On the day of my twentieth birthday I felt depressed that I was no longer a teenager; up to that point I had greeted birthdays cheerfully enough; after that point I didn’t. I also remember complaining to a friend about getting old on the eve of my 34th birthday. At the time it seemed ridiculous to the friend. It seems ridiculous to me now. I have been thinking about my attitude to these two birthdays and others, having just come out of the Ian Breakwell exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. It brought me slap bang up against my own preoccupation with time passing. Whereas these days I try hard not to think too much about it, Ian Breakwell made it is his life’s work.
Breakwell died of lung cancer in 2005 at the age of 62, a year younger than I am now. Going round this major retrospective, it felt as if all his work was leading inevitably to that point. It was there in the small video of him lying on the bed smoking a cigarette and planning to scatter paper out of the studio window in Smithfield. It was there in the obsessive diaries, in his work The Waiting Room, in which there are two large portraits facing each other, accompanied by the sound of a ticking clock, even in one of his best known works Man Walking; also in the portraits which bear the name of the exhibition Keep Things As They Are. There are faces yes, but the days of the calendar form the background and can’t be escaped.
It was painfully there in the self portrait of himself after he knew he had cancer – Parasite and Host and in the final video in which he describes his days, as his face, ravaged by the disease, morphs slowly into younger versions of himself and back again. I kept telling myself that there was no reason to believe he had premonitions of an early death when he was young and that many of the works apart from the final ones would have felt different at the time. Except of course, he would have had premonitions, as well all do, that one day he would die. Indeed one of his comments on the video was why should things seem different because of a diagnosis.
It appears from the exhibition there cannot have been a single day when Breakwell was not aware of the passing of time. Take the diaries – he was a compulsive diarist, starting in 1965 and keeping it up for the next forty years. In the 1974 diary – he would have been only 31, there is a dated page for each day of the year and, on it, there is the same image of a wristwatch on his wrist, taken as if from his point of view. The face of the watch has been cut away and different images imposed where the face would have been. Talking about the work, he explained they were images of what had come into his mind at the time he looked at his watch. Individually each day does not particularly interesting or visually striking but together they are extraordinarily strong– a year covering the wall, the repetition, the ordinariness of the images emphasising the mundanity of daily life.
The Walking Man project arose from a man he saw from his studio window walking purposefully several times a day on a route around the market area. The man was not a tramp as he had no bags but he was not engaged in any business other than that of walking. Breakwell started taking photographs of him which became The Walking Man Diary and he also started recording what he might have seen. In some of the works we have a catalogue of the minutiae of life in this part of London. For instance in The Man Walking No 8 there are three categories of words – all typed. In large type the record of what he passed, “past the gin factory, past locked and guarded gates. Past the workshops for sportswear, skirts and separates. Past the window filled with cash registers.” Further down the page he notes “the silver book shaped lockets.” Below it, in small type, are the words walking, walking, walking, repeated throughout the page. A third line of type has phrases in capitals HERE HE COMES, HERE HE IS. Smithfield is a part of London I know well. I had my first job as a journalist just off Ludgate Hill in Wardrobe Chambers and later with the Evening Standard in Fleet Street; I often bought meat from a butchers in Smithfield Market, maybe a butchers below Breakwell’s studio; I might have passed him in the street; the words conjure up how the area used to be thirty years ago.
Text plays an important part in many of Breakwell’s works. Some are pure text – such as the thought – almost a slogan ” it is better to be hemmed in than hemmed out”; others virtually amount to stories, including a disturbing account of men dismembering what we deduce to be an animal from the fact that his studio was in Smithfield but which from the words sounds uncomfortably like a person.
He was also a skilled draughtsman. His huge drawings entitled Monk, based on the American pianist and composer Thelonious Monk are on four walls of a small room reflecting the way that Monk used to walk in circles. The are formed from compressed charcoal and appear simple at first; then you notice detail – the trace of smoke from a cigarette a staple banged into a fence. A fragment of Monk’s music can be heard on headphones providing an urgent but interrupted rhythm.
Perhaps one of the most evocative works in the exhibition was a video The Other Side made in the De La Warr Pavilion itself following a residency in 2001 and displayed on a double sided screen As the soundtrack plays Schubert’s Nocturne in E major, couples waltz on the top floor balcony overlooking the sea. The music and the grace of the dancers are reminiscent of a film scene, but they are not classically beautiful film actors but elderly couples and you a conscious as you watch them that their remaining time is limited.
On the reverse of the screen, the same music plays but the balcony is empty, though shifting reflections in the glass are like memories or ghosts of the people who had danced there. It is surprisingly moving; a friend said her eight year old daughter cried when she saw it. I went up to the third floor balcony and looked out of the window towards the sea and thought of Breakwell making it. That thought will come to me each time I go back to the De La Warr.
Ian Breakwell: Keep things as they are will be showing at the De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill until Sunday January 13 2013.. Admission free.