Staying with the theme of digital art based on photography I have been considering the work of John Goto, a British artist who extensively uses his own photographs to create montages that represent social and political critiques. In my earlier essay on digital art (here) I discussed artists who appropriate images from the internet, and others who “draw” their images using various software programs but John Goto is an accomplished photographer who creates his final pieces using his extensive archive or by undertaking specific and focussed shoots.
Capital Arcade is the first part of a trilogy collectively named as Ukadia (1) which was published as a book in 2003. The other two series, High Summer and Gilt City are quite different in approach but all three are socio-political critiques of British culture, highly satirical and sharply critical of the consumer society, big business and our cultural landscape. I will focus here on Capital Arcade.
My first reaction to the series is that it clearly fits into a wider body of social criticism and analysis including Marc Augé’s anthropologically orientated critique of the consumer society as previously discussed here. Augé recognises that we are surrounded by non-places that have replaced anthropological places, an idea that formed a strong base to my Un Altro Paese project here.
Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who invented the shopping mall presented his recipe for town planners in 1963:
“Take 100 acres of ideally-shaped, flat land. Surround it by 500,000 consumers who have no access whatever to any other shopping facilities. Prepare the land and cover the central portion with 1,000,000 square feet of buildings. Fill with first-rate merchandisers who will sell superior wares at alluringly low prices. Trim the whole on the outside with 10,000 parking spaces and be sure to make same accessible over first-rate under-used highways from all directions. Finish up by decorating with some potted plants, miscellaneous flower beds, a little sculpture and serve sizzling hot to the consumer.” (2)
It is the recipe for Augé’s non-place; Goto metaphorically takes this recipe and creates his version of the ubiquitous mall with his carefully planned and implemented processes. I typically focus on practitioners that are first and foremost photographers rather than artists who use photography but Goto clearly fits into the second category although it is his own photographic archive that forms the building blocks of his work.
His starting points lie in European art as we have previously seen with other painted art influenced artists such as Jeff Wall but Goto’s references are more direct. The first tableau in the series is based on Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy by Joshua Reynolds.
In Goto’s interpretation the central male character, whom I believe to be Goto himself, is torn between the somber “tragedy” woman on his left and the racier “comedy” woman to his right. In Reynold’s painting the subject’s inclinations are hinted at by his leery smile; in Goto’s picture the subject’s expression is neutral yet his bright tie leads us to similar conclusion, surely it cannot have been a gift from the sober woman in the floor-length, brown dress. The ring on his finger suggests that we may be witnessing a tussle between wife and mistress played out in the theatre of consumerism, the shopping mall, a place where we seek a quick fix of pleasure, the subject is caught between not just comedy and tragedy but consumerism as represented by the brassy blond and the garish gift she gave him and some other less glitzy existence.
We recognise the location as a shopping centre car-park, a woman changes the advertising posters to the right of the frame, she is actually covering the ninth picture with the fifth image from this same series. Concorde, still a symbol of modernity in 1999, flies overhead in the direction indicated by “tragedy’s” raised arm. Beneath Concorde we can see a typically manicured piece of, what is fundamentally waste land, leading up to a motorway embankment which neatly refers to Gruen’s “first-rate under-used highways”. To the left of frame the car-park’s edge is delineated by the type of temporary fencing that surrounds urban building sites, we can see no shops so it is unclear whether the mall is still to be built or being extended.
In front of the fence the sign post lists the “first-rate merchandisers who will sell superior wares at alluringly low prices”. The sign board is another internal reference as it lists the shops that Goto uses as his backgrounds for the balance of the series. There is a twist in the tail, the bottom name has been removed and replaced by (in my copy) an unreadable sign but with a recognisable information point symbol. I will explain this twist a little later.
It is always interesting to interpret directed tableaux or in this case a constructed tableau because we know that every element is intentionally included, there are no stray landscape features that we might misinterpret as part of the meaning. In that context I leave this image frustrated that I cannot explain the bright red handkerchief hanging from “tragedy’s” raised arm.
We know the result of the tustle as we find the subject in the mall at the end of the series but before looking at any other images it is worth a detour to consider Goto’s working methods. He is an artist’s artist in the sense that he is very open regarding his techniques, perhaps as a result of his long parallel career in higher education. On his website he provides access to some of his notebooks including one example, Lie of the Land, where the reader can follow the process from his earliest notes through to the completed work. No doubt his processes change to some degree from project to project and have evolved over time but generally, as discussed previously, it appears that he has historical art references in his mind at the out set. He often makes sketches of his intended final piece and uses these to help direct his photography.
For Ukadia he photographed models “separately over a number of days in different locations” (3), an approach that requires having a clear idea of the way the subjects will be brought together in the final work. He collects non-model human subjects and details as any photographer would but he mentally isolates the subjects he requires from the shots as the other features in the frame are usually irrelevant. He captures landscape components in much the same way to build up an archive of potential building blocks.
