Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss

It's that time of the year when the National Gallery starts to seem humid and crowded, but take the stairs down to Level 0 and you find yourself almost alone. I had Room C to myself yesterday and was able to have a good look at the Gallery’s two newest acquisitions, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827) by Johan Christian Dahl and At Handeck (c1860) by Alexandre Calame.  Neither are as immediately striking as the Calame on loan hanging next door, Chalets at Rigi, with its bright Alpine sunlight and misty purple distances, but after a while I started to appreciate Dahl's Norwegian landscape, painted after a trip he made back to the country of his birth in 1826.  Dahl left Norway originally in 1811 to study in Copenhagen and there is a letter he wrote there in which he says ‘first and foremost I study nature – a pity there are no cliffs and water here, but then one has to make do with the water fountain.’  It must have been a relief to head back north and sketch a real cataract, although in this painting Dahl, characteristically, does not try to make it appear too spectacular.  The falls are just one part of a wider landscape of dark slopes and trees under a wintry sky. 

The new wall text for The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss notes that this location is now the site of a hydroelectric power station.  Reading this I imagined curating a whole exhibition of paintings of rivers that were subsequently tapped for their hydroelectric power - images of the Romantic sublime that could only now be depicted in terms of the industrial sublime.  In providing this information for the visitor, the Gallery turns the painting into a kind of an environmental art work.  But Dahl was not painting a pristine wilderness.  The foreground is strewn with tree trunks that are too large to have been felled by the river.  They were the product of a lumbering operation were logs were thrown into the river and then collected downstream.  Thus the forest trees and running water depicted in this painting were already being treated as a 'standing reserve' for technological exploitation when Johan Christian Dahl passed this way, nearly two centuries ago.

Johan Christian Dahl, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss, 1827

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Shiogama Bay

To Kings Place last night for Yugen – the mysterious elegance of classical Noh, part of the Noh Reimagined weekend.  It featured Yukihiro Isso on nohkan flute along with five other artists designated by the Japanese government as Important Intangible Cultural Assets: two actors from the Kanze school of Noh and three drummers.  Yukihiro has combined his career in classical Noh with improvisation - as you can hear in the recent Cafe Oto performance embedded above - and has worked with people like Cecil Taylor, John Zorn and Peter Brötzmann.  He represents the 15th generation of a family of Noh musicians and his collection of flutes includes heirlooms that are five hundred years old.  The concert yesterday ended with music and dance from the play Tōru by Zeami (c. 1363 – c. 1443), whose account of his exile on the island of Sado was the subject of a post here last month.  Here is the story of the play, based partly on the synopsis available on the Noh Plays Database.
On an autumn evening a monk visiting Kyoto comes to a mansion, where he meets an old man who is carrying buckets of brine on a pole, even though this place is far from the sea.  The curious monk is told that this mansion used to belong to Minamoto no Tōru.  Long ago he had built here a replica of the scenery of Shiogama, a place renowned for its saltwater bay.  Tōru requested that people carry brine every day from Naniwa to fill the lake.  He let people bake sea salt in his garden until his death.  Afterwards the mansion became deserted.
The monk and the old man talk about the mountains of Kyoto and the exquisite harvest moon.  The old man disappears and the monk realises that he must have been the ghost of Minister Tōru.  The monk goes to sleep and in his dream the ghost of Minister Tōru returns, appearing now as he did when he lived in this mansion.  Illuminated in the moonlight, he dances to elegant music whilst recalling his beautiful home with its replica of the saltwater bay.  At dawn, Tōru returns to the capital of the moon.
It was this this last dance that we saw, with the shite (main role actor) Masaki Umano gliding slowly round the stage, dressed in a shade of pale blue that suggested the view over a saltwater bay, while behind him the flute and drums traced the course of Tōru's remembrances.  As I watched, I thought about landscape and memory: the Minister compelled in life to build a replica of a place he had loved, returning from death to try to keep alive this simulacrum and then transformed from an old salt carrier to the nobleman he had once been. 

