Traces (influences from W.G. Sebald)



Traces is an exhibition by artists Leigh Chorlton, Tim Le Breuilly, and Robin Wu, who have put together work influenced by the writings of W.G. Sebald. Each have their own personal interpretation and influences from his writing, which in turn is imbued in their drawing, painting, and printmaking.


Using a kind of holistic journalism/social scientist approach to writing, W.G Sebald’s books meander through peoples stories, architecture, ecology, and history, threads that speak of an overall human destruction. The books are melancholic in tone and have an outsider perspective, examining identity and belonging through displaced lives (as in ‘The Emigrants’) and from the Narrators perspective (Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz) looking in on the development of humanity as though from a distant standpoint.


Sebald uses photography in his books to make subtle links that create visual threads. All the images are black and white, generally grainy, and sometimes difficult to make out, becoming black splurges against white overexposed sections. Sebald himself scanned his images through a photocopier until the quality depleted, relinquishing the power of the photograph as a ‘document’ or upholder of the real. Photography’s strength lies in its misleading power to convince us of its irrefutability, as archival photographs can be faked, whereas drawings and paintings are primary documents and cannot be faked.


If this were a photography exhibition the work would likely be about the way photographs both document and dissemble reality, like the images employed in Sebald’s books, though in using traditional artists materials this obvious connection is redundant, and therefore so is the connection between Sebald’s photographs and our own documentation. The transference of meaning from writing to representation becomes more oblique, the results perhaps more difficult to measure, and unless copying or being literal, of which these artists are not, the links remain allusive, fragile, modest, provisional.


Sebald’s influence on artists is far reaching. The Documentary “Patience” made in 2012 by director Grant Gee (Joy Division) about Sebald’s book “The Rings of Saturn” has contributions from artists and film-makers including Tacita Dean, Robert MacFarlane, Sir Andrew Motion, Rick Moody, Iain Sinclair and Marina Warner, all espousing the influence that Sebald has had on their work. This exhibition is a small contribution highlighting the influence Sebald has had on these three artists.


Leigh Chorlton has exhibited in London through the Cynthia Corbett gallery and was part of Glasgow International in 2010 with Solo show “Retro Renaissance”. He also set up and runs Whitespace, a gallery in Gayfield Square.


Tim Le Breuilly is currently on a residency at Fettes College, he has previously been shortlisted for the John Moores painting prize. He has also contributed curatorially to exhibitions at Talbot Rice gallery following the success of 'Sunbear' an artist-run gallery initiated with colleagues that exhibited internationally acclaimed artists including a Turner prize nominee.


Robin Wu has shown work in Edinburgh and London including a solo show at Leith school of Art in 2011. He has studied at The Princes Drawing School, Leith School of Art and has a BA Hons in Graphic Design from Camberwell College of Art.







A text to accompany the Retro Renaissance exhibition 

Written by

Leigh Chorlton

April 2010

Although retro derives from the Latin prefix meaning backwards or in past times. the title for my show Retro Renaissance I conceived as an Oxymoron, in that the current definition of retro only encapsulates and recycles  twentieth century culture. Another reason is that Retro at present isn’t regarded as an art definition at all, though Postmodernism does seem to share certain characteristics with retro culture: -

Just as historians and philosophers began to question the representation of history and cultural identities, art and design began to reflect these changes. The Attributes of retro, its self-reflexiveness, its ironic reinterpretation of the past, its disregard for the sort of traditional boundaries that had separated ‘high‘ and ‘low‘ art, all echo the themes in Postmodern theory.1

A Postmodernist retro could ironically encapsulate all history, because a post-modern retro is a parody of retro culture, and to comment on retro is to question its parameters. Perhaps we are living a Retro Renaissance right now; that is a Renaissance of retro culture, in which the incredible acceleration of information in our lives creates an aggressive recycling of the past. A past that becomes unbearably lightweight in its re-telling. Postmodernism reflects this recycling of the past in art, where we have found new ways to tell ourselves our own history that is palatable and simplistic. Retro Renaissance is a comment on these methods, emptying out the content to counteract current difficulties in coming to terms with the past in the present. 

I don’t mean to make out that all history could be retro, or that this is a viable proposition for mainstream culture (this would be a scary prospect), or make out that I’m particularly serious about introducing a word not used in art, but I am content to play on words to reveal the complexity and interconnectedness between art and culture, and in my art play with the representation of retro. This playfulness is my attraction to the attractiveness of a lite history but simultaneously with misgivings at this lightness; wanting to say or believe in something more.

This project is a tongue in cheek revival of a revival with my sense of humour; and asks the question why we are destined to always search for the future in the past, always reliant on the art and language of the dead. And yet whatever we create with an eye on the past it can never be the same, and never have the same meaning. Always distorted by the context of the now, emergent within a different cultural significance. If the past is there to help us to understand ourselves in the present, we have to know the past to help us understand whether what we do now is any good. Looking to a past time and its art is to go through a process of discovery to somehow find a truth about ourselves through comparative means. To inhabit a genre of painting and play with its significance is to sift out what is important in that genre to our present, though what seems to come up time and time again, instead of a serious post modern study, is an ironic attitude to the past that makes light of history in a post modern context, yet without irony art is in danger of looking kitsch and lacking in realist perspective, as irony suggests self-reflexive truth in knowing whatever art you make is first and foremost made and therefore a theatrical construct.

