A Work in Progress

John Goto

‘Between the idea, and the reality, Between the motion, and the act, Falls the Shadow’ wrote T.S. Eliot in his poem ‘The Hollow Men’. And again, ‘Between the conception and the creation, Between the emotion and the response, Falls the Shadow’. The shadow referred to is surely the act of making?

The Illusionist

What follows is an account of making a picture called ‘The Illusionist’. It was written as a kind of diary and shows how my images are made through an unpredictable dialogue between ideas, imagination, observation, unconscious wanderings and the act of making. One speaks, another replies.

It is uncommon these days for an artist to write about method and technique, but necessary in my view, to put the record straight. The pervasive managerial culture of our era has established its hold over how even art is supposed to be planned, produced and audited. The problem with such prescriptions is that they are more logical, neat and predictable than the shadowy reality, and one might add duller, more banal and less rewarding. What follows is a small contribution to redressing the balance.

I work in narrative series, which is to say in groups of interrelated images based around a theme, event or tale. The artists’ job in my view is to tell as fully as possible how it is to be in their time. For me this has meant talking about the Second World War, which cast its shadow over the world into which I was born; of the Cold War, which shaped my childhood and youth; of family, culture, history and politics; of the collapse of Socialism; of consumer culture and of new conflicts.

American hegemony is the subject of the series I am presently working on which is to be called ‘The New World Circus’. The circus idea came to me one morning when I saw a torn poster in a run down part of Derby for ‘Uncle Sam’s Circus’. The idea appealed both because of the disparaging analogy of politics and power to a circus, but also because since childhood I have continued to visit the big top. I vividly remember on my first trip abroad attending a small family circus in Brittany. The same six artistes kept reappearing in different costumes to perform one act after another, culminating in a thrilling motorbike on tight rope routine. I can still smell the Castrol-X and see the beautiful young woman suspended beneath the bike.

The picture I am attempting to make will be the first completed in this series, although I’ve been working on the subject for nearly a year. The time has been spent in reading, drawing and making photographic studies at circuses and small trial montages. I have also been collecting props, maybe the most important of which are two model circuses I bought from an elderly man called Gerald Triscano at a fairground near Manchester. Gerald told me that when he was fourteen the circus came to his village for the first time. He was overwhelmed by the wonderful performance and the next morning excitedly rushed back to the field only to find a circle of flattened grass where the circus tent had been. He had made these models in the ’70s and later versions are bequeathed to his grandchildren. I used elements from both to construct one model that suited my purpose, and en route learnt something about transformers and wiring miniature ‘grain of wheat’ lights.

Books on circus generally make dull reading. Most are either the reminiscences of circus proprietors and performers, or worthy cultural studies dealing with representations of gender, disability and race. More interesting to my mind are the artists and film makers who have dealt with circus, a study of which led me back via Commedia dell’Arte to carnival and two seminal books on ‘Goya: the Last Carnival’ by Victor I. Stoichita and Anna Maria Coderchii and ‘Rabelais and his World’ by Mikhail Bakhtiniii.

I have to say that when I am reading I am less concerned with retaining general cultural knowledge, which Roland Barthesiv refers to as ‘studium’, than with finding a telling fragment, a snippet which, when wrenched from its context, ‘cuts or wounds’. Such elements Barthes refers to as ‘punctum’. When kept in notebooks alongside images, these fragments start to associate themselves in new and promiscuous ways.

I also read contemporary political analysis in journals and newspapers and on the internet. It seems to me that the left has lamentably failed to find an adequate language to deal with the so-called New World Order, and particularly the invasion of Iraq. The language of empathy, polite dissent and nostalgic socialism, echoed in the chants of the millions who marched against the war, counted for nothing in the face of the intractable determination of the American and British governments to wage war. All the major parties in Britain and America stood shoulder to shoulder on the invasion. With this, as with so many other issues, one is left wondering where the democratic choice is supposed to exist. It is this lack of real alternatives that marks our times and requires us to rethink.

When it comes to art the same problem presents itself. I have on the desk in front of me a book of social realist art from the Victorian era. Stirring, articulate and above all effective, such images helped advance social reform and create the climate in which the Labour Party was formed in Britain. Many of the pictures show the abject poverty of the rural poor and working classes. If remade today and depicting third world workers, I suspect such images would be met with incomprehension or plain indifference. In a drawing entitled ‘Substance and Shadow’, John Leech shows an art gallery hung from floor to ceiling with portraits of the prosperous middle classes, their children and their pets. The audience is comprised, however, of the urban poor who appear bewildered and dejected by the world into which they peer. The cartoon powerfully contrasts rich and poor and critiques the genteel art of institutions like the Royal Academy. There is no modern equivalent to this picture - it would simply not make sense. The visual language of social opposition, from the satirists of the C18 through to the political montagists of the C20, depended on there being a political and ideological alternative to the ruling powers, and this we have lost.

