 18 years’ operating as: R O O M, ROOM TOO, FOUND GALLERY, ROOM London, ROOMARTSPACE and more recently and currently as ROAMING ROOM”. We travelled to postROOM to attend a talk by artists and friends Mark Dunhill and Tamiko O’Brien  (who have also exhibited in White Conduit Projects) marking the last day of their show, Modern Object (17th Nov to 10th Dec 2022), at postROOM.

The combination and proximity of the curated work, along with a spoken introduction by the artists, opened-up the intricately enfolded cultural concepts and connections built-in to the pieces via the artists’ highly personalised research methods, that are always both playful and diligent. Dunhill & O’Brien live and work both as a couple and as artist-collaborators – a theme much discussed in this talk. Most of their work reveals a head-on negotiation, not only with each other but with the underlying concepts and context of their duality, their ‘two-ness’ and their collaboration. This includes examination of the way that idea-production, conceptual refinement, design and manufacture all take place in an especially candid and visible arena once artists choose, or are forced to work outside the more private confines of a more typical practice.

Suffice to say that the works of these collaborating artists always provoke intrigue, fascination and amusement while often delivering a special and memorable sense of bathos. Dunhill & O’Brien also demonstrate that much humour tends to derive from such collaboration. We might recall seeing it in the works of e.g., Fischli & Weiss, John Harrison & Paul Wood, or Jake & Dinos Chapman.

There is, it seems, something about the collaborative model that is likely to lead us through an unusually candid (usually more hidden or repressed) flirtation with failure to a space of relative resilience where, having perhaps inclined to resignation we rally and recall that we are strongest, and even most victorious when laughing (Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati are cited as formative influences by the artists), or that (given all artists are in some way entertainers) we are justified even in our most particular and peculiar actions as long as someone is laughing along with us.

In Dunhill & O’Brien’s substantial and impressive oeuvre (alluded to in this exhibition by the mixing of their most recent works with some slightly older pieces) meticulous manufacture is often interwoven with more messy (and massy) meditations on making, and this illustrates sculpture’s (and thereby the sculptor’s) inherent inability, or stubborn unwillingness to transcend material conditions (in comparison with painting at least), making Dunhill & O’Brien exemplary commentators on the parameters of their chosen discipline and tradition.

Unfortunately, we have already all-but run out of word count, and are thus denied the opportunity to go into the kind of detailed description and evaluation that might do justice to the conscientiously cultivated works on show in Modern Object at postROOM. Having missed my weekly deadline and busted my 750 word limit, I am forced to conclude what has become only the briefest of introductions to an unusually rich and enjoyable body of very current, carefully conjured work, more of which, however, awaits the reader (ONLY YOU) when pursuing the links duly provided above.

Returning to Blogging? Thinking of Blooking?

I’m hesitating before re-starting my Blog, as I know it can be quite a weekly demand, and is also yet another expression of generous creative energy and time for which the rewards can seem very slight. Nevertheless, I have also loved it and feel proud now I look back over several years of my Blog. I’m glad I did it.

I’m also interested in finding any evidence that I might have become a better person, a better writer and communicator, a little older, wiser, more honest etc. since I last Blogged. I know I have changed.

Blogging is also a very particular kind of writing – of which more below.

I suffered some huge disappointments recently, and these led to a ‘loss of confidence’ – a phrase I’d often heard without realising the severity of what it really means.

Since then, over a year ago, I haven’t managed to complete a single piece of professional writing, I cancelled a couple of conferences at which I would have given papers, and I haven’t been able to find any traction in reading either. I took some time out from teaching for the first time in 23 years, but today I feel that rejuvenating my Blog might be one part of my multidirectional manoeuvre to win back my lost confidence.

I’ve also been looking at what kind of book I would next like to write. I recently published a slightly more academic-style book, and might write about that here on another occasion. But I was recently looking at my Blog and wondering if I could perhaps convert it into a Blook. But then, would there really be any point in doing so when a Blog is best off just being a Blog?