Zeami's play (which I have referred to here before) draws on a story that has its origins in a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, who visited this mansion shortly after the death of Minamoto no Tōru in 895.  Tsurayuki's poem refers to the lonely beach and vanished smoke of Shiogama, as if he were looking at the real bay instead of its replica.  Tōru's death is alluded to in the image of smoke that no longer emanates from the salt fires tended by his servants.  It was said that Tōru had ocean fish and crustaceans living in his lake.  The real Shiogama Bay (now a harbour for Shiogama City) was a renowned beauty spot (Matsushima Bay, as the wider area is known, with its rocky islands rising out of the sea, is one of the Three Views of Japan).  Shiogama was, according to legend, the first place in Japan where salt was extracted by boiling sea water.  In The Art of Japanese Gardens (1940), Loraine E. Kuck speculated that Tōru may have originally seen Shiogama on an expedition to what was then the country's northern frontiers, where Ainu tribes were still fighting the advance of the Japanese.  Back in Kyoto at his villa on the banks of the Kamo, while his servants boiled salt on the edge of his lake, Tōru could 'sit and watch the ever-changing flutter of the smoke banner across the sky and romantically imagine himself far away in the picturesque north country.'

Kikuchi Yosai, Minamoto no Tōru, 19th century

Friday, May 06, 2016

Forest, Field & Sky

A programme about art in the landscape can currently be seen on the BBC iPlayer: Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature.  It is presented by Dr James Fox, who sets out his ambitions at the beginning of the programme: "I'll trek through forests and fields, around gorgeous gardens and to the very edges of our island and I'll gaze afresh at the skies above.  What I find will I hope change the way we think about the landscape and it might just change your view of modern art."  As this opening indicates, the programme was not written as a critical appraisal of British land art - it is more of an introduction for nature lovers who have a passing interest in art.  Nevertheless I found it an enjoyable hour's TV, well worth watching.

I'm afraid that what will remain most prominently in my memory is the moment (22 minutes in) when Andy Goldsworthy, having all but completed a stack of stones balanced laboriously against an old tree trunk, sees them overbalance and come crashing down.  There are no expletives, just a moment of sad resignation with bowed head, then a slow climb down his ladder.  After the broadcast, on Twitter, @doctorjamesfox revealed that this Sisyphean labour was in fact eventually completed, at the sixth attempt.  In addition to Goldsworthy the programme features four other famous names - David Nash, Richard Long, Charles Jencks and James Turrell - plus an artist whose work I had not seen before, Julie Brook.  In the early nineties she spent two years living in a cave on the island of Jura, abandoning painting in favour of making constructions called fire stacks.  Fox encounters her on a remote beach on the island of Lewis where she has been building one of these Goldsworthy-like circular structures at low tide, filling it with wood and seaweed to be set alight.  As the water rises and the sun goes down, the fire burns and the light of the flames flickers on the waves.

Ash Dome is a work of much longer duration.  David Nash tells James Fox that clips of him working on it over the years show the sculpture gradually growing while he just gets older (Fox tells us he wasn't even born when Nash planted the saplings in 1977).  The programme then moves on to Richard Long, shown only in archive footage; Fox gamely retraces his 1968 ten-mile straight-line walk across Exmoor - tough going but a lot shorter than some of Long's subsequent walks.  After a digression on eighteenth century landscaping at Stourhead, which brought back pleasant memories of my visit there a couple of years ago, Fox is shown round Jencks's Garden of Cosmic Speculation.  Finally he visits Turrell's Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and sits inside, gazing up at the blue aperture of sky as it slowly darkens.  He says that art like this teaches us patience, although in the programme's speeded up footage, night encroaches in a matter seconds.  It is a reminder perhaps of the central message of the film: that this art is about experience that can only be found away from our screens, outside in the landscape.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Golden Island

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Nichiren going into exile on the island of Sado, 1835-6