The construction process is slow and deliberate, more fine art than photography post processing; He builds up his tableaux piece by piece using increasingly larger prints to verify the details and occasionally returning to locations to take shots from new angles. He is concerned with perspective as much as any painter advising that the student must ask themselves the question “are we attempting to imitate the unitary logic of the photograph, or allow idiosyncrasies, disjunctures and discrepancies, whilst achieving pictorial harmony within difference?” (3)
Understanding his process helps us interpret his work. We can review his references and then recognise how he brings together the components to create the final works but it needs to be recognised very early on that Goto is an artist who uses photographs and although some of his components may be shot in the documentary style his intent is not documentary even when the output has that atmosphere. We can compare his work with the cinematic photographers such as Wall or Crewdson because they too use multiple components to create their final pieces but the end results feel very different; using the view from a different shoot in the same location as part of Wall’s A View From an Apartment seems more akin to post processing than the painstaking process of constructing a picture from multiple and disparate photographs. However, the high level intent is similar, to make a statement through using photography as an artistic medium.
Returning to Capital Arcade; I am particularly intrigued by the last picture in the series. The central character from the car park appears again; he is loaded down with shopping bags quite obviously full of books from the Minerva book shop closing down sale, the obscured shop name from the first picture; a small child is with him and he is picking up two books that have over-flowed from the shopping bags. The meaning is not obscure, a place that represents traditional values of learning, knowledge, art and what we historically saw as defining elements of our culture is being replaced by a Customer Survey and Response Centre, a non-function in a non-place. The subject looks back over his shoulder as if regretting having to leave, disappointed at the demise of this cultural oasis in the mall. A smartly dressed official in a hard hat and smart city coat points to the exit; old-cultural man is being ejected from “paradise”, he has no place in the new bright world of shopping malls.
I especially like the internal references here; the re-introduction of the character from the first image albeit in a different guise, is this the man who chose “tragedy” rather than “comedy”, is the choice in fact culture over commercialism? And, the ten paintings in the left hand window are the ten works of European art referenced by the series so it is nicely circular in nature feeding off itself as well as its external references.
This final picture references Painting Ejecting Thalia by a French painter, Charles-Antoine Coypel.
I can find very little about this painting but Thalia or Thaleia was one of the nine muses and a minor goddess of Greek mythology. She was the muse of comedy and pastoral poetry and is attributed with inspiring the development of liberal and fine arts in ancient Greece (4). It is interesting that the title is “Painting” the ejection so the female painter in the background and her canvas is obviously part of the meaning but Baroque art is certainly well outside of my area of expertise and I can shed no light on Coypel’s intent. However, for Goto the ejection of the muse of comedy and fine art is highly referential.
If we look at the series overall there is a great sense of theatre to all the pictures; David Campbell and Mark Durden suggest that the mime-like poses and bright lights “accord with the fakery of commodity culture” (5) and by using this artifice there is a coming together of the commodification of the contemporary shopping mall and high culture by the clear and declared references to historic painted art.
Another interpretation of the unnatural poses in most of the pictures is that the non-place has become so influential in contemporary culture that it has begun to transform its inhabitants into non-people, automatons, mechanically going through the motions of enjoying themselves, rejecting fine art, books and traditional cultural values to replace them with shopping as a pastime, a concept I personally struggle with.
John Goto’s practice is built on a deep understanding of European art but he goes beyond referencing these historic works to mine them for their meaning and bring that meaning as a layer within his own final works. He is also skilled in sketching and design and as seen not just in his contemporary work but in Lover’s Rock (here) an accomplished photographer in his own right. It is not approach that can easily be adopted by the average photographer as many of us lack the mechanical draftsmanship and most of us lack the grounding in fine art. However he technique of bringing together components of his own photographs to create new meanings is inspirational.
(1) Goto, John (2003) Ukadia. London: Djanogly Art Gallery / Pyramid Press
(2) McGraw Hill Education (ND) Understanding Sociology (accessed at McGraw Hill Education 30.7.16) – highered.mheducation.com/sites/…/sch19758_ch01_002_023.pdf…
(3) Goto, John (2005) The Digital Past (accessed at the Artist’s website 26.7.16) – http://www.johngoto.org.uk/essays/Digital_past.htm
(4) Encyclopaedia Britannica (accessed at Encyclopaedia Britannica 30.7.16) – https://www.britannica.com/topic/Thalia-Greek-mythology
(5) Campbell, David and Durden, Mark (2003) Dancing to The Music of the Till (accessed at the Artist’s website 26.7.16) – http://www.johngoto.org.uk/Common_Culture.htm