‘I aspire to the object, to the blessing of matter and opacity.’
–E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay
If this is a city, as the title of Peter Fraser’s new series of photographs tells us, what kind of city might it be? One answer comes from the artist himself, who points in terms of inspiring analogues to Italo Calvino’s novel (of sorts) from 1972, Invisible Cities. Here, in a series of ludic portraits of the fantastical places to which Marco Polo has travelled, and italicized interludes where he converses with the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan, we discover such towns as Diomira, ‘a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theatre, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower.’ Such cities as Zirma, where the skies are filled with dirigibles. Such wondrous metropolises as the grey stone edifice of Fedora: in its centre stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room, in the depths of which orb one sees ‘a blue city, the model of a different Fedora.’ In time, it becomes clear to Kublai, as to the reader, that these are all one city, a city of the imagination that is being built out of words, and the vistas they conjure, by the emperor and the explorer – a collaborative city, a city of more than one mind.
A fantasized city, then? More exactly a London of the mind, existing in fictive parallel to the one we know Fraser himself has prowled in search of these saturated, luminous and sometimes frankly enigmatic images? Perhaps. We might venture at first that the fiction, if it is a fiction, concerns a city of the past, or a city obsessed with its obscure heritage: a place that seems to have curated and conserved the most unlikely remnants of its own history. Consider this vellum-bound book with its embossed gold borders and initials – ‘EG’, as if to advertise its status as example – its cover image of a rampant hound (or is it a lion?) and exquisite black ribbons tied neatly on the left, bound, side. Or the curious fetish-like figure with a long wire-encircled neck and the face of a child’s doll. This second volume – it looks very small, but that may be just an effect of the shallow depth of field – that shows a figure in full armour and on the opposite page the individual portions of his metallic garb. A house of ancient playing cards built atop a pile of crumbling leather-bound books. Note the several instances of miniature tableaux and theatres, amateur artworks and at least one slightly decayed scientific model, picturing in stiff wire and tiny spheres the structure of penicillin. It seems at first glance that this might be Fraser’s avowed subject: the aged and delicate detritus or exotica that languishes out of sight in museum precincts of which he affords us only the vaguest peripheral glimpses.
But look again and a second thought intrudes: that these relics, models and more or less old fashioned artefacts are also portals of a sort onto other times and places, that the things in this imaginary city are themselves images of other milieux, even of other cities or settlements – still further, of other civilizations. Fraser has spoken of the illustrations of armour as animating for him a whole martial history with its violence and warlike paraphernalia, its beautifully wrought machinery of killing. These are objects whose end is not merely to be contemplated as objects, however redolent of the time of their making, but as openings onto stories and histories. They are both images and image-making things, starting points for a process of imagination, or more precisely of imaginative collaboration that is not unlike the dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. A riverine, mountainous and wooded landscape filled with buildings, boats and busy figures seems so intently rendered or focussed upon – and so evenly lit by Fraser’s flash – that we are suddenly in the far east (perhaps it is China) and subject to synaesthetic apprehensions: the lap of an oar, the tolling of a bell, the sound of footsteps on flagstones – all of this and more springs to mind.
If this seems a naive response to images that, like Calvino’s novel, self-consciously cast us into miniaturized scenes of imagination and image-making, sometimes approaching the recursive level of a mise-en-abyme, be assured that what Fraser has in mind here is not a simple suspension of disbelief. Rather, it is a matter, as so often with his photographs, of intense concentration on the things themselves – sometimes things that openly invite concentration, frequently things that nobody would dream of subjecting to such a precise and entranced gaze – until they yield to an imaginative leap or narrative impulse. (We might risk here the seemingly outdated notion of reverie to describe the mode of attention that Fraser practices and provokes – and indeed, here as if to prove it on the artist’s bookshelf is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie.) In A City of the Mind this effect is achieved by means that will be familiar to viewers of Fraser’s earlier photographs, even if here the attachment of his unusually vagrant eye is to objects and interiors that appear to inhabit the same eccentric but somehow unified space. There is first, of course, this meditation on things. There are the models with their small- scale scenography, which suggest and maybe undermine a certain tradition of the miniature. There is the apparent attraction to edges and more obviously to corners. And all of this is rendered, as always with Fraser, in a palette that is as much the photographer’s subject – inseparable from it, in fact – as the cabinet of curiosities that he opens in this series.
