To celebrate the launch of the Poetry School’s first-ever MP3 psychogeographical / literary walking tour of London (led by yours truly) I have a guest post on the Poetry School blog. You can read it here.
In his essay, On the Natural History of Destruction, WG Sebald describes he RAF and US Air Force raids on Hamburg on 27th July 1943. The aim of the operation was to destroy as much of the city as possible:
Within a few minutes huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some 20 square kilometres, and they merged so rapidly that only quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at 1.20 am, a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising 2000 metres into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out. The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches.
It is hard not to think of the wholesale destruction of Hamburg (and of so many German cities) even now when you are standing in its spotless squares. After all, it is only seventy years ago, still within living memory, that these unthinkable acts occurred – thousands of civilians simply set alight in their homes and on the streets.
Undoubtedly, the city bears its scars, if you know where to look. Sebald talks about the reluctance of many Germans, then and now, to speak of the air raids – perhaps for Sebald it was easier to face, as he was an infant when the war ended, and he spent much of his adult life in the UK, where the war is still very visible, constantly reassessed and discussed.
Hamburg, to a casual visitor’s eye, is a very peaceful and friendly city. We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof in the late afternoon, just as the light was fading. I was thinking a lot about Sebald after my walk around the East End of London a few weeks ago; I was inspired to reread Austerlitz, whose eponymous hero is a connoisseur of grand train stations. Parts of the Hauptbahnhof were bombed during the war, but it is still an imposing building, a symbol of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Imperial might.
As most of the station remains, it is easy to picture what this bit of the city would have looked like in 1938, before it was destroyed, when hundreds of children were put onto trains heading for the Netherlands and France via the Kindertransport. Eva Hesse was two years old when she left her native city. We think of her these days as one of the most radical New York sculptors of the sixties, in her cold water studio in the Bowery (back in the days when the Bowery was truly edgy), shaping latex and plastic into strange almost-organic forms. She must have carried Germany with her – although too young to remember Hamburg, something of the fear of the small child fleeing a war-torn place stayed with her. The attempt to use salvaged and post-industrial materials is all about taking things which are discarded, which do not appear to have an intrinsic value, and making something new of them. The spectre of death is everywhere – there are boxes she makes us peer into, like tombs; messy strands of rope-like tendrils that might have risen from some hellish swamp. Her mother survived the camps, and made it to New York, but committed suicide a few years later, when Eva was still a child. Eva faced illness as something inevitable – she died at the age of 34, but left a huge catalogue of work behind, as if she knew she had to work fast before her time was up.
At the Kunsthalle, the recent retrospective of Hesse’s work was paired with a new show of pieces by Gertrude Goldschmidt, known as Gego. Hesse and Gego share many similarities – both were strong-willed Jewish women artists who fled Hamburg to escape the Nazis – although Gego is a generation older. When the two-year-old Eva was boarding her train at the Hauptbahnhof, Gego was soon to follow, but by then she was twenty-six, already trained as an architect. She scanned the globe for somewhere she would be accepted, and chose Venezuela as a destination because it seemed to be the sort of place she could practice – a country that embraced modernism (at the same time that the Nazis were destroying any art they labelled as ‘degenerate’), where the war was a distant episode. The Caracas she arrived to was a vibrant and growing city, full of opportunity. It was here she made a name for herself designing a number of public projects, developing her ideas of kinetic movement, ‘drawings without paper’.
By putting these two artists side by side, the Kunsthalle created a dialogue between them – one that begins with the line as a vehicle for connection and cohesion, a way of finding a wordless order within the chaos they both fled. Gego continued to work until her death at the age of 82. She remained in Caracas her whole life, but like Hesse, never forgot her roots.
A month ago I posted in preparation for my Hayward course, The Point of the Poem, inspired by the Martin Creed exhibition What’s the point of it? Now I am posting at the end of the course, which seemed to pass very quickly – perhaps in the way that Creed’s work is often about something that can happen in an instant, a sudden revelation.
