Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Remembering John Le Carré

 I spent the day with David Cornwell, invited to his cottage retreat on the Cornish coast. He was very gracious and charming as one would expect. He presented as a typical middle class, white, Oxford educated elitist, the personification of the British exceptionslism cliche and a glimpse of a hidden world accessible to only a few who know the rules. Even as a white man (but clearly of a lower class) I am confronted by this passive aggressive stereotype that reminds one of one's place. Impenetrable superiority is engrained in the privileged like an inherited disease and irrespective of how delightfully eccentric, it carries the legacy of empire, the mythology of the benevolent overseer as a right and the very thing that infected the British Intelligence Service to its core. I notice this in my father's generation, a tolerance of others, a politeness barely masking a sense of unshakable entitlement.

What separates Cornwell is the recognition of these traits in himself, he is self-observant and betrays not his country but his class. The ultimate betrayal to pull back the Wizard's curtain. His gift of self-awareness and an awareness of the world he inhabited exposed to public view the ease in which the British intelligence service could be infiltrated by those who recognised hubris and this elevates him from the pap espionage writer.

He is a character in his own novels in this respect, it felt to me that I was in the company of someone that had got away with something, exiled to a remote cliff top house arrest and he played on that. The less said the better in creating an air of mystery. As the photographer I sensed he had laid out a series of visual clues to a fictitious alter ego as he showed me round his gardens and I found myself looking for clues that might betray his true allegiance, maybe as a radical Marxist traitor and conveniently my fantasy is obliged with a large, prominent socialist realist statue of a boy struggling to hold a flag pole in a strong wind. There is no pattern on the flag but I assume it is red. The perfect spy hides in plain sight I thought.

It is only fiction writers that are responsible for the romanticism that surrounds the security services. It is obstensively a bureaucratic organisation, the blandness of a civil service department where one daren't even wear colourful socks, re-invented as intrigue. The air of mystery and excitement relies on the silence, the true betrayal of the whistle blower is to expose this incredibly dull world behind the glamorous facade of Bond and Smiley.

I don't think I am betraying any national security protocols when I share that I have had a MI5 officer sitting on my toilet patiently with his cheap briefcase on his lap as I fucked a member of her majesty's armed forces in the other room. "Don't try to leave" he said with unconvincing menace. I didn't share this anecdote with John.

Cornwell personally knew the truly dangerous homosexual traitors that infiltrated the very top of the security services. One can empathise with those dazzling queers surrounded by a sea of mediocrity that is the heteronormative state. Homosexuals then would make excellent spies, it was expected and we were used to hiding our true nature. We were then an eccentric aberration to be tolerated. 

Adam Sisman remarks, “only can he make the wildest nonsense about himself credible (reportedly he enjoyed “playing” on his first wife’s suspicion that he was homosexual), he has encouraged others to add to it. “I’m a liar.”, he says. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living.”

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Curtains Drawn in Daylight

"Tell us more about what’s in your image, the story behind it and the reasons why you created it."

I am so conscious of the limits of my intellect when writing about my work. Many words, phrases and even whole concepts can sit tantalisingly out of reach of my awareness. It's so depressing to be reminded of one's limitations and not accept them and in this moment I greatly envy those who have the natural capacity to access these areas with impunity.

Sometimes my brain seems to click into gear and everything I need and want is before me like found treasure but its so hard to seek out that easier path when I am so far off it and the more I look the less I can find it. In a pathetic attempt to shake off the dementia I attempt to stimulate the limited and increasingly diminishing brain cells the universe has bequeathed me.

Today began with a cold shower, then coffee and fasting but the path I want to be on still feels blocked, the next stage is to write about it and post it hopelessly into the ether. Next I will immerse myself in a protective bubble of white noise, something rhythmic and incessant on repeat then when that fails I will go for a run and then inevitably withdraw into banal stimulation and ultimately bed, blocking out the daylight.

Red Curtain, from Curtains Drawn in Daylight © Richard Ansett 2013 C-type 20x26"

The series 'Nothing Matters George' is the personification of the danger of embracing the hopelessness of existence, we find ourselves slipping into the swirling pit of existential loneliness which requires many times the energy to emerge from, if at all. The washing line stretches hopelessly across the frame like the crack in my psyche. 

From Nothing Matters George © Richard Ansett 2018 

We cannot find our way back without help.

The artist must dance along the edge of the pit to glimpse the treasure but we must have fallen at least once to appreciate the danger and in the presence of George I see myself in extremis.