‘Because (in principle) things outlast us, they know more about us than we know about them: they carry the experiences they have had with us and are – in fact – the book of our history spread before us.’ii This statement by W. G. Sebald eloquently corrals what we usually mean when we speak of a photographer’s attention to things, especially (as in the case of the present photographs) when those things are mostly things that one could hold in the hand. Even when we speak of an artist’s attention or return to ‘the things themselves’ it seems that we have this mnemonic or memorial role in mind: things come freighted with past associations and attachments, physical and emotional accretions of time. And the loss of this allusive halo, whether personal or communal, is a source of regret and nostalgia even, or perhaps especially, for self-declaredly modern artists. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke stated this attitude to objects very clearly in a letter of 1925: ‘Even for our grandparents a “house”, a “well”, a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely more, infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life…. Live things, things lived and conscient of us, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last still to have known such things.’iii
All of this is seductive, but it is hard to apply to the things photographed by Peter Fraser, no matter how they may seem to give out or give off the atmosphere or aura mourned by Sebald and Rilke. In place of this lugubrious, melancholic or nostalgic approach to objects, Fraser looks at the material world with an eye that is closer to the methods of a writer such as Georges Perec, whose essays – concerning for example the objects on his desk, the arrangement of his books or the phenomenology of eyeglasses – are explicitly about scale and framing and the laconic recording of the simple (apparently simple) presence of things in the world. In particular, I have in mind Perec’s Species of Spaces, in which the essay form functions as a kind of gargantuan zoom lens, capable of attending in turn to the quotidian bric-a-brac of an apartment, the building around it, the street on which the complex stands, the city and the countryside that surrounds it, in which are visible tiny figures going about their business, becoming in turn like dots on a map. ‘Space. Not so much those infinite spaces, whose mutism is so prolonged that it ends by triggering off something akin to fear, nor the already almost domesticated interplanetary, intersidereal or intergalactic spaces, but spaces that are much closer to hand, in principle anyway: towns, for example, or the countryside, or the corridors of the Paris Métro, or a public park’.iv Think of Fraser’s views of modelled landscapes and the figures that inhabit them: seven women hunched over in a ploughed field, picking stones; or a solitary woman looking expectantly out to sea on a beach. Fraser has averted often to the influence on his work of Charles and Ray Eames’s 1968 film Powers of Ten, which zooms vertiginously between the scale of the human body, its interior workings and even atomic structure, and a cosmic perspective from which the earth and its inhabitants are less than specks. Perhaps there is an explicit reference to that film in the photograph from A City of the Mind that shows a model of a spacecraft approaching the moon.
So, a question of scale. But also I think a more precise approach to the object itself, to its thingness or its thinginess. At one level this is a matter of specificity; there are objects in this series that leap from the page or the print in startling isolation, as though floating in space. A plush chair of almost golden fabric hovers against its deep blue background; a disposable tray of biscuits looms with an amazing presence, the stamped design on its silver edge rhyming neatly with the decoration on the biscuits themselves. The support for the small book of armour images has almost vanished in the darkness beneath. I say ‘almost’ because as we shall see Fraser frequently allows us a glimpse of such supports or edges, as if to minimally anchor the object in a space that is still not quite identifiable: the legs of the chair are visible and the tray casts a narrow black shadow. Elsewhere, it is instead a matter of contrast or better of some jarring lack of fit (though equally at times an odd affinity) between the object and its ground: fifteen lustrous horse chestnuts are so much aglow against the tawdry yellow and brown of a table top that they seem to have leapt free of its support. Again there is the edge and its beyond: a triangle of pure black at the bottom left of the picture. Or consider what is perhaps the most radiant photograph in the series: a plate of redcurrants, and one ladybird, isolated by shadow but so richly coloured and gleaming that they threaten to become one solid mass of saturated red, suspiciously unreal. (The photograph is an immediate reminder of an earlier work: a bowl full of plastic fruit – apples, peaches, pears and grapes – whose delicate powdery surfaces are tantalisingly persuasive.)
The most exemplary picture in this regard, however, must be the baroquely frilled and chromatically dramatic shell – a fleshy, even genital, involution of pinks and oranges and pure white that is balanced on a soot-black support, its leading edge or lip seeming to fall, almost liquid, above what looks to be a cast iron decoration. The thing is both pristine artefact and a swirl of organic or even cosmic movement: a nebula drifting in deep space. In his ‘Notes Toward a Shell’ the poet Francis Ponge – whose writing strove towards a sedulous and estranging description of our relation to things as such – has this to say regarding the intimate immensity of such an object: ‘Soon the formal shell, this oyster shell or bastard tiara, or this “knife”, will strike me as being an enormous monument, colossal and precious, at once something like the temple of Angkor, Saint-Maclon, or the Pyramids, with a much stranger meaning than those all-too-human products.’v Here, as in Fraser’s photograph, the apparently abstract question of scale is posed to an object that seems tremulously, vividly alive even in its refined proximity to the status of man-made thing. But with its dirty frayed edges and conjuring of the soft, wet thing that once lived there (a being that approaches the abject status of snot, according to Ponge), Fraser’s shell is a reminder too of the artist’s interest in the dirt and detritus to be found beneath everyday surfaces and edges. Formally, the shell resembles nothing so much as his 2002 picture, for the Material series, of the curved edge of a piece of linoleum above a ravishingly red but filthy patch of floor. (Though it is a twin too to another pink and yellow shell, of sorts: a richly scalloped and gold-edged butter dish photographed by Fraser in 2009.)