As predicted last month, we did go a little crazy, reciting Schwittersesque sound poems (even having a communal performance of laughter in the middle of the gallery), discussing Snowballs after experiencing the Balloon Room (or to give it its proper title, Half the Air in a Given Space), talking tempo after viewing a film of the rising and falling of a male organ (projected on an outdoor wall on a balcony of the Hayward – without doubt the strangest experience I have had in all my years of teaching). We ended the course on a good old fashioned debate about Creed’s work – its detractors labelling it puerile, tedious, shallow; its supporters calling it playful, humorous, celebratory.
And we did look at some fabulous poems along the way. From this sonnet by Edwin Morgan, a variation on a statement of John Cage’s (considering Creed’s use of repetition in his work):
Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words
I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry – John Cage
I have to say poetry and is that nothing and am I saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it
To a dash of e.e. cummings (thinking about Creed’s obsession with counting:
one’s not half two
one’s not half two. It’s two are halves of one:
which halves reintegrating, shall occur
no death and any quantity; but than
all numerable mosts the actual more
minds ignorant of stern miraculous
this every truth-beware of heartless them
(given the scalpel, they dissect a kiss;
or, sold the reason, they undream a dream)
one is the song which fiends and angels sing:
all murdering lies by mortals told make two.
Let liars wilt, repaying life they’re loaned;
we (by a gift called dying born) must grow
deep in dark least ourselves remembering
love only rides his year.
All lose, whole find
To this riff on the letter ‘A’ by Christian Bök (examining the way Creed uses chance operations in the work – for example, his stripe paintings, the length of which are dictated by the length of the brushes in his pack)
from Chapter A
(for Hans Arp)
Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard
as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an
alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars
all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A
madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh – a hand-
stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a
mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that
charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark
saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all
annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and
Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans
all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
Mostly, I wanted to pick up on Creed’s love of experimenting, of having fun – entering the work from a place of indecision, indeterminacy, just waiting to see what would happen next. What happened for us was that a collection of surprising and extraordinary poems were generated. We have Creed’s crazy vision to thank.
The poet Stephen Watts has a theory regarding how the character of Austerlitz, the eponymous hero of WG Sebald’s novel, came to live in Alderney Road (or Alderney Street, as Sebald has it). Sebald, who was a close friend of Watts’, used to take the train into Liverpool Street Station from his home in East Anglia; often the train would halt not far from the terminus, and through the window he might have seen the Jewish cemetery at the intersection of Bancroft Road and Moody Street. The Bancroft Road cemetery was opened in 1811 for the congregation of the Maiden Lane Synagogue in Covent Garden, but in the twentieth century it has been the victim of bomb damage and vandalism. It is a sad scrap of land, until recently unloved and uncared for (although there has been a local movement to improve and maintain the cemetery, as documented in this recent piece on the Spitalfields Life blog: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/01/25/at-bancroft-rd-jewish-cemetery/).
The Bancroft Road cemetery does not feature in Sebald’s novel, but it could be said that its very existence, its inevitable reminder of the not-so-distant past of this place and its people who have moved elsewhere, is a metaphor for the restless travellings of Austerlitz, in search of scraps (often physically contained in architecture) that might link him to his history – the history of the Jews all but erased from certain corners of Europe.
From that brief glimpse from the train, Sebald was keen to tour the area on foot, and with Stephen as his guide, he discovered many of the locations which have entered the novel. With Stephen as our guide, a small group of us arrived at the cemetery on Alderney Road, a place that Sebald describes as ‘a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century’.
Austerlitz cannot see the cemetery from his fictional house just along the terrace, but one day finds the gate in the wall open, and enters ‘a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.’ There is indeed something magical about this space, hidden from view by a high wall. As we entered, it was like gaining access to a secret world. Unlike Bancroft Street, this cemetery is orderly and well-kept. As the Jewish East End site mentions (http://www.jewisheastend.com/london.html), several celebrated eighteenth-century rabbis are buried here, including the Cabbalist Samuel Falk, who reputedly had mystical powers. It is in the house next to this cemetery that Austerlitz suffers from the first of a series of breakdowns. As an architectural historian, Austerlitz describes the panic that gripped him in terms of a cityscape:
If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching farther and farther into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl any more, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangement of parts of speech, punctuation, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog.