Well, anyway, following this line of thought got me started, and re-started Blogging. So, here’s what I’ve written:

I’d like a Blook to provide an accessible selection of my Blog posts, these responses below – written over a period of seven years (!!) in the form of: part review writing / part personal journal – responses to art and life in (mostly) London. They document a series of exhibitions, works and events, contextualised within the everyday life of the writer.

My relationship with art writing has been rich and varied. For over 30 years I have experimented and expanded my interest in many directions, and yet, as such, never really consolidated any particular approach.

This partially explains my tentative and hesitant relationship with the Review format, with editors, and with the purposes and motives of Review writing.

I never wanted to be thought of as an ‘art critic’, and for this reason moved away from writing and publishing a lot of Reviews in the late 90s, after hearing myself described as a ‘critic’, one evening at a private view in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, I have continued to enjoy the more or less private adventure of walking out into the city, entering an exhibition, and responding to the experience, in memory, in writing, and (for example) in this Blog, writing for and to an imagined public, including information about the writer and the writing, along with a degree of description of the art, the venue, the times, the day, the writer, all lightly laced with judgements (mostly carried by the adjectives used).

Gathering these writings together and turning this Blog into a Blook might provide an enjoyable experience for some to read, as well as a model or example for students or emerging writers and critics.

I would choose not to illustrate the Blook, for logistical and financial reasons, and I would  also try to avoid it becoming academicised (despite my deep embroilment in academia).

A Blook would be one of my first adventures into my large archive of otherwise unpublished writings and artworks; a shallow dive into a collection that I strongly believe deserves some attention.

 Perhaps, my slightly maverick and outsider status: as an autodidact, who taught myself to write by trial and error in my 30s; as a ‘class migrant’ from the first generation of a migrant family to have gone to university (and whose partner is also from a working class family on the other side of the world); as someone who left school with just one ‘O’ level (and therefore really has no basic maths, science, geography, history, English etc); as someone who took ten years to complete my first degree; as someone who spent decades of my life in labouring jobs or unemployed; as someone who spent their first five or six formative years as one of a family of seven in a tiny two-bed council flat, before moving to a slightly bigger, but still crowded little house; perhaps, as someone like this (like all of the above), I tend to overvalue my achievements (being, as the English jokingly say ‘a legend in my own lunchtime’), but I can’t see any alternative to taking myself seriously, as I have little or no alternative support of financial or cultural capital to rely upon.

I feel I have only my difference (which is also invisible, as I look to many like any other white middle class, middle-aged man – although not sufficiently ‘like’ to ever actually be or become that same middle-class man). I feel that I have only my particularities and peculiarities, or, as I say, my differences; only my personal skills, my honed intuition, my hunches, my energies, my aspirations, motives, and my creative output with which to sustain myself and allow myself to fulfil the potential and promise of my life in art.

I have never had any careerist guile, guidance, or strategy other than to first do my very best work, and then to try to draw some attention to it, hoping and wishing and waiting for a response, often dreaming of, and in fact wholly depending on, an imagined ‘snowball’ of interest in my work that might one day deliver me from an unjust sense of striving in vain and battling against that invisible foe called indifference.

My archives weigh upon me (I don’t care if that sounds precocious or pretentious, as it is true and very important to me); weigh on me more and more as I get older and as I feel more afraid of my archives being simply wasted, discarded, unknown and unacknowledged. There is so much that I  feel I have achieved and which has gone unacknowledged or simply unseen.

Success, I have found, relies upon forms, on finding appropriate , resilient and convincing forms (or ‘vehicles’) by means of which to deliver your ideas, your feelings, your value, and in way that others will take seriously and might therefore preserve and disseminate.

Any archive balances on the brink of destruction, and only a certain art can perhaps rescue it for posterity; rescue one archive while another perishes; rescue one piece from an archive that otherwise perishes.