What state of mind or sensibility is required to look at things in this way? There is a clue to be found in a story that Fraser tells of travelling in North Africa in his early twenties, and falling seriously ill with hepatitis and dysentery on the Southern Algerian border. Taken to hospital in Tamanrasset, he lay there for three weeks before he was well enough for a nurse to help him outside to a sunlit courtyard. There, Fraser recalls, the sight of a dozen bougainvillea trees had a profound and lasting effect: ‘What I saw and understood wordlessly at that moment has provided a running thread through all my photographic work since, but it took many years before I was able to verbally articulate that vision. Standing in that doorway, each flower appeared as a crucible in which a perpetual struggle was taking place, between the impossible beauty of the world and its irrefutable fact.’ For Fraser, such an apprehension of stationary objects, encountered while in a state of alertness not unlike that of the convalescent, is capable of attending not just to the thing as it manifests itself in the present, but to the past and even future: the thing ‘itself’ becomes a condensing or concentration of time. In this sense, Fraser’s way of looking at objects is reminiscent of the attention paid to things in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, where objects seem to acquire miraculous qualities that may in reality be nothing more than the effect of the camera’s customarily lingering attention: concentration becoming a kind of clairvoyance. (I am thinking here of the long slow pans across bodies of water filled with enigmatic detritus – syringes, guns, fragments of a reproduction of the Ghent Alterpiece – in Stalker, or the glasses, not so stationary in this case, apparently propelled across a table psychokinetically at the end of that film.)
In On Longing, her masterful study of the meanings we attach to objects, the poet and critic Susan Stewart considers the peculiar significance of small things: ‘The miniature does not attach itself to lived historical time. Unlike the metonymic world of realism, which attempts to erase the break between the time of everyday life and the time of narrative by mapping one perfectly upon the other, the metaphoric world of the miniature makes everyday life absolutely anterior and exterior to itself. The reduction in scale which the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday lifeworld, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its “use value” transformed into the infinite time of reverie.’vi Once again, we seem to be presented with a question of scale, but in fact the miniature is more than a merely shrunken version of the full-scale and actual universe. It is instead a kind of nesting, the institution of a space within an already enclosed space. An object such as a dollhouse, for instance, may be most usefully compared with a locket, or ‘the secret recesses of the heart: centre within centre, within within within.’ And that most intimate within, the furthest retreat into the miniature, is precisely the space in which reverie (to return to that antique term) takes place. The miniature, in short, gives us a scale on which to think and dream.
One could exaggerate the extent to which Fraser explores this realm. The artist himself claims not to have had any such thought in mind either at the outset of the series or as it progressed. And yet, ought we not conclude, looking at many of the photographs that comprise his City of the Mind, that it is the figurines, dolls, models and miniature landscapes that most readily allow for the kind of imaginative access he asserts he is after? Return for a moment to that female figure on a painted beach, at the edge of a painted ocean. The prows of two small black boats are pointed towards the shore. (They are most likely models of the canvas-covered fishing boats once common in the British Isles, such as the Irish currach or the Welsh coracle.) She is dressed in what might be nineteenth-century clothes – a dull brown skirt and coarse blue-green jacket – and she clutches a green fabric bundle tied at the neck. Her dark hair falls across her shoulders and her face is almost in profile. (Time and again in these pictures Fraser will not allow us to see the faces of the figures he photographs.) The scene is familiar from the history, literature and song of coastal communities; the figure of the lone woman awaiting the appearance or news of a loved one gone to sea is a venerable motif. We could discuss such a miniature scene in terms of the conventions of historical representation on the reduced scale of the museum display, but that would not get us very far in the case of Fraser’s photograph. Such models are linked instead by another logic; they seem to populate a fantastical rather than merely representative world. The little fabric doll that clings to its tiny fabric infant – they are part, with a child’s drawing nearby, of a scaled series of figures and faces – is fictional neighbour to the model soldier who appears to have installed his lookout post in the trunk of a tree, the fairy-like figurine propped in the crook of a wooden chair or bench, the several two-dimensional characters who tread the boards of miniature theatres or fly into paper skies on a magical paper carpet.
