Essay by Mark Tagliafierro – Curator and contributor for Flash Art, Artforum and Mousse

As we all know the word Utopia begins with Thomas More essay De optimo statu deque reipublicae nova insula Utopia, the term in question makes the following etymology: from the ancient greek ou (not) and topos (place). A not place where a perfect society can be established, but since this place remains ideal, this aspiration cannot be realized.

Hesiod spoke of a golden age in which no one ever grew old, had no concerns and anxiety, or where disease and misery were unknown. Among the Utopians who have preceded More: Aristophanes, Evemero, Plutarch, Phaleas of Chalcedon, Hippodamus of Miletus, Ovid, Virgil and Horace mostly describe Utopia’s as places of happiness, freedom and equality.

From the late eighteenth early twentieth century utopias focused on many social and political ideals and even radically anti-religious, aimed at promoting some form of socialism or communism: Travels in Icaria by Etienne Cabet, The coming race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and News from Nowhere by William Morris. On Morris I would like to linger: behind the imaginative activity of the dream, as it is presented by this author, is always hidden, the fulfillment of a collective human desire that, through removal processes, synthesis and screening, is the depositary of a cognitive universe tended to convey the voice of conscience to mytho-poetic referent. This affinity between oneiric work and aesthetic language is reflected in the narrative production of William Morris, "dreamer of dreams" Victorian par excellence, as well as cultural mediator between mythology and socialism of Marxist derivation.

For these reasons, Mark Harris works moves from these ideas to cross many of the historical experiences of visual art, architecture and literature that have questioned the concept of Utopia. This is the reason why Harris does not identify a place or a certain time. His titles provide general guidance, only vague descriptive words such as north seascape, eastern depot, southern archway and western woodlands. It is possible, instead, to reascend accurately to precise iconographic references that guide him in his search for aesthetic: Superstudio, Vorticism, Futurism, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Nash, Samuel Palmer, Caspar Friedrich and Hokusai. In the past Mark Harris produced paintings or drawings on original photographs of ruins taken throughout Europe immediately after the Second World War. Most of the materials with which he now works are 50, 60, 70 years old with signs of aging: worn corners, creases, grease from fingers, glue and dust marks. Harris intervenes on the images adding new, abstract; trenches, gateways, involved in the ambiguous intention to protect and conceal the image itself Initially. Three years ago, when he started this series of works, Harris was looking for unusual images to work on, then he began to consider also the end papers, corners of discarded images and the book covers. In revisiting these waste materials, he has discovered new media to work with. He creates radical architecture, which sometimes transforms from the two-dimensional into sculptures.

A conspicuous area, of the by now vast literature on the evolution of the image in the age of media never tires of bringing attention to a change in aesthetic paradigm. The proliferation of the digital universe, the rapid obsolescence of analogue related technologies, studies and applications of the virtual (especially in film, but also in other arts) would mark the advent of a dimension completely unpublished due to which the image seems to have finally celebrated in his own immanence, freed of all legacy of the traditional concept of mimesis. Staying in the area of analogue image, this exhibition covers the digital image to the extent that, paradoxically, is able to imitate. 

This solo exhibition by Mark Harris, stepping back in a genealogical way, or identifying some basic epistemic paradigms or nodes around which it is moved and is moving the reflection on the recent status of the aesthetic image, contributes to the debate concerning the relationship between image, representation and mimesis, through a set of images subject to manual intervention, will implement a simulation of hypertext reports analyzed by the new technologies to investigate backward the evolution of the process of building image, choosing, not surprisingly, Utopia as single subject and its historical evolution.

Catalogue for Sort of Night to the mind, kind of night for our thoughts- Illusion and Materiality in Contemporary British Painting - Touring exhibition - Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury -Arch402 Gallery, London - Artary Gallery, Stuttgart, Germany

Catalogue for Solo Exhibition - Continuous Movement - Galleria Aus18, Milan, Italy 2009

A Continuous Movement - Mark Harris

Foreword text by Robert Wilson ( then Curator for RIBA, now Editor for Block Magazine )
for catalogue accompanying 2009 solo exhibition at Galleria Aus18, Milan.

