Benjamin Britten Portrait

Artist Paul Harfleet was invited by ‘Imagem’ to create a portrait of Benjamin Britten to celebrate the centenary of the British composer’s birth. Paul Harfleet’s practice is primarily based on conceptual responses to a given subject matter so he approached this project in a similar way. In any portrait the ideal scenario would be to examine the face of the subject, Benjamin Britten died in 1976 so clearly this was not to be. As a result the artist naturally had to engage with his subject in another way, through the remaining images of Britten and his work, life and history.

In order to connect with Britten the artist sought similarities in his biography to seek commonality and access to this culturally prominent figure. Initial research revealed some arbitrary similarities with the artist: Both in the arts, both gay, both from the south of England. Both have tenuous links with horticulture, Harfleet with the pansy (www.thepansyproject.com) and Benjamin Britten who has a rose named after him. Perhaps more notably Benjamin Britten died on December 4th, the artist’s birthday, though most interestingly to the artist at least, both have curly hair. It was the hair of Britten that fascinated the artist and the consistent intensity of its curl. In the various photographic and painted portraits of the composer Benjamin Britten’s hair naturally features prominently, each artist deals with the curl in different ways, some meticulously some more generically. Harfleet intended to focus his attention on what he perceived to be the musicality of Britten’s curl. Britten’s mane of curls Harfleet imagined suggested the vibration of a musical note or the rousing strings of a Britten opera.

The result of this invitation has roused the attention of Harfleet and he intends to continue to explore Britten’s biography and work. Specifically the beautifully poetic burial plots of Britten and his life partner Peter Peers, the identical grave stones symbolise a life together, a life that neither had the legal sanction to adopt, this apparently mundane though touching symbolic record suggests a life led happily together, made all the more complex in the time of Britten’s life, where homosexuality was illegal. Currently legal battles for same-sex marriage still rage around the world, the symbolism of the identical grave stones of a same-sex partnership is still culturally problematic now.


My current practice explores autonomous ongoing projects which focus on my interest in the cultural representation, position and attitude towards those outside of the heteronormative mass with an interest in the implications of citizenship and its influence on navigation and memory of the urban environment I augment and re-contextualise various sites and objects by allocating them with new meaning or significance often through drawing, photography and intervention. This interest includes The Pansy Project an ongoing process that involves the planting of pansies at various sites of homophobic abuse. A pansy is planted at the site of a homophobic attack; each location is named after the abuse then posted on my website with further reflection posted on The Pansy Project Blog. Occasional large scale interventions, photographic documentation sculptural assemblage and drawing act as components of exhibition which have been included in various festivals and projects world-wide. Existing for five years the project continues to develop and explore the notion of memory, urban experience and violence from an autobiographical viewpoint. Another experimental stream of my practice is the personification of Coco LaVerne a fictional 'female' incarnation who writes a satirical blog, this 'performative' writing takes inspiration from mainstream media and is intended to critique and observe the representation of society within popular culture. Originated as light relief from the occasionally harrowing Pansy Project the blog has garnered a world-wide following, Coco LaVerne has been described as “An Acid Tongued Glamazon” and as a “Controversial Blogger!” and was nominated for 'Best New Blog' at the Manchester Blog Awards. The imagery and personae of Coco LaVerne is promoted through on-line social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. I have been involved with various curatorial projects including Apartment which was an artist led space ran from my one bedroom council flat in central Manchester a space directed with Hilary Jack which showed various international artists over a period of five years.


The Legacy of Turing

I have come across the following memorials, above is a statue located at Bletchley Park, by Stephen Kettle the sculpture uses slate to depict Turing interestingly he is again shown sat down though on this occasion he is working at a desk for more information click here. I came across the video below on Youtube unfortunately there is no explanation or context, though it is an interesting response to Alan Turing as the virtual 'bust' is placed on-line a location made possible by Turing's legacy.

In my continuing research into Alan Turing and his legacy I am struck by the complexity of this particular figures impact. As various memorials outline, Alan Turing is widely believed to be the forefather of computer technology. Various on-line postings explain that without Alan Turing you would not be able to see the words you see here and on any other computer screen. The article here comments on the over importance placed on Alan Turing’s sexuality the writer claims that too much emphasis is placed on culturally important gay figures, inferring that this prurient interest in the private life of public figures detracts from the influence they have to society generally. I partly agree though in the current climate of homophobia that persists in its various complex forms I feel it is essential to publicise the identity of important contributors to society as this may in part challenge the stereotypes that persist.