From one secret world to an even more secret world: over the wall at the back of the Alderney Road cemetery, you can just glimpse another older cemetery, the Velho Sephardic site. The poet and urban historian David Roberts (who accompanied us on our walk) is about to publish a collection of poems informed by this incredible place: http://davidjamesroberts.com/textworks/slab/
Our walk took us from the quiet rows of terraces and council blocks parallel to the Mile End Road, and onto the campus of Queen Mary college. Suddenly, we were surrounded by students, and noise and activity. Extraordinary then to find yet another burial site, the Novo Beth Chaim cemetery (which replaced the Velho cemetery in 1733) another trace of the Jews who made this part of London their home. It seems an odd survival, surrounded as it is by modern university buildings, until you discover that the a large chunk of the plot was sold to the college by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in the 1970s, and thousands of graves were exhumed and reinterred in a site in Essex, prompting fierce protests from the Orthodox community. Only a quarter of the cemetery remains.
Back to Austerlitz, who leaves his home in Prague on a Kindertransport and is sent to live with a couple in Wales, who give him a new name, and erase any trace of his past. He grows up without any knowledge of his roots; he never sees his birth parents again. I thought of this erasing of the past, the removal of all those graves, as we stood on the little footbridge over the Novo cemetery, students passing, hardly acknowledging this strange place of the ancient dead in the centre of their campus.
We continued along the Mile End Road, past the edifice of St Clement’s, where Austerlitz is temporarily hospitalised after collapsing in the street near his home. From the window of the hospital, he can see the vast expanse of Tower Hamlets cemetery. And here our walk ended, at the monument which appears in the book, where Stephen read us the following passage:
In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels, many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated, turned to stone, or so it seemed to me, at the very moment when they were about to take off from the earth. Most of these memorials had long ago been tilted to one side or thrown over entirely by the roots of the sycamores which were shooting up everywhere. The sarcophagi covered with pale-green, grey, ochre and orange lichens were broken, some of the graves themselves risen above the ground or sunk into it, so that you might think an earthquake had shaken this abode of the departed, or else that, summoned to the Last Judgement, they had upset, as they rose from their resting places, the neat and tidy order we impose on them.
Followers of Invective will recall the chapbook Formerly, my first project with designer and photographer Vici MacDonald. The success of Formerly demonstrated to us that there was a niche we might fill, as we discovered there were very few publishers willing to take on poetry/ photography collaborations (although since then there have been a few brilliant ones: I Spy Pinhole Eye by Philip Gross and Simon Denison http://www.cinnamonpress.com/i-spy-pinhole-eye/ and Wordless by George Szirtes and Kevin Reid http://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk/wordless.html to name two). And so, our press, Hercules Editions was born.
There was never any doubt what our next project would be. Back in 2010, Vici, me, and our friend, the poet Sue Rose, went on a trip to Paris. During our stay, we visited Personnes, Christian Boltanski’s Momumenta installation at the Grand Palais. I was familiar with Boltanski’s work – so much of it a statement on loss and memory, the great atrocities of the twentieth century, particularly the Holocaust – but this was devastating, overwhelming. The vast halls of the Grand Palais were filled with rectangular plots, like graves, filled with old clothes. Further into the hall, a picker on the end of a crane grabbed more piles of clothes and dropped them on a burgeoning heap, like a burial mound, like the piles of bodies, dead or nearly dead, that were discovered when the Allies liberated the camps (it is particularly poignant that I write this a few days after Alice Herz-Sommer, the last survivor of the camps, died at the age of 110). Laura Cumming summed up the experience in her review at the time:
You were in a necropolis, now you are in purgatory: balanced between heaven and hell, witnessing the hand of God. Except, of course, that you are in a freezing, cacophonous place surrounded by secondhand clothes and probably eager to be gone. That is the exceptional achievement of the piece. All its elements are frankly simple and apparent, you see how they combine, how it all works. Yet none of this stifles its resonant truths, that in the midst of life we are in death, that man’s inhumanity to man continues beyond Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda.