When I first started writing professionally, I remember asking myself who my audience might be, who I was writing to, and for. To help, I cut a little silhouette of a row of figures from the cardboard of my cereal packet, and I put it in front of my keyboard. Strangely, it helped, and I was able to move on and grow.

Today, new hardships and disappointments lead me to believe that I have to take more and more responsibility for more and more of my practices. This means, not only inventing an idea or image of an audience, but also inventing a milieu, and inventing that ‘champion’ whom I have sometimes heard about, often needed, but always lacked.

I will be my own champion if I can. I will provide my own deadlines, my own ‘residencies’ (albeit in my own here and now, perhaps in my own head), my own ‘funding’, my own context, archive, and my own reflection and review.

The Blog, here and the 200 posts below, titled ‘ONLY YOU: A Few Words a Week on Art & Life in London’, has been written, mostly between 2014 and 2021 and published weekly, with a few long hiatuses of over a year. At best it was already a step in the direction of a 21st century writing that may yet one day give up on books and replace most or all of them with screen-based writing.

At worst, however, the Blog is compensation for not building enduring professional relationships with paying editors of leading art journals, by means of which I could have established a successful profile and augmented my income. I feel sad that, after all the years and all the talent I have shown with my art writing, I remain somehow an outsider (perhaps, ultimately due to that mysterious ‘class’ divider – in society, in my head, in others …?), and therefore remain marginal and vulnerable, but also, I suppose, ‘different’ and with something different to contribute.

Blog writing is of course less scrutinised than a peer reviewed article for a journal (which I also write), or even a review for a print journal. Blogging is intrinsically less formal, and this makes it weaker and worse, but also stronger and better in that it is so free, accessible, universal, light-touch and fast to read and to write.

Looking back, my Blog hasn’t yet stepped far enough or soon enough in the direction of Blogging’s 21st century technologised autonomy. I wasn’t brave enough, or didn’t hurt enough (didn’t hurt as much as I do now) to make the move towards a greater autonomy before, perhaps because I was hoping that my Blogging might attract editors to me.

As for the ‘You’ of the Blog’s title, its target and meaning has shifted during the story of the Blog. ‘You’, in English can have a strangely ambiguous tone, sometimes seeming to mean ‘one’ (e.g. ‘ … you go down here and turn right …’), at the same time as meaning the other or an other. I believe that if you read-on, you will discover your own relationship with this ‘You’ – as I have done.

When I first published my writing, and when I even got paid for it sometimes, I felt so pleased, so freed, so empowered, so justified and so hopeful. Perhaps that was already my greatest achievement that I can never surpass. Meanwhile, I was also making art, in a flat converted into a studio, but which I could only afford to live-in by unsustainably relying on state benefits. I was especially interested in analog photography, but this too was far too expensive for me to pursue. I had no clue about applying for funding of course, and even if I had would certainly not have qualified for it.

I had nevertheless made a publicly recognised and professionalised art out of my writing, which could be done with no more than a pencil and paper (though admittedly it was my first computers and word processors that gave me the confidence to process and present my writing – something that my appalling handwriting or inept typewriting could never have done).

That first published writing (circa 1997) led to my first teaching, and ultimately to 23 years now of paying the rent and bills with my creative skills. This, to me, remains a huge achievement, even though to many up and coming artists and students it might seem a long way from what they would think of as ‘success’ as an artist.

I still use a fountain pen for a first draft, and a pencil or ‘Uni-Ball’ for filling pocket notebooks with ideas. And of course I use the computer and its screen, which makes my writing look like everyone else’s. I use my WordPress template, again like everyone else’s, and yet, despite and within those parameters, now looking back over years of these Blogs and their hiatuses, I see a lot of value accrued, a lot of output, a lot of ideas recorded and that I want to preserve, develop, share, here and now, and there and then in some future, either on a screen or perhaps converted to Blook form – though that looks like an increasingly formidable task.

