Title: Vélo - Adventures of the Peloton
Author: Andrew G Smith
What it is: An exploration of the metaphysical aspects of cycling, built around photographs of the Tour de France.
Strengths: Last time out in the UK the cycling renaissance gave us pop stars in lycra shorts and cycling jerseys. This time round we've got Paul Smith's suits and art.
Weaknesses: The border between art and art-wank is thinner than a fi'zi:k saddle.
I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; they are only 'images,' their mode of appearance is heterogeneous. Yet, among those which had been selected, evaluated, approved, collected in albums or magazines and which had thereby passed through the filter of culture, I realised that some provoked tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a stilled centre, an erotic or lacerating value buried in myself (however harmless the subject may have appeared); and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that, by dint of seeing them multiply, like some weed, I felt a kind of aversion to them, even of irritation.
It's a few months now since we looked at Kiriakos Iosifidis's Bike Art, a collection of images that looked at the way cycling has influenced a number of contemporary artists, graffiti stars and graphics geeks. Time for some more chin-stroking as we look at another cycling-inspired piece of art: Andrew G Smith's Vélo.
Vélo is a limited edition art book, the images from which can also be seen in Sheffield's Bank Street Arts gallery during July and are scheduled to be on show in London's Look Ma, No Hands come October. Vélo is, to say the least, something of a curate's egg, something that had me scratching my head more than stroking my chin.
When first flipping through Vélo it took me a while to work out what memory it was causing me to try and drag from the basement of my brain. Something about it seemed to suggest some of Marshall McLuhan's books, particularly one of the ones he produced with Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage.
Though undeniably modern there is something rather old-fashioned about the images used in Vélo, a retro sixties feel to the project that is the antithesis of the faux retro look of contemporary Instagramed imagery. Instagram merits mentioning because most of the images in Vélo look like they've been put through a Photoshop filter designed to distort, add noise, blur. Obfuscate. While evocative of the past they're the flip side of Instagram's dozen ways of making your pix look like you took them in the seventies. But no filters have been applied to Vélo's images. Smith here is doing what most of us have done at some stage or other: photographed the TV. Here's the author, answering a question I put to him:
Yes, you are correct, the images are sourced from TV.
I set up my photographic kit and camped out by the virtual roadside during live TV coverage. I didn't consider utilising screen grabs as I wanted to be able to call on the creative facilities offered by the camera.
That's the manner in which the images have been mediated. What of their message? Here's Smith on what he thinks Vélo is trying to say:
One of the ideas that the project explores is how the race is visually delivered to, and perceived by, the majority of it's audience, hence the televisual aspect.
I tend towards this approach frequently in my photography as I'm interested in the cognitive response to this type of abstraction, the triggering of memories. We know the images in Vélo are contemporary because of the equipment being used, but something suggests the past, something we have seen or experienced previously, and it's sort of tricky to get your finger exactly on what.
I like that, it makes us think, and it's a nice gateway into the inscrutable side of cycling ...the mythology and lexicon. I also think that the approach has something that satisfies the inclusive, everyman, appeal of cycling.
As well as the images Smith uses quotes from Tim Krabbé, Paul Kimmage, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Kraftwerk and Harrison Birtwhistle.
Were Vélo a piece of music it would be more akin to Stockhausen than Birtwhistle, Rammstein than Kraftwerk. Were it a poem it would be more akin to The Waste Land than Digging. I could go through the rest, but my point is that none of the sources seem - to my mind - to suit, to fit, the finished product. But maybe that disjoint, that disconnectedness, is part of the aim.
The bigger problem for me with the mish-mash of quotes is that they don't really create a cohesive narrative: Vélo tells no story. Maybe in a gallery setting - the continuity of images lessened by the distance between them than when compared to their presentation in book format - the whole thing works better. Each image can be seen as a stand-alone piece. Taken on its own terms. As a single text though I didn't get anything from the quotes Smith used.
Nor, sadly, did I get much from the images in Vélo. Aesthetically they do nothing for me, technically they do nothing for me. A couple do come close. Try this image:
The problem with this image for me is the guy in the top left, half in and out of the frame. Given the image, the easiest thing to do would be to airbrush him out. But the rules of photography means the airbrush is frowned up. Cropping isn't. Pull the left of the frame over a bit, cutting out the chopped-off rider and maybe you've got a good picture.
The image that comes closest to doing something for me is this one of Cav about to celebrate another sprint victory. The noise contributed by shooting an image from the TV screen does add something to the picture, capture something of the rush of a bunch sprint. For most of the other images though the added noise subtracts something.
So what have we got when the two - words and images - are added together? Me, I think we've got a book that has two or three images that might make you pause and consider as you flick through it, produce something akin to tiny jubilations. Me, I think we've got a book that's treading the very thin line between art and art-wank and stepping too far over the wrong side of that line.
But that's just me. That's just what I think. Mostly I think that I don't know shit from Shinola when it comes to talking about art. So if you're in the Sheffield area - or around London in October - pop in on the Vélo exhibition yourself and see what you think.