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.
This is the first of a few posts on the Venice Biennale. I begin with the Dutch artist Mark Manders.
Manders’s installation is entitled Room with Broken Sentence. When entering the Dutch Pavilion, an imposing modernist building by Gerrit Rietveld, you are confronted with windows which do not allow you to see inside; they are entirely covered with sheets of newspaper, as if the whole place were a building site, a work in progress. Once in, the newspaper curtains have the effect of blocking out daylight, so the lighting has an artificial quality, the overly-bright, slightly greenish tinge of ‘public’ areas, such as waiting rooms and offices. I didn’t realise until I was leaving again that the newspapers are invented, the text nonsense – words strung together to look meaningful, in the typography of a standard broadsheet. Headlines read Zest: Criticizing Flawiest Untwisted and Ontogenesis barbarites pinkishnesses seamstress. What’s the meaning of this meaninglessness?
Manders says, I covered all the windows of the entrance with fake newspapers. Like a thin layer of skin, the outside world is separated from an inner world … I cannot use real newspapers, because my work would then be linked to a certain date and place in the world … The newspapers consist of all the existing words in the English language. Each word is only used once.
Inside it’s as if everything in the space is covered with a fine layer of dust, and in one corner there are planks of wood propped against a screen and more in a corner, covered with a plastic sheet, as if left unfinished. Manders says, All my works appear as if they have just been made and were left behind by the person who made them. Busts of women are arranged on plinths, like classical muses in a gallery, but they too are unfinished, in rough, uncast, still-wet clay, dissected by slivers of wood. Some have wild hair sneaking through the timber. They are provisional, a bit scrappy, but each face wears the same calm expression. A young girl, also modelled in clay, is winched to a table surrounded by chairs (the sort of sleek modernist furniture that suits the structure). She’s armless, arms replaced by a plank of wood, a crucifixion of sorts. Her single leg balances her against the edge of the table, so that she hovers over the scene like a broken angel. She recalls Greek and Roman beauties with limbs missing, scatted in museums around the world, but she has the face and body of a child, too young for this kind of breakage. One huge face towers over the rest, again shown to us in cross-section, framed – no, interrupted – by a huge wooden frame.
Everything is broken, intersected, thrown together. It is disturbing, but not violent. The space is calm even in the disruptions it presents. There is something incredibly unsettling about the space – I was then interested to find this quote from the artist:
I don’t often show my work in the public domain, rather in museums where people choose to go to see art. But since 1991 I always test a work that I’ve just finished in a supermarket. I just imagine a new work there and I check if it can survive where it doesn’t have the label of an artwork. It is just a thing that someone placed in a supermarket. Now I am sure that all of my works can stand in that environment.
Sadly, I missed the off-site extension to Manders’ installation, his Fox/Mouse/Belt placed in a mini market off the Via Garibaldi.
There is something timeless about Manders’ work, as if it could have been made at any point in the last century, or even earlier – a part of a sculpture excavated from an ancient site and then displayed. Manders says, There is no difference between a work made twenty-four years ago or just a single day ago. Like the words in an encyclopedia, they are linked together in one big super-moment that is always attached to the here and now.
I will continue my tour of the Biennale with the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere.
I have experienced Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet on several occasions. The work consists of a circular arrangement of 40 speakers, each speaker playing a recording of an individual member of the Salisbury Cathedral choir singing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in allium. Visitors are invited to walk amongst the speakers seeking out single voices, to become a participant in the music, rather than simply a listener. Cardiff has said of the installation:
While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position. With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music. Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct. As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.
I have heard the piece in pristine gallery spaces – at the Whitechapel in London and at the Baltic in Newcastle. The purity of the space, the absence of distractions (and the absence of human beings apart from gallery visitors – simply disembodied voices singing) has given it a particular ghostly resonance. So I was interested to see how my perception of the piece would alter hearing it in the hallowed spaces of the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval outpost, a gathering of French and Spanish ecclesiastical structures collected through many grand tours and bequests, and reassembled on a hill in Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River and the bucolic shores of New Jersey.
I lived in that neighbourhood, known locally as Inwood, during the summer before I moved to London. My boyfriend at the time found the sublet, attractive for its cheapness (we were both unemployed college graduates). I remember writing in a poem at the time about how the low rise 30s blocks looked like old radios. It was a proper old-style New York neighbourhood, completely untouched by gentrification, occupied by ancient Irish men, hard-up Julliard students (we had a tuba player across the courtyard from us who was not popular) and young Hispanic families. The Hispanic residents brought a bit of excitement to the place with their bright bodegas, full of votive candles depicting various saints we’d never heard of (which we used to collect and light in our kitchen), and coconut vendors, who occupied the corner near the subway. There were a lot of Haitians in the neighbourhood, and my boyfriend told me they held Voodoo ceremonies in the park on summer nights. I was never sure I believed this, until one day I found two pigeons tied together with their heads sliced off. Strange to think that the park might have been home to such rituals, and also home to the Cloisters, a little slice of Medieval Christianity in Manhattan. But that has always been the city’s gift, to be able to accommodate the community of the world in its tight grid.
Cardiff’s installation makes you forget all the clamour of the streets outside. In all the occasions I’ve experienced it, what has struck me is how it reduces the world to the moment you are experiencing it. In other pieces, Cardiff uses urban landscapes as stage sets for her narratives, but here, she wants you to forget everything else, so that the music allows you to explore internal narratives instead. And watching fellow visitors, you feel they are experiencing a similar shift, that they have forgotten where they are, and that this extraordinarily beautiful music is having a profound effect, whether they believe in God or not. In that respect, Forty Part Motet operates the same way in a pristine white space as it does in a religious setting – perhaps it works best when there are no distractions at all – but placing it in a chapel reminds us of the original source of the music, as a devotional piece. Conversely, it made me realise that for me the pure white gallery space is my place of refuge, and what I look for is that simple transaction between the artist and the viewer (or listener) that can change the way you feel about the world. I was just beginning to put those thoughts together the summer I lived in Inwood, the summer before I moved to London. I used to walk in the park and look out over the Hudson and wonder what my life in London would be like. Listening to that music, back in the Cloisters after many years, what I realised was that for me it taps into something much larger than individual or place, something unknown.
