The Night Climbers of Cambridge
20 September – 20 October 2013
The Night Climbers of Cambridge is a pioneering curated project by French artist Thomas Mailaender. The exhibition comprises 75 vintage photographs used for the correspondingly titled book by Noel Howard Symington, published in 1937. The artist’s creative re-appropriation of these images breathes new life into this body of work under a contemporary artistic milieu.
For the first time the display room at Roman Road is painted black, instilling the exhibition with a sense of nocturnal darkness and giving prominence to the images of the climbers that cover the walls. Among the wall-mounted, framed and cascading pictures, climbing holds feature in the installation space, creating a route for the bravest audience members and reflecting the artist’s jocularity.
CV / press release / essay
Why should Thomas Mailaender, a contemporary artist known for his impudent provocations, want to present us with photographs of students climbing on the roofs and walls of colleges in the University of Cambridge in the mid-1930s?
The Night Climbers of Cambridge was first published in 1937 by Chatto & Windus, a respectable publishing house in London. The book, illustrated with photographs, has been reissued. Mailaender, attracted by this peculiar venture, bought the original pictures and assembled them as a travelling exhibition.
It is an odd initiative, at first sight, but Mailaender has always been attracted by makeshift spoofs and charades. Nothing attracts him more than a tacky stunt where all the seams show. He is at home in the soft underbelly of the internet where self-satisfied egotists hog the limelight as they compete for delusional awards. In one noteworthy presentation he features as a beaming prize-winner holding onto outsize cheques, posing for the publicity department. He has a fondness for shaky facsimiles and rackety cover versions. His pictures of Algerian vehicles, piled high with possessions and scavenged discards, taken as they wait to embark in the port of Marseilles, looks like nothing so much as a Beuys exhibition chanced on in transit. The catch in that particular venture is that, by a small stretch of the imagination, it can look like a worthy instance of sociological photography - a 'project'.
Mailaender is a saboteur. Bathos is his preferred mode. His cherished targets are credulity and complacency. He finds contemporary life, which includes contemporary art, ridiculous, pathetic and endlessly entertaining. Long ago, before the night plied their saucy trade on the walls of Cambridge, he would have been at one with Karl Kraus, who was someone else who appropriated pictures. Kraus's leitmotif, you will remember, was the hanged body of the separatist Cesare Battisti displayed for the camera and for posterity on a board in the moat of the Castello del Buonconsiglio (July 12, 1916). In this famous group portrait the executioners and their accomplices look very happy to be involved. Kraus presented it as a conclusive indictment of the Austrian Empire, and it did go down in history as one of the great symptoms.
The Cambridge adventurers, even though they are not evildoers nor utterly absurd, serve Mailaender's purpose. They meant no real harm, for they couldn't have done very much damage to the tender stonework of the ancient university. All the same they were subverting something, perhaps a contemporary idea of manliness. Climbing, at the time, was a challenging business carried out regularly and hazardously on rock faces in the Lake District and in Wales and even in the Alps and on Everest where Mallory and Irvine came stylishly to grief in 1925. In this context fooling around on the buttresses of King's College or St. John's could only be taken as child's play. The nightclimbers, headed by Noel Edward Symington, must have been seen by contemporaries as self-publicists attracted by soft challenges.
They weren't even doing anything very unusual, for any amount of famous names had amused themselves on those famous walls:Geoffrey Winthrop Young, for example, a famous alpinist and author of The Roof-Climber's Guide to Trinity in 1899. What set the new generation apart was its interest in publicity. They photographed themselves in action using lights, which drew the attention of passing policemen. They were, that is to say, participating in staged events of their own devising at a time when such events were becoming popular in the British press: studio pictures, for instance, of films in the making and of early TV shoots at the Alexandra Palace. Meanwhile in the real world the Spanish Civil War was in full swing - Guernica was bombed in 1937. In depressed Britain the government was at its wits' end and the unemployed were up in arms the famous Jarrow marches also took place in 1937. The night climbers, checking the authorities and falling foul of 'Robert', the policeman, played a studiedly inconsequential part in this ghastly montage.
Why, though, should anyone want to publish a book on nightclimbing? Maybe Chatto & Windus thought they had identified a niche market amongst Cambridge graduates. There was also the idea of Cambridge as a quintessential part of the fabric of Britain. Earlier in the l930s Alfred Eisenstaedt, working for the Berlin company Pacific & Atlantic, visited Cambridge and took pictures of handsome punters in tweed jackets, which in the German press were set alongside pictures of ragged British veterans staring into advertising material. In the British paradigm Cambridge featured as a picturesque privilege and as a leisure zone in which japes were expected. Anyone looking at the pictures would very quickly have passed from the technical difficulties of 'chimneying' the columns in the portico of the Fitzwilliam to the idea of Cambridge as a freewheeling creative zone. It is likely that Mailaender has identified affinities between the student climbers of 1937 and his own milieu in the year 2013.
Look at one of his recent undertakings, commissioned by a French institution specialising in the collection and preservation of vintage photographs. He agreed to eat a number of photographs and to be recorded in the act. The result is a mediocre piece of video in which he chews rather grudgingly in front of the camera. But what an idea, for anyone mixed up in the conservation of old photographic masterpieces knows just how carefully cherished they are. Did he eat an early Fox Talbot, you wonder, or a scarce Gustave le Gray? You can recall connoisseurs from the Met, for example, studying waxed paper negatives and covetable material by Roger Fenton. Perhaps one day their collections of masterpieces might be used for the lighting of fires. Mailaender's is, in fact, a sublime art in which an apparently trivial motif opens onto a great beyond such as the end of time as we know it or a scarcely imaginable reversal of values.
In another recent venture he borrowed negatives from the admired collection of the Archive of Modern Conflict and used them to print images onto the skin of student volunteers, using a sun lamp in the process. Isn't it dangerous, you say weakly, what with the dangers of skin cancer and the like? Objections like that make no difference to him and are probably part of his intention for they introduce intimations of torment and death into a commonplace context. He skirts the abyss of awful warnings and hideous outcomes, knowing that we carry this sort of material around with us and that all he has to do is to activate it. The knack is to hit on the most effective motif, the one with the greatest amount of background.
In a moment of weakness or of inspiration he had the word FUN tattooed onto his backside - amateurishly by the look of the lettering. But what about the times later on in life when it isn't fun or when the skin goes slack and the letters blur? Maybe, too, there will come a time when 'fun' is looked at askance or construed as an archaic cliche. His forte is the wider context and the longer reaches of social time, when what we currently take for granted begins to look odd. He is interested in what you might call aesthetic parallax, a process in which commonplaces are to be seen from afar or anew, hence his interest in the Cambridge nightclimbers and their sidelong references to manly mountaineering, to sheer cheeky publicity and to the grandeur of their university become no more than a site for stunts.
Ian Jeffrey, 2013