by Robert Clark

The spatial landscape might appear to be expanding but the temporal perspective is shrinking alarmingly. As communications media afford easy access to even the most obscure geographies of the global village and the façade of otherness becomes readily available at the click of a mouse, the disembodied information and imagery thus accessed appears to exist always and forever in a virtual present. Despite history being arbitrarily revived and plundered, the significant memory of the increasingly absent minded contemporary artist extends back no further than the 1950s and 60s.

These are, of course, massive generalisations but they reflect trends against which the highly individual artist John Goto stands out in distinctive opposition. Goto is no reactionary traditionalist. He has embraced digital technology with an avid curiosity and rare expertise. Yet his digital illusions are creatively, atmospherically and intellectually deepened by an incisive engagement with the selective perspectives and retrospective illusions of history. Goto's photo-tableaux are heavily based on painting. It is not often recognised to what an extent our world of appearances continues to be conditioned by the history of painting. Several centuries of post-Renaissance Western painting have deeply impressed our collective creative consciousness with perceptual and compositional templates that still form the basic visual vocabularies of the photographer, film-maker and video artist. Goto is one of the few artists around who works with a full and sensitive awareness of this fact. He has also worked extensively with political history and the politics of history, reflecting, for instance, on the final years of Kasimir Malevich's life in Stalinist Russia ( The Commissar of Space , 1995) and the internment of a Bauhaus trained artist in the Jewish Ghetto of Terezín ( Terezín , 1988).

More recently, with Capital Arcade in 1999,   Goto presented a digital theatre of consumer absurdity as the first section of a new series of visual reflections on contemporary life. The artist has stated that the more overt satirical and comedic intentions of this new series was a direct response to the vacuum left by the collapse of socialism. Typically, however, the satirical thrust of Capital Arcade , with its enraged parodying of post-socialist New Labour managerial and consumerist society, is set against constant references to historical visions of human potential that surely ran deeper, were more potent, more celebratory, more life enhancing. In a series that appears, in its spirit of amused and alarmed disgust, to be reminiscent of such pre-socialist subversive models as the satires of Hogarth or Goya's Caprichos , Goto makes precisely coded compositional references to a history of image making ranging from the 15th century canvases of Andrea Mantegna through to an 18th century allegorical portrait painting by Joshua Reynolds. It is a measure of his almost unique standing amongst his British artist contemporaries that the digital photo-artist Goto can be seen as a non-traditional genre and history painter, in the traditional sense of these terms, whose work it is impossible to discuss without constant references to art history.

Joshua Reynold; Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy 1760/1, Waddesdon Manor

Goto sets the scene in the Capital Arcade car park, just off Mandelson Way, with an image based on Reynolds' Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy . The self-mocking artist casts himself as the infamous actor David Garrick, whose ability to command both comic and tragic roles was, as a writer of his day wrote, 'clearly destined to dispel the barbarianism of a tasteless age'**.

John Goto: Welcome to Capital Arcade
John Goto: Welcome to Capital Arcade 1997/99

The besuited artist turns sympathetically towards the sophisticated brunette figure of tragedy, but perhaps the garish tie that he proudly wears betrays his true underlying loyalties and passions. Surely it was bought for him by the peroxide blonde vamp who tugs away at his other arm as Concorde thunders pertly by overhead? In the final image of the series the decidedly dejected artist anti-hero is weighed down by two plastic carrier bags bulging with precious purchases from a Minerva bookshop Closing Down Sale. Works that he was unable to salvage, by the likes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Chris Marker, can be glimpsed in one shop window.   In the shop's other window are systematically displayed prints of the images on which the entire Capital Arcade series is based. The bookshop is being replaced by a Customer Survey and Response Centre. To stage right a young boy struggles to hold onto T. S. Eliot's Collected Works and a bulky volume on Poussin - perhaps a final hint of cultural optimism? One could, and can, go on and on decoding these images that are far from hermetic or obscurantist, that open themselves up with increasing intrigues, ironies and insights, in a mood of profound cultural disillusionment and a delight in the equally profoundly affecting creative illusions of art. In between the artist being tempted into the arcade and his final escape, or expulsion, he encounters eight other painstakingly posed and elaborately encoded tableaux. In the Marks and Spencer scene, compositionally based on Raphael's The School of Athens , the figures of Aristotle and Plato have been replaced by a couple engaged in a deep discussion about their shopping bill.