And into the huge echoing space came the sound of heartbeats; Boltanski’s other great work, Archives du Coeur, is an attempt to record as many heartbeats as possible, so that they might be eventually stored on an island off the coast of Japan as a permanent record of human existence. At Monumenta, you could have your heartbeat recorded to be part of the installation. Sue immediately queued up.
We were all moved by the work, but it was Sue who carried away not the recording of her heart (you could get a CD, but it was too late in the day by the time she’d had hers recorded) but the seed of an idea that would grow over the next three years, from a few initial poems that drew directly on the installation, to a whole sequence which formed her own ‘heart archives’ – poems about the people she loves. Vici and I watched the sequence grow and develop, out of that incredible experience that Boltanski gave us.
And so the book, Heart Archives, was launched in London last week. Rather than use images from the installation, Vici commissioned Sue to take her own photographs, on her iPhone (the technology which allows us all to be our own archivists), of things and people who matter to her. The result is a book which is intensely personal, but also very moving – we can all connect with the need to preserve those we love, to keep their flames burning even once they are gone.
I will end with a few words from Sue, from her introduction, on the process of making the images for the book:
It was a strange process, rediscovering and revisiting so many of our family’s valued objects which, despite being within easy reach, had been forgotten and ignored, gathering dust in dark places. I was saddened that many of them had either been damaged by the passage of years and neglect or stripped of their identities and resonances to become once more objects devoid of meaning and history. It reminded me again of the importance of preserving and documenting the artefacts from our own personal archaeology. If we don’t, we risk losing our heritage and, by extension, ourselves.
Heart Archives is now available. You can order it here: http://herculeseditions.wordpress.com/heart-archives/
It’s good to start the new year with projects, especially if those projects involve mooching around galleries and writing poems. Lately, I have been immersed in the world of Martin Creed, in preparation for a course I’m running at the Hayward on the occasion of their Creed retrospective, What’s the point of it? You can find a guest blog by me on the Southbank website:
So much of Creed’s work is about chance and order, and the collision of those two conditions. So much of writing is a similar activity. When putting together the course (which starts on Monday and runs for five weeks), I wanted to think about basic themes and structures, but I didn’t want to be too determined about how things should be. I want to go a little crazy, move my students (and myself) out of the usual poetry comfort zone (sitting quietly at a desk with a pen and a notebook, waiting for inspiration to strike), because Creed’s work is often about discomfort – looking at things we think we shouldn’t really be looking at, things we suspect don’t really belong in a gallery, at least not in the hallowed spaces of the National Gallery, or on the pristine white walls of Mayfair. There is a defiance in the work, poking fun at convention, having a laugh. I’ve been having fun too, listening to sound poetry, reading lots of John Cage and Edwin Morgan, a bit of Carl Andre, fiendish Oulipo experiments where vowels are suppressed and lines lengthened by measurement. And wondering how all these grand and batty experiments might still alter what we do and how we do it. It feels a bit like limbering up before running a marathon (of course I’m thinking about Creed’s Work No 850, which involved runners sprinting through the galleries of Tate Britain).
At the same time, I’ve been commissioned by the poets Catherine Smith, Emer Gillespie and Abegail Morley, who have formed a group called Ekphrasis to look specifically at the relationship between poetry and art: http://www.ekphrasis.org.uk/. They are asking 13 poets in total to respond to the current Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy. While not exactly as anarchic as Martin Creed’s show, the RA has commissioned six architects to come into the grand galleries of their Piccadilly building and let loose. The result is a show not simply of installations, but alternative spaces that (almost) make you forget you are in the RA.
But what I couldn’t forget while going through the show was that I needed to make a poem out of my experience, and that made me view the work differently, not just for its own merits, but also, and quite specifically, what could be mined from it? A quite mercenary approach to the gallery experience – one artist thinking what can I borrow, with impunity, from another artist (that is kind of the loose definition of ekphrasis, isn’t it)?