When the above memorial was revealed at Bletchley Park there was some controversy focusing on the lack of information regarding Alan Turing’s homosexuality with calls from various activists to augment the text accompanying the memorial to properly place Turing in ‘gay history’.

Whilst browsing the various posts on Turing it is interesting to note that the level of detail regarding his sexuality varies greatly. Some say “he was believed to be homosexual” others refrain from commenting on the nature of Turing’s personal life and death at all. Do these omissions represent a version of homophobia?

It’s tempting to believe that the reason for this partial cultural invisibility is in part due to Turing’s sexuality; a heteronormative society promotes and celebrates a particular version of masculinity. A brilliant scientist and thoughtful gay mans contribution to the war effort doesn’t tally with the traditional viewing of a macho war hero.

Though I believe there is a responsibility to celebrate the great in all fields irrespective of sexuality. It is interesting to note that a recent poll of gay men and their heroes neglected to mention Alan Turing at all, instead the majority of ‘heroes’ focused on popular culture ‘icons’, for more read here. This perhaps reveals as much about gay culture as it does a wider societal disinterest in politics and history. My research continues.


Ruinous Recollections > Reflections

Dirk Bogarde

Post ‘Ruinous Recollections’ preview at Upper Space Gallery I have been reflecting on the way the work outlined below functioned within an exhibition context. During the opening I found myself introducing the work, each piece became an illustrative tool to illuminate the story of Alan Turing and the symbolism of the apple. Many but not all of the people attending the exhibition had heard of Alan Turing, so I found myself as storyteller, explaining the legacy of Turing and his importance to history. One fascinating aspect of the proceedings was the level at which Turing features in local urban legend. Many were aware of the statue in Sackville Gardens but were vague about the specificities of its meaning, I attempted to reveal as much about what I've learned of Turing as possible to as many people as possible and throughout this process I found myself repeating the same phrases and seeing similar expressions on the faces of the audience. Most where fascinated by the association with the Apple-Mac logo and its link with Alan Turings suicide, as I was. Most like me appeared to be intrigued by the symbolism of the apple throughout history. It occurs to that there is an association between the symbolism of the apple in this case and the propensity for urban legend in oral histories.

So as with The Pansy Project which explores the symbolism of the pansy and its ability to instigate discussion on homophobia, I seem to be adopting similar strategies with the apple and the Alan Turing narrative. This strategy is accompanied by an oral contribution, where the symbolism is used to illustrate and explain. This performative element within my work is apparently an intrinsic component. This ‘work in progress’ show has clarified for me the need to place the apples over the statue of Alan Turing, and the necessity for me to be on hand to explain the project to the passerby.

Perhaps most profoundly for me, I seem drawn to acting as ambassador for Alan Turing, as I do for the experience of homophobia with The Pansy Project. I tended to correct some of the misconceptions about his story. I was keen to emphasis his openness about his sexuality despite the illegality of this at the time. I referenced some of the humour in his letters included in Andrew Hodges book. Apparently my main drive was to depict the man as a complex and positive figure in history despite the tragedy of his story. On this point I am reminded of Richard Dyer’s book ‘The Culture of Queers’, in the chapter ‘Coming Out as Going in’ – The Image of the Homosexual as Sad Young Man’ Dyer explores the propensity for culture to present gay men as tragic figures, from fifties film stars such as Dirk Bogarde (top) and Montgomery Clift to the 19th Century Romantic Poets. On this I am inclined to focus on Alan Turing as tragic figure verses scientific genius and the link this has with the ideology of the struggling artist and the many contemporary versions of gayness. My research continues.

click on the book cover for more information on this book.

'Ruinous Recollections' > Research

As outlined below I am currently involved with an exhibition entitled Ruinous Recollections - ‘Artistic drifts through post-industrial Manchester’. The Curators have selected five artists to focus on culturally significant figures who spent time in Manchester. I have been selected to work on Alan Turing. A ‘work in progress’ show at Upper Space Gallery recently enabled the artists involved to present their research so far. Below are some thoughts on my work included in this show with images from the exhibition.

The main focus of my interest is the memorial to Alan Turing placed in Sackville Gardens near the Gay Village in Manchester. I have been keen to explore the way the seated ‘man’ interacts with the park dwellers and have been interested in observing the impact this memorial has. As the statue is located along my route into town I pass it regularly at various times throughout the day. Since my research has begun I have noticed that the statue is a focus for activity, the public can frequently be seen sat round and on the figure, joking, laughing and almost seeming to include it in conversation. It is unclear if the public are aware of the memorials meaning though the fact that it is possible to sit next to the figure suggests a accessibility that is unusual in monuments that remember other luminaries.