The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne served for four years as US consul in Liverpool. During his time in England he wrote the following:
The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.
My mother used to carry this quote inside her wallet, which is when I first came across it, long before I had myself become an expatriate. My mother would not have known when she cut it out of ArtNews Annual in 1966 (where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery in an article about American painters in Paris) that she was to spend the last five years of her life in London. But something attracted her to Hawthorne’s words, perhaps a sense that she was in some way an outsider, especially during her childhood in Newburgh, New York. She found the invigorating air Hawthorne talks about in Manhattan, a place (with a Native American name) that doesn’t really belong to America, international and cosmopolitan as it is. And I found that invigorating air in London, so I’ve never really believed Hawthorne’s assessment. For years now I’ve maintained that I become more foreign each time I return to the US, and to a certain degree this is true. My accent puzzles people, they can’t place me, can’t work out where I’m from. But in my 28th year as a Londoner, I feel as if Hawthorne’s words are pertinent, and I am going through an identity crisis.
This came to the fore during my visit to SUNY Fredonia, where I had been invited to give a talk and a reading of my work. The students seemed especially curious to know how I ended up in London (most of them were around the age I was when I left the US), if I found British words and expressions creeping into my work, if I thought I had a different view of London than those who’d been born there. During the reading I found myself darting between New York (I read a number of poems from my Jackson Pollock sequence) and London (characterised by Vici’s Formerly photographs). London is my home now, but there is something that continues to draw me to my birth country, especially now that the ties I have to it are increasingly diminishing.
My father would have been 100 earlier this month. I started my trip at his grave, with a copy of Christina Rossetti’s Selected Poems, a stone to lay, and some of my mother’s ashes to scatter. Rossetti has been a poet very much present for me over the last few months. If Rossetti has a ‘theme’ (and I believe most poets do) it is mortality and remembrance. It has struck me powerfully in recent days that once someone is permanently gone from your life, your memories are all you have left; selected and constructed from life, but still edited highlights, and therefore often unreliable. I have always loved this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, which for me captures perfectly this condition:
Times Like Places
There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on, unlooked-for
and welcoming, while a North Sea gale
spat spume at the rattling windows.
And most August middays can take him
to the village in Sachsen-Anhalt,
its windows shuttered against the sun
and a hen sleeping in the dusty road,
the day they picked cherries in a garden
so quiet, they could hear each other breathe.
Nor can he ever be on a ferry,
looking back at a boat’s wake, and not think
of the still, glassy morning off the Hook,
when it dawned on him they didn’t talk
in sentences any more: didn’t need to,
each knowing what the other would say.
The worst was Aberdeen, when they walked
the length of Union Street not speaking,
choking up, glancing sideways at each other,
but never at the same time. Black cats
and windy bridges bring it all back,
eyes stinging. Yet even this memory
is dear to him, now that no place or weather
or time of day can happen to them both.
On clear winter nights, he scans the sky
for Orion’s three-starred belt, remembering
whose arms warmed him, the cold night
he first saw it, who told him its name.
It is that idea that place, as much as the people who occupy it, also vanishes with time. With this in mind, my husband and I took a drive through Colts Neck, the small township in New Jersey where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. My mother had a framed picture of our house on her wall in London; the house is still standing, but it is much altered, and I found myself wondering if we had come to the right house, even though I knew for certain it was the one. I would have stayed in the car, but Andrew, curious about the place I’d talked about for years, got out and rang the bell. And someone was home, a woman who had lived in the house for the past 26 years, which immediately cheered me — someone loved it enough to invest a good portion of her life there. She asked if I wanted to have a walk around the grounds, and I said yes, even though part of me wanted to drive away immediately. What was strange was the sense of confusion I had in a place I thought I would always be able to navigate, as I knew every blade of grass. But that is because my childhood home has been sealed in memory, and in the land of memory, nothing ever changes. But the memory bank for the house closed thirty years ago, and in real time, much has happened, people have got on with their lives. I found the only way I could really navigate the familiar alien terrain was by certain trees that were still standing; many had gone. But I came away thinking that as much as I remembered, I was not remembered. The house was not sentimental, it would hold whoever occupied it, the same floorboards would creek under different feet. The windowsill in my old room where I’d carved my initials had been certainly painted over years ago.
In her years in London she missed America terribly, the familiar air. As much as she always loved London, her memory of the city stretches back to the early 50s, and the many years she came with my father. The London I live in was sometimes difficult for her, as most cities are when you are older. She used to love the towpath along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, where she walked for many years. As I walked the towpath for the first time in many years, I thought about why we love places, why they become important to us. Canals are interesting places, a man-made intervention in the landscape created to connect one body of water to another. Longtime Hopewell resident Paul Muldoon has written about the canal, making the connection between himself, the Irish poet living in America, and the Irish navvies who dug the canal (many losing their lives in the process) nearly 150 years ago.
My mother just thought it was a pretty place to walk. And it is — the long towpath separating canal from river, so you feel as if you are on a island, isolated from the busy world around you. But it is also a place of connections: land to water, water to water. She didn’t know she’d be making the long journey over the ocean so late in life. I realised as I scattered more of her ashes on the towpath that I was bringing her home, to her invigorating air.