There was much I liked, but not much I thought I could use as a starting point for a poem. Not because the work wasn’t interesting, I just couldn’t see a way in for me. Something has to meet me on both an intellectual and emotional level (which takes me back to something Martin Creed has said, in negation to the idea that he is a chiefly a conceptual artist: ‘you can’t have ideas without feelings’). And then I walked into the space created by the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to say why something moves you. Maybe that’s why you have to write the poem, to explore the question. But as soon as I passed through the simple curtain into Li Xiaodong’s construction of hazel twigs, forming a forest-like maze, which opens onto a shingle courtyard, I knew it was the installation I wanted to write about. Not that I knew what I wanted to say, of course – I’m still struggling with the poem itself – but that this was the place that could open my mind and heart to a poem.
I suspect I’ve quoted this before, a statement on the source of the poem by my great idol, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, but it’s so great, it’s worth saying again:
Explaining a poem is difficult. The method is inherently unreliable. There is too much instinct and error in the process to make its initiator a good witness afterwards. Akhmatova says of one stage in her poetry “my handwriting had changed and my voice sounded different.” But such clear beginnings are rare. The truth is that every poem has a different hinterland: a terrain of chance and shadow, of images in life which stay put until they become images in language.
I like that idea of the hinterland. Maybe that’s what the gallery is to a poet, a ‘terrain of chance and shadow’ that we enter, hoping to be charged up enough to make something new.
I started this blog over three years ago to consider the intersections between poetry and art, and my personal impressions of the two. I generally post about things I like, and a few kind followers occasionally comment or share on Twitter. My last post, which dealt with what I consider poor public sculpture, received more comments on Facebook than any of my previous posts. Many people joined the thread to agree or post their personal favourite bad statue. A few people posted to defend the main subject of the piece, Meeting Place, the colossal sculpture of a kissing couple towering over St Pancras Station. A few of the defenders had a go at me for being ‘unromantic’ and ‘snobbish’; the latter I find particularly interesting, and I will come back to that in a moment. Although I defended myself on both counts, I didn’t mind, because I enjoyed the debate the post created. I have always maintained that I blog chiefly for myself, as a way of making a record of things that strike me (and sometimes those ideas feed back into poems) but it would be disingenuous if I didn’t say I’m pleased people read it, and feel the urge to comment.
Although the name of my blog might suggest otherwise, my posts tend to spring from a positive reaction, so I am fascinated that the one which has received so much attention stems from the negative. I wonder if it’s easier to be negative, or if there is a greater public reaction (mainly excitement) to dislike; certainly we remember bad reviews more than good ones, as the reviewer is often trying to build a memorable metaphor around negativity. The most famous literary example is Mary McCarthy railing against Lillian Hellman: ‘every word she writes is a lie, including and and the’. Only a clever writer could attack another writer by digging down into the minutiae of her syntax. Hellman’s reaction was to take out a multi-million dollar lawsuit against McCarthy. I’m not sure many people read either one of them now, but most people know the put-down.
We all know what we don’t like, and that dislike, indeed even hatred, often elicits a more passionate response than love. Certainly more visceral. Dislike can allow for humour: I will always remember Laura Cumming, the Observer’s art critic, saying that Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon sculptures were like ‘Action Man on top of a wardrobe’. I don’t agree with Cumming’s take on Gormley, but she is such an intelligent writer, and always manages to underpin her criticism with reason, that I always read what she has to say (and the Action Man dig did make me laugh).
Perhaps it is more difficult to express love or admiration without being clichéd or obvious, perhaps it is more difficult to pin down why we like something, why it moves us. Like seems to me to be a slower more considered process than dislike, which is something that hits you quickly. I didn’t have to look at Meeting Place for a long time to decide I hated it – my hatred was immediate and complete. To say why I hated it might be a slower process – finding the right words always is. But to say why I like something – in the case of my blog, often a work of contemporary art – is freighted with not just my personal inclinations and prejudices, but a whole warehouse of cultural baggage.
