The GardenA blog by yours truly

Posts tagged as “art”

Dear Tate Modern, i have a very cool idea for an art exhibit that i think you would really like. P.S. I am not a crackpot.

A man looking at two versions of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” — the original, and a noticeably less good AI version

There’s been a lot of kerfuffle in the art world as of late about the ethics and capabilities of AI art (previously), and as Britain’s leading institution for contemporary art, you seem like just the right people to bring it to the public. My proposal is simple, but effective — let man and machine compete on equal footing.

Eight or so talented human artists will be given a prompt to work from. At the same time, the same prompt will be given to a state-of-the-art machine-learning algorithm, like Midjourney or Stable Diffusion. In the gallery, the two works — one made by metal, one made by flesh — will be hung side by side, and the audience will not be told which is which.

Next to each diptych will sit two bins where visitors can dispense plastic tokens (like the ones they have at Asda) to vote on which painting is their favourite. At the end of the exhibition’s run (or perhaps updating live; your call), the votes will be tallied up, and we’ll finally find out whether us or our creations are the better artists.

If you really wanted to provoke, you could ask the humans to provide you with a list of every painting they’ve ever seen, every photo they’ve ever taken, every film they’ve ever watched, and every song they’ve ever heard. Then you put that big list up on the wall, tell the visitors that Advanced Biological Neural Learning Algorithms have taken quote-unquote “inspiration” from all of these copyrighted works, and put to vote whether you should contact the rightsholders and ask them to sue. It would be only fair.

Chære and regards, Xanthe. P.S. — I am not a crackpot.

Arts and crafts: tidbits from Manchester

In a gallery hangs a large landscape painting depicting the Gods and Goddesses of the classical world
I included this photo to show that the gallery still makes plenty of room for the “old masters” — but, to be honest with you, it sums up everything i dislike about some renaissance and baroque art. Just a huddled mass of mythological figures, with no life, no colour, no attention paid to the greater picture. Sad!

Manchester is not particularly renowned as a home for the aristocracy or patrons of the high arts, so i was pleased to discover upon a visit that the Manchester Art Gallery is one of the finest of its kind.

The Mag (as nobody calls it)’s success lies not in the size of its collection — it’s no larger than my local, the Laing — but in its presentation. Like many museums, its curators have lately been making efforts to diversify their collections and make them more relatable to the average yoof of today. It’s a process that can often come off as haphazard and rushed1, but the team at the Mag have pulled it off with care and respect.

A painting of a black woman covered in coal laying on a cloth-covered black table, as if deceased
Berni Searle, In Wake Of, 2014.

Newer works are dotted in each gallery in such a way that they complement, rather than denigrate, the greats of old. A visa rejection letter from a group of Pakistani artists hangs alongside Victorian paintings of eastern caravans; where a gallery about protest and revolution could have added some shrewd, vapid letterpress and called it a day, the museum’s curators have instead chosen to incorporate a thoughtful self-portrait by a South African painter, made in the wake of the Marikana massacre.2

A portrait of a dashingly handsome Shakespearean actor

The captions accompanying each artwork face a similarly complicated task. Be too conservative and you’ll disappear up your own arse into a world of romanticist masturbation; be too reactionary and you’ll come off as cloyingly didactic, engaging in pseudohistoric iconoclasm for iconoclasm’s sake. The Mag hit a stroke of genius here: after a brief description in the typical style, the captions adorning prominent works also include conversations and thoughts from a variety of perspectives, be it historians, curators, or the artists themselves. It’s a brilliant way to further inform the visitor without beating them over the head with one opinion, alienating them with arcane academese, or leaving out unsavoury histories.

A lit up colourful glass tapestry marked with traditional Ghanaian patterns
Someone, please, tell me what this painting is called. I have to know.

Other highlights on the lower floors include a portrait of the early black tragedian Ira Aldridge (the very first work in the museum’s collection, which rather surprised me coming from the people of 1858), a Ghanaian tapestry that i was surprised to learn was actually made of glass, and a lovely painting of an industrial scene lit by hazy fog whose name — to current me’s infuriation — i neglected to include in the photo, taken from an angle so inconvenient that reverse image search returns nothing of relevance. Past me is a bastard and i’m killing him when i get the chance.

Upstairs sit the gallery’s temporary exhibitions. The most prominently advertised was on the topic of the history of men’s fashion, something i regrettably could not get myself to muster up any interest in. I’m sure it’s quite interesting if that’s your sort of thing. The other (smaller) exhibition sits in a surprisingly grand hall which, from what i can tell, normally houses the museum’s pottery galleries, and it’s about tea. No wait come back i sw—

An all-black, marbled tea set

I jest, but there really is some fascinating stuff in there. The room’s cabinets are packed with advertisements, old jugs, and all sorts of other things detailing how hot drinks have shaped Britain and the world over the years — from sparking conversation to funding colonisation. But there was one thing that stuck out to me the most. A newly-created work of art, perhaps meant to inspire some thought or another in the viewer, but that our whole group agreed could only be described as one thing:

A collection of tea stoppers, hung on ropes in such a way that they really quite resemble a dreamcatcher made of buttplugs
Buttplug dreamcatcher.

