Moping Owl: Dropping a brick

… from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such as, wandering near her secret bower, Molest her ancient solitary reign.


My old friend, Sir Jack Daw, Bart, the last in a very long line of distinguished Daws – the first Sir Jack was Barted by one of King Charles’s spaniels some time after the Restoration, and very painful it was – looked in the other day for a drop of mulled elderberry and a peck at a spot of ripe vole I had hanging in the pantry, and among the gossip he’d picked up was a bit of news from Farmer Nick’s on Bankside. It seems they’re in a bit of a state in the state farmyard these days on account of a certain brickmaker (yes – a brickmaker) going bust far across the sea in America. So what, you might say, and so might I. Ahaa, but this is not just any old brickmaker, you understand, but a firebrickmaker no less, and the only one of his kind, so we’re told. Does that drop a brick, or ring a bell?

Well, children, cast your minds back a little. Do you remember old Mr Andre and his famous Bricks, his ‘Firebricks’? Oh good: you do: for the trouble is that Farmer Nick has a rare and important pile of these very bricks in the back of the barn somewhere, which were bought when Farmer Norman, a crusty old Scotchman, you may remember, was running the place. And the worry now is that there will be nowhere to go to for spares, ever again, ever.

It is quite a story, so if you are sitting comfortably, I’ll begin. Once upon a time, when the world was young and all, Mr Andre, who called himself a sculptor, scratched his beard one morning, and scratched it again, and then had a bright idea. He thought he’d make some sculptures for a change, and some very low and level ones at that, as he thought it was most important that they should be low and, most important, level. He’d been out in his boat on the local lake and was rather taken by the way the water was, sort of, level.

So he went round to his local brickworks and ordered a load of ordinary bricks, which he divided into sets of 120, and laid them out on the floor of kind Mr de Nagy’s gallery in New York in 8 different rectilinear, two-layered arrangements. And, would you believe it, he didn’t sell one of them, so he took the bricks back to Long Island City Brickworks Inc., and got his money back.

Anyway, some years later Mr Andre decided to have another go with these low and level bricks of his, so back he went for some more, only to find his friendly neighbourhood brickworks had by now closed down, so he had to get them somewhere else. But this time he couldn’t get any of the bluish-white sand-lime bricks he’d used before (sorry squire: no demand), but only yellowy-brown firebricks instead. But never mind, he said to himself, they’ll do just as well. And this time he sold the lot, and one of them moreover, number 8 in fact, to Farmer Norman. Only they didn’t arrive in a crate as he might have expected, but came through the letterbox in the form of an envelope (no: don’t laugh) containing a receipt and the instructions telling him how to figure his particular configuration out. It is after all the idea, or the concept as we say these days, that counts.

So dear old Scotch Norman had to slope off to Travis Perkins, or whoever it was down the road, and buy the bricks himself, which he did, and proudly set them out on the floor of the gallery as instructed, to universal uproar and acclaim. But when the time came for his ‘Equivalent VIII’ to be taken down, what was Farmer Norman to do? He certainly didn’t do what Mr Andre had done, and even a sensible person like you would do – ie. take the bricks back to Mr Perkins for a refund and tuck the diagram back in its envelope in the drawer. No: the bricks were taken up carefully one by one, scrupulously registered so as to be put back in exactly the same way next time, and then tucked away each in its own foam­-lined box and shoved back in the cupboard. Where, when not on view, they rest to this day, totting up the storage.

So much for the concept in conceptual art.


I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear of yet another ‘artist-in-residence’ taking up residence in some fondly trusting institution, my poor old heart does sink a bit – it must be near the bottom by now. I know these artist birds must roost somewhere, but don’t they have dustios of their own to go to? What’s so special anyway about having an artist mooning about the place, poking his beak into things that don’t concern him, leaving his paints all over the place, that’s if he uses them these days, and getting in the way? And now this scrap of news flutters by on the breeze from South Kensington; and, yes, there’s a bit of room left, so down it sinks again, lower still.

