Dancing From Fright by Neil Armstrong

Originally posted here

Neil Armstrong’s post combines a beautifully rendered and powerful portrait with a fantastically rich and eloquent analysis of his process and symbolism. As with previous contributors I hope this will be the first of many.

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Dancing From Fright by Neil Armstrong

…is the title of a Paul Klee 1938 watercolour (always a man with a good title) and one I have borrowed for the portrait I am contributing here. I cannot submit the actual objects in the picture as they belong to a museum already – the Durham Light Infantry Museum. What I do have possession of however is this picture. When uploading to this or most other websites you are asked to tick a box along the lines of ‘are you the owner of this image?’…well yes I am. This picture is my reconstruction, my reinterpretation, of objects that once had other significance.

Things arrive with their own histories of course and my attitude to using them is that one should take the time to understand their past, and then take on the challenge of adding something to that ongoing dialogue.

I began with the idea of making portraits of teenagers wearing uniforms from the museum collection. I wanted to reference the convention that many soldiers through the ages have followed, of having their portrait made before heading into the awful unknown. The invention of photography made this an ever more democratic proposition for those who weren’t socially blessed to be able to afford a painted portrait so is prevalent particularly during WW1 and onwards. The DLI collection includes uniforms from the 18th – 20th century and what interested me was less to take heed of any particular time period but rather to regard them as a contemporary wardrobe which could be utilised to cloth my youthful contemporary recruits.

There is the beautifully made dragoons tunic, with all its overtones of ‘empire and glory’ which is now more generally recognised as being co-opted into pop culture; think the beatles, Michael Jackson..and in particular in this instance..Cheryl Cole (sorry Cheryl Ann Fernandez-Versini). My sitter stares blankly as if she is somehow beyond historical categorisation. In her hand she holds a grenade circa WW1 but I wanted her to hold it more like it might be a bottle of perfume or a mobile phone or iplayer. It is a quite delicately shaped object, less brutally charged than what was to evolve later. She is still wearing a braid on her wrist from a recent pop festival. For me, the fact that the original intended use of the grenade is so comprehensively subverted is a pleasing acknowledgement of what I imagine the 60s hippies felt when they co-opted all manner of military paraphernalia as fashion statements. That idea has persisted into popular culture today.

When this and other work from my project Gestalt was shown at the DLI gallery I was particularly interested to see how viewers entered into a dialogue with the pictures…soon realising that they were not what they appeared to be, but intrigued none the less.

The background is a photo I took in Schiphol airport. The blossom flower emblem on the plane’s tail represents China Airlines but could easily be a poppy… which of course has a host of other connotations. I wanted to hint at the contemporary fear that now pervades the wider world, and flight seems to encapsulate that. No longer are we fighting wars on defined fronts; no more trench lines of attrition; no more charges of the light brigade, but instead a sort of background dread (particularly since 9/11) that you might be hijacked, disappear mid ocean, or be sitting next to a man with explosives in his shoes.

One of my favourite radio progs of recent times is the radio 4 series ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’ where the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, retells history through various objects. His delivery, his wonderfully ‘establishment’ voice, is somehow supremely appropriate in this context and reminds me of times spent in museums as a child pondering where all these things came from. There is something very comforting about it. As if THE EMPIRE still existed and we all had a part to play in a world that had no collective guilt. The real touch of inspiration however is in the introductory voice over to each object. It has a touch of the ‘hitchhikers guide to the galaxy’ about it which offsets the overall effect perfectly.

When I look at my portrait again, I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ and the idea that perhaps an object can absorb the essence of time and lay waiting to tell its curious, delectable and possibly despicable tale again. In that case perhaps the role of the artist is to examine it.. and then add another thoughtful chapter.

Neil Armstrong