I am not an art critic (and I’m not sure what experience you need to be one). I have a undergraduate degree in art history, so that gives me a certain amount of knowledge, or at least background. Despite that, I find much academic art writing, and certainly the curatorial ‘art speak’ commentary that sits alongside most exhibitions these days, very off-putting. I am not sure if it’s the writing that exists around art – more likely the vast quantities of money, and possibly the difficulty of the art itself – that leads to the perception of elitism. To go back to Paul Day, the artist behind Meeting Place, he seems to be arguing that his work is a stand against elitism, in its appeal to ‘universal values’. Does it then follow that expressing a dislike for the sculpture is a kind of snobbery, an embracing of elitist ideals? Can we ever like or dislike anything without carrying our entire upbringing and education into the decision?
Perhaps not. But there are other artists that my education tells me that I should like, who are held up as great masters – Renoir and Rubens for example – that I absolutely hate. Something about excess, about colour, the mounds of flesh in Rubens, the profusion of pink in Renoir. Is that just down to taste? And how is taste constructed? Why do I love Joan Mitchell or William Scott? Some things grab you, channel into the already-existing patterns that you’ve established for yourself of what is beautiful and moving, and some things don’t.
And this is where language comes in. The project is not just to like or dislike, but to work out the words to express those reactions. It is subjective, but hopefully it might occasionally chime with others.
Public art. As a concept, we should embrace it: art for everyone, in an open and democratic space; its purpose to brighten our day, or provoke comment, or simply make us look at our familiar cityscape anew. And there have been many brilliant examples in London. The fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square (where the giant blue cock, the subject of a previous post, is still crowing); Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner; Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park (which was promptly closed as soon as the big event was over; I am looking forward to its reopening); absolutely anything by Moore or Hepworth.
So when the powers that be get these things right, they are extraordinary and vital additions to the environment. But when they get them wrong …
I have always hated Maggie Hambling’s ‘bench’ sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde. I compare this to Wilde’s grave, designed by the great Jacob Epstein, which must be one of the most beautiful and appropriate memorials ever created – with Epstein’s stylised male angel in flight, his wings like a ocean spreading behind him. To be fair to Hambling, I have mentioned her Scallop in a previous post, a tribute to Benjamin Britten and Aldeburgh and Peter Grimes, a remarkable piece which is for me wholly successful. But there are several things that work against her Wilde. Firstly, the strange composition, with Wilde’s bronze head emerging from a dark granite block that’s more like a grave – its role as a bench is not apparent, nor is the cold hard granite particularly inviting as a seat. The location doesn’t help – in a thoroughfare behind St Martin’s, across from Charing Cross Station; not a place many people think to stop (apart from the winos who congregate around the tube station exit). The head itself resembles a twisted mass of spaghetti or a horror movie zombie. It’s a strange, misguided piece.
But not as shocking as Meeting Place, the monstrous sculpture of two lovers embracing, like Rodin’s Kiss re-envisioned by Jack Vettriano. It is too huge to ignore, spoiling the beautiful lines of the magnificent St Pancras Station. There was a story that Ruskin used to make a long and indirect detour in his daily walk to avoid having to look at Keble College in Oxford (which offended his architectural sensibilities); no such opportunity for innocent commuters. I was coming off the train, having spent a lovely weekend in Paris, only to encounter the ghastly sight – it’s practically the first thing you see when you arrive in London on Eurostar. Antony Gormley (whose works of public art are always appropriate and resonant – just look at the way people have embraced his Angel of the North or his figures on Crosby Beach) has referred to it as ‘crap’. The sculptor is Paul Day – not exactly a household name – but a quick look on Wikipedia shows that he has other public works on display in London and Brussels. When his monumental piece for St Pancras was unveiled, he came out fighting:
This is not an art work that is going to be selected for the Turner Prize. It isn’t a Damien Hirst sculpture of a pregnant woman stripped down to the constituent parts. It is diametrically opposed to that sort of art. It isn’t about a cynical world view or the artist’s glory.
Some will say it is a chocolate box sculpture. But I don’t want it to be bound by the prevailing view of art. Meeting Place is an appeal to universal values.
