29. ALBERTROPOLIS

“The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods.”
Walter Benjamin

You must confess, one of the things you love about London is its buses, and, more than that its bus routes. Where a bus begins and ends its journey can be surprisingly different in terms of class, history, relative salubriousness etc. and in this way they may provide a kind of egalitarian, leveling service to the diverse dwellers of the city.

You grew up in a sub-sub-urban, incarceral council estate where it was all-but financially and psychologically impossible to escape the hard-wired monoculture of homogenous houses and hopeless fortunes, all ringed around by a series of impenetrable roundabouts, apparently purposeless by-passes and interminable flat fields.

But once you moved to the city you envied, not only the rich but even those who, though growing up in poor parts of town could simply catch a bus, in e.g. Tottenham, and, for a few pence (or even for free if you cheat the fare), and in half an hour, find themselves in Park Lane or some other magically different environment.

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The twists and turns that any particular bus route takes also bring a sequence of sites and streets into a special connection that has become established for decades -perhaps even, in some cases, for nearly a hundred years.

360 Route

The modest 360 single-decker bus is a good example of this special urban facility and could be one of London’s best, but little-known attractions (N.B. my very first Blog post, here below, titled ‘ONLY YOU’ begins with a journey on the ‘RV1 or ‘tourist bus’ that leads you to an Anselm Keifer show.)

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The strange and special thing about the 360 is that it begins in Elephant & Castle (now overtly property-booming but until very recently known as an ugly, scruffy, working-class district) and it ends at …  The Royal Albert Hall. This makes you wonder who on earth could have designed this route and why it was deemed so necessary?

It is possible of course that a daily supply of necessary maids, nannies, cleaners etc. have always had to be ferried from dingy Southwark to prestigious ‘Albertopolis’ in South Kensington, and that may be the reason for the long-established link. More imaginatively, the 360 may come into its own in Proms season when even a few ‘ordinary people’ are allowed to witness classical music performed at the grand hall for just a few pounds.

Then again, stars of all kinds of music and culture, both Hi & Lo, may perform at the great hall during the year and so the 360 bus may be important to service these concerts too. If you don’t know the route it makes some odd, even disconcerting loops, and takes some strange back-roads on its way which can still make a 360 veteran like you grin.

One of eleven photographs, taken by Andrew Ainslie Common of the Orion Nebula (M42) using a 36-inch reflecting telescope with a silver-on-glass mirror in the garden at his home in Ealing, London.

Orion Nebula, February 26th 1883, Andrew Ainslie Common © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

Your purpose in taking the 360 this week was to visit ‘REVELATIONS’, a show (recommended by a friend) of ‘Experiments in Photography’ and held at The Science Museum (the 360 bus stops right outside.) This show brings together early photographic experimentation with some modernist and then contemporary responses to: “things too large, too small or too fast for the human eye to see” – to briefly quote form the accompanying press release.

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The Flight of a Baton, 60 Flashes per Second, 1953 – Black & White ©Harold Edgerton, MIT, 2015, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

 

But quoting Walter Benjamin (yet again, and this time at great length) is surely irresistible – wholly appropriate and therefore hopefully excusable- here, so please simply read on and enjoy his 1930s musings on this kind of novel phenomena:

“By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.”

“Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling”.

“With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject”.

“So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.”

“Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride.”

“The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods.”

“Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions.”

“The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”
‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, c. 1939

Chronophotograph showing phases of movement of a man jumping a hurdle. c. 1892.

Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, c.1892, Étienne Jules Marey © National Media Museum, Bradford SSPL

The show is well-served by appearing in luscious new gallery spaces at the Science Museum, rather than in a contemporary art gallery (almost omitted so-far from this Blog?) or a dedicated ‘Photographer’s’ Gallery.

1880s photographs of stellar nebulae invite you to peer into the 19th century as they, in turn, peer (or peered?) into the history of the universe. Here we see distant stars recorded in a fading, yellowing image, as opposed to today’s spectacularly coloured images produced by e.g. the Hubble-telescope.

Having considered the greatest scale of time and space it is equally beguiling to attend to  exquisite details in Fox Talbot’s almost abstracted images of insect wings from 1838; and then to various modes of recording the presence of electricity and lighting; exposures revealing previously unknown and unseen movements of humans, animals, splashes in liquids, bullets penetrating fruits etc. before working your way through to enjoy a room filled with modernist, asymmetric abstractions all produced by means of a quasi-scientific approach to photography –Gyorgy Kepes’s contributions (see the very end of this post) are notable in this regard.

Insect wings, c.1840. William Henry Fox Talbot ∏ National Media Museum SSPL

Insect Wings, c.1840, William Henry Fox Talbot © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL

The show is wonderfully organised in terms of space, principally according to a procession of three generous rooms, divided by large automatic doors that swish open as you approach making you feel like Captain Kirk diplomatically attending an exhibition in some far-flung galaxy.

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Blow Up, Untitled 1, 2007, Ori Gersht © Ori Gersht, Private Collection, courtesy of Mummery+Schnelle

The show concludes with an enormous rendering of flowers, first frozen, then exploded and captured visually in mid-explosion by contemporary artist Ori Gersht (Hiroshi Sugimoto is here too but you wonder why Wolfgang Tillmans’ abstractions are not included?)

Fearing your Blog has become too verbose of late, and having spent so long both quoting Walter Benjamin above and communicating your enthusiasm for your bus journey you feel that perhaps here, and now, you should simply hand over to the spectacular photographs in the show and let them speak for themselves.

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György Kepes

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György Kepes

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György Kepes

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