Insignificance: David Briers Celebrates Documentary Art That Transfigures the Everyday

Article excerpt

'Making History', the valuable survey at Tate Liverpool of the impact of documentary practice on British art since the 30s, is as much about the impact of British artists on documentary practice as the other way around. As Tate acknowledges, there has been 'a sustained, though complex and changing dialogue between art and documentary in Britain that continues today', and despite the inclusiveness of the exhibited material, it is impossible to resist identifying some of the numerous tributaries, underground streams, and silted creeks into which the exhibition might have gone.

A rule of thumb that you could use to trace a route through the 'Making History' exhibition could be to divide the exhibits into two sorts: those that document in some way unique historical events, and those that document insignificant, everyday events, conferring upon them an unwonted status, even transfiguring them. The latter class includes notably the exhibits related to Mass-Observation, founded by the young Humphrey Jennings, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson in 1937. Hijacking the scientifically objective matrices deployed by sociologists to collect documentary data (though of course, none of them was a trained anthropologist or sociologist), they deployed these like the literal hand-held framing devices used to view picturesque landscape subjects in the 18th Century.

The photographs and submitted diary texts from volunteer observers that were selected by Mass-Observation for publication were like sociological found objects, evoking Jeff Nuttall's 1979 venture at a definition of performance art as 'the human being and his behaviour used as a found object'. The people in Humphrey Spender's 30s photograph of a Pram ride in the park stand, as if posed, like the sentinel figures in a Delvaux painting. They might be carrying out the instructions for Tom Phillips's Postcard Composition, Opus 11 No.1, 1970, which read: 'Buy a postcard. Assume that it depicts the performance of a piece. Deduce the rules of the piece. Perform it.'

Humphrey Jennings' short-lived and fashionable formal engagement with Surrealism is well known, while for Charles Madge, Mass-Observation was as much a kind of poetry as scientific sociology. Jennings and Madge's collage-documentary text May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation day surveys 1937, including such things as the diary of a man who, on the day of George VI's coronation, observes a dead daddy long legs on his windowsill, anoints himself with hair oil, and spends the day arranging boxes on shelves, certainly comprises a Surreal disruption of the orthodox historiographies of state events. Nigel Henderson, who was familiar with the photographic images accrued by Mass-Observation, reflected their surreal aspect in his own photographs of street life, as subsequently the photographs of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr were to do. You will currently find an entry for Mass-Observation in popular dictionaries of sociology, but not in dictionaries of art. But with the acceptance into mainstream current art practice of process-based and text-centred work, Mass-Observation is on the verge of finding its way fully into the visual art world as a component of avant-garde Modernism.

Never intending to site its activities discretely within an academic loop, the publications that appeared under the Mass-Observation name were popular and democratic in tone. Mass-Observation hit a national nerve and became a household name. However, just as the early British documentary filmmakers who also feature in 'Making History' had to teach themselves how to make films, in its earliest phase Mass-Observation was a hybrid, collaborative, home-made project.

The 30s Mass-Observation activities and publications have much in common with a later genre of non-gallery based art in the 60s and 70s. These ephemeral artworks ironically applied the methodological matrices of sociological research, and bureaucratic formats, to apparently banal everyday occurrences. …