"Do not fly too low nor too high, so the sea's dampness would not clog your wings nor the sun's heat melt them." - Daedalus

The artist feels they are communicating a clear message in their chosen medium and it is deeply frustrating and confusing when that message is missed, rejected or misunderstood even in a successful work. It is a cruelty in the expectation of visual artists to explain our work in anything other than the medium we feel comfortable in and inevitably we very often fail at it; I am embarrassed by the artist interview, the clumsy self-justifications and faux-humility to satisfy normative expectations in the hope of success outside of the enormous value the work is to ourselves.

I feel it is true of me and therefore inevitably of others that a sense of failure in communicating conventionally has driven us into the arms of other mediums and this ironically is the very catalyst for 'the hand print in the cave'.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

In The Room

Ruan and Catalina, Tavistock Block, Aylesbury Estate, London  (from Behind The Brutal Facade) © Richard Ansett 2020

This image is of Ruan with his mother Catalina in the Taplow block of the Aylesbury Estate overlooking the notorious Wendover Tower for my latest series Beyond The Brutal Facade capturing the lives of the last tenants of the estate once labelled the most notorious in Britain.

There are many examples in art history of this trope "in which a figure stares out from an otherwise self-contained canvas drawing the viewer in".* 'Freedom From Want' captures Norman Rockwell's neighbour in the bottom right of the composition cheekily breaking the spell of the otherwise perfectly observed and terrifyingly heteronormative scene.

Free From Want - Norman Rockwell, 1943

Botticelli's conceit in inserting himself amongst the most important citizens of Florence in the Adoration of the Magi still has the desired effect of bringing a radical shift in perception literally and metaphorically whilst drawing us in to join the crowd to witness this monumental moment of history.

Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli 1476

It creates a fascinating jolt to the psyche, often this device is explained away as more of an invitation to the viewer to cross the divide and enter into the work but its a two way street. The subject is equally joining us in our reality across the void of time and space. Its unsettling but further the use of this tactic has another profound affect on me. It is an interruption in the trusted narrative the artist has worked so hard to weave; to break the spell we are creating. It invites us to question the reality that is so convincingly on display and therefore challenges the security of our worldview . It is a device that stimulates open and existential questions about the nature of our reality beyond the everyday human experience.

One of my techniques in my relationship with a sitter is to ask them to look into the lens and 'connect' to an otherwise unknown future audience and attempt to communicate silently the message they might wish to deliver. This image however is a wonderful synergy of accident and design, a rare defining moment of a spontaneous glance when I had begun to think the defining moment was dead.

*ArtnetNews - Katie White 11.26.2020 - Here are 3 things you might not know about 'Freedom From Want.'

Monday, 14 September 2020


It is easier to talk about what empathy is not, it is not ‘like mindedness’ or affinity. Empathy is non- judgmental. Pure empathy is to step into the shoes of another person irrespective of how different or even repugnant their actions or views might appear to be. Believing we are right is a barrier to empathy. Being open to the most implausible possibilities outside of our own experience even that which is beyond our awareness is essential.

To use a cliché, my empathy is a consequence of my disability and it is now my super-power; I can be overly empathic or ’confluent’, I take on attributes of another person’s experience as my own, it’s a bi-product of a great insecurity that led me to believe that everyone's life was more valuable, more complete than my own. It led to a life of exploring other worlds with a camera. In the moment with the camera empathy enables an infected gaze; I subconsciously seek out ways to satiate this ‘posession’ in my read of the world through the lens.

Epoche is a form of bracketing of our own 'self', our views and prejudices that allow us to create a boundaried environment (let’s say a counselling/therapy session or a photographic shoot) allowing us to slip stream into another life and truly feel it whilst protecting our personal integrity.

Epoche comes with practice, awareness of the concept is enough initially and it is key to knowing what is ‘me’ and what is the infection. The camera is a tool that allows me to immerse myself in others lives, a protective barrier allowing moments of total confluence with another life. With the camera I can safely give myself over to an alternative universe in a way I would not now do otherwise, as it would be a betrayal of my self esteem. Like my work with Samaritans I can offer complete care and support in the moment within the boundaries or rules that protect me and the person seeking support. Empathy without boundaries is a danger to self and the pathway to empathy is also not fully possible without this clear demarcation. We can get lost in other worlds and there is a key to the understanding existentially of mental health issues here, some of us feel too much to safely manage and often ironically we may withdraw and shut down. Like a child becoming an adult. Artists are to some extent like children in so far as we have kept that door partly open to pure imagination and play.

