Late summer reading

Truth-telling, time signatures and ‘threat faces’ in the books to read this season

By Ben Eastham

Confusion around such basic liberal institutions as free speech has ‘fogged’ our vision, writes Nick Fraser in Say What Happened (Faber, £20), before proposing that the ‘truth-telling’ of documentary film might help disperse the murk. Yet, as his history of the genre – spanning David Attenborough, Leni Riefenstahl and much in between – makes clear, even the simple-sounding act of ‘saying what happened’ requires the speaker (or filmmaker) to construct a narrative around it. This won’t be news to cultural historian Perry Anderson, who tells us in the foreword to Brazil Apart (Verso, £16.99) that he is engaged in a ‘study of the political life of all the major powers of the world’, for which ArtReview wishes him all the best. Spinning off from a project that becomes more depressing by the day, the former editor of the New Left Review writes this timely history of the onetime beacon of democratic socialism in South America.

It was Perry’s brother, Benedict, who coined the phrase ‘imagined communities’ to describe the nationalisms fostered by print capitalism and exploited by demagogues like Jair Bolsonaro. But, this print magazine would hastily add, the invention of the press also assisted in the formation of transnational communities including… the artworld! Martin Gayford’s The Pursuit of Art (Thames & Hudson, £16.95) takes you on a tour of its sites – visiting Marina Abramović in Venice, tripping to Beijing with Gilbert & George – and invites you into an inner circle you might, on reflection, have second thoughts about entering. It’s a different journey than that imagined by Cézanne, who in a letter to Monet affirmed that his own ‘chimerical pursuit of art’ was best undertaken by remaining in exactly the same place.

Indeed, as Gayford’s chapter openings make clear (‘High above the Atlantic, I saw Ellsworth Kellys everywhere…’ / ‘In 2007, I flew 1,200 miles north… to look at a collection of twenty-four subtly different varieties of water’), the globalised artworld was really made possible by cheap air travel, the nightmarish consequences of which are hinted at in Quentin Blake’s latest watercolours. The postdiluvian landscapes in Moonlight Travellers (Thames & Hudson, £16.95), through which ghostly figures drive winged creatures and spindly machines, offer further evidence of how productive dreams can be for artists. But they tend to make asses of writers, and so credit to the professionally lugubrious Will Self for crafting a narrative to accompany Blake’s twilit drawings.

Death also hangs over Selçuk Demirel and the late John Berger’s What Time Is It? (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99), which combines Demirel’s witty surrealist drawings with snippets from the late author’s writing on time. It might be said that culling sentences from their context risks reducing parts of a complex whole to platitudes, but on the other hand it makes for a nice toilet book. Less obviously well adapted to a little quiet thunderboxing is Joan Kee’s Models of Integrity: Art and Law in Post-Sixties America (University of California Press, £50), which considers how artists have ‘engaged with the law in ways that signalled a recuperation of the integrity that they believed had been compromised’ by state institutions. If you can recover from the idea that artists have integrity, this wide-ranging volume offers insights into issues (of certification and distribution, for instance) that shaped Conceptual art.

The final chapter of Kee’s book is addressed to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, which also crops up in T. Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press, £12.99). Rather than a case study for legal issues of ownership, community and authenticity, though, Gonzalez-Torres provides a hook from which Fleischmann hangs meditations on sexuality and identity. Which, now ArtReview writes it down, doesn’t sound so different. Readers bored by the literary trend for auto-fiction might shy away from another essayistic first-person novel, but Fleischmann steers between the rocks of artless confession and tiresome shadow puppetry on which the genre so often flounders. Sylvie Weil’s Selfies (Les Fugitives, translated by Ros Schwartz, £11.95), which imagines the thought processes of female self-portraitists through history, shows the young pretenders how it’s done.

Established selfie-takers will no doubt be aware of how their followers on Instagram are liable to interpret their body language (‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘vapid’). But if you’re just starting out, ArtReview recommends Desmond Morris’s Postures (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), in which the veteran surrealist and zoologist (the only person, to ArtReview’s knowledge, to have held senior positions at both the ICA and London Zoo) explores the cultural histories of body language. This vastly entertaining study encompasses footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović (Morris was also once on the board of Oxford United FC), whose repertoire of pantomime machismo includes a ‘threat-face intense enough to intimidate most rival players’ – along with papal ‘glove-slaps’ and crying baby sculptures from the ‘mysterious Olmec civilisation’.

The 12 horses that Jannis Kounellis installed in Galleria L’Attico in 1969 were, in terms that could equally be applied to the ponytailed football God, ‘a fecundating force [that] embodied the totality of an approach to art that believed in creative fertility, to the point of inseminating a traditionally rigid womb’. Germano Celant’s introductory essay to Kounellis (Fondazione Prada, €76) shows little interest in ‘defogging’ the practice of contemporary art. But the sculptures, paintings and installations herded together in this covetable book suggest that sometimes – just sometimes – the work can speak for itself. What’s more, it might even say something true.   

Online exclusive published on 23 August 2019