Mark Harris’ recent works are small in size but epic in scale – and slightly disturbing: their subject matter, landscapes and fragments of buildings, encrusted, ensnared or subsumed by insistent growths and sprouts of facetted triangular elements, that coalesce into larger structures and meshes. These appear sometimes as small barbs or in lumpen patches, sometimes in huge agglomerations, rolling in like the desert sands, or rear up as intricate skeletal frameworks.
The material presence of these ‘abstract devices’, as Harris describes them, appears insistently across all the works – collaged, drawn or modelled - and worked up in pencil, ink or paint over found images: often architectural photographs and landscape drawings, but also utilising the light-bleached folders they were stored in or the book-covers that protected them.
Several of the base images for the earlier Continuous Defense series of works are photographs of classical ruins; others Gainsborough-like etchings of willowy trees, cueing their reading as eighteenth-century capriccios - imaginary conceits for the romantic sensibility - often of rural idylls scattered with the architectural carcasses of a heroic Classical past. Such images were designed to be mused upon, inducing the required frisson of schadenfreude: calculated regret for departed glories and the transience of even the most celebrated of human endeavour.
And like capriccios, Harris’ works revel in the joy of drawing, mark-making and the constructing of the image, with their intensively worked up or deftly delineated areas. But they remain altogether darker and more ambiguous in meaning – an ambiguity added to by the prefix to many of the works’ titles: A Continuous Defense. Harris actually started this series imagining the ‘devices’ as traps - pointed and barb-like - needed to ensnare the subjects of his earlier Continuous Offense series: plumes and clouds of fibrous matter drifting across landscapes, inspired by the red weed of H.G. Wells’ in War of the Worlds. But these spiky ‘devices’ appear more aggressive than passive, invasive rather than defensive. Are these images of a failed, broken defence under a new order - the remnants of a past already partly subsumed? Or are the triangular forms themselves ruins? - fragments of failed mega-structures recalling Sixties utopian projects: such as Constant Niewenhuys’ ‘New Babylon’ – a structure that propagated across the planet embodying a proposed new collective society – or perhaps more pertinently the work of Superstudio which critiqued this. Their Continuous Monument project presented an endless grid of cool white modernist blocks stretching seamlessly across the globe, embodying the horrors of a deadened standardized society. Harris consciously references this project in the title of his show, but his structures are the polar opposite in form: more akin to brambles growing over an old battlefield.
These speculative readings are further accentuated by the works subtitles: Northern Gate, Western Depot. But what grand historical narrative is depicted? Are these snapshots from the outposts of a fallen empire or city after some calamitous defence? I am reminded of the images of antique buildings in the souvenir tourist albums my grandparents had over which I used to pore: photographs of the ruins of Rome or Pompeii interspersed with acetate over-lays which reconstructed the original buildings  - be it in rather lurid colour. But here the timeline is more confused. What layer is being peeled back or overlaid: are we witness to metamorphosis or rigor mortis?
These overlapping ambiguities are played out in a number of ‘seascape’ works, such as Continuous Defense – Northern Break in which the carcass of a boat is half-capsized, covered in a crust of triangulated matter, in front of a lofty iceberg.  But is the trail of bobbing shards streaming away from, or towards, the stricken hull? In other examples, shards themselves have become iceberg-sized: forming compositions that play on that cocktail of pleasure and fear in the contemplation of ‘sublime’ nature seen in the work of Caspar David Friedrich – both his vasty vistas but also the fractured surfaces in his painting Das Eismeer (Frozen Ocean) 1823-4, and its echoing descendant Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1, a pit of German aircraft debris.
But drawing back from the compulsive yet ultimately fruitless search for meaning within the images themselves, other narratives are contained here that give a richness to this collective body of work.  There is the history – or more accurately near non-history - of the appropriated images themselves, which for Harris is particularly important. These were pictures on their last journey, unlooked at pages in pulp-destined books. This material was on the point of dissolution, rescued as valueless stuff from the back of a charity shop, and given new value through being worked upon, even partially erased - or chopped up, in the case of the book covers, into a myriad of splinters re-assembled into maquettes. In all this a strong element of chance plays out: shops entered or passed by, piles of old books noticed or overlooked, or in particular here, the folders of architectural images that Harris came across his father-in-law throwing out: material that went on to generate and form the basis for so many of these works.
But contrasting with this element of chance, is the background narrative here, the methodical process of making once the material has been accumulated - of Harris working, moving around the studio, selecting images, painting, drawing, cutting: a ‘continuous movement’ also in part commemorated by the show’s title.
And of course this is a developing narrative: a practice measurably moving on work by work: winnowing ideas, modifying methods. Thus in more recent Continuous Defense works, the triangular facets have started taking to the air – looping up as arch-like formations, dissipating into skeletal frameworks that merely encircle and frame the architectural elements. Or there is Harris’ seemingly effortless move into the making of maquettes, in which ‘devices’ are modelled through fractured book-covers.
Most recent is the series of new works titled Continuous Movement. Here the working of the surface has been further fragmented and simplified – with collaged elements often the cut-out shapes of gridded Modernist blocks, reading as abstracted patterned shapes on the page, whilst also combining in tighter structural forms with drawn elements. Some of the works appear more as graphics, recalling the collages and drawings of Constructivism, but also its architecture: Continuous Movement – Northeast Tower echoing the form of Tatlin’s tower, seeming to give a political edge to the ‘movement’ of the title.
This shift from the ‘working over’ of more sited architectural forms to the manipulation of the more abstracted, detached facades and outlines of anonymous Modernist blocks, seems to mimic the stereotyped shift in architectural history itself from ‘grounded’ Classical Architecture to unsituated International Modernism.
However many recent drawings remain far more hermetic, without any collaged cues: appearing as delicate delineations like the structural analyses of leaf structures. And ultimately this gives the lie to any need to glean meaning from each work, but to enjoy them as intense iterative exercises in form and texture, similarity and difference – stations on a way, and ones that make the viewer’s own journey around the gallery or through the catalogue, such a rich one.

Newspaper Catalogue- State Your Business exhibition - Lokaal01, Breda, Holland 2010

Catalogue for World Gone Mad -  Surrealism in Contemporary British Art

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