To make this new series I have the use of a Leaf 22 digital camera back which I hope will improve on my previous practice of scanning medium and large format transparencies. I soon find when photographing the circus model that noise is an equivalent problem in digital photography to grain with analogue. The Leaf back does not permit exposure times beyond 30 seconds as the noise level gets too high, so I increase the amount of light on the model using powerful halogen mini spotlights. The digital back produces a 64 megabyte, RGB, 8-bit image. This is not a particularly large file size, but the purity of information captured seems to allow for considerable interpolation and enlargement.

Last night I dreamt that I was wandering naked around an art school, stumbling embarrassed into packed lecture theatres. Writing this text is clearly getting to me!

I have hired a small studio in an industrial building to photograph people for the series and resolve their costumes. I plan to create the characters by working in a sculptural way, putting together various combinations of garments, masks and props. The studio has a high ceiling and I am able to set up the lighting to appear consistent with that of the model circus. By placing coloured fabrics inside the reflectors I can vary the hue of the light. As with finding the model circuses, luck is with me and I am able to buy some costumes from a theatrical costumer who is closing down. The idea of a flexible mannequin occurs to me as both a convenient tailor’s dummy on which to model the costumes, and as a potential character. The clown’s outfit I try on him reminds me of a Bauhaus textile and of Oscar Schlemmer’s designs, but the seams are unravelling and it is now torn and worn out. The outfit is stuffed and padded to distort the body and the feet are forced into tiny shoes, adding to the look of uncomfortable bulk. At this stage I am working intuitively with the mannequin and materials and he has not yet found a role.

The cone hat I’m pleased with. Made first from white paper then foil, it reminds me of Goya’s religious flagellants and also Domenico Tiepolo’s ‘Punchinello’. In the later series Tiepolo presents not one Punchinello but a whole gang of them, which has the unnerving effect of turning the costume into a uniform. Like the modern paramilitary use of the balaclava, the mask provides anonymity. The clown-gang reappears over a hundred years later in Victor Sjöström’s silent film ‘ He Who Gets Slapped’.

To comment on the Iraq war and go beyond the conventions of agitprop or satire, I have a feeling that something absurd and oddly humorous is required. The humour needs to be directed at all of us as we are all implicated. It needs to be ambivalent, both joyful and mocking, real and parodic. It needs to turn expectations and sentiments on their heads.

I find in Bahktin an account of ‘Grotesque Realism’, which helps me understand this intuition a little better. He says of the Romantic grotesque that it was “… a reaction against cold rationalism, against official, formalistic and logical authoritarianism, a rejection of what is finished and completed, of the didactic and utilitarian spirit of the Enlighteners with their narrow and artificial optimism.” But Bakhtin’s primary interest is in the medieval grotesque to be found in carnival, which he sees as part of a non-individualised universal folk culture. Articulated by the body it celebrates food, drink, defecation and sexual life, and through its open orifices the body blends with the world of animals and objects. Unlike the Romantic grotesque it is fearless and represents the victory of laughter over fear. The grotesque is improper, exaggerated, hyperbolic, excessive and ambivalent.

The reference point for the image I am to work on is a still from a video I had cut from a newspaper, of what had effectively become, after its broadcast by the Muntada al-Ansar website, the public execution of Nick Berg. Berg’s name briefly became the web’s number one search term. It is a formally balanced image with its symmetrical arrangement of executioners dressed in black and the central placement of the kneeling victim. Berg has knowingly been dressed in an orange jumpsuit similar to those issued to the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Like the Abu Ghraib photos it has a staged and theatrical quality. Beyond this point the carefully constructed image is ruptured by the actuality of pain and slaughter, which I have not viewed. I have a feeling that the video camera is set to automatic and there is no one behind it except for us, the viewers. Slavoj Zizek in his book ‘Iraq: The Broken Kettle’v argues that the real audience for the Iraq war is all of us, the witnesses of the war and its true ideological and political target. I think there are in fact a number of audiences and intend to configure mine accordingly. Typical of the most disturbing pictures to come from occupied Iraq, the video image is low resolution and probably digital. The role of the professional war photographer has been sidelined in this conflict by the pervasiveness of new imaging technologies and the availability, through the internet, of amateur eyewitness images (see for example Robert Fisk’s website - www.robert-fisk.com/iraqwarvictims_page1.htm).