El Greco: Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple
El Greco: Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple
1600, National Gallery, London

In another scene, based on El Greco's Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple , the porch of the Temple of Jerusalem 'den of thieves', has been transformed into the foyer of McDonald's where an oriental Christ figure, his Apostles and the traders themselves all now look equally conventionally trendy in their brand name gear.

John Goto: McDonald's
John Goto: McDonald's, Capital Arcade 1997/99

Goto's Capital Arcade obviously echoes the global spread since the 1980s of the American model of the out-of-town shopping mall invented in the 1950s by the architect Victor Gruen, who wrote of his brainchild: 'Take 100 acres of ideally shaped flat land. Surround by 500,000 consumers who have no access whatever to any other shopping facilities ...Finish up by decorating with some potted plants, miscellaneous flower beds, a little sculpture, and serve sizzling hot to the consumer.' The artist gives corresponding attention to detail. On the shelves of Goto's Mobil Mart every can and package and mag has been digitally immaculately positioned and delineated. The artistic qualities of these works, their ability to transcend mere illustrational caricature, derives from Goto's lengthy and subtle working methods. Thousands of photographic images taken over the years by the artist serve as an archive from which he can digitally create montages. Having planned a work through drawings and studies, he will also photograph deliberately staged and lit scenes of his carefully posed protagonists. Thus each work becomes a new take on the topical mutually dependent dichotomy between pictorial truth and lies, authenticity and pretence, documentary fact and artful artifice. Goto refuses the simplistic model of the creative process that has become so widespread in contemporary art education, the linear model whereby it is assumed that an artist must first do research to adopt a worthy idea from a respectable theory, then must do the work to test or fulfil the theory, then is obliged to offer up the work to the academic specialists for final expert analysis and interpretation. With Goto the process rather involves an almost simultaneous interbreeding of active perceptions, thoughts, intuitions and technical struggles, of creative darings and self-critical editings, of aesthetic, technical and intellectual involvements.

With the following series in 2001, High Summer , this merging of what we might call aesthetic conviction and poetic evocation is perhaps even more convincing. In High Summer our relationship to the natural world is focussed through a historical filter that includes the 18 th century English gardens at Stowe, Rousham and Stourhead and the 17 th century French landscape paintings of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. The artist's passionate admiration for both Claude and Poussin is evident throughout High Summer . The series' air of poignant enchantment is obviously influenced by his love of two Claude paintings in particular, both of them in the National Gallery in London: Landscape with Aeneas at Delos and Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula . The classical architecture of the latter image is directly reflected in High Summer , as is the suggestion of a historical narrative of momentous disquiet. Saint Ursula was a British princess who made a pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 virgin companions who were all promptly martyred on their return to Cologne. Similarly Goto has adapted the significant compositional sophistication of Nicolas Poussin's Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake , also in the National Gallery. Here Poussin cleverly conveys the inexact science of perceptual transference and contagion. One observer flees in terror in seeing the man killed by the snake. A nearby woman throws up her arms in alarm as she sees the man fleeing, but is actually unaware of the snake or its victim. In the background a group of men carry on fishing, blissfully unaware of any unusual happenings at all.

Claude Lorrain: Landscape with Aeneas at Delos 1672,
Claude Lorrain: Landscape with Aeneas at Delos 1672, National Gallery, London

It is also typical of Goto that he has taken a facile trend of contemporary culture - the TV fixation with suburban backyard landscape gardening - and imbued it with revelatory metaphoric and historical significance. A series of digitalised cultural tourists act out their various inherited social conventions in a digitalised 'people's park'. It is immediately evident that, although there might be a pretence of idyllic calm, all is in fact not well in the artificially landscaped heritage garden of contemporary Britain. Goto takes one social faction after another, transports them into a historical perspective of neo-classical grandeur and lets them show themselves up.

John Goto: Hunters 2000/1
John Goto: Hunters 2000/1

Goto's ironic cultural conceits are immaculately realised. The original architects of the Stowe, Rousham and Stourhead gardens were influenced by the Arcadian Italianate landscapes of Claude Lorrain and by observations of classical antiquity made on the then obligatory educational trip for the cultural elite, the Grand Tour. Such gardens were laid out in designs that embodied attitudes towards nature and human nature that had political, philosophical and even metaphysical significance. Natural viewpoints were often achieved by cunning artifice. At Rousham the Royal Gardener Charles Bridgeman's most notable innovation was the introduction of a ditch surrounding the garden, instead of a fence or wall. This gave the illusion that the traditional avenues and carefully contrived 'little wildernesses' of the garden were not entirely separate from the surrounding countryside of common fields. The ditch was known as a ha-ha. It was left to the unsuccessful painter William Kent, who succeeded Bridgeman at Rousham, to perfect the organic artifice of the naturalistic landscape. At Stowe he installed an Elysian Fields, a River Styx, a Temple of Ancient Virtue containing statues of Socrates and Homer and a Temple of British Worthies containing busts of such Whig heroes as Locke, Bacon, Newton and Milton.