As I say, I have experimented for 30 years with writing, and would like to unearth and present much that is hidden, in addition to this Blog.

I also notice that, in recent years, I have started to enjoy a more straightforward and simply clear communication to any more self-consciously ‘creative’ or ‘experimental’ writing. I do feel a little as though I have ‘been there and done that’ and now aim to simply get the reader as quickly, clearly and cleanly as possible, through the writing to the ideas that lie within and beyond the writing. Recently, I seem to be trying to share and communicate as generously and rapidly and easily as possible.

Rain Check – Easter ‘Break’

Happy holidays, stay safe and be well to all and any readers – from Paul in London

See you on Sunday 25th April

Why might I have forgotten to write my regular, Sunday morning Blog today? To any regular reader, I should apologise, but I simply had something large and important on my mind and it took my mind completely away from my weekly Blog duty, to focus on the aforementioned other task (another form of writing).

My Blog’s formatting has started doing some odd things to me last week, forcing my text to come out far smaller on the screen and more compressed into narrower line spaces. It’s the irritating kind of AI ‘progress’ that often afflicts us today, wherein our own magnificent intelligence and know-how is punished and pushed around by a relatively primitive form of ‘intelligence’ which ultimately might not be any kind of ‘intelligence’ at all and always seems to be in the interest of someone or some thing other than ourselves.

So, now I find myself out of gear and out of sorts with my Blog routine, and scurrying around for a theme on which to write. But it’s not coming, so perhaps you will excuse me taking a ‘rain check’, and taking a week or two off of my Blog, while I focus on my aforementioned other task. Then I will catch-up after this Easter ‘break’ is over (N.B. ‘breaks’ are my opportunities to do my real – most substantial and ambitious – work).

Happy holidays, stay safe and be well to all and any readers – from Paul in London

See you on Sunday 25th April


‘Do you want to write, or do you want to be a writer?’ This question, raised, provocatively by a famous writer, appears to allude to the distinction between our desire to, or dream of occupying the revered occupation of ‘writer’, and the realities of and actualities – indeed the ‘act’ of writing. We might also suspect or surmise that the famous writer quoted here is suggesting that, in fact, the only way to ‘be a writer’ is to write and to want to write.

Furthermore, to ‘want to write’ must also mean, to have the stamina, the will, the need perhaps to write, as well as to want to write well, i.e. to want to write for the sake of and the love of the craft and the act and the tradition of writing.

It follows that, simply to ‘want to be a writer’ is not sufficient. This dream of inhabiting a preconceived image of ‘a writer’ will not suffice or sustain us sufficiently to in fact be a writer. This ‘preconception’ is also a problem, because, if we attend to writing as an act, a duty, a task and a craft we must also be prepared to become a writer that we don’t initially recognise, i.e. not a writer or a writing that we admire (or some imitation of same) but a writer that we irrefutably are (it’s there on the page) and do not quite recognise as the writer we want to be.

We might just have to live with this discomfort and uncertainty, while accepting the hard truth that our discomfort might also be part of our method, our life and our profession (and every famous and successful writer seems to have plenty of tales to tell about how their career is far from ‘all roses’). One compensation for our lack of consistent comfort and security might be provided by retrospection, in that, occasionally looking back over our writing – whether it be the well-honed, re-written and edited kind, or the rapid writing done here in the form of a first-draft Blog – we might there and then feel a little more assured about the consistent identity, style and value of our writing, and therefore of the style and value of ourselves as a writer.

It’s worth pointing out that this probably applies to the arts in general, so that we can also ask: ‘Do you want to be an artist or do you want to make art?’ Again, it follows that the latter part of the proposition is the most important, as it is only through wanting to make art that we can be an artist, while concentrating on the idea of being an artist might not motivate us to make art, or might motivate us to make art in a preconceived image of art and the artist that is not as ‘true to ourself’ as we might need to be.