What of the world that such miniature figures or characters populate? I hinted before that it was a universe made of edges and corners. The literature of edges has yet to be written but there is a well developed theory of corners in another of the books on Fraser’s bookshelf: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. (With its rueful-looking monkey guarding the artist’s library, this is actually a treacherous image to take as evidence of any theoretical correspondence in the work, still less an affinity with a book so frequently quoted; I will restrict my remarks to some quite specific passages, which in any case may prove a spur to looking again rather than a key to the series.) Bachelard treats corners much in the way that Susan Stewart treats the miniature; a corner is an invitation to reverie: ‘Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house…. That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined. To withdraw into one’s corner is undoubtedly a meagre expression. But despite its meagreness, it has numerous images, some, perhaps, of great antiquity, images that are psychologically primitive. At times, the simpler the image, the vaster the dream.’
There are corners everywhere in A City of the Mind. They are certainly Bachelardian corners at first glance: Fraser brackets off the surrounding spaces to give us intimate angles in which to contemplate an object or perhaps only the corner itself, a particularly odd or resonant juncture of surfaces or colours. In at least one case – the model of penicillin – the artefact is scarcely anything other than a corner, a corner made of wood and paper that nonetheless contains, or seems to contain, a universe in miniature: the molecular structure in question might be a type of orrery, the picture of a solar system whirring away in a forgotten angle of the universe.
Something similar is to be seen in a photograph of a curious stringed instrument whose propped-open lid forms an angle to reveal a hunting scene, complete with barking hounds, a terrified and leaping stag and, in the blue distance, a bucolic ruin that decorates the estate on which this drama is taking place. To the right, a sliver of bright red background is so uniform and visually unparsable that it seems to form a three-sided corner with the angle of the instrument itself, so that we are thrust into the imaginative space of the landscape, made to treat it as the origin of a reverie rather than as part of a discrete apparatus or object. The same is true of the photograph of a taxidermied songbird and the painted landscape that surrounds it (a country churchyard, four brown cows, a river or marshland ditch) – the telltale seam of an inexpertly painted-over corner both breaks the illusion and lets us retreat further into the scene. Elsewhere, a folding screen covered with three types of garishly coloured fabric – such a screen is nothing more or less than a machine for making angles – partly conceals the corner of a room, where on the yellow wall a framed poster and a photograph struggle to make themselves legible.
The very profusion of angles in a picture like this last ought to alert us to the fact that Fraser’s corners are not in fact quite the intimate and solitary-seeming spaces that Bachelard has in mind. The artist, it seems, is too in love with edges, with the openness or vertigo that an edge provides, to fully immerse us in this after all quite nostalgic or sentimental space. (For Bachelard, the corner is always domestic; it reminds us of those gloomy private spaces that we found so alluring in childhood: places of womblike retreat –under the stairs, behind a sofa – in which the universe may be redesigned in the dark.) Rather, Fraser’s corners seem ready to actually open or unfold onto other spaces, even as they keep them from view. It’s the case, for example, in the astonishing photograph of a pink and deep blue seascape mounted eccentrically in the corner of a room that is papered or painted with a pale cloudscape. The effect is at once to arrest the eye on the (stereotypically tasteless) surfaces and thrust it into competing variations on the infinite.
At times, the junction of surfaces in an edge or corner is an invitation to consider the frailty and possibly deception of the apparently solid or sturdy things that surround us. A gorgeous expanse of golden fabric fringed in crimson almost reaches a grey stone or concrete floor: it looks theatrical but weighty, seeming to imply a physical presence to match its visual impact. Except that at the right-hand edge another surface or fabric meets it and undoes the illusion of luxury and mass; this other material is thin, badly edged (as though awkwardly scissored) and pallid, and it renders the whole suddenly exceedingly fragile and provisional, as though we must not be looking at a heavy theatrical curtain but some hastily improvised bit of stage property that is about to give away the fact that it is a flimsy sham. Or consider the photograph of what looks to be a portion of metal curtain railing: two almost anthropomorphic shapes or figures attached to a decorated pole that rests on a red floor. (The red reminds us of that earlier portion of red linoleum, and of one of the precursors for both pictures in William Eggleston’s red ceiling.) Where the red rather clumsily meets the dirty cream of a skirting board, a sliver of grey paint is visible: it rhymes with the dull grey of the curtain rail and insists as so often in Fraser’s work on the fragility of the colours as well as substances that surround us. And then there are the other corners: the wedges of space that denote the edges of an object or the support beneath it – the edges, in this series, of several tables and plinths. And finally the most extraordinary concatenation of edges and corners in Fraser’s imagined city. The object itself is mysterious; it might be a botched or curtailed shelf or bench. It is made of wood, covered in musical scores – a couple of titles are legible: Shadow Waltz and The Gold-Diggers’ Song – that are lifted or torn away in places, revealing also a steel bracket screwed to one end of the thing. A dark wooden (planked rather than panelled) wall gives no clue as to the setting. The entire artefact seems to exist only to evolve all manner of parallel and perpendicular lines: the boards of the wall, the lateral and upright of the object itself, the blue-black hatching of the musical staves.
