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Ian Breakwell
Breakwell is perhaps best known for his Diary works.

Originally, from the mid-1960s onwards, these took the form of entries variously written, drawn, photographed or collaged, and then published and exhibited in gallery spaces; subsequently, in 1984, Breakwell himself adapted the format for television in Ian Breakwell's Continuous Diary and the follow-up Christmas Diary for Channel 4. It is important to understand that Breakwell's 'diaries' are not personal recollections being made public, nor are they records of significant dates in the diarist's life - quite the opposite. Indeed, many of the texts are written in the third person, rather than the first person as one might expect; rather than enjoying the confidences of the author, the reader is forced to imagine the motives of this often detached and sardonic observer - as Breakwell puts it, 'you can get a mirror image of the person behind the Diary based on what he chooses to comment on'. A not untypical entry from the written reads:


Travelling in a taxi past London Zoo. Over the wall is a big cage, in the centre of which is a tree without leaves. Two men in boiler suits are crawling towards each other on their stomachs along the branches on either side of the tree.

The archetype of Breakwell's diaries is the tableau: everything resolves itself into an image. As much in his writing as in his other work, Breakwell tries to present daily life with the sudden violence of a snapshot; his writing aspires to illuminate, like a flash of lightning, the contours of the frozen habits and societal masks he sees all around him.


The woman in the blue trouser suit walks around the thickly carpeted Bond Street art gallery, inspecting the expensive prints on the wall. She ignores the small, long-haired dachschund which grips the bottom of her right trouser leg with its teeth. She drags the dog along the carpet as she moves from print to print.

In fact, the Diary began in 1964 as a purely visual sketch of the day's events and many of the most striking pieces are those originally exhibited in galleries. In The Walking Man Diary (1979), Breakwell produced a series of collages based around photographs of a man who passed regularly and inexplicably beneath his Smithfield flat window; beneath each photo was a description of the man's route ('past the windows filled with automatic tea makers'), the calm observations punctuated with occasional interjections ('mad as a brush!').

One precursor to Breakwell's Diary is Mass Observation, the group founded by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings in 1937; aiming for 'an anthropology of ourselves', they and their recruits turned the instruments of anthropology, usually reserved for quasi-colonial studies of the third world, upon the inhabitants of Bolton and other British towns, cataloguing their work and leisure activities. The resulting 'reports', characterised by their elaborately alienated descriptions of quotidian British life, became a kind of conduit for European Surrealism into provincial England.

What Breakwell particularly shares with the Mass Observers is a hostility to rigid scales of value. In one episode of his 'Christmas Diary', he gives a '1984 Review of the Year' in which, mocking the glib convention of the annual round-up of notable events, he concentrates solely on the ups and downs of his own year (breaking for a moment the impersonal tenor of the Diary). Similarly, his video piece 'The News' (1980) has a television newsreader solemnly delivering absurdly trivial items fashioned in the style of the most provincial local newspaper.

If some of these television pieces, including the Diaries, seem less successful than his other Diary work, it is partly because they don't offer the same rigorous relation between word and image as his other work, too often merely reenacting scenes from the written Diary. Perhaps too, they are affected by the rise of the video diary, which has radically recast the whole diary tradition within which Breakwell is working, albeit oppositionally. But even so, these experiments in television led directly to Public Face, Private Eye (1988), Breakwell's subsequent essay series for Channel 4, which marked a new direction in his work.

Page from 'The Walking Man Diary' 1975-78 (detail), taken from Continuous Diary 1965-78/Circus
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