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Little Prayers Gallery - May 1, 2024

Welcome to Little Prayers, the self-destructing gallery. Here for a good time not a long time.

This week, we're serious about sacrilege.

Donatello & Botticelli - Goliath

"Botticelli keeps a boy." - November 16th, 1502, Florentine Archives

They say everything in Florence is old. What's next, arte vecchio? belleza vecchio? Sandro vecchio, 'Old Sandro'? I grumble mindlessly over the busy bridge, shoulder-to-shoulder with jewellers and butchers, a blur of diamond-nestled pork. Tonight, the Arno too is glowing secretive and red. They've moved Donatello's bronze - my favourite - out of the palazzio centre to a dark niche beneath the stairs. The footsteps above sound like waves digging you from a pearlescent tomb red-handed, clam-pink. Of course, beauty has been retired to the basements of desire; even the aesthetic is elderly now, prejudiced. Now this fucking charge... A boy? I love women. I love women like I love all things when the urge to engage nature's dynamo overcomes me, when I desire the terminus to my helix. I am a cow. I desire cud and the empty. But I love all things, and there are beauties within me rampaging for shape. What sort of artist would I be to deny them? Or is that taboo now, too? Women, like I love all things. I take a right when I mean to take a left. Goddamn. It's left here, that's right. Art, if nothing else, has imbued me with faith in the continuum, that heaven and hell are charms on the same bracelet, that boys and men and women... anything I push out of my dreamholes exists beneath the same sun. St. Sebastian's ass? Sure. The catechism of the erotic is this: to begin to discuss transgression is to confess, and one must confess to be initiated. Here we are, the studio is dark and cold like you can't smell the last time a light was lit. I light a candle and suddenly the apprentice is there. He is stood behind a mirror and for a moment it looks like he has climbed in me like a pelt. Shall we get to work, I say, yes, he says, Did you do what I asked of you? My heart flips and my mouth is dry. Oh fuck, yes. Yes, I say. I draw back my robes to show how my stomach is lacquered in blood, a luxuriant beesting of the womb's downs. There is are slits the shapes of eyes and the size of a mouths below my chest, and in the light I look painted bronze. Good, he says, stop sucking in your stomach, he says, Wait, how old are you? I ask, but then I am letting out a small moan as he pushes his thumb inside my body, pulsing cherry wine. It fucks me to tears. Kneel, and I do. Down. God. On my back I am a chubby ephebe and blonde again. I feel his perfect feet, only looking so perfect because they are so soft and so clean when framed against his sex. I feel them slide up my draining stomach and play in my beard, curling toe rings. I open my mouth like a wound. What's this? he asks, A pearl? An arrowhead? A child? A petal nested on no other taste than truth.

- Written by Caleb Carter

Ewen Spencer - While You Were Sleeping

III. A Polemic Against Fetishisation

Friedrich Schiller, in defining distinctions of the romantic movement, and its tendency to describe things in the negative (-sans), named the wild state of mind and of art the "naive," which forces into my mind the poet David Ferry's liberal ekphrasis on a photograph of a cowboy by Thomas Eakins, writing: "He is without mercy as he is without the imagination that he is without mercy. There is nothing to the East of him except the camera, which is almost entirely without understanding of what it sees in him." Recently, as I was walking around the touring exhibition After The End Of History: British Working Class Photography 1989 – 2024, which attempts to trace the pause between the cameras shuddered clicks, finding a generation of working class creatives born in the ashes of the counter-cultural energy of the 1980s f-stopped and pushed into the now. Walking around Coventry after seeing the exhibition, it's a question that sort of answers itself, if you look beyond the unbroken frames. A naivety that, as Mark Fisher wrote, it had become “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”

Newcastle-born photographer Ewen Spencer has long dedicated his work to documenting the recklessness and abandon of UK nightlife and club culture (perhaps the central landscape for British people: there is a devotion to nightlife; put plainly, being fucked, getting fucked, is what we do best), populated by what he calls 'the lean', the cool, the stubbled magnetism of what Pete Meaden, manager of The Who, called "clean living under difficult circumstances". This is where a romantic "naivety" turns into a sort of mod-arrogance, with the knowledge that razors last twice as long if you dry them after use and a bar of soap gets more usage than shower gel. I'm up, showered, dressed, and sprayed with sampled cologne before most people are even thinking about where they put last night's t-shirt (in hierarchical terms, my body is here now but my mind has begun the ascent). But my body literally tingles when I think of that naive optimism of when you're blood is artificially coursing, you step onto a dancefloor, you can feel the music better than you can hear it, and only by proxy do you know your friends are also sweating and moving somewhere nearby (that's romance).