PS: I had to ask what the abbreviation “dbl” (“double”) on the signs for upcoming trams meant. My poor exurban soul simply could not comprehend the idea of a transit system that consistently ran so punctually — i had been thinking it stood for something like “delayed by late”.

PPS: This was meant to be the last post in the series, but my rambling about the gallery got so out of hand that i thought i’d spin off its intended complement into its own part. Tune in next week3 for one last dispatch from Affleck’s Palace.

What does AI make of the Gods?

I recently bought 1000 images’ worth of credits on DreamStudio — a machine-learningα-powered art generator — on a whim and, after the requisite “Boris Johnson taking a bath of baked beans” joke entries, i thought it would be an interesting test to get it to generate some images for my shrines (on- and offline).

Four images of god. From left to right: a stone carving resembling Zeus, a tapestry with a four-armed figure draped in green robes, fire reaching into the sky with a nebula in the centre, and a stone carving by the seaside resembling the face of Jesus of Nazareth.
Just typing in “God” brought a fascinating cavalcade of interpretations — some clearly Hellenic, some Christian, some taking more inspiration from the dharmic faiths, and the occasional completely abstract depiction.

My motivations were twofold: first, due to copyright constraints, all of the icons adorning these shrines were either old baroque paintings or freely-licenced photos of even older marble statues, which didn’t necessarily represent my mental image of the Gods’ appearances — a topic which, of course, will vary massively from artist to artist and culture to culture. Second, i thought it would be a fascinating experiment to see how this machine learning algorithm, which has taken in hundreds upon thousands (perhaps millions; i’ve not checked) of images, views the Gods in its latent space. Just as it has a prototypical idea of a “dog” and a “cat”, surely it also has one for “God” and “Dionysos”.

Hestia in a toga leaning on a pillar near a hearth, with a halo-like glow emanating from Her head

As is tradition, we begin this article with Hestia (although Her portrait was actually the final one to be generated). On the broad strokes, my computer collaborator knocked it out of the park — but a closer look reveals some glaring imperfections in the face and hands, a theme which we’ll be seeing a lot of (and which i sometimes managed to harness to my advantage).

Apollon — a lithe, youthful, Caucasian man with waving blonde locks of hair — reaches up towards the heavens in front of a hilly valley

I should note that i’m not just feeding it theonyms with no added context: the programme works best if you help it along to your goal with a heaping of adjectives and descriptors, say, to tell it that this is indeed meant to be an artwork (“4K ultra HD”, “trending on ArtStation”), the details of the pose and background you want (“blonde hair”, “raising His hand to the sky”), or the style and artists you want it to take from (“baroque painting by Thomas Cole”, a prominent painter of beautiful, well-lit landscapes). If you calibrate it just right, it can make some genuinely beautiful stuff, like the above picture of Apollon (which i did, admittedly, have to manually touch up to get rid of a prominent Habsburg chin).

Gæa, framed by Celtic knotwork, as a green-skinned, bare-chested woman with leaves for hair

It may be an immensely powerful tool, but DreamStudio can also be rather prudish.β It blurs out any images it thinks might contain the utterly offensive sight of the genitalia with which we are all born, which can be a real problem if the relevant pictures it’s learnt from are all Greek and Roman statues — not exactly works known for their nether modesty. The detection software isn’t perfect, though, and sometimes, like in this portrait of Gæa, it lets a few slip past (perhaps because of the greenish tone with which i instructed itγ to portray Her skin).

Hermes as a swarthy young man wearing a three-feathered crown, fleshy wings emanating from His sides

The algorithm sometimes has issues with more complex prompts, for it is just a machine, and doesn’t actually understand that “ball on top of a red box” means that the ball indeed should be on top of the box, as opposed to by its side, beneath it, or fused together in a horrific amalgam. These troubles somewhat manifested themselves in the above portrait of Hermes; the winged cap He is traditionally depicted with has transformed itself into both a crown and a hulking pair of soaring, fleshy wings emanating from His shoulders, and the recognisable caduceus has been reduced to a bamboo stick by His side.

Perhaps it’s just the style i instructed it to paint in — sixteenth-century European paintings aren’t renowned for their diversity — but DreamStudio also has some real trouble with darker skin tones. You can cry “dark skin, dark bronze skin, dark skin, dark skin, dark skin, black” all you want, but the only thing that can consistently get it to generate anything a shade below the average Spaniard is “African American”, which tends to bring along a heap of other associated physical changes besides just skin tone. (I have to say, i don’t particularly envision Hermes as the eponymous Futurama character in my head.)

