Making Art as Chronicle
Oona Grimes is a restless city artist. She makes pictures; and in making them she strives to manipulate her medium in new ways. Hence there is always something to learn from looking at her work. These new pieces are the result of an eight-month residency at The British School at Rome. They chronicle her experience of the city as image.
Daily I would walk to Piazza Rotunda and beyond, just to be in Rome, early before the crowds; to watch the road sweepers and shop keepers setting up, to see the light changing over the city. Gradually those walks, and those [Italian neorealist] films wove themselves into my dreams and my drawings.
– Oona Grimes
The chronicle (log, journal, or commonplace book) is a way of bearing witness. In such testament we piece together stories in whole or in part. The city is itself a collective and a collection of all the contact and contract of its participants.
In The Phædrus, Socrates is taken for a walk outside the walls of Athens. Plato describes the two men walking on a hot summer’s day toward the shade of a plain tree, barefoot through a cold stream, to the grassy banks sloping beneath the tree so that it forms a natural place of repose whilst they might lie and discuss Lysias’ speech on love and beauty. Phædrus remarks that he has never known Socrates to leave the city. Socrates re-joins, ‘Trees and fields can teach me nothing, but men in the city can.’
The passage cleaves apart the idea of pleasant sensation, the walk to the shaded cool of the grassy bank, from the idea of beauty as more thoughtful – what can be taught, even informally, in the casual encounter to be engaged in the city. There is nothing to be learnt, so Socrates has it, from pleasant the city. There is nothing to be learnt, so Socrates has it, from pleasant sensation; beauty must contain ideas.
Toni Grisoni’s lovely essay that accompanies the exhibition quotes Deleuze:
The people do not pass over to the side of the camera without the camera having passed over to the side of the people. – Gilles Deleuze
Film, Photography and Democracy
The city is a democratic space – film and photography are its democratic equivalent in the economy of the illustrated picture post. Grimes’ matutinal wandering envisages a city still asleep – where, for a pittance, immigrants and others at the fringe, perform their unsightly labours unseen. The images she has developed light up the pre-dawn like neon; or, in a different register, like the re- emergent colour that seeps into the dawn.
The images suggest a spare poetry – that of which the imagists were involved and which have had such a strong influence on modern poetry and the conception of poetry as a medium. When looking at the pictures in the gallery I was reminded of Ezra Pound’s famous piece,
‘In a Station of the Metro’
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The cloths that swathe the heads of bright-lipped women have narratives woven into them, birds and other symbols – a crucifix, an aeroplane – hint at tales of other places; so that, even in the city, there are memories of remote places and people that accompany the agglomeration of strangers.
The pictures have the feel of the city and its secrets, suggestive, understated, threatening, promising, and, above all of these: accommodating. What could be better than the first strong coffee in a café that has just rolled up its shutters with a crash; to mark the liminal time and place between what the night reneged upon and what the first light offers in consolation.
Observing the Human
These are nostalgic pictures. They hark back to post-war Italian cinema with its honesty and its complex regrets and its pitiless observation of poor lives. They are lovely things and full of thought and humanity. It is often said the city is anonymous. We might rather think of each cold drink in each dark bar as an intimacy. Cities are beautiful places. Grimes’ Rome is one such.
‘Hail the New Etruscan #1’ is at Danielle Arnaud, 12 January – 9 February 2019, 123 Kennington Road, London SE11 6SF