Ways of Seeing: John Berger and Imagometia

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of two of John Berger’s most famous works: Ways of Seeing, his seminal BBC TV series about the nature of art as property, and G, his Booker Prize winning novel. It also sees the culmination of almost two years of work by Tom Overton, cataloguing sixty years worth of documents donated by Berger to the British Library, as part of a joint PhD between that institution and King’s College London. That work has resulted in an exhibition at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House, running until November 10.

Tom was kind enough to give us a private tour of the exhibition, which combines unseen documents with artworks related to Berger’s life to provide a unique insight into one of Britain’s greatest art commentators. Until 2009, these documents had been boxed up in a shed at Berger’s home in rural France, in old fruit crates. Tom probably gave himself lung cancer breathing in all the cigarette smoke absorbed by the documents from Berger’s chain-smoking but assures us that it was worth the sacrifice to get a deeper understanding of Berger’s way of working and correspondence with others.
According to Tom, Berger’s father was also the ‘father of modern accounting’, meaning that young John was sent from his home in Hackney to private school in Oxford, expected to become a middle-class professional. Instead, Berger went to art school and became committed to Marxist humanism, as is evident throughout his works and the correspondence on show here. The exhibition includes a painting of the late Eric Hobsbawm, one of many British Marxist intellectuals with whom Berger would meet and discuss politics, as well as a selection of Socialist Realist paintings.

One thing the archives make very clear is Berger’s penchant for cutting and pasting, from long before Microsoft Word. His notebooks are full of newspaper clippings or notes scribbled on the back of envelopes precariously sellotaped into manuscripts in progress. The archive also highlights the collaboratory nature of Berger’s work, creating projects with many artists, photographers and film-makers. One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is the documents behind I Send You This Cadmium Red, a book which brings together the years of correspondence between John Berger and John Christie that began with sending a small colour sample.
Tom is full of anecdotes about Berger’s life and work. A particular favourite is how Berger, who did not approve of literary prizes, donated half of his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers, allowing them to acquire a building for their headquarters. However, Berger’s philanthropy backfired in an unexpected way: all the members of the group moved in together, then swiftly all slept with each other, had huge fights and the movement broke up!
To tie in with the exhibition, a performance piece was specially commissioned for the King’s Arts and Humanities Festival:  Imagometia, by Rafau Sieraczek. Inspired by Berger’s seminal work, as well as Jacques Ranciere and Guy Debord, the performance aimed to make the audience reconsider how we see things. We were split in two, one group on either side of the stage, and told not to look around, as we were shown videos and dance performances. After a while we were made to swap sides: the same music played, but the images were different, making us question whether we were seeing the same thing as those on the other side of the room. Moreover, we were provided with mirrors and blacked-out glasses, which meant we could only see behind us or out of the very corner of our eyes, again making us question the traditional way of viewing art and performance straight on. Sadly, the event seemed to lose its way after a while, descending into a parlour game: one participant, blindfolded, had to describe an object in his hands to another who had to draw it from his words – an interesting concept, but sloppy in practice. Nonetheless, we all left Imagometia wish fresh ideas about how to view art and performance – John Berger would surely approve!
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