I place ‘true to ourself’ in what are sometimes called ‘scare quotes’ here, because, as a generation, we are sceptical about this notion, and yet find it hard to dispense with. It’s true that we are invited today to play with identity, to take on personae, to expropriate artfully the works of others, etc. and yet, it still seems to me (although I am increasingly sceptical about the value of this ‘seeming to me’) that, underlying such strategies, there still remains some inescapable personal drive or ambition to fulfil something or someone we think of as ‘the self’, even if and when we are acting energetically as an apparently ego-less or altruistic team-player or collaborator.

‘Do you want to write, or do you want to be a writer?’; ‘Do you want to be an artist or do you want to make art?’ A contest has to be had, and a balance found, between the self, our chosen craft or profession, and any preconceived and projected image we have of ourselves as a successful, or more successful version of the writer or artist we already are, or really are.


The idea of achievement is a fickle and fragile thing. You can sometimes feel you are riding high, that you’ve slain your inner demons, shed your ‘loser’ self-image, and found the way of working that both fulfils yourself and impresses others. And yet all of this can quickly dissipate too. Worse, it can all – under scrutiny, or when subjected to external, other, and different criteria – look delusory.

At such times, perhaps all we can do is ‘keep calm and carry on’ – as the cliche goes; hold tight to our remaining or core belief and if, as a result of our collapsing confidence we are not sure which way to turn, then at least know to just wait, try to avoid doing anything that might be the wrong thing to do, taking no road rather than the wrong road chosen in panic.

Ultimately, we will need to move on, at the same time as returning to or relocating that priceless belief that seems to warm us as well as excite and confirm our long history of adventures, trials and tortures. After all, as well as; and above and beyond the individual and collective works that we manage to make (and making surely is important to what we are discussing here), it is our way, our method, our style etc. – all of which is unique to us, something we have often found and lost, often glimpsed barely, and just occasionally held confidently in our grip; all of that is what we are. and want to be, and aim to fulfil and share – that is to say it is our HOW as much as our WHAT; it is our WAY as much as our THIS and THIS, our THIS and THAT.

Unanticipated life-changes, against which we have no defence; people who treat us with surprising ignorance and crudity (that, in our perception may even amount to cruelty) can knock us off our metaphorical horse or (equally metaphorical) pedestal. But great beauty and the formidable excellence of others can also lay us low, forcing us to reassess the quality of our work. Sometimes, it seems to me, that we have to simply admit that we have not achieved all that we had hoped; that what we have made – of a work, of our work as a whole, or of our life – is, honestly, and after all, just 50%, 60 % or 70% of what we have so often felt capable – IF ONLY this or that unanticipated factor were not such an obstacle to reaching the heights we feel within us, and which we now and then catch sight of in our work.

Probably, we should resign ourselves to this syndrome, and find within it that great modesty we always and also hear in the voices of those whom we consider, and who are popularly regarded as ‘great’. Yes, their ’embarrassment’ whenever lauded in public, may be part polite shamming (it often looks like a mixed emotion), but surely none of us ever consistently achieves that 110% excellence of which we generally dream. In fact, there may be odd times when we temporarily over-achieve, perhaps momentarily reaching our 135%, and therefore locating something within our thoughts or works of which we are not in control, with which we are unfamiliar, and which is therefore not always helpful. This ‘queers the pitch’ of our aspirations, making what we are aiming for unquantifiable after all, and even something towards which it may be unwise to ‘aim’.

Ultimately, it is best to not look too long elsewhere and at others, but to absorb as much as we can of beauty and greatness found in the world, in ‘little’ things and in ‘little’ people as much as in ‘great’ things and ‘great’ people. We do have a primary duty to kindly nurture the self, to congratulate and take pride in ourselves, and indeed to calmly carry on while always, artfully, and never too harshly, monitoring our own achievements and our our own standards; gently guiding and pulling ourselves along as best we can, and letting others, and simply letting time, in the end, be the ultimate judge of all our truly unquantifiable ‘achievements’.

