Driving to Auckland at 5.30 this morning, half asleep or half awake, I am not sure, I was zoning out to David Bowie when his spectacular song Life On Mars came on. Coincidentally, or not, fresh in my mind were Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings due to falling asleep last night looking at them.

As the lyrics I am very familiar with began, so did very strong images to accompany it – all in  Bosch style visuals. A story was playing out in my head in a typical Bosch palette, a story that made no sense – a quality of Bosch’s work

In an article by Dean Kissick which explores the idea of Bosch’s apocalyptic work being so relevant in 2016, he comments on the mystery of a Bosch painting:

‘Bosch is confounding even to those with an advanced understanding of medieval Netherlandish mysticism and ecclesiastical symbolism. His meaning is impossible to pin down.’

‘In the painted world of Bosch imagination and reality intermingle, and everything appears to meld together in a continuously inventive game of exquisite corpse. People turn into animals turn into musical instruments and kitchen utensils and back again. Essences and forms are very fluid in this world, as though anything can somehow be possessed by a magical spirit or a demonic force. Even an inanimate objects such as a kitchen funnel might sprout arms and legs and start chasing angrily after us. So what are these monsters, a visualisation of our desires? A representation of our corrupted forms? Some parallel universe that only the artist can see?’

I find this a strong quality of Bosch’s work, this work that cannot be interpreted, even in present day when many art world participants are so damn intellectual  and dying to pigeon hole artists- this confusion and inability to pinpoint a great theory on his work is genius. The wonderment of the characters and their relation to each other, the narrative quality, the other worldliness, the gift of an alternate reality as an escape from this one – although as Kissick points out, Bosch’s reality in his paintings are getting scarily close to our present day reality:

‘Hieronymus Bosch shows us not how scary the world is, but how ridiculous. The reason his paintings of heaven and hell appear so relevant today is because we are now living in them, and the boundaries between people, animals, and objects really are falling apart: 2016 is a world of avatars and branded mascots, a place with robotic household appliances that talk to us, and an internet of things, with human ears growing out the back of mice, and otherkin teenagers dressing up as their animal forms. Thousands of writhing naked bodies are only a couple clicks away, and most of our perverse fantasies have been visualised somewhere, even those involving octopuses and vibrators. The field really does have eyes and so much of what happens in the world is captured on video, from the coral reef’s weirdest creatures, to the orgiastic sex tapes of the super-wealthy, to the scenes of bloody massacres; on our illuminated screens, as in Bosch’s triptychs, scenes of horror intermingle with others of joy, so close to one another, and this complexity and contrariness seems the very essence of the present-day experience.’


“Life On Mars?” By David Bowie

It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling, “No!”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns

But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on


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