I don’t see how a sculpture of a pregnant woman, by Damien Hirst or anyone else, represents a ‘cynical world view’. Also, I would be interested to know what the ‘prevailing view of art’ is exactly, at least as far as Day is concerned. He seems to be defending his own work, and at the same time attacking what he considers to be modern, and therefore not appealing ‘to universal values’. It’s like Munnings attacking Picasso (and who is the more famous of the two today?). Day’s attitude infuriates me, even more than his terrible sculpture, the idea that he’s presenting what people want, a radical campaigner in his extraordinary Daily Mail-type conservatism. Talk about ego …
Speaking of which, what government department, what small group of individuals with clearly no taste but plenty of opinions (and a control of the purse strings – Day’s piece cost £1 million), was actually responsible for choosing it?
Although I am interested in what is contemporary in art, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I would want Hirst’s pregnant woman encountering me in the train station. It goes without saying that public art should be appropriate to its surroundings. Further along the concourse at St Pancras is a work which is not shouting its value systems at its viewers. It is a conventional, figurative piece of sculpture which is also never going to be up for the Turner, but it is a perfect little celebration of one person – the poet John Betjeman – who, as the laureate of both the Northern suburbs of London and the great Victorian structures of the city, would be delighted to find himself, a compass point, in the middle of the throng, his raincoat catching the breeze like a sail.
I started my Biennale round-up with the Netherlands, and now I am moving to Belgium, the Netherlands’ neighbour, not just on the map, but in the microcosm of the world that is the Giardini – a small Low Countries coalition. And so I move from Mark Manders to Berlinde De Bruyckere.
What links them for me, apart from the fact that they are of the same generation (and roughly the same age as I am) and that they both live and work in Belgium, is something to do with mood. For their respective installations, both artists are utilising found materials (there were a lot of found materials this year, as if artists are busily raiding junk shops and skips in the face of austerity), but these materials are transformed to represent something vast and wordless, a sense of failed promise, as we are presented with things that are broken, impossible to mend.
De Bruyckere’s work often concentrates on the human – the body contorted, twisted into a shape which is not physically possible, but expresses the cry of suffering, like Francis Bacon in 3D. She is sometimes referencing the grim crucifixions of the Netherlandish Renaissance, or the Belgian battlefields of the first World War, but there is also something of the way we live now, often in terror and in fear.
In De Bruyckere’s Biennale installation, there is a single massive felled elm tree that crowds the gallery floor, so huge it occupies the whole of the pavilion. Whereas the Scandinavian pavilions displayed trees that were standing, healthy and in growth, De Bruyckere’s tree appears dead, toppled to horizontal, with branches that look like broken and bleeding limbs, wrapped in hessian. The tree is ill, pale, it doesn’t feel solid; on closer inspection you realise it’s made of wax, as if it might melt into nothingness, its limbs are the colour of flesh. The pavilion is dark; De Bruyckere has blocked out the light with hessian sacks. No light can come in; this is a netherworld, a haunted forest.
The first inspiration for the work came when the artist was driving through France after a storm and encountered a massive, uprooted tree in the road. De Bruyckere said that ‘the image came to mind of a collapsed cathedral, the roof vault thrown to the floor.’
The artist wrote to the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee about the tree. He in turn wrote the following piece for the show, a meditation on its name:
Cripplewood is not deadwood. Deadwood: in the mythology of the American West, the town of failed hopes where all trails end. Cripplewood, by contrast, is alive. Like all trees, the cripplewood tree aspires towards the sun, but something in its genes, some bad inheritance, some poison, twists its bones.
The lexical tangle around ‘kreupelhout’ – cripplewood – gnarlwood (gnarled, knurled, knarled are all the same words in variant forms):
The cripplewood tree that cannot straighten itself, that grows bent at a crouch; from whose limbs we get crutches for those who can only creep; a tree of knotted limbs, gnarled, snarled.
Knots are of two kinds: the rational kind, creatures of human reason, that having been tied can be untied; and the kind that occur in nature, for which there is no loosening, no solution, no oplossing.
‘Cripple / kreupel’: a word no longer in polite use. Rejected as unclean, it is dismissed back from the world in which it came and to which it belongs, a world of hovels and tenements, of open drains and coal cellars and horse-drawn carts and starving dogs in the streets. An unwanted word, pressed back, repressed, buried. The cripplewood tree grows out of the buried past into our clean present, pushing its knotted fingers up through the grate / gate behind which we have shut it.