It seems to me that the Renaissance exists in a separate entity. That the values held are alien to our current circumstances even though inherently European. This is perhaps due  to its context, where Renaissance art is only available first hand in museums or cathedrals, standing apart from everyday life suggesting otherness and a place of escape or contemplation. There is a tendency to appropriate both before and after the Renaissance but not during; it has an untouchable quality, a sanctity, and at its height perhaps impossible to equal in beauty and skill. 

After Modernism we seem to have attempted to lose the consecrated in art. Modernism is traced back to Kant and the reformation, ridding representation of sensuality, ritual, effigies, and figurative imagery, resulting in puritan consecrated thinking and turning art into conceptual thought. With Kant sensuality and talent are contrary to truth; skill for the sake of skill becomes what is evil in art. After modernism, Postmodernism allows for the sensual to come back into art in the practice of art, where it opens up and accepts retro’s half ironic, half nostalgic terms. A sensuality diffused by joking around with itself... Not taking itself seriously.  

The irony has come about, in my mind, by an overly aware and overly conceptual view of our landscape as a construct based firstly on analysis, recording, and observation. This analysis is then re-read back to ourselves to gain perspective on what constitutes our culture. It looks at sameness within difference, difference within sameness; Life becomes discursive rather than lived. This mechanism is shown in Michael Foucault's “The Will To Knowledge” where sexuality is transformed slowly from the seventeenth century to the twentieth into a discursive practice in order to control and define a moralistic code of practice; a way in which to be free of sin in religious terms, defining sexuality in the public sphere in order to control the private. Culture encapsulates everything, and because of this it is also meaningless. It a silent notion that has a hold on the real or the everyday through political correctness, social graces, and taboo. Postmodernism is precisely this knowing look at cultural discourse, looking with scepticism the position in which this discourse has placed art. Kantian puritanical thinking does not allow the sensual to come back without irony and facetiousness.


Representation is a part of, and a coming to terms with, this discursive process in culture. Art historian  Louise Milne writes: -

The mind is visualized as (or at) an interface, which is always a plane of representation. To say this veers towards tautology: that we cannot represent processes of representation, other than through processes of representation. Yet it is Freud’s great insight, of course, that the interfaces of brain, body and world are four dimensional; representation itself limits perception, like a curved mirror stretching out of sight. 2

This limitation of representation can be seen when artists use historically heavy subject matter like the holocaust such as Anselm Keifer or Christian Bolanski. Anthony Julius in his book Transgressions The Offences of Art writes in relation to Boltanski and the Chapman Brothers: -

Only a non-transgress art practice, one that acknowledges the certainty of its defeat and is willing to efface itself before its subject, while knowing this subject is an impossible one, can negotiate such perplexities. It must be Allusive, modest, fragile, provisional. It must give witness to the inadequacy of images, and therefore its own inadequacy, to retrieve the lives that were extinguished: see the lost, unrecognisable faces in Christian Boltanski’s Reserve (1990). It is an art that meets its subject at the minds limits. It knows that there are limits to representation that cannot be removed. 3

These limitations of representation like a curved mirror stretching out of sight, is analogous to all retro historical works. The impossibility of representing something past in the present. If it becomes commemorative then it places the work purely historically, which is no use to the present. But it cannot trivialise by making it just about the present either as we need the past as a guide. It must walk a tightrope between the two and show all the pitfalls and difficulties of representing something that is not representable.

Perhaps the future is a place where nothing takes precedence; no historical era that is dominant; all eras are all at once. Anything history has to offer is usable and transformable, away from its former distinction or semblance of itself. Retro is no longer big comebacks of certain styles or eras taking hold of a culture. It is many comebacks constantly merging into one another. The one way dream of modernism lost, and retro perhaps was the last vestiges of that dream. Guffey writes quoting Baudrillard: -

The great event of this period, the great trauma,’ he writes, ‘is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and the rational that open into an age of simulation’ 4

These strong referentials that looked as thought they existed still in early retro phases such as in Art Nouveau have been reduced to mere simulation. Guffey goes on to say “for Baudrillard, retro attempts to resurrect the past ’when at least there was history’ along with the unconscious, he argues, history has become one of the few enduring myths of our age” 5  Perhaps retro has also lost the fight for attempting to bring back a notion of history into the present.

My work is not about the Renaissance and never could be. It is about a cultural phenomenon that I am drawn to and bewildered by… Retro culture, retro is Lite, retro does not speak of something deep or profound, retro is spoon fed, retro teaches to think less, retro is escapism, forgetfulness, Retro isn’t questioning in what it appropriates and doesn’t ask deep questions. Retro is only concerned with the present, stylistic gesture. Unless of coarse it’s a parody of retro.

In art parodies of a long past aesthetic can be found in today’s art. Though my work is not nostalgic… it is not possible to even associate with a past so incongruous to our own. An aesthetic so Alien. My usage of the renaissance is a post modern retro renaissance. Bringing together a past aesthetic with Postmodernism to make something new. Irony is there, alongside the question of visual recycling. I pose my work as question...can art accept any history sampled from the past? 

Its not so much that working retrospectively is a dud canon, it is that a return must be questioning the present and not style for the sake of it. This requires an understanding of the present cultural construction and bringing back something that runs counter to it. Post modern art is here perhaps to test culture and the viability of its constructed boundaries. Art will test cultural tropes and try to override them… there to be played with.

1  Guffey. Elizabeth, Retro: The Culture of Revival  Reaction Books 2006 pg 21 

2  Milne , Louise. The homunculus in the Box (2009) 

3  Julius, Anthony Transgressions The Offences of Art  Thames and Hudson 2002 Pg 221

4  Guffey pg 28

5  Ibid pg 28

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