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LIVING IN HELL AND OTHER STORIES: 2003-2004
Exhibition at the National Gallery London
‘Great is journalism. Is not every able editor a ruler of the world, being the persuader of it?’
— Thomas Carlyle
It is axiomatic: bad news sells newspapers. Yes, there are organs devoted to positive reporting at large in the world, but they are websites or they are free newspapers, like the seven journals in the Independent London Local Newspapers group who, in early 2004, switched to an upbeat-news-only policy on the basis that, as their chairman told the press, “Bad news causes stress. Stress causes ill health.” The Hackney Gazette, self-appointed mouthpiece of the East London borough where Tom Hunter lives and works, is not a free newspaper. As such it needs to gain the attention and money of its public, and it has elected to do so by importing the standard tabloid formula of addicting its readership to a cocktail of horror and titillation: cue headlines like NAKED DEATH PLUNGE and HALLOWEEN HORROR: TRICK OR TREAT THUGS BREAK MUM’S BONES and LOVER SET ON FIRE IN BED.
Because this is local news, however, it has the additional effect of instilling in readers an environmental paranoia which, with an inexorable circular logic, feeds a need to remain informed. The Gazette plays this angle vigorously, painting Hackney (in reality an area no better or worse than several other deprived boroughs of London) as the ring of damnation which Dante forgot, a zone one of whose main thoroughfares is known as the ‘Murder Mile’. It specializes in maintaining this background radiation of everyday mayhem, to which the ash-filled keyboards of its journalists click like Geiger counters. And these writers’ words must matter more than pictures do, for a lack of photographic imagery will not stop this newspaper from running a front-page story. A curious mind will naturally tend to image the scene by itself, and such was the process that generated Hunter’s ongoing ‘Headlines’ series: fifteen headlines (so far) from the Gazette which had created particularly strong mental scenarios for the artist were isolated and turned into staged photographs, featuring friends and acquaintances who all live in the area, and shot as near as possible to the actual location.
It is, in one sense, an old idea: many are the writers of fiction, for example, who have claimed that all they need for inspiration is a Bible and a newspaper. Thomas Hardy, who lived in the Dorset village adjacent to the one in which Hunter grew up, was an avid reader of the Dorset County Chronicle, enjoying what academic John Mullan calls ‘the special immediacy of local stories’, and wove reports from it into the fictional fabric of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge. An artist with a powerful sense of place, Hunter has on his own admission always felt a kind of prideful local-boy affinity for Hardy; the latter’s gleaning (itself presumably enabled by the fact that there were no photographs in Victorian local newspapers) was one source of inspiration for his latest body of work. Another was his Hackney friends’ vocal disgust at the quality of their dedicated newspaper; there would appear to be something in Hunter that stubbornly seeks to make art, and often concertedly beautiful art, out of the most unpromising material.
But his use of the local goes beyond a pragmatic sourcing of ‘immediacy’. Hackney is now to Hunter as Dublin was to Joyce: it is his home, a place that through time and familiarity the artist feels that he has earned license honestly to hymn, and to enmesh in a defending and overwhelming idiomatic style. Hunter’s previous works, particularly the various photographic series which counter negative media images of the borough’s traveller and squatter populations with affirmative, ripe-coloured portraits that freely reference art-historical iconographies, have, through intricately staged correspondences with the painted past, sought to elevate a weather-beaten topography into a spacious über-principality whose events read as both specific and universal, where life and death alike have found some degree of dignity through colour or correlation. And so…
We are in a Hackney park. Night has fallen. Up there, a cobalt sky blinks through black branches; down here, the ground is a confusion of mud and autumn leaves and a man leaning over a corpse. An Alsatian dog, either owned by the (presumed) finder or mournfully loyal to the dead, stands sentinel over the scene. We have the title – MURDER TWO MEN WANTED – but no back-story, a lacuna which sends the mind out on bleak speculative journeys; yet which, if we are rational, can only lead us back to the default conclusion that it’s not only the Naked City but any metropolis, any town, anywhere, in which there are a million ways to sign out, and good luck to you. And of course ‘twas ever thus. With nothing more to see here, we are leaving Hackney now – though let’s not forget we were there – and arriving in bright daylight on Olympus. Or is it Florence? Probably it is both. In any case, we are just in time to catch another death.