I recently passed the statue and was interested to note the intervention/vandalism that had occurred on the Turing memorial. The above image shows that some park visitors had placed a Manchester United hat on the head of the memorial, and stuffed a Manchester Evening News under its arm. There were also condoms placed at various points on the monument, they had been blown up and filled with a white fluid; unlikely it seems to be the fluid they were designed to contain. The next day the statue was back to its old self; so no permanent ‘damage’. It seems unlikely that the people responsible were intending to make a comment with the assemblage though it is interesting to note the perhaps unwitting significance of their choice of object. It could be said that the use of Manchester icons The Manchester Evening News and Manchester United reveals that the Alan Turing memorial is embedded within Manchester operating as a cipher for conversation and a backdrop for civic interaction. The above, could tenuously be seen as a slightly seedy Manchester version of the ‘Angel of the North’ and its famous adornment with the Newcastle United football strip, which seemed to denote the popular acceptance of the artwork as a symbol of Newcastle.

I have also chosen to focus on the symbolism of the apple and the ambiguity surrounding Turing’s death widely believed to be with a cyanide laced apple. This dramatic story seems to have over shadowed the man so I wanted to explore a way of reinvigorating the monument by perhaps focusing on the apple and its apparent ability to dominate the story of Alan Turing. I have attempted to explore and subvert the apples contribution to Alan Turings biography and hope to use it to promote further interest in this significant Manchester Figure. My research continues….

The depictions of apples illustrate culturally and historically significant apples that have directly or indirectly affected the reading of Alan Turing’s suicide. In displaying five identical drawings of apples and titling them differently I intend to pictorially punctuate human history through the symbolism of the apple. From ‘Adam and Eve’ to ‘Apple.Inc’ various significant apples regularly feature and are embedded within popular culture. The Biblical story of ‘Adam and Eve’ and the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ represent the first story of The Bible which acts as the foundation for Western Culture a foundation that has persistently resisted the acceptance of homosexuality, which has and continues to have a profound effect on many gay people. ‘Isaac Newton’ was an important figure to science that reportedly after having an apple fall on his head whilst sat under a tree received inspiration for his celebrated theories on gravity. ‘Snow White’ a popular fairy story said to be Turings favourite and a possible influence on his method of suicide. ‘Alan Turing’ the focus of my research whose story will be forever entwined with the apple. And finally ‘Apple.Inc’, Turing is seen as the father of computer technology, the famous company logo of Apple, depicts an apple with a bite taken out of it, this is widely believed to be homage to Turing, though this has been contested by Apple.Inc who prefer to attribute the design of the logo as an acknowledgement of Isaac Newton. Controversy still surrounds the computer industries reluctance to acknowledge Turings influence on technology as they declined to financially contribute to the memorial placed in Sackville Gardens.

‘please take one’ is a collage illustrating a proposed intervention that will completely cover the Alan Turing memorial with apples. The apples placed over the statue will create a temporary intervention, the apples used will then be given away to passers by, as they walk on they will carry these symbols of Turing throughout the locality walking the streets that Turing once did. When the apples are removed the memorial will be re-seen reviving the statue, throughout the process discussion will surround the location of the memorial. (Sackville Gardens was selected due to its position in-between The Gay Village and UMIST (as was) which continue to be locations still connected with those most associated by Turings legacy). The apple, initially seeming to mask the story of the man, conceals then reveals the memorial.

‘Poisoned Apples’ the two bowls of apples present a possible solution to the reading of the installation placed in the gardens. I intend to create some form of accompaniment to the apples being given out. My initial feeling was that I would enjoy handing out apples to passers-by to eat whilst they hear or read about Turing and his suicide with a poisoned apple. Though I struggled with an efficient way of attaching this symbolism or meaning to the apple which would not visually detract from the installation, I settled on the skull and cross bone ‘sticker’ as a symbol of poison or toxicity, it is an instantly recognisable marker that without words communicates fatal danger. This simple augmentation then transforms the apple from humble fruit to possible danger and sums up the story of Turing’s suicide I especially enjoy the juxtaposition of these two recognisable motifs and note there appropriateness and resonances with the ‘Forbidden Fruit’ and ‘Snow White’ mythologies. My research continues…