Hermaphroditus as an androgynous, twinkish fellow with three arms, laying down by a pond in a bed of leaves

It also has quite some trouble with arms and legs. Originally, i thought of its odd morphings and multiplications as a bug to be stamped out, but i came to see them as a feature, representing the manifold, varied aspects of the Gods, their omnipresence, transcending the limits of human form. (This is also why the Hindus do it, if i recall correctly.)

I would have rather the above portrait of Hermaphroditos been slightly more, ah, gynomorphic around the chest, so to speak, but i’d been trying to get a decent pose for what felt like an hour and i didn’t feel like fighting the blur anymore.

Dionysos as a three-legged and -armed bearded man, overweight but muscled, covered in flowers

So then — it’s a bit off in places, and lacks the leopard-skin toga i would have liked, and lord knows what the objects He’s holding are meant to be, and it turned out the computer really, really, struggled with the basic concept of a faun or satyr’s legs, but we end this post with DreamStudio’s interpretation of an icon of Dionysos, framed by some beautiful landscape.

Navigating through the neural net’s knowledge and limitations has been a fascinating, illuminating exercise, which has left no doubt in my mind that “AI art” is, indeed, just that: art. It seems to me much more comparable to something like photography than painting: rather than doing the hard work by hirself with brush strokes and pencil lines, the artist guides hir computer collaborator through latent space, pressing “click” when sie finds something appealing. One can only hope the Muses would approve.

Lords of Misrule 2021: “Dancing.png” (for lack of a proper title)

As the solstice arrives, the week winds down, and the days begin once more to lengthen, it’s time for our final submission for this year’s Lords of Misrule. This one comes from an artist known only as Newt S. For the last time this year, Io Saturnalia!

In the style of an old carving (of some sort), a group of anthropomorphic animals (including a snake, fish, flamingo, and what i think is a hamster?) dance in a circle wearing traditional European ceremonial dress as the sun sets behind their forest clearing.

My sincerest thanks for everyone for participating this year. I wasn’t expecting a single submission, let alone five of the bloody things.

The mystery of Newcastle’s vampire rabbit

Down a narrow alleyway to the back end of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, in Newcastle, one can find a rather curious decoration garnishing a door on the opposing façade. The “vampire rabbit” has stood watch over the cathedral for at least half a century; while records are scarce (a quick search of Google Books doesn’t bring up anything until the twenty-first century), it could well date back to the building’s construction in 1901.

Here’s a noticeably brighter bun, as it looked in 1987.

Here’s the thing, though. Nobody knows how it got there. Indeed, even the name “vampire rabbit” is a misnomer; its jet-black fur and red claws were added on some time in the 1990s,i as were its distinctly batty ears. Some say it was put there to scare away wannabe graverobbers, but i have my doubts that twentieth-century crooks would be so dumb.

Yet others posit that it represents a mad March hare, arising at the time of Easter, or that it refers to Thomas Bewick, a nearby engraver who had a fondness of all things lagomorphic. Most fascinatingly, a theory advanced by one Mr Adam Curtis suggests a Masonic pun in reference to one George Hare Phillipson, a local doctor (hence vampires) and active Freemason, as was the lead architect, one William H. Wood. It being a secret society in-joke would also explain why it’s located around the back, rather than the front, which faces onto one of the busiest streets in town.

Perhaps we might never know for sure. In any case, it’s a fascinating little secret — what do you think is most likely?

Other people's posts

Lady Waterford Hall

I don't know how some people do it, posting almost every day. I suppose my life just isn’t interesting enough for this sort of thing!

Anyway. I was going to write up a full post about a recent jaunt to Lady Waterford Hall, but my memory is awful and i’m not sure that it would be very interesting. Instead, here are some photos from the trip:

The inside of a small church hall, the upper heights of its walls covered in glorious paintings of Biblical scenes, the lower halves painted white and covered in smaller, framed paintings. The floor is riddled with chairs, information stands, cabinets, and other such auxiliaries. In the back of the shot, two people browse the store shelves, while two others work at the reception desk.
Pointing towards the gift shop.
A pre-Raphaelite painting on a wooden panel adorns the walls of the previously depicted church hall. On it, a golden-haired boy in a tunic holding a staff, David the Shepherd, stands proud, herding his flock of sheep as mountains recede in the background. He is depicted within a triangular frame, the top two edges inscribed with Biblical verse, the bottom edge blaring, in all capital letters, "David. The. Shepherd." Around the frame, two more portraits are inscribed in smaller circles, while the rest is painted with bright green leaves and vines.
A framed painting from the gallery. A blonde-haired student in a red shirt hunches over a vast tome resting on piles of yet more books, his head illuminated only by a lamp as he writes. Over him, in the grim darkness, watches the Grim Reaper, toyingly placing a halo above his heat. In the top left corner, the only other source of light streams in, a view of a dark cityscape at midnight.
“The Student”. This photo’s a bit more potato-y than the rest, because it was behind a glossy frame…

(If you’d like to visit, admission is free with a suggested donation of £3, and the place is wheelchair-accessible.)