Saturday, 24 May 2014

All flesh is as grass

This is the bench at work where I sit and have my lunch if the weather allows it. Our building, which used to be a convent, backs on to a couple of acres of garden where the nuns used to tend their allotments. Here I sit and smell the mown grass and watch the trees coming into leaf while I wonder how many people before me have unwrapped a forlorn-looking sandwich from its tin-foil wrapper and ruminated on a bar of fruit and nut. The garden is dotted with benches, many of them with plaques dedicated to former members of staff or students who have died. Even without these associations, there is something melancholy about a park bench, that unchanging design which has accommodated so many nameless human behinds.

The artist Tom Phillips has produced a series of paintings which enlarge and subtly modify postcards incorporating municipal park benches. The first and best known of these is Benches (1971), the material for which has been reworked and adapted in a number of other works including Ma Vlast (1972) and The Flower Before the Bench (1973-74). Benches interlaces a number of apparently insignificant details from similar postcards of people sitting or strolling in parks in Battersea, Harrogate, Bournemouth and Brighton.

The main focus of the painting is the people who inhabit the parks, and who are often at the margins of the original postcards but are placed in the centre of Phillips’s work. Unlike the more posed shots of family albums, these postcards bring unsuspecting strangers together, forcing them into a relationship with each other at a moment frozen in time for public consumption. As the French cultural theorist Maurice Blanchot writes, one of the reasons the everyday evades analysis or perception is that it is ‘without a subject,’ so that when we live the everyday ‘it is anyone, anyone whatsoever, who does so’. The subjectlessness of these postcards gives a sense of both commonality and isolation: of a civic life suggested by benches, paths, well-kept lawns and other public amenities, but also of countless isolated, anonymous and interchangeable selves moving within it, what de Michel de Certeau calls that ‘multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets’.

Phillips notes elsewhere that postcard images tend to ‘deceitfully inhabit their own eternal summer’ and, once the tinting process has done its worst, have a much higher proportion than in real life of brightly-coloured clothes and cars with the shiny newness of die-cast models. In the postcards used in Benches, though, this artificial sunniness comes up against the blandness and uniformity of the public parks, their carefully arranged flower beds, neatly trimmed foliage and ubiquitous concrete. We see not an idealised spectacle but a random moment of daily life, in which the faceless individuals in the postcards could easily be replaced by other people. Reminding us that the people pictured in postcards are sometimes dead by the time the card is purchased, Phillips describes Benches as ‘a plea against dying’ and includes a stencilled quote at the bottom of the painting from Isaiah 40: ‘All Flesh is as Grass … the Grass Withereth.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘There it was, your life of everyday, with its duties and its meals, its small comforts and its upholstery, and wordy goings on; with its fragile and often unexpressed affinities, homely jests and intrusion of the infinite.’ - Pamela Bright, The Day’s End (1959), p. 183

1 comment:

  1. The blogs of JOE MORAN are always nice and easy to read. I used to follow his blogs and like to read the things related to his life. The story of this bench is very sweet.