“British artist, Conrad Shawcross”, we read, “will complete his residency at the Science Museum with ‘Protomodel’, a series of five small-scale artworks …” Oh dear oh dear: I must sit down for a minute. Artworks!! Good Grief, as the sainted Charlie Brown would say. I think I’ve told you about the ‘artwork’ word before, it being the sure sign and signal that Art will be the one thing nowhere to be found.

But where was I? Oh yes: “… dispersed throughout the Mathematics Gallery.” And there this ‘Protomodel’ “opens up a playful, questioning dialogue exploring how model-making, natural processes, cultural practices and historical circumstances all play their part in mathematical thinking.” So you see what I mean. And that sound you heard was the old ticker hitting rock bottom.

Play their part do they, these playful processes, practices and circs? Well I suppose they do, in a way, or at least they might, or then again, now you come to think about it, perhaps not. I have to say that when I was a young Owl, sitting in the front desk covered in ink and quailing under the beady eye of Mr Griffon Vulture MSc, the Maths Beak, the one-way dialogue was full of questions, certainly, most of them coming my way, but never particularly playful. Painful memories.

“As part of his residency, young Crossbill has also developed a curatorial exhibition concept, which extends his personal investigations into the constructions of certainty and beliefs in science.” A ‘curatorial exhibition concept’ eh? That sprains the brain a bit, I must say. I rather think I shall have to sit down again, and give it a rest. Or perhaps I’ll just slip down to the National Gallery, and see how old Titian and Rembrandt got on with their personal investigations into constructions of certainty and beliefs, all those years ago.


I do wonder sometimes whether I’m missing something important. I mean when I listen to music, I listen to music as it were, and when I go to the theatre, I buy a ticket and, well, go to the theatre to see the play. I sort of know where I am, and what I’m doing, if you get my drift. And I’ve always quite liked the flicks too, and the girls selling ice-cream at half­time, and a quiet smoke in the dark afterwards – those were the days. But the trouble is that I don’t think of the Hayward as being quite same thing as the Regal or the Granada, or even the Ritzy, and nor do those birds of paradise, with their funny hair and tight jeans, the film critics, who seem to spend all their working days shut up in darkened rooms in Soho or Leicester Square.

So when I see that the fair and accomplished Little Pipit, Miss Pipilotti Rist all the way from the land of the cuckoo clock and cowbell, is soon to show her films at the Hayward Gallery, I can’t mug up on what said critical layabouts said about her offerings last time, for they have clearly never heard of her, nor would I look for help and guidance from them this time, for they couldn’t find their way to the Hayward even if you promised them the ice-cream girl herself in the interval.

For the problem is that Miss Lottie Pipit is not just a film­maker but “one of the world’s leading contemporary artists” no less, “acclaimed for her innovative installations”, and show me a film critic who’s interested in what passes for Art these days. So what quite does Risty Poppet do? Well, “she creates (its that word again) films – playful, psychedelic, sensuous and often provocative – exploring themes and imagery of birth and death (here we go); family and love (I knew it); the body and the natural world (give me strength). By exploring size and scale, high and low technology, the natural world and the urban environment (is that all?), Poppy invites her audience to (no, please no) question ways of seeing and experiencing art (groan), and to constantly change their perspectives (groan groan).”

It seems she will do all this by projecting images onto a chandelier made of underpants, and by hanging a television monitor in a suspended bathing suit. One film will show a woman strolling along the street smashing car windows with the stem of a flower. How lovely. And “ visitors will be able to peer down at a naked human being beseeching them from a tiny hole in the floor.” Do you know, I’ve rather changed my mind about those film critics – thorough-going sensible chaps and chapettes, every pretty finch of them.


