You can thank Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film, Freaks, for what follows, which is certainly one of the most vivid circus-centric narratives I know. The important thing about Browning’s unfairly maligned movie is where the director puts our sympathies – we are never in any doubt – and likewise the age-old question it asks as to the difference between men and ‘monsters’. I’m not going to say much more about the short story that follows, except to say it was written for The Kick-About No.53, and inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a clown performing with his black pig, and also this: The Greatest Showman it is not.
The last edition of The Kick-About marked our second birthday and two year’s of fortnightly creative challenges encouraging artists of all stripes to make new work in a short time. As such, it was something of a three-ringed circus, an eclectic, celebratory showcase with a little bit of something for everyone. How appropriate then our first prompt of the new Kick-About year should focus our attention on the circus paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. ‘Roll up, roll up!’
“I was instantly drawn to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s line drawings that he produced much earlier in his career, and felt perhaps there was a way to capture the immediacy, simplicity and instinctiveness of those sketches with the modern digital tools I typically use. Channelling the spirit of an earlier Kick-About, Herzog’s Dancing Chicken, which also evoked manic movement and energy, I just applied the same techniques but attempted to reduce it down even more. I think there is an entire series to be made of these at some point!”
“I was about eight (late fifties) when, on a Saturday afternoon, the treat was a trip to the circus that had arrived in town. It was traditional in every way, clowns, band, ringmaster, plumed horses and glamorous riders, acrobats, contortionist, flying trapeze, performing chimps, lions and tamers, tigers and camels. My great Uncle Arthur was a forward agent for circuses, and I believe he supplied some free tickets. By that time, he had taken over a zoo and kept chimps and a lion called Sultan, amongst others animals. The zoo, and an accompanying Archery Stall, was in Ramsgate on the far end of the sea front, and at the time, part of the complex of amusements known as ‘Merrie England’ (later ‘Pleasurama’). I doubt if it was that merrie or pleasurable for the animals. Welfare and safety concerns were soon to radically change the idea of circus and zoos. For me, this Kick-About is about nostalgia, and the memory of Merrie England, the circus and zoo, and great Uncle Arthur…”
“Toulouse: What a great prompt. We don’t see a lot of his work down here but his use of colour certainly has burnt into my mind. I was a bit short of time, though I think I got the essence of what I was after – would benefit from actually being painted. I saw a man dangling from ropes cleaning an old brick building with a high pressure water hose – bit like an acrobat – with an audience at the stop lights. I was thinking of the figure with the ropes pressing around him and experimented with photographing a pillow tied up with string – not wanting to throw the images out, I put them in the background building’s windows (who knows what goes on in the buildings we walk past every day!) I kind of turned the image from day to night and took the photos to use as spotlights behind the dangling man. Anyway fodder for a later project perhaps.”
“A circus immediately brings to mind clowns, a disguise that has always seemed a bit creepy to me. But it also reminded me of a book of photos taken by Matthew Rolston of some of the ventriloquist dummies in the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Haunting and aware, I’ve always wanted to try to capture some of the sentience of the photos in a drawing. And so I did, randomly opening the book to four different faces. One of the essays in the book says they are meant “to suggest life”, but any supposedly “inanimate” object so entwined with a human life is alive. Any child can tell you that. They may have been separated from their humans, but these faces remember them. Here’s a link to Roston’s photos.”
“Initially, I had the idea of loading up an old battered and broken blue iPhone that I didn’t expect to turn on, from which to rip some photographs from a circus I attended with friends, the circus standing tall on the iconic Rochester hill where I went to uni. Amazingly, the phone turned on with its red battery charging symbol loading through the cracked pixelated screen. The joy on my face when I held the tiny phone in my comically large hands… However in my many attempts to get all those photos off this ancient iPhone, technology somehow fucked me over and devastatingly wiped every single photo from the phone, including all the photos I wanted to use for this week’s prompt!
I ended up sitting and sulking on the idea for a while and contemplated coming up with something completely different, but stubbornly I didn’t want to, and I did have a handful of those very photos from that iPhone stored on my laptop that I never deleted. So instead of being a moody little shit, I decided to try and make something from them by duplicating the original photos and using previous creations and random photos laid on top to attempt to create some new compositions exploring the light, energy and disorientating weirdness of a circus. I guess with the recent anniversary of the Kick-About, in some ways it can seem poetic to use a bunch of outpourings from previous Kick-Abouts to create something completely new.”
“You can thank Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film, Freaks, for what follows, ladies and gents, which is certainly one of the most vivid circus-centric narratives I know. The important thing about Browning’s unfairly maligned movie is where the director puts our sympathies – we are never in any doubt – and likewise the age-old question it asks as to the difference between men and ‘monsters’. I’m not going to say much more about the short story that follows, except to say it was inspired first and foremost by Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a clown performing with his black pig, and also this: The Greatest Showman it is not…”