For some years now I have been using art world people amongst my troupe of actors. Recognised only by the cognoscenti, their inclusion comments on the growing cult of celebrity cultivated by the art press and the life-style magazines. Razvan Ion, editor of the journal Artphoto, gamefully agreed to play the role of the kneeling figure in this picture.

I make four photographs of Razvan in the studio, and realise too late that I don’t have the particular combination of body position, expression and gesture I now need. Drastic montage is required and I take the kneeling legs from one figure and transplant them onto the torso of a standing figure with arms raised. Cutting out is done the painstaking way at high magnification with no feather on the lasso. Adjustments are made to the edge in situ using a soft rubber tool. A Wacom graphic tablet I find essential for accuracy and autographic mark making. A second head is pasted between his raised hands as intended, but I then realise that to remove the original head is to overstate the image. The raised head is inverted in a carnivalesque manner that also makes it less legible and slows down our reading. Finally I import the clownish moustache from another image, and make it droop on the second head, in imitation of ‘Happy Mac/Sad Mac’ faces. Like jazz and psychoanalysis, digital photography is an improvisational form.

Meanwhile the background of the big top interior is constructed by combining two previously made panning shots of the model circus. The viewpoint shifts slightly between the two images and is too high to match the figure of Razvan, and so I rework the ring area to lower it. When I started to make digital montages a dozen years ago, I realised that I needed to learn the traditional rules of perspective if I were to bring together convincingly, disparate elements in a continuous space. The panoramic shape, made of two squares, is necessary to extend the narrative beyond that shown in the video image, though I have no idea yet quite how.

I start work at 9am and I’m often still in the studio at 9.00pm. To make art I think you have to put in the hours but even then it doesn’t stop. I had a dreadful dream last night about cannibalism, obviously related to this picture, but it was all expressed through wonderful form. The aesthetic conflict between love and hate, beauty and horror, life and death is central to our experience. The psychoanalyst Dr. Donald Meltzervi has written cogently on this.

I have the kneeling figure in place now against the backdrop, and begin improvising figure groups using shots of the mannequin. To optimise quality and not discard information, I interpolate the background to fit behind the figure group rather than scale the group down. The scratch size of the file gets worryingly large at four gigabytes, but the computer copes. I anticipate the difference in quality between the foreground group and the less distinct background will appear to be due to the effect of depth of field. The consistent look of a photograph is produced through a unified optical and photosensitive system applied equally to all parts of the image. Whether it is a sharp, blurred, grainy, high or low-resolution image, it will have the same graphic look throughout. The question when constructing in Photoshop is whether the aim is to attempt to imitate the dead-handed automation of the photograph, or to allow for the fragmentary nature of the source material and autographic manipulation, whilst achieving an aesthetic unity within these differences.

Photographs used to be taken, now they are made. I’ve got sixteen layers opened which need to be reducing by finalising the configuration of the groups, but what do these groups mean? Making images requires that one acts, and then steps back to evaluate and adjust the meanings produced. The composition begins to remind me of Masaccio’s ‘The Tribute Money’ from the Brancacci Chapel, a three-stage narrative in one continuous space, with the periphery incidents oddly distracting attention from the central group surrounding Christ. I decide to run my narrative in reverse chronology, with the celebration on the left followed by the execution and finally the conspiracy.

Sometimes I listen to music whilst working, though not as attentively as at other times. Today it is Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano, to whom I came by way of Lee Konitz. Music is important but I do love the absolute silence and stillness of paintings and photographs. I think this is why I’m not particularly tempted by video. The ambient sounds in an art gallery, however, are another matter. It has always seemed to me that, rather than ignoring these sounds, they can be harnessed in the service of the images. In the past I have collaborated with musicians and composers to produce sound pieces for my exhibitions (see Michael Young’s text p48).

By the fourth day the meaning of these groups is getting less clear to me, and is the more interesting for it. On the right they congregate around a figure draped in a white cloth - might this refer to the interim Iraqi Council, the American puppets? I decide to leave the word ‘welcome’ on his drape for the time being because of this newly suggested meaning. And the celebrants on the left, why are they so joyful?

Last night I dreamt that I met the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and contrary to my previous assessment decide he is wise man. I ask him a metaphysical question and he replies ‘Oh, I don’t think most people worry about that kind of thing until they are dying’. Relieved, I forget the question.