Exile has been a spur to some of the greatest literature: would we have The Divine Comedy if Dante had not had to leave Florence and learn 'the bitter taste of others' bread'?  It could be said that the whole 'rivers-and-mountains' tradition in Chinese poetry stems from the exile of Hsieh Ling-yün in 422 to the wild southern coast.  Literary heroes from Prince Rama to Prince Genji have found themselves sent into exile.  Just recently I was looking round the National Gallery's Delacroix exhibition which includes his painting Ovid Among the Scythians.  Beyond the small group coming to the aid of the poet, there is a dark, inhospitable landscape.  The banishment of a writer like Ovid can evolve into a kind of legend itself, the historical facts having become lost to us.  Here I want to write about the exile of Zeami Matokiyo, banished in 1434 at the advanced age of seventy-one by the shogun for reasons that are also no longer fully clear.  He was sent to the island of Sado, a place that already had a long history as a place of banishment - the great Buddhist monk Nichiren, for example, was exiled there in 1271.  Zeami is famous for in the West for his Noh plays and writings on aesthetics, but 'The Book of the Golden Island' (Kintosho, 1436), which describes his journey to Sado, deserves to be better known.

Arthur Waley, in his anthology The Nō Plays of Japan, wrote that Zeami's Kintosho 'bears the same relation to his plays that Basho's prose-sketches bear to his hokku.'  It is shorter than Basho's travel sketches, only fourteen pages in the translation Susan Matisoff published in the Winter 1977 edition of Monumenta Nipponica, and structured in eight sections.

Jakushu: Leaving the capital, Zeami reaches the port of Obama where he looks across the bay to the mountains.  He had visited this place before, many years ago, but now his memories of it are uncertain.  

Sea Route: His boat sets sail across the northern sea to Sado.  Far to the east, the mountain of Shirayama (now called Hakusan) is visible, wit hits lingering snow patches.  Other landmarks are sighted as the boat travels day and night.  Finally, he sees pine trees amid dawn waves: Sado.

Plaec of Exile: Zeami makes his way inland and stays at a small temple where water trickles through moss and the walls are damp and weathered.  He looks at the moon, a lingering connection to the capital for it can be seen from there too.

Hototogisu: This section contains a story that Arthur Waley translatedThe hototogisu (Japanese cuckoo) can be heard everywhere on Sado but at a certain shrine.  Minister Tamekane, exiled to Sado, had composed a poem there asking the singing birds to leave because they reminded him of Kyoto.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Hototogisu, mid-nineteenth century
Images source: Wikimedia Commons

Izumi: At this place in Sado Zeami is reminded of another exile, Emperor Juntoka, whose poetry he quotes.  Juntoka lived with the pure heart of a lotus and at Izumi 'must have walked the refreshing path', the road to the Pure Land paradise.

Ten Shrines: Time passes: autumn, winter, and in the spring of 1435, Zeami composes a poem to the gods of the Ten Shrines.

Northern Mountain: Zeami meets a man who tells him of this golden island's origins.  Here on the highest peak the 'light of the moon of Buddha's nirvana' has shone unceasingly.  Zeami comes to accept that he must live for a time this unsettled life of clouds and water.'

Firelight Ceremony: The last section of the Kintosho focuses on the traditional ceremony marking the beginning of the cycle of the seasons.  It concludes with these beautiful lines:
'Look on these words,
The plover tracks
Of one left on the Golden Island,
To last as a sign, unweathered,
For future generations.'

