Brave New World?


As I approached the imposing seventeenth century buildings of the University of Greenwich, on the banks of the river Thames, black smoke was pluming into the sky from what appeared to be an industrial accident further downstream. The buildings, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and now designated a World Heritage Site, seemed an incongruous location for the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, named in memory of the black British teenager murdered by a racist gang on the streets of London in 1993.

Such juxtapositions of the classical and the contemporary, of aesthetics and brutality, seemed an apt setting for the exhibition of John Goto's latest work, 'New World Circus', a series of digital photographs depicting scenes from an imaginary big top. In the exhibition, images of illusionists, clowns and trapeze artists echo the form of both classical history painting and media images of Abu Graib and the Iraq war, in ways that provoke, entertain and unsettle. Clowns pull at a plastic statue that evokes the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein; an illusionist removes his head in a pose that recalls the video-recording of the kidnap victim, Nick Berg's, execution; and we watch in horror as mickey mouse-masked trapeze artists let slip a spotlighted, plastic doll-baby from their arms...

The use of digital photography is not coincidental. 'Like jazz and psychoanalysis', Goto writes in his essay that accompanies the exhibition, 'digital photography is an improvisational form', in which the day's residues collide with unconscious fragments to produce images that suggest more than they know. In an essay on his fascinating website, Goto writes that:

"... photography has now become a figment of the imagination. It is a medium of dreams, allegories, symbols, myths and metaphors. It is a vehicle for exploring the past and the future. It inhabits the wild zone of the id and mocks everyday common sense. It celebrates the carnavelesque, the absurd and the parodic, the fake and the hyperreal, the grotesque and the mutated. It is irreverent, improper, exaggerated, hyperbolic, excessive and ambivalent. It resounds with fearless laughter. It was born of Mars and Minerva, of the military and of art, and it is the first squalling infant delivered to the bloody new world order. It is a medium for our times."

The audience is a central component of these images. Like the Iraq war, staged as a piece of television for all of us to be captivated by (Zizek), these circus acts are watched by a set of plastic figurines, both dumb and entranced. At two moments, the camera is turned on the audience itself, now played by real-life friends and acquaintances of the artist. In one of them ('Shock and Awe'), each member of the audience creates a staged reaction of anticipation, fear, excitement and horror, an appropriate reaction both to the circus act and the theatre of war.

As I stood in front of this image, I noticed that each set of eyes looks up to the sky, where we can imagine that a horror-fying act of daring or destruction is taking place. Only one set of eyes, those of a small baby sat on its father's lap, appears to ignore what is happening overhead and stares directly out at us, the other audience. The child's eyes evoked in me memories of the extraordinary self-portrait by the young Rembrandt, in which his eyes bore into us, the viewers (and into himself, for of course it was his own mirror-image that the artist was gazing at so intently as he painted) in a manner that demands truth, demands the kind of self-examination that Freud achieved so miraculously in his self-analysis. The exhibition itself demands such a self-examination of our own complicity in the New World Order, just as the murder of Stephen Lawrence obliged us to face the difficult questions of personal and institutional racism.

Goto uses a mixture of family, friends and figures from the art world in his images, and for child psychotherapists visiting the exhibition, there is the added incentive of seeing Celia Goto, the artist's wife and an Oxford-based child psychotherapist, in the role of Blanche, the tragic clown. The influence of psychoanalysis, with its subversive reading of dreams and jokes, is clear in the work. Celia herself adds an essay to the 'Souvenir Programme' (also available on the web-site), in which she describes the final image of the exhibition, a terror-ble 'grand parade' that recalls the medieval paintings of the 'Danse Macabre', as the 'triumph of Eros and aesthetic sensibilities over Thanatos and its culture of perversity'. In Meltzer's terms, this is 'a tableaux vivant of the artist's nakedness, resilience and capacity to tolerate aesthetic conflict, the co-existence of beauty and horror, life and death'.

In these in-congruous times in which we are living, art which enables us to tolerate such conflicts, while unsettling the position from which we are asked to observe, is surely of the highest importance?

Nick Midgley
Co-Editor of The Bulletin of the Association of Child Psychotherapists
Issue No. 177 May 2007

Dr Midgley has written on the works of Francis Bacon, W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf , as well as many papers on Freud and the history of psychoanalysis, and Child psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. In 2002 he published an epic poem, The Life and Adventures of Miss Lilah Thoughtful (London: Odyssey Press).

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