In: British artists

The Brothers Quay | Street of Crocodiles | 1986
November 27, 2023

The Brothers Quay | Street of Crocodiles | 1986

The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. The misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a cardboard imitation, a photo montage cut out from last year’s mouldering newspapers. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better.
(Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, also known as The Cinnamon Shops, 1934)

Inspired by the short story by Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles) from a book of collected stories, Timothy and Stephen Quay – well known as The Brothers Quay or The Quay Brothers – decided that ‘rather than literally representing the childhood memoirs of Schulz, the animators [would use] the story’s mood and psychological undertones as inspiration for their own creation.’

It’s a relatively short film (approximately twenty minutes) but its brevity doesn’t prevent this work by The Brothers Quay from having a haunting impact on the viewer. There’s something about stop action animation that is unsettling, in itself (perhaps that these are ‘dolls’ that ‘pervert’ our sense of ourselves, in the manner of Hans Bellmer, dark dreams given corporeal forms) and the dark scenes (like degraded wastelands populated by equally damaged characters) where the brothers’ adaptation – or reimagination – of Schulz’ story plays out only augments this unease. Schulz’ words echo in the space : In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be aroused.

Schulz (1892 – 1942) was a Jewish Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher, considered among the great Polish – language prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his works were ‘lost’ – as in destroyed by the nazis, the ones from the previous century – during the Holocaust, and Schulz died when shot by one of those butchers while walking home with a loaf of bread…..

I was unaware of this history when I first saw the short decades ago, but rewatching it with this knowledge only adds more dark nuance to the tableaux that the brothers have ‘built’ on the words and worlds of Schulz. The accompanying music by Leszek Jankowski is alternately jarring and mournful.

A somewhat simplistic synopsis of this work – or perhaps a banal lure to the unwary (from here) : Inside a box full of curio, a puppet who is recently freed from his strings explores a dusty and forlorn commercial area. The explorer becomes ensnared into miniature tailor shop by baby-faced dolls.

Several excerpts of Street of Crocodiles can be enjoyed here and here.

More information about the Brothers Quay – including links to many of their works – can be seen here. If you remember the film Frida (2002), you may be familiar with how the Brothers Quay are responsible for the fleeting and frightening “sequence in the film depicting the initial stages of Kahlo’s recovery at the hospital after the accident [which] are inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.”  I mention this one as the ‘doctors’ are of the same genus, perhaps, as the dolls in Street of Crocodiles

A final word from Bruno Schulz, to end :

Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness. Let us say it bluntly: the misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Tish Murtha | Elswick Kids | 1978
August 4, 2023

Tish Murtha | Elswick Kids | 1978

All we wanted was everything. All we ever got was coal.
(Bauhaus, from the album The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982)

Patricia Anne “Tish” Murtha (1956 – 2013) was a British photographer best known for her images of working class life in Newcastle upon Tyne and the North East of England. Murtha’s work is a raw documentation of these communities – and often youth within these social groups – at a time when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waged war on her own citizens, embracing a neo – liberal cruelty that is like a virus whose symptoms can be still seen in contemporary post Brexit Britain.

The images captured by Murtha evoke notions of a ‘third world’ country, with the scenes of desolate and despairing youth amidst a wasteland that – being shot in black and white – emit a hopelessness that reaches across the decades. Or perhaps it is simply combining with the contemporary desperation among working class communities in these places now.

From here : “In 1976, aged 20, Tish left home to study at the famous School of Documentary Photography at The University of Wales, Newport under the guidance of Magnum member David Hurn.

She took many photos in Newport, including The former Prime Minister James Callaghan opening up a new stretch of the M4, as well as documenting Aubrey Hames’ year as Mayor of Newport in the Queens Silver Jubilee year (1977-1978). Tish also worked with the South Wales Argus during this time and photographed the local election campaigns.

When she returned to Newcastle, she began to document the lives of her friends and family and numerous other projects.
Tish’s work was often concerned with the documentation of marginalized communities from the inside. She invested her time building relationships of trust, which allowed her access to different parts of the communities that she photographed. Her approach was informal, generating an understanding of what she was doing by giving copies of her photos to the people in them. The young people she photographed as part of the Youth Unemployment and Juvenile Jazz Band exhibitions showed how tenacious, resourceful, clever and resilient they were (and had to be) – Tish was always fiercely protective of them.

She felt she had an obligation to the people and problems within her local environment, and that documentary photography could highlight and challenge the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered.”

Three books of her photographs have been published posthumously : these are Youth Unemployment (2017), Elswick Kids (2018) and Juvenile Jazz Bands (2020).

More of Tish Murtha’s work and her life (as her daughter is maintaining her archive and ensuring her mother’s work is given its appropriate place in terms of history and art) can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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