These gardens became fascinating plein-air theatres in which natural and cultural ambiguities and contradictions were enacted with such immense formal sophistication that even the disbelief of the most politically radical doubters was likely to be seduced into suspension. Goto samples views of the gardens and reconstructs them according to compositional principles derived from Claude Lorrain. His various groups of protagonists, often dwarfed by fake classical ruins, have been sampled from 'real life' situations in present day Britain. His manipulated virtual cultural gatherings are revealingly displaced into the never-never world of the always nostalgic establishment. Goto refers to his setting as a Dyscadia rather than Arcadia. What at first sight appear to be Sunday afternoon recreational scenes, in typically cloudy but far from disastrous British weather conditions, turn out, on closer inspection, to be tragi-comic scenarios of grim cultural disillusionment.

A farmer hangs from a tree; at his feet circular stacks of hay rot and classical columns are stacked, ready no doubt for exporting to America. The myth that the landscape is there to provide us with natural sustenance has finally come to a sick end. The landscaped environment of Britain now plays other roles. Joggers, horse riders, cyclists, hunters and golfers occupy it for their sport. Joyriders use is as a final parking space for their burnt out cars. The army and air force abuse it as a training ground. Eco warriors reclaim it as a symbolic refuge from all that is polluted by technological progress. Refugees from Ascot promenade in their fancy hats along the lake side. Arty types cluster around to discuss a heavily veiled sculpture (whilst, stage right, the artist looks on with a look of wry and dejected resignation). A couple of old winos sleep it off propped against a park bench. A group of actors, looking distinctly uncomfortable in this everyman theatre, pause in rehearsals for a historical confusion of several different period costume dramas. Anoraked muggers do their dirty business in the backwoods. Meanwhile the skies continue to darken and the floods continue to rise.

John Goto: Brigands
John Goto: Brigands 2000/1

As in Capital Arcade one could view these simply as satires (and the culture of contemporary Britain is surely crying out for some intelligent and cutting satire) if it wasn't for Goto's well trained and highly sophisticated eye for compositional tension, dramatic atmosphere and exquisite variety of formal detail. His modern-day history paintings are often quite beautiful in their realisation of such a doom laden vision. Goto's images embody and demonstrate his ideas rather than literally illustrate them. For a photo-artist who deals with a whole range of issues, he remains refreshingly free from the more stultifying mainstream brands of imported literary theory. Looking at High Summer I am further confirmed in my belief that the whole point of the practice of creative experiment is (temporarily) to get rid of the constant need for theory and to prove/disprove, embody/evaporate theory's premise so that it need not be endlessly regurgitated or repeated.

You can of course look at these recent works and interpret them according to the implied metaphoric relationships of the various images. You can also, however, sense these relationships through the relative presence of their forms. The digital pixelation perfectly evokes the hallucinatory feel of a dream theatre. The bland authority of classical columns is complemented by the tired authority of an ancient oak. Through the skies, which are precisely keyed to emotionally specific moods, one can spot flying birds, jet aeroplanes, a helicopter and a kite that stress by contrast the heavy futility of the earthbound goings-on. Through such considered devices Goto's satires are flavoured with a disarming, often semi-humorous affection for the intricacies of nature and the fallibilities of human behaviour. His satires are far from cynical. The all enveloping atmosphere suggests that the man with the lens is in there with the rest of them, wondering what the hell is going on and when on earth it will all end.

*A shorter version of this essay first appeared in Portfolio, the Catalogue of Contemporary Photography in Britain No. 33 June 2001.

** Garrick's contemporary Richard Cumberland quoted in David Garrick, Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Volume Xl, Cambridge: University Press 1910 p 475-77.

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Robert Clark is an artist and writer. Versions of his recent installation The Nether Edge Story have been staged in Oporto, New York and Bruges. He writes regularly for publications ranging from the UK national newspaper The Guardian to the international experimental music magazine The Wire. He is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Derby and is visiting lecturer at a number of European Universities.