‘The Woman Who Ran’ (2020) directed by Sang-soo Hong

It struck me this week that some of the things I feel I should, and want to write about are those things that I do purposefully as a way of doing nothing. As discussed in a previous post however, this of course leads to the problem of never doing nothing, never switching-off as an artist, writer, observer, thinker etc.

One of the things I wanted to write about is listening football on the radio (which I think of as absurd, and therefore relaxing), another is graffiti in the park (which I think of as a kind of vibrant and enthusiastic backdrop to my quiet daily walks). But in the end, I feel myself being drawn away from these two themes in the direction of another current or contemporary Korean movie (see last week’s ‘Minari’ post), this time viewed via ‘MUBI’ – a kind of arty or art-house streaming channel.

The movie is ‘The Woman Who Ran’ (2020) directed by Sang-soo Hong, and acted by Min-hee Kim, Song Seon-mi and Eun-mi Lee. I don’t intend to write a long review like the one I did las week for ‘Minari’, but nevertheless just want to express and share my responses. Immediately after watching this film I felt it was kind of engaging, and suggestive, but overall pretty flat. However, the more I thought about it, reflected on it, and discussed it with my partner, the more I liked it. This is a film that doesn’t use any standard or typical kinds of editing, dramatic narrative, lighting or music to manipulate your emotions and/or lead you to identify with any of the characters in particular.

In some ways it reminded me of French avant-garde cinema, of e.g. Jean Luc-Godard, in which all those dramatic and narrative devices are challenged, parodied or dispensed with. Except here, you can see a director of a much later generation, simply being free to do without those conventions, and to make a film stripped of anything non-essential to the simple – but nevertheless quite deep, quite meaningful – information it wants to impart. Let’s just say there are no distractions from what it is that the director wants you to see, hear, and respond to in any way you wish.

The film uses the narrative device of young woman, married for five years, looking up old friends on a series of home visits, while her husband has gone away on a business trip. In a way, nothing more happens than that. Of course there are conversations, catch-ups, and one of the things that all the women friends she visits is the respective states of their respective relationships with men, their marriages, divorces etc.

Interestingly three men do appear in the movie but on each occasion keep their back to the camera. They also seem to be various kinds of ‘pain-in–the- ***’. There is only one symbolic device used in the film and that is a reference to a cock who rules a hen house by means of violence.  

In a way there seems little more to say about this movie than that. Instead of using editing, the director rather straightforwardly zooms in occasionally to refresh the image of a conversation. When music is deployed it doesn’t operate in the background affecting us semi-consciously but rather cuts in, starkly and with apparently purposeful bad quality, to make some kind of clear break.

All the women occupy a liberal, middle-class, postmodern Korea, and exist on the margins of its relatively privileged art scene. The central figure (if we can call her that) claims her life is ‘boring’ (her husband is a translator and she runs a flower shop) though she is clearly privileged enough to change her situation with relative ease.

There are also a few characters who are seen slightly off-stage, including a young girl, neighbour of one of the visited friends, whose mother has left her, having gone off in the night and left her with her (another ‘pain-in-the ***’) father. So, what makes this movie worth remembering, watching or watching again, is its – (I hesitate to use the word) – ‘truth’, in at least showing us some slices of lives in which everyday narratives and relationships are not resolved or over-dramatised but simply trundle on, dwindle away and morph into new narratives and new relationships.

Every apartment contains a little life in which these mini-stories and relationships unfold. In postmodern Korean life, and the postmodern Korean architecture that partly determines it, CCTV also enables neighbours to have a newly mediated relationship with neighbours – who might just live to the side or above or below us- who occasionally drift closer into our own private realm – e.g. a neighbour who is clearly in trouble, or one who complains about our activities.

Yes, there is truth in all of that, and so, formally we can praise and admire the director and the rest of the cast and crew for side-stepping all the usual temptations (and expense) of mainstream cinema, and using a more ‘arty’ realm and remit to hold up a mirror to reality and draw us, subtly, into some worlds we feel we might know or be familiar with.