My greatest moment of empathy and photography was in Ukraine, the pinnacle of my journey of understanding. Boys in a City Park explores the lives of 4 severely autistic boys, capturing their private, hidden worlds in the instant of a flash light. Their lives seemed chaotic when viewed through the spectrum of normality but a hyper-sensory world was revealed to me beyond my control and awareness only perceptible in the scrutiny of the images after the event. This was only possible through the high resolution capabilities of digital technology combined with almost instantaneous flash. It’s impossible to explain how important these images are and I feel they are as misunderstood outside of my universe as autism is itself. It is the greatest work of my life.

A boy gently clutches a rose head, another is watched by a grasshopper on a leaf and another boy responds to the flash opening his mouth as if to trigger the light.

Although the temptation is to seek out an equivalent to that feeling of total success like the worst drug, I now exist in a new world seeking new ways to find meaning but still within the dogma of my practice. Many doors are now closed behind me and I can only go forward.

See series here and further statement and curators comment. Boys in a City Park

Boy #1 from Boys in a City Park, Ukraine 2011 © Richard Ansett

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The Anal Stage

Typology of Toilet Rolls was shot at the height of panic buying during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. As art is essential by proxy I am therefore an essential worker allowing me to join the panic buyers visiting supermarkets to purchase multiple brands photographing them in an improvised studio. Each image is accompanied by the factory specifications including roll length, average sheets per roll, sheet size and total area.

In the tradition of the pseudo-scientific typology and ambivalent cultural gaze this high resolution study of the similarity and difference of the once humble and ignored toilet roll was, until Corvid19, the perfect foil for the absurdity of consumerism; a long lost idea of industrialisation replaced by the human engine driving the economy; our emotions manipulated towards excessive, pathological and unchecked desire for variety.

But now Covid-19 has done what conventional politics could not; it has put at risk hard won structures of delicate persuasion that chasing of our own tail is the only sensible solution to a successful society. The capitalist model has been briefly questioned, perhaps optimistically even checked by this alternative reality and a new shape emerges, the once taken for granted toilet roll elevated to the status of precious commodity and allegory for our ever-present but previously masked primal anxiety.

Perhaps we can broach the sensitive subject of what Mr Sigmund Freud considered stage two of our essential psychosexual development, the anal stage or as I like to call it, the anal stage. I sense some reticence to read on but stay with it like, a stubborn number two, you've committed this far (there are some hamsters on wheels at the end as a reward).

The Anal Stage (2) is one of five stages through which we must all pass in order to have a functioning libido and healthy personality. Mr Freud posited that if a child's relationship to any of the 5 stages is frustrated it will lead to neurosis that will be carried forward to shape the adult personality. Threaten to takeaway an essential element (the toilet roll) in our relationship to our 'little precious' and there is potential for anxiety.

A downgrading of the relevance of Freud's theories has occurred due to the parts of his theories that reflect the inherent mysogyny of his times but the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. Have we lost touch with some still relevant explanations for our collective anxieties? What appears on the surface to be an irrational fear projected onto the innocent toilet roll, does indicate what is in fact an unspoken and perfectly rational anxiety. As the fear of societal breakdown rises our hard one privacy is threatened. Its akin to the fear of being run over and being found wearing dirty underwear. Our wealth has afforded us the luxury and disability of detaching us from what was once understood as community. Some other societies less touched by this great gift of western democratic capitalism must be confused and amused by the hysteria associated with the loss of this thin sheet between us and our erogenous dirt star.

As promised here are some hamsters on wheels 


Anal Slang

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Vivian Maier's Garage

Grandfather and Granddaughter, 2012 © Richard Ansett 2020
I regret that I have discarded thousands of what I thought then were embarrassing original transparencies from my early career as a commercial photographer. My wonton destruction of what might now be a valuable resource was before the rise of the 'found photography' movement that evolved from the post-modern insecurities that 'photography was dead'. If only I had at least scattered these images anonymously to the winds to be discovered or better still, had not thrown them away at all.

Digital allows me to explore the same concept but beyond the nostalgia for analogue and I can investigate themes just by entering references into the search bar, new threads appear across multiple hard drives that respond to my current state of mind as I disappear down the rabbit hole. As a consequence of such a large body of work, many images that relate to the same file number can appear in a sort of Jungian synchronistic curation, which has become part of the 'Film is Dead' process. Its a form of basic algorithm stripping away human influence and leaving the universe to evaluate content. This can be applied beyond the personal archive into the swirling mass of imagery on the web by entering the # and the 4 digit file number of your original work. I.e. the file number of this attached work (see below). Try it on Instagram.