Piero di Cosimo painted A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph, whose concatenation of body, attendant and hound on grass Hunter’s photograph intentionally mimics, in the late fifteenth century. Art historians have speculated that it was inspired by a story in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ in which a woman, Procris, was killed in error by her husband, Cephalus, and that the dog had been a magical gift from her to him. To read Hunter’s image at the headiest extension of its leash, then, is to intuit a succession of doors opening backwards into history and upwards into the once-mystic heavens, through which the event depicted moves out of specificity and is identified with, enfolded within, a continual rising and falling of characters in one grand drama. But the Florentine scaffold isn’t essential. Not to know di Cosimo’s painting (it is in London’s National Gallery, a longstanding source of pictorial inspiration to Hunter) isn’t necessarily to overlook the hieratic air of this photograph, which, in its careful opening of a fissure in the narrative through which the viewer might empathetically travel, bears no resemblance to a press shot. The same might be said of the other photographs which employ phantom doublings.
Meanwhile, it is still night on Earth in East London – it is almost always nighttime in these images, which would seem not only to progress naturally from the allusions to Chatterton and Ophelia in Hunter’s 1999-2001 sequence ‘Life and Death in Hackney’ but metaphorically to darken the hour after the twilit scenes of his subsequent series ‘Swan Songs’ (2001-present) – and somewhere a woman is lying in bed, alone, facedown and nude. Her scrupulously tidy room, bathed in light from the bedside lamp and the set of Chinese-style fairy lights strung across the headboard of her bed, would proffer a peaceful scene were it not for the fact that, unbeknownst to her and the cat drowsing on her bedside rug, two rats are crawling across the sheets towards her. RAT IN BED was the headline; and if the image looks familiar, that’s because its key elements are freshly lifted from Paul Gauguin’s 1892 Tahitian painting Spirit of the Dead Watching. The raven-haired, unclothed woman, the bed, the menace (in Gauguin it is a tribal mask), the scent of privileged voyeurism diffused by honeyed colour, are all present and correct in both, although Hunter rotates the point-of-view slightly – Gauguin’s painting presents the bed virtually side on, while the photograph shows it in diagonal perspectival depth – and replaces the Tahitian girl’s open-eyed fear and awareness with a perhaps more disturbing ignorance. (The work’s roots sink deeper into the past when one considers that the recumbent nude with a watching figure was, as Gauguin surely knew, a stock image of art from the Renaissance onwards.)
So it goes. We are at the base of a block of flats where a naked man, framed by silver birches and a lone football, has hit the ground from several stories up, his pose an afterimage of the corpse in Sebastiano del Piombo’s Death of Adonis (1511-12). We are in a tawdry club with a stripper whose body, it would appear, knows how Venus posed in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Cupid Complaining to Venus (1525); in a burning bedroom with a pyromaniac lover channeling the same painter’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1530); on a bridge with a furious swan and its modern-day Leda. This is the half-mythic heartland in which all Hunter’s work has been set, only instead of filling the gaps in the local newspaper where positive images of its less tethered citizens should have been, he has now moved on to what is ineluctable in his hometown in order to mitigate against what others would characterise as unique. In so doing, he leaves the times of Vermeer and the Pre-Raphaelites, whose compositions insinuated themselves into his earlier referential work, pedaling primarily backwards to the High Renaissance (a time which, to judge only from the ease with which Hunter has found analogues for his scenes, was as fraught and bloodthirsty as now), thereby tapping into an abundant history of mutating iconography and updating images that themselves were often altered to fit by painter after painter.
Now, those paintings wielded beauty to argue for things: Neo-Platonism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, the supremacy of patrons. What we now consider their trappings of gorgeousness – luscious hues, compositional harmony, pursuance of verisimilitude – were primarily political, or at least functioned as such. And today, when the bond has been broken between photograph and referent, it is again a question of my truth, my representation, against yours. Images are untrustworthy but they are the currency, there to be used then as now in the services of whatever is cherished and threatened. Hunter’s modality, involving the deft overlaying of a brilliant past onto the present in order to transfigure the latter, is rhetorical; it goes beyond the Cinquecento and back to the Franciscan preachers and poets who influenced Giotto and every painter who ever placed a Bible story within a local landscape. It argues for something he loves, and for something greater than that. The Hackney Gazette, the ostensible bugbear in his dialectic, could be said to stand for anyone who won’t resist the entropy of urbanism, or see an area as not empty but replete, or recognize the enduring value of community. ‘I believe I am in Hell, therefore I am there,’ wrote Rimbaud, yet the opposite approach (and all stations in between) is also possible: perception is the key. And while there can, finally, be no obfuscating golden mist surrounding images that narrate a fall from Venus to stripper, from Olympus to housing block, one thing is unarguable: by the end of this string of photographs we are no longer in Hackney, East London, but riding the ley-lines of a Hackney Aeternus which is the world, with arguments and outcomes from the ages swirling all around us.