Wednesday, 12 January 2011


oil on linen 35cmx30cm © Rubin Gideon

Alas, I only saw this arresting picture on the penultimate day of an extraordinarily interesting free exhibition at the new Tennant Gallery at the Royal Academy. The show was called No New Thing Under The Sun, a quotation from the first chapter of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. 
The curator Gabriel Coxhead put together about 50 works spanning the last 500 years, showing historical pieces from the Royal Academy's Collection alongside works by contemporary artists. His intention was to mount ‘a show about religious themes that isn't necessarily religious, at a time when ideas are polarised – fundamentalist pronouncements of faith on the one hand and extreme rationalist declarations on the other....It feels as if there's no space in which religious ideas can be considered for their mythical and spiritual significance outside of this increasingly fraught debate about whether or not God exists’.

The result is an exhibition which offers an astonishing collection of works ‘from the cynical to the celebratory, from the rational to the magical, from the astonishingly gruesome to the tenderly poignant’. It does what it claims to do: to offer a chance to pause, reflect and connect with ‘a sense of joy at being alive in the here and now’.

Rubon’s work originates from an anonymous photo he found in an old album. We know that photographs have a mystical potency. We tear them up - or burn them - in rage or grief. Alternatively they can nestle in elaborate frames or be slipped between the leaves of a book and loved for years. They are used to sell more or less anything. Founder’s photographs are displayed and honoured to add gravitas to an institution. Sometimes they’re defaced or obliterated by totalitarian regimes.

So it’s a shock to find an image of a girl we know nothing about, her own distinctive features having been wiped out. She is Everywoman. The Unknown Soldier in her tomb. The living breathing laughing girl she once was is unreachable. The hands which cut her hair are gone, as are the people who stitched her white blouse and tunic. It’s outrageous, a hideous disturbance of what we expect.

I began to think of my own family albums. Of a group photo of perhaps 60 people at a dance, only one of whom, now long dead, I recognise. Not only are their loves and lives, their ball gowns and sharp suits all gone but so has Queens Engineering Works, the powerful firm which employed them and others in Bedford for over a century. The place which designed ships which helped win World War Two is now the site of riverside flat.
Back to Ecclesiastes. What does the King James version of the Bible tell us? 
‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south and turnest about unto the north, it whirleth about continually. And the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again....there is no new thing under the sun’.

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