Among the edges and corners and abrupt shifts or swerves in space that seem to attract Fraser are numerous instances where colour carries as it were the weight of the relations in question, where colour seems to effect the shift of an image off balance at the same time as it unifies the scene. Certain colours act as hinges (corners again) or pivots about which the image organizes, or disarticulates, space and the things in it. We could think in this context of William Carlos Williams’s 1923 poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, which I quote here in full:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The poem appears to conjure a type of visual symmetry, a composition in which the wheelbarrow of the title either anchors or balances the apparition of the white chickens, or functions (in consort with the chickens) to pull together a larger composition of which we remain ignorant. Either way, a first reading may suggest a unity, however tense, that subsequent readings ought to undo. Because it is entirely unclear that the relations that ‘depend upon’ the wheelbarrow are actually resolved in the way suggested. The repeated verbal and prosodic hinge or pivot (‘wheel/barrow’ instead of ‘wheelbarrow’, ‘rain/water’ in place of ‘rainwater’) alerts us that the picture – if it is a picture – is a more fragmented thing than may at first appear. I have always been reminded of this poem when looking at Fraser’s 1985 photograph of two blue buckets, one paler than the other, on a dark floor. Everything depends here, I think, not just on the repetition with difference of the minimally unalike objects, but on the red-brown corner of a tabletop or counter that edges into frame near the top righthand corner of the photograph, competing for the viewer’s gaze but at the same time pointing to the almost-twin buckets as a composition.
What of colour in A City of the Mind? There are photographs here that appear to be about the apparition of alarming, alien colour: the shocking-pink miniature placard – ‘think’, it commands in yellow letters – that springs from a vegetable plot; the almost glowing green glass pear against a shelf of red and dark blue books (they look like snapshot albums); the livid and mysterious intrusion of a cylinder and ball of red plush among anonymous greys and black. These are images in which colour is exorbitant, demanding, insistent. Colour threatens to run amok, like the child’s crayons and pens that have gone chromatically to town on a classroom or playroom tabletop, to spill out of stained-glass golden vessels or dissolve the contents of a foil takeaway dish into the surrounding garish swirl of a tablecloth. Fraser’s unreal city can look, in other words, simply heightened, saturated, glowing. Colour is itself a sort of gift, like the little bright red apple or ball that the fairy-ish figure on the chair seems to offer us. But it would be more accurate I think to conclude that colour is not simply an insistence on or from the individual thing, an accident that attests to the individuality or quiddity of that thing (though it is surely that too) but rather like Williams’s wheelbarrow – remember that the poet pays attention to it surface, not its form – a term in the broken-backed equation of each photograph as composition.
I said at the outset that Calvino’s fictional cities slowly reveal themselves to be the same city; it is perhaps also the case that individual cities described by Marco Polo are images of the whole, of the book as much as the territory it describes. Calvino was a lover of nested narratives, of worlds within worlds. It would be excessive to say that A City of the Mind, exhibiting as it does Fraser’s customary intimacy with very particular instances of the grubby or alluring actual, is self-conscious or recursive in the same way. But if one were to go looking for an image in this series that best described the choreography of things and of colours in his work, as well as the dance between individual images, it might be the ageing model of the structure of penicillin, with its background of electron density projections that resemble relief markings on a map, and its constellation of related entities and forces, each one jewel-like and independent, but inextricable from the pattern they have made.
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and Tutor in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art. He is editor of Ruins (MIT Press/Whitechapel Gallery, 2011) and author of I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet, 2011), Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011), Tormented Hope (Penguin, 2009) and In the Dark Room (2005). He writes regularly for frieze, Artforum, the Guardian and the London Review of Books. He lives in Canterbury.
i Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1974). ii W. G. Sebald & Jan Peter Tripp, Unrecounted (London: Penguin, 2004), pp. 79-80.
iii Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters, vol. 2 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1947), pp. 374-75.
iv Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, trans. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1997), p. 5.
v Francis Ponge, The Voice of Things, trans. Beth Archer (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), pp. 58- 59.
vi Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 65.
vii Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), pp. 136-37.