Recycling and re-evaluating my surviving digitised and growing contemporary archive is an important part of my practice as a discussion of photography existentially now. A distance is required from the source of creation and much of my work feels more valuable having existed 'in a draw' often for years to separate it from its original purpose. But further, the more significant the work feels the greater my instinct is not share it, like precious jewels.

My ego (only equal to my insecurity) puts an onus on legacy. I can reassure myself that any failure of my work to make an impression on this zeitgeist might stand a better chance in another. (A bit like Vivian Maier's garage). Images that have felt valueless or weak, can take on significant meaning in another reality; some new knowledge, a fundamental change in society (cough) or a new artistic voice free of introjection and all of sudden previously irrelevant images are liberated through that new lens.

My re-evaluation of the archive is often relative to my own personal progress but the influence of Coronavirus is so powerful that it forces all of us to re-examine our relationship to everything created BV. This monumental perhaps temporary rift has forced a response in the 'way of seeing' and judging work created in a world that feels so different to our current present. Images of hugging and touching, footage of club nights, thousands of sweaty naked bodies writhing, all feel like the curation of some post-virus (PV) exhibition.

A friend has asked me to work with him to find an image from my archive for his new track ’Selbstisolation’. As I scour the hard drives in an attempt to find the agreed file, I have come across this image I have always loved but it feels more valuable now ‘Granddaughter and Grandfather, 2012 (File #7250).’

All limited edition enquiries DM me. Thanks and Stay Safe.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Friend of Derek

Richard Ansett with Otto Dix at Prospect Cottage, 2015. Photo: Paul Robinson Webster

Saving Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage might be more of an esoteric campaign than many of us might wish but we who recognise this little humble building as representative of British art, culture and LGBTQ history also recognise how easily it could disappear rather than be preserved as a treasure for the nation.

Attending the private view of Friends of Derek at Lucy Bell Gallery was a pilgrimage for me to reconnect to my own relationship to Jarman whose kind, handsome persona and passions defined an important part of homosexual cultural identity at a time when prejudice protected by law drove many of us into ghettos of fear and low self-esteem. Jarman's art represented by this house and landscape is a beautiful reminder of the power of art and creativity to change the world if we ever start to doubt it.

The gallery walls are covered with photographic documentation of Jarman and his crew filming in the Dungerness landscape, most powerfully represented by color digital scans of the few surviving prints by the production designer of Jarman's The Garden, Derek Brown (the negatives are lost). These prints have a second generational feel and the details are blurred now like our memories, the fragility of their existence in parallel to the risk to the nation’s cultural history if we allow the cottage to slip away.

I recognise the transformative nature of time to the meaning of a photograph and Brown's documentations are salvaged like the rusting beach ephemera in Jarman's extraordinary and celebrated garden. Everything has become so much more than its original intended purpose. 

I shock a fellow guest by daring to imply that if it wasn't for the threat of loosing Prospect Cottage we would not have been stirred from our pragmatic and self-satisfied slumber to the reality that we must be vigilant in the protection of hard won rights. This fight for Prospect Cottage feels like a defining moment recognising a 'handing over' of the baton to a new form of post-modern activism ‘Wokeness’. For all its new empowerment of the young it has a radical Talibanistic relationship to the totems of the past and the new generation might easily forget that a lot of ground work on the path to change has been prepared by their brave exciting predecessors represented by this otherwise insignificant shack.

Jarman's relationship to his sexuality identity and openness about his illness was courageous in the face of shameful laws that undermined the humanity of all of us and Jarman contributed to my own courage in accepting myself. It's hard to imagine it perhaps if you haven't had the privilege of living through it and surviving it. Perhaps my generation still suffers from a collective PTSD. 

So this little house sits unchanged as the world changes around it and once again is at the centre of things; a line in the pebbles to remind us of art on the frontline but further, to the power of the eccentric British creative spirit.

In the existential poem by John Donne on the side of the cottage Dunne lays with his lover, free of the worries of the world, they are in that moment at the very centre of things too. A simple act of pleasure taken for granted by many is the more precious to those who have not been afforded that same right.

From The Sunne Rising

'To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.'

Friends of Derek at Lucy Bell Gallery, St Leonard’s, Kent until 31st March https://www.lucy-bell.com/exhibition/friends-of-derek-fod