The whole pavilion becomes that coal cellar, a deep dark place where things are shut away and allowed to rot. Not out of place in the great city of decay, which has its dark corners and sad entanglements.
Coetzee says of De Bruyckere’s work, ‘her sculptures explore life and death – death in life, life in death, life before life, death before death – in the most intimate and most disturbing way. they bring illumination, but the illumination is as dark as it is profound.’
It is interesting how reputations are set once an artist dies. Anthony Caro, who died last Wednesday, was described in various obituaries as ‘Britain’s greatest sculptor’ and ‘one of the finest artists of his generation’. Sometimes the loss of a great figure creates hyperbole, but in the case of Caro, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he changed the course of sculpture in this country.
From the moment Caro decided not to become an accountant, as his father wanted, and to go to art school, he was single-minded in his pursuit of what came before, as a way of working out what to do next. He learned much from painters, specifically from Picasso and Matisse, who challenged the two-dimensional space of the canvas. It was only after he became an assistance to Henry Moore, perhaps Britain’s greatest sculptor of his day, that he really received the education he desired. Moore threw books at him, showed him classical sculpture, African tribal work, anything that would be useful for the younger artist. But the main thing Moore gave him was the ability to see sculpture removed from the plinth, removed from the gallery altogether. And that’s where Caro took off:
What we wanted to do at that time was to make sculpture work as something in its own right, not as something that depended on its likeness to nature. We wanted to make it more fully abstract, just as music is abstract. But sculpture’s materiality always tries to suck the sculpture back into the world of things. It was for this reason we had to open sculpture up. Our intent was to repudiate the object – and naturally our starting point was painting, Cubism and Matisse. Abstract sculpture began to take charge of the space it occupied, first by standing on the same literal ground as we do, then by bringing the floor itself to bear on the work, and later by taking into its realm table height and the wall.
Caro wasn’t interested in casting. He was interested in taking already-existing materials (as all artists seem to do now) and working them into a particular form. He was interested in colour – his love of Matisse showed him that colour can pitch nature into an entirely new perspective, and there he met abstract expressionism and later pop art head on. He made sculptures that were entirely themselves, which occupied a particular space, and resonated. He was interested in scale, how we measure up to things. He said:
Public sculpture identifies place. It gives the city-dweller a sense of ‘being somewhere’. And so it has to call to its surroundings and to the public. It can – and I believe nowadays it often should - invite participation. How a sculpture is seen by the viewer is always of extreme importance …
I thought of this just a few weeks ago when I was at the Museo Correr, for the Biennale’s Caro retrospective – what was the be his final show. There was a room of early drawings, which I had never seen before, and which gave a sense of the sculpture playing with ideas of weight and depth on paper.
Caro’s work, which was always playing with the new, but with a nod to the old, looked right at home in the hard and shining marble and terrazzo of the Correr. I watched a couple walk around and around one of the larger free-standing pieces that filled an entire gallery, trying to find the welding marks. They finally concluded, as one must, that the sculpture does not come apart, it is not a flat-pack assemblage. And then they turned to the guard and asked how they managed to get it into the building (the Correr’s temporary galleries are on the 4th floor of the palazzo), and the guard pointed to the large double window. And we all had an image of this great flying bird, something fantastic, scaling the heights of the edifice, with all of San Marco watching in amazement. We know the works weigh tons, but they also feel weightless, light, effortless, flowing.
Leaving the Correr and coming into the pristine square of San Marco, I was left with a celebration of form and shape – abstract, yes – but always placing us in the frame somehow, that idea that we should not simply be spectators, but participants. And that is immensely uplifting in an age where so many things are presented to us virtually, on screen. I’ll finish with these words from Caro himself:
All the artists I believe in are some sort of optimist. Optimism of this sort, like serenity, is hard won. Art is a religious activity – it’s about living. Decay and dying are something else. I can’t allow myself self-pity or a morbid attitude. There’s too much left to do in the studio. That’s the source as well as the place for my optimism.