In this, London’s very “olympic” year, the cultural games played out by the top galleries is quietly being lead by their curators. It’s a critical responsibility and so it makes sense that those behind the galleries programmes of big name retrospectives with their blockbusting four-hour-queues, are some very skilled and very qualified lot, not least, the Whitechapel Gallery’s chief curator, Achim Borchardt-Hume.
Previously curator for modern and contemporary art at Tate Modern – a role that included eight Unilever Commission’s for the Turbine Hall and a series of major exhibitions including Rothko: The Late Series in 2008 – Achim’s chief position at the Whitechapel has seen him present, most recently, Zarina Bhimji and currently prepare the first exhibition of works by Gerhard Richter in Lebanon.
This week we welcome him to our Bookshelf slot with five volumes off his shelves that go someway in offering an insight into his literary stopping off places.
The Man without Qualities Robert Musil
In a world where everybody is continually encouraged to turn themselves into their own brand, the need for heroes such as Ulrich, the much-famed “man without qualities”, is becoming ever more urgent. Seeking to organise a joint celebration for the anniversaries of the Austrian and the German Emperors’ coronations, a group of fin-de-siecle bourgeois discovers that there is no longer any grand idea behind which to unite the wider populace. Their thwarted efforts bear the fantastic title of “parallel action”, a term that could just as easily have been dreamed up by today’s spin doctors. At the heart of their shenanigans is Ulrich, a man who has decided that rather than leaving an imprint on the world, he wants to remain malleable and allow himself to be formed by it. His lack of firm boundaries is mirrored by the structure of the novel itself which increasingly becomes a collection of text fragments and loose observations, so much so that its latest digital edition encourages a non-linear reading of the book’s final, unfinished part. Musil worked on his magnum opus for more than 20 years only to die in relative poverty in Swiss exile; perhaps his novel is all the richer for this.
In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust
The six volumes of Proust’s exploration of memory inhabit my bookshelf as a semi-permanent and vaguely accusatory memento to my intellectual pretensions and their limitations. Some years ago, when finishing my doctorate, I dreamed of reading Proust “as a treat” once I had finished the slog of writing my thesis. As it so happened, other treats were more immediately available and promised a more instantaneous satisfaction. Proust’s novel is one of the great literary achievements of all times, performing psychology through the written word long before psychology had been institutionally established as a quasi-scientific discipline. I only got as far as the famous madeleine episode in the first book, the one everybody likes to quote to imply an intimacy with the sprawling story that ignores the other five volumes. I have an image in my mind that the only way properly to read Proust is by living like him: spend the day in bed reading, rarely go out and leave the rest of the world at the front door. One day, I am sure, I will get there; in the meantime, I have to contend with whatever the relentless stream of emails sends my way.
Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevski
This one I have read, though this is not why I list it here. For showing off one’s literary credentials this would be too obvious a choice. No, this one is about book design. Dostoyevski wrote this, his second major novel, at break-neck speed, primarily to pay off gambling debts. Moral destitution is at the heart of the book, in which Raskolnikov commits the ‘perfect crime’. While he manages to outwit the police, the same cannot be said for his conscience which becomes a far more merciless and hounding prosecutor. I read this as a conventional paperback. However, the book I am thinking off here is the wonderful Penguin 70th anniversary edition designed by FUEL. Printed on brown paper, the stitched binding exposed with no glossy cover to protect the naked pages, the book is a physical incarnation of the story it contains. The red lines of the Constructivist design on the title page pull around the edges, subtly bleeding into every page. Every book is an object – not least an object of consumption and desire. When you see this book, you will want it on your shelf.
Miracles of Life J.G. Ballard
Ballard had one of the most extraordinary imaginations of any writer in recent times. A maverick story teller, he takes readers to the outermost reaches of their inner worlds, places so fierce and dark that, for most, a good deal of energy is spent pretending they don’t exist. What could easily be overlooked is the deep sense of humanity from which this springs. In Crash, Ballard gives the most apocalyptic rendering of sex meeting death for that extra bit of spice. It is hard to imagine the writer at work on a book that defied all bourgeois morality while bringing up his children as a single parent in the middle of suburbia. His autobiography flows over with intelligent emotion, the love for his children, the hurt over the sudden death of his wife, the lasting effects of his childhood, memorably (if not entirely accurately) restaged in Spielberg’s Empire of the Rising Sun. When disheartened by humankind and its petty narcissistic obsessions this is a gentle reminder that people can rise above these (though maybe only those who admit that they think about having sex in the weirdest places).
I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now Damien Hirst
So do I, seriously. Therein lies the riddle of Hirst’s work: he exposes our contemporary desires for limitless expansion in every part of life even if rationally we know that this leads nowhere other than to (self) destruction. With Hirst’s first serious museum retrospective about to open at Tate Modern it is timely to look at this earlier survey of his work in book format. Designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, this pop-up/pull-out extravaganza brilliantly encapsulates Hirst’s project. All the key works are here, from the shark suspended in formaldehyde to its lamb cousin which was temporarily turned into a “black sheep” by an assailant pouring ink into its tank; from butterfly paintings to other surreal objects. The reaction to the book is like that to much of Hirst’s work: “That’s just silly!”, “how obvious!”, followed by “can I have another go at pulling that?” Children love it – after all, it uses all the apparatus of “interactive” children’s books – and so does the child within us. Therein lies the allure of Hirst’s work: it appeals to base instinct and bypasses critical discourse (where it does not and tries to pose as intellectual, is where it is at its weakest). I may not be able to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now. In fact, I may no longer even want to, but rather than shed crocodile tears about that, I’ll just indulge in the undiluted pleasure of playing with my book-sized Hirst.
Currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery is Gillian Wearing until June 17.