Phill Hopkins | Daily | September 2015
St. Augustine (1) suggests that we can either live in the city of God or the city of man. He asks do we live to foster the forces of charity, kindness, and love or act only in our own self-interest and prey on our neighbours. Dante’s Hell was in turn modeled as a phantasmagoric, supernatural representation of Augustine’s ‘city of man’; this duality of course continues, our daily media diet of small acts of charity and human kindness, soured by tales of self-interest and cruelty to others.
“Daily’ the Basement Arts exhibition of the work of Phill Hopkins, is entered through a lively domestic kitchen, you open an unassuming paneled door and descend steep stone steps into another world. Above that door there should be a warning, “THROUGH ME YOU ENTER INTO THE CITY OF WOES.” (2)
You descend the stairs alongside images of guns, paint spatter and torn collage, pictures that you brush against as you make your way down. Too close to see easily but resonant of what you will find when you emerge into a very smoky cellar.
Hopkins’ work derives from his daily response to media portrayals of the current World crises. In particular, images that flood our collective psyche from Syria and the middle east; images of war and its aftermath, the refugee situation and the hypocritical political handwringing that has come with it.
Hopkins asks us to descend into his imagined ‘city of men’ via another art, music, an art-form that has often been called ‘the language of the spirit’ 3, in this case, the language of the city of God.
I entered into the cave of Hopkins’ images to a soaring choral from Bach’s St Matthews Passion, a reminder of my first experience of the power of music to give spiritual uplift, Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, a musical healing balm first performed in the new Coventry cathedral in the early 1960s, a performance, which alongside Graham Sutherland’s colossal tapestry, at the time seemed to symbolise art’s ability to reconcile a nation’s grief with a need to move on and draw a line through an evil period of history. I was taken to Coventry Cathedral in 1962 as if on a pilgrimage, a young west midland grammar school boy, who had grown up playing on bomb sites, taken to a place where art and spiritual re-growth seemed to have been fused together. That experience still lives with me, but those days of optimism seem far distant now and Hopkins’ vision was for me not of spiritual healing, but one of a daily confrontation with evil and an acceptance of the fact that this is now our reality.
We enter a world of domestic paint on domestic surfaces, drips and blobs and blots of paint, on scraps of MDF and surface laminates, of faces now faceless liquefying as their features drip into the gravity driven spaces of images that I recognise from their classical past. Images of the river Acheron, that circles the border of Hell, now rechristened as the Mediterranean, the ‘sea in the middle of the earth’; newly dead souls awaiting the old man, Charon, ready to sail towards a fresh minted oblivion.
These are the landscapes of a diary of daily oblivion. Liquefied people and politics, a consequence of liquid modernity, of the immoral processes of Capitalism and unequal distribution of wealth and the world’s resources.
Dates begin to flicker by, sequences of images, each pinned down by its own moment in time, (the time of the image’s making, not the moment of their reality), each image arriving as if a film still from a lost war documentary, a storyboard for a new ‘apocalypse now’, a tale of bombed cities, murdered children, drowned refugees, beheaded heretics, mourning mothers and frightened fathers. What could appear to be ‘normal’ moments, a parked lorry, or a tree-lined road, are somehow injected with a drug serum composed of our collective media knowledge. Is this a drawing of a parked lorry on an Austrian motorway with the decomposing bodies of 71 people lying inside? As this is Hell, well yes it probably is. But because it’s a drawing we slow down our descent into it. Drawings take time to make, one mark follows another, the hand traces its way across the surface, we can unpick the order of its making, it is fashioned with care, constructed with intelligence and thus open to a moral questioning more forceful than the fast distancing of the photograph. Its very human engagement forcing us to meditate on life and death and why we do the things we do.
In St Augustine’s time, the main visual product of the Christian church was the illuminated manuscript. Images produced by monks meditating on their faith, images that often saw devils and monsters appear entwined amongst their elaborate decorative surfaces. We are still beset by monsters, these images of paint-blood, mark-smoke, fingertip dirt smudge and felt-tip bleed, a 21st century meditation on what it is to be a moral human, the artist’s notebook sitting open on a chair speaking of burnt and nailed flags, contested nationalities engendering contested territories, in a time when people are still crucified for their crimes. This is a contemporary book of hours.
In the basement of a family house, we are reminded that children never escape our adult carnage. Today we bring them up in a world of media news, of computer war games, and children’s guns like Johnny Seven’s one-man army. In my time it was bows and arrows, and cowboy guns, the colt 45 and the Winchester, but no one ever told us of the ethnic cleansing that had been perpetrated on the redskin Indian nations.
Forwards and backwards, history repeating itself over and over, my time, your time, past times evoked as Nimrod is erased again, the bomb craters of my boyhood made again in someone else’s town, craters that may well return one day to haunt us all.
It’s hard to escape this nightmare, the work sits besides old screw-holes in walls, exposed wiring, bare plaster, many traces of former lives, in a cellar operating as a repository of the unconscious. A place that is, “first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces… in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.” (4)
Of course, Hopkins didn’t set out with these thoughts, far from it, he responds to the media feed without comment, he does not want to shape the way his images are perceived, however the selection made does inevitably trigger associations in the mind of the beholder, in particular each of us will bring to the work experiences and associations unique to ourselves; the real issue is whether or not the processing of constantly distressing news, the slowing of the image read by hand shaping and crafting, allows us to be able to mediate between what is our everyday media fed reality and the possibility of a workable moral conscience. When immersed in this body of work, private soul searching seems the most appropriate response.
I look up again confronted by liquefying people in their boat, returning to their sea womb, look back across the temporal stickiness of paint on shiny tin, pooling with surface disaffection and realise no one else is here, everyone has returned to the safe warm kitchen above. The basement is now a meditative space, my momentary monk’s cell and before I leave I need to find a way to deal with my thoughts. As the music of Bach swells around me I’m reminded of a very different tune, the atheist’s hymn as sung by Chris Wood, the city of God has perhaps much to be accountable for, not least the state of the city of man, and as the song goes;
Devil come up from your fiery furnace
Come up and show us your face
There’s nothing you can teach us of evil and hatred
That we don’t have right here in this place
There is nothing so evil as man and his mischief
Nothing so lost or insane
And bring your demons up too
So we’ll know its not you
But it’s us who must carry the blame
It’s us who must live with the shame (5)
(1) Saint Augustine (1972) The City of God. Translation by Henry Bettenson: London, Penguin Books
(2) Dante Alighieri (1969) The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine: Cantica I – Hell (L’Inferno) translated by Dorothy L Sayers, London: Penguin Books
(3) Gibran, K (2009) The Prophet London: BN Publishing
(4) Gaston Bachelard (1992) The Poetics of Space London: Beacon Press
(5) Chris Wood (2008) ‘Trespasser’ Track 8: Come Down Jehovah R.U.F Records
Garry Barker | October 2015