It was important that these subcultures had their own images, aggressive and anti-scene, working within an organic politic, or perhaps a chemical politic (phenidone and amphetamine). Spencer was not interested in what people wanted the working class to look like, but in what it actually does: aspirational fashion and brand names, VIP areas, colourful drinks and cocktails - always fashion-forward and conscious of consumerism, you can see the people co-opting the semiotics of brands for our own usage, as Jean Genet wrote, that " find harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance." But soon, 'the lean' even became something romanticised, fetishised, in a true "naive" way, people outside looking in smelled the sampled cologne and believed the arrogant mask that we were cool in any way, and not just pretending (and praying) to be. By the time Spencer photographed the promos for Skins and a generation had already been soundtracked by Original Pirate Material and Skinnyman, the working class "aesthetic" had completely spiralled into something no longer within its own ownership:exotic, unusual, pitiful, cool, and naive, but never the full complexity: smart, stupid, ugly, beautiful, lazy, hard-working, progressive, bigots. Richard Billingham, another photographer on display at the show, is almost the antithesis of this, someone whose works are not only resistant to any sort of fetishisation but equally resistant to pity and emotional charity that a lot of 'limping dog' working class art is often fondled with, writing about his early, sapping portraits of his family at home in their tower block in the West Midlands: "It is certainly not my intention to shock, to offend, sensationalise, be political or whatever. Only to make work that is as spiritually meaningful as I can make it. Whatever the medium.”

In Billingham's time, he told me, that there was a sense of the middle class being both more financially and spiritually secure. After moving to London, his friend got involved with the socialist workers' party, when the leader - a middle-class politician - spoke at length about what the working class people wanted, of a desire for structural change brought about by the union of labour workers across the country to boost the worker's rights and affect the root cause of austerity and neoliberal power ruling the country. Billingham's friend set him straight, telling him that what working class people, in the majority, really want is a 'colour telly'; "we just want what you guys have got".

I've said it before: Some of us are a mere idea. Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism, that "the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility," though I believe most people with any imagination already believe another world, after the end of history, is possible, because the tears in the curtain have always been there. We can see through them, but whether under strobe or camera flash, this other world is always blurred and flickering.

If you know, you know...

- Written by Bryson Edward Howe

Satyajit Ray - Pather Panchali

Nothing down the road is everstill. The breeze is the song of planetary motion, and the rising tide of your neighbour's breath are the rains soon to refresh you; this grove is wide open, but to move through it you must allow yourself to be moved. Often I've examined the end of childhood to be the suturing of possibility into the pinch of duty, but watching Pather Panchali reminds me that there is no end to time, no squeezing it into what once was, and what will be. Three generations breathe amidst each other, loving haphazardly (often dangerously) through falling mangos. So ripe they are soft. The roof of time is blown clean off, and whilst this renders the family vulnerable to monsoon entropy, Ray's edits afford them an open exchange through a dazzling pluriverse. Behind any moment, tragic, comic, cruel and true, life cartwheels by, and within the finite infinity is spun, like within the raga endless melodies. Try this. Tie with a small thread of music the branch on which you float to two equidistant trunks on the bank. Know you are a child, know you have passed. Know above all else that life must go on, simply must, and we are bound to it via each other which is love.

- Written by Caleb Carter

Alan Parker - The Commitments

IV. A Polemic Against Annihilation

At the risk of writing myself into the very thing I'm polemicising against, I don’t want to leave this series unresolved. In nearly all of the works I’ve talked about, there is a lingering moment, beyond the frames, that for anyone in the working class to try and ‘escape’ it inevitably leads to annihilation. Matta-Clark died of cancer at 35, most of his works largely only exist now through photographs and documentation, all created to succumb to the same fall and decay that architecture and structure of the time came to. Johnny in Naked is mauled by a gang in an alley, left shivering and bloody, still rambling. Anthony in The Souvenir, overdoses on heroin and dies. Spencer’s work is now co-opted and regurgitated by fashion houses and commercial television. If gentrification hasn’t reaped the cities these people lived in, it’s instead left in disrepair and awaiting some sort of new cultural renovation. The naivety, the starry-eyed hope, dwindles into realisation, and nostalgia becomes a trap that can only be expressed by melancholy left only in traces, in the ugly beauty of quiet peripheries, in hidden histories, and handcrafted hinterlands...

The Commitments, a film about an unemployed boy, Jimmy, from Dublin who puts together a soul band made up entirely of Irish working class, ends with the band going their separate ways, recounted in Jimmy’s brash voiceover, a harsh game of Chinese whispers, rumour, and speculation. The lead singer finds some success which overinflates an already bludgeoning ego, others marry and give up performing, while another is kicked in the head by a horse. It’s an annihilation of a very specific dream of escape, one that the people in the band seem to despise that they desire but forges the key to unshackle their bondage. Like the romantic movement, it never drowns in sentimentality (one that lies in Old England or woven from the fabric of memory—the pangs and wants that only exist in nostalgia), but is a mix of real earthy humour, gritty realism, and true empathy which gives it a unique and utterly deceptive identity (where something similar that comes later, like Sing Street, allows the hope for escape to still foster beyond the frame, this is spoiled by its own final bum note).

Without diving into the obvious (soul music's lyrics and its dynamism are the sound of protest, messages, and calls for social justice), not to mention that as much as middle class people want to pretend to be working class, white people want desperately to be black (and the two conflate more than is fair), but that isn’t my essay to write. I believe soul music transcends blackness or whiteness, but is a spirit for the voiceless to find expression. The Commitments finds the melisma of emotion within soul music as a form of escape, release, and mythmaking; it is a naivety about futures, about getting as far away from nostalgia as time will allow (I mean, speaking of possibility, it's reasonable to ask: do you miss the future?), and chiming carillons of an ambition that should not, and often can not, have room to kindle. This is the tears in the curtain that Fisher wrote about, but what he could never realise is that the curtain isn’t cotton or linen, but iron and hot. Even if you were to try and slip through, the horizon is so, so far away.

- Written by Bryson Edward Howe


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