I do rather miss old Wally when he hasn’t been around for a bit, trundling into every passing bush or ditch while mugging up his GCSE Art History notes and not looking where he’s going. There’s a grim inevitability to it that is not grim at all. And it’s been so long this time I can’t help feeling something must have happened to him. But no such luck. Here he comes again, careering through the

301 Moved Permanently

wood on his special-offer Sunday Times Mobility Trolley, still talking to himself when he should be keeping his eyes on the tree trunk ahead. What’s he on about this time? He’s certainly even more full of himself than usual, and very excited too.

Oh I see: yes, that’s it: he’s going to be on 301 Moved Permanently the box, again, and this time he is going to be telling us all about his latest discovery, or perhaps it’s his latest rediscovery of a previous discovery he’d forgotten all about, and fears we’ve forgotten too. And his discovery this

time is – go on: have a guess – Impressionism. Yes, Impressionism, on which he intends to expatiate (look it up) in some 23 interminable episodes, for our greater good and moral benefit. Lord Dodo? – it’s only a matter of time.

His principal theme is what he feels to be the essential elusiveness of Impressionism – which by the way, leaving aside such trifles as Classicism and Romanticism, he tells us was “the first great –ism”. For Impressionism, so it seems to him, darts hither and thither, as it were, like a butterfly, so hard to pin down. “Whenever you chase after Impressionism”, he bleats (yes: Dodos do bleat), “it darts off somewhere else.” You see, he’s noticed what no one has ever noticed before, that “Monet was an Impressionist. But so was Degas. Monet painted out of doors. Degas painted indoors. Except when Monet painted indoors and Degas painted outdoors.” Goodness me: we must all have been looking the other way. Anyway, clearly our response to M&D & Co. needs gingering up, and he’ll do the gingering. “In some opinions,” he quacks (they also quack, you know) in his gravest Dodoese, “Impressionism has already committed the gravest sin a cultural phenomenon can commit in the modern world: it has become boring.” I say, do go easy with that ginger, Wally old thing.

And no, Wally, I’m afraid you’ve slightly missed the point: leaving that ‘cultural phenomenon’ bit to one side for a moment, what is boring beyond tedium is yet another Dodo telling us that Impressionism isn’t what the Dodo before last told us it was, but something quite different if only we can bring ourselves to think of it another way. Forget looking at the paintings as paintings as we find them, some good, some not so good, some brilliant, and making up our own minds. Goodness me no. Far too obvious. What a waste of time and thought. Oh no, no, no.

So on he quacks (or bleats) again. “The movement was not just about sunny river banks (and whoever said it was?), it was revolutionary (that really is boring) in more ways than one… I enjoy the achievements of Frederic Bazille, who had the original idea of forming a gang of painters who would show their work together.” Revolutionary, eh? A bit like the Royal Academy, you mean, or the RBA, or even the French Salon in its early days? “Bazille died young, and only just had time to invent outdoor figure painting …” Hmmm. Invent it, did he? One does rather think back to Giorgione, and Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Lely, Watteau, Fragonard, even Etty, but we mustn’t quibble. But the idea of flesh amongst the foliage was always there, at least, and do we really believe that until Bazille no artist ever took his latest bit of inspiration out into the nearest wood or field for a spot of nature study?

“Impressionism was a revolution, not an art movement. Its ambition was to overthrow things, to replace them.” Oh no it wasn’t. Nor was it any active ‘cultural phenomenon’, whatever that might be, committing sin. If it is anything at all, the cultural phenomenon in question, Wally dear, is you. As you yourself have so perceptively quacked, all the artists concerned were doing different things, whether indoors or out. And all that they were trying to do, in their very different ways, was to paint a picture, and to paint it well, and, in their own terms, to get it right. And sometimes they succeeded, wonderfully well, and made a good few bob into the bargain. That is all we need to know. And all we need to do is to look at those pictures for ourselves.

And Wally do look out: no, the other way. Oh dear, he’s hit that tree again, full on. Good job he was in reverse. I hope he’s all right. They also squawk, do you know, Dodos, when agitated or alarmed. That was quite a squawk, I must say. I shall drop a note about it to that nice blonde bird with long legs on Autumn Watch.

The Jackdaw Sept-Oct 2011