Form and process aside however, this is surely (see our first paragraphs above) some kind of a ‘feminist’ movie (directed by a man). But perhaps ‘feminist’ is the wrong term here; I’d prefer to say it is a movie about, or ‘showing’ women’s lives and perspectives in a particular place and time, i.e. Korea in the 21st century, or at least a little part of that Korea, a kind of exemplary part in a way, its successful, progressive, artistic, stylish, eloquent and thoughtful part; a part of a society where, it might seem, according to this movie, that lives are not too bad, not too exciting, not too successful, not too boring, not too politicised, and relatively free.

Whether this content and the aforementioned form or formal devices can be reconciled in a more detailed interpretation I’m not sure. I’d like to try. But for now, I’d just like to leave you with the kind of feeling that this movie left ME with – a slightly flat, but OK, gently entertained and lightly informed feeling about a place in the world and a group of people who are interesting enough, free enough, rich enough, happy enough etc. and THAT, probably, is the most or the best you can expect from a society, here, now, in the 21st century, on this often complex, bewildering, messy and sometimes monstrous planet.

Minari – a movie re-viewed


2020, directed by Lee Isaac Chung

Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim

reviewed by Paul O’Kane
February 2021

N.B. This week, for my Blog post, I wrote a review of the move detailed above. The review has subsequently been re-published on the ‘London Korean Links website, and so, instead of providing the original text here, I am providing this link (below) to the re-published version of the Review.


Best wishes,

Paul O’Kane

‘Stop Thinking, Start Working’ – why I am not writing my Blog Post today

I had decided that I didn’t have time and energy to write my Blog post today. One of the best and one of the worst things about my job and my lifestyle is that I have no routine. Every week and every day is different. I guess that’s what I always wanted. All those years, even decades, when I couldn’t hold down a job because I found them ALL too mind-numbingly boring, to the point where I would feel ill and sometimes just walk out, or sometimes slowly increase my poor attendance and punctuality, and kind of drizzle out.

Looking back, I’m not surprised at my response to a severely contrived and parsimonious way of seeing and treating time; time that can be so valuable and fluid, mixed, nuanced and changing for all of us and each of us, but which modern economics regards primarily as more or less ‘profitable’. – And that is to say, primarily as quantitative, when we all know that time can equally be measured and valued in terms of qualities.

Having a job and a lifestyle with no routine, and where no week or day is ever the same is, as I say, both good and bad however. Routine can be very useful in allowing us to maximise our ‘use’ of time to create our best work. A lack of routine can also be maddening when, as this weekend, I find myself unexpectedly burdened with what seems like an impossible task and a tight deadline – hence the reason why I thought today I would not be able to write my Blog.

I have had a part-reprieve however. Thankfully we can at least try and consider the chance intervention of a possible reprieve in our calculations, though that is hard to do when our anxious mind tends to do the opposite under stress, i.e. to spider and spiral off into worst case scenarios that link ever-increasing tasks, duties, and ramifications of tasks and duties, until we simply have to stop thinking and start working to reduce the pile in front of us.

‘Stop thinking, start working’, maybe that should be a slogan pasted on my work room door, or on my computer screen. It’s true that we sometimes work best when we are not really thinking any more; when we submit to the robotics of the production line, where my short-lived teenage factory experiences may even come in handy as models.

To be honest, I’m still in two minds as to whether I should be writing a Blog post at all today. The other, huge, hurried, aforementioned task is still on my mind, and thus my mind is not fully focused on this writing here and now. Perhaps I’ve said something, enough, a little, enough at least to say that I posted this week, as usual; enough to say that I’ve maintained THIS routine, and, for the sake of anyone who reads this, your routine too. Sorry there’s not much here to contend with or respond to, but … oh well, back to work … enjoy this sunny Sunday- which, according to a nexus of modern capitalism and un-modern Christianity, is a day of rest after all.