The composition of the group conforms to the history painting convention of showing full-length figures. The use of the close-up within groups comes from cinema and creates an intimacy between viewer and subject that I prefer to avoid. I want to maintain restraint and distance, and also view the spectacle from the position of the audience outside the ring. The kneeling guy looks to me like he has been pulled out of the audience. I take the Kenvelo logo off his T-shirt as it’s a Czech company, and try the word ‘Relax’. In the audience the lines of figures repeat, as if cloned. They passively view the spectacle unfolding like TV viewers watching the war. I bathe the audience to the right in a magenta light that seems to spill from the ring. The cone hats now look too menacing so paradoxically I put a ‘smiley face’ on each. The origin of this banal symbol is in late sixties America and is synonymous with the phrase ‘Have a Nice Day’.

Eventually I’m ready to make a test print. I use an Epson Pro 9500 printer with 200-year colourfast inks, onto Somerset Enhanced 100% cotton mould paper. For the print I tend to use the tonal and colour adjustments in the printer software rather than adjust the file. To get the exact qualities of the transmitted screen image is nearly impossible in a print, so it has to be thought about in its own right. After some tests the colour and tonality are just about right, but dozens of small adjustments suggest themselves to achieve integration of the elements within the picture. I end up chasing my tail with the colour relationships – sometimes well is best left alone! I match all the shoe colours but then revert to the original when I realise the discrepancies are more interesting in suggesting an irregular army. These meanings come from working with and observing the image, by entering into dialogue with it.

Photography has changed irreversibly with the advent of digitalisation. During the pre-history of photography much effort and ingenuity was expended on the problem of fixing the image. Digital processes have undone all this, destabilising the image again and making it fluid and mutable. Elements can readily be extracted or sampled and edited into new composites; they can be grafted together with other media and new hybrids formed; they can be transmitted rapidly across a variety of informational systems at low cost and accessed, stored or remade by viewers worldwide. All certainty regarding the authenticity of the subject is now lost. Digital photography’s amorphous quality resembles that of the dream, the metaphor, the hallucination, the joke, the vision and all manner of trickery, pranks, slights of hand and illusions. Digital photography reclaims the freedoms once enjoyed by narrative painting, and indeed shares many of the same methods.

I spend much of my lunchtime answering back to politicians on the radio, for whom the BBC seems to have become an extension of their public relations department. One talks about the “Domino effect of democracy in Iraq on the region” and gives me an idea for a new picture.

The file size of the image is 300 megabytes. Every now and then I check the composition in a mirror to freshen my view of it. I occasionally ask my wife for her opinion on the progress of a picture and usually act on her comments. This is just about the only dialogue I have whilst making an image, other than with the picture itself. She suggests simplifying the area behind the kneeling figure. I try by removing the guy behind him, but this unpacks the picture too quickly – the viewer immediately sees the two heads. I learnt a little about camouflaging the central action from a picture I made a few years ago called ‘Farmer’, in which a hanging figure is hidden against the dense foliage of a tree. We come to him slowly and it is a greater shock when we arrive. I compromise, however, and darken the figure behind him a little, which works fine.

Maybe the picture is an absurd replaying of American ambitions – happy Iraqis celebrating and forming a readily compliant government whilst the individual keeps his head, and gets ahead.

The picture is nearly finished and needs a title. I choose ‘The Illusionist’ because it is the name of an actual circus routine, but also refers to the Anglo-American illusion of post-war Iraq and the illusion of art. An exhibition print will be made later when more of the series is completed and I have an idea of the exhibition’s overall shape. Right now I think it needs to be fairly large, A0 or above. To get to know the picture fully will take a while yet.

As I finish this text a news item on BBC radio reports the release of another video purporting to show the beheading of an American captive in Iraq. An Arab reporter who has seen it concludes that it “has been heavily edited” and casts doubt on its authenticity. Within hours it is revealed to be a hoax staring a minor Los Angeles politician seeking publicity.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, if you have enjoyed the show please do tell your friends, but for now, from the New World Circus, we bid you all, farewell.

John Goto
July 2004


Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot. Faber, London. 1969.

Stoichita, Victor I. & Coderch, Anna Maria. Goya: The Last Carnival. Reaktion Books, London. 1999.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, USA. 1984.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Jonathan Cape, London. 1982.

Zizek, Slavoj. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. Verso, London. 2004.

Meltzer, Donald & Harris Williams, Meg. The Apprehension of Beauty. Clunie Press, Scotland. 1988.

This article was first published in Artphoto (Bucharest) No 6/7.