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Black World

I did a post here back in 2010 about Trevor Paglen, the artist-geographer who has explored the 'black world' of US military and intelligence agencies.  I focused then on his 'limit telephotography' in which restricted landscapes, cut-off and unseeable with the naked eye, can be glimpsed using high-powered telescopes.  Today I popped into an excellent small exhibition of his work to coincide with the Deutsche Börse prize (like the exhibition of Richard Mosse photographs I described here two years ago).  Three exhibits of particular interest from a landscape perspective:
  • They Watch the Moon (2010), which you can see above in the window of the Photographers Gallery, is a beautiful vista of hills completely covered in rich green vegetation.  At their centre, a constellation of artificial lights and the dishes of telescopes arranged in a circle like orbiting moons.  In an essay on Paglen's work, 'Visiting the Planetarium: Images of the Black World', Brian Holmes has written of this photograph that whilst we may see in it something grand, an image of the cosmic relation of earth and sky, in fact 'the radio telescope depicted is devoted to banalities: it picks up stray cell-phone conversations bouncing off the lunar surface from halfway around the globe.'
  • Untitled (Reaper Drone) 2010, is just as visually stunning: a late-Turner swirl of yellow light - the desert sky near Las Vegas - and caught in the image the tiny silhouette of military drone.  This series of photographs, the curators explain, are achieved with a large-format camera trained on the sky: 'when the film is developed, small insect-like drones are peppered throughout the images.'  There is another, Untitled (Predators), not in the exhibition, which could be a high cirrus sky over Suffolk - an ominous contemporary version of Constable's cloud studies.
  • NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Marseilles, France (2015) partly comprises another large-scale landscape photograph, juxtaposed with a nautical map onto which various diagrams and images have been pinned like the visual prompts on a crime investigation board.  The view of rocky islands in the bay of Marseilles inevitably brings to mind The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel that features surveillance, secret locations, political plots and, here where the NSA-tapped cable came ashore, the fortress prison where the novel's hero is cut off from all communication with the outside world. 

Paul Cézanne, The Bay of Marseilles from L'Estaque, c. 1885
(a postcard of this painting is one of the items Paglen has attached to the map of Marseilles)

Having written this I see that the Photographers Gallery have just today posted an interview with Paglen on their website.  In this clip, embedded here, he talks in front of the map of Marseille about the way his work aims to make visitors look at the world more closely and more suspiciously.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Composing in the Wilderness

This week I thought I would highlight a website called Landscape Music and the associated Landscape Music Composers Network.  They are run by a Brooklyn-based artist and composer, Nell Shaw Cohen, who writes of having tried 'to achieve the sonic equivalent of what visual artists accomplish with landscape art. I coined the term “Landscape Music” to communicate this ideal and philosophy.'  Among the projects on her CV is an app, Explore John Muir’s Yosemite.  Looking through the biographies of the Network composers on her site it becomes clear that California, the American National Parks and John Muir are recurring interests.  The soundcloud above, for example, is Jenni Brandon's The Sequoia Trio, 'inspired by the Big Trees in Sequoia National Park and the words of John Muir'. 

In this video clip you can see Rachel Panitch, another of the Network composers, playing the fiddle in Zion National Park.  The film also provides an insight into the way the National Parks' artist-in-residence programmes facilitate this kind of work.  Such schemes are welcome and it will be interesting to see what kind of music they give rise to in future.  I can't help thinking though that the way the park authorities pay for an artist to reside in a cabin is a little reminiscent of the way wealthy eighteenth-century landowners employed hermits to occupy huts on their estates.  These hermits would sometimes have to make themselves available to speak to visitors, just as the modern artist in residence needs to give occasional talks or performances.  One composer, Stephen Lias, has been taking advantage of several of these residencies to build up a body of work that responds to the parks' rivers, forests, mountains and storms.  Some of this music has been collected on a CD, Encounters.

Stephen Lias calls himself an 'adventurer-composer' and some of his research sounds quite arduous.  For the Gates of the Arctic National Park residency he was required to prove his fitness beforehand on a 10-day backcountry patrol.  He has led a regular field seminar with other composers in Alaska, 'Composing in the Wilderness'.  Its website advises applicants that they'll have to make do with pen and paper (no electricity) and notes that 'it is important that all participants are comfortable “roughing it” in close quarters for a few days.' Another Network composer, Justin Ralls has described being a participant on the first of these trips, reflecting on his need to get away from city life and wondering to what extent he was being a 'creative tourist' in the wilds of Alaska.  It would be easy to find historical precedents for this kind of activity too in the Romantic period.  Nowadays, wilderness expeditions organised for the benefit of artists are an alternative to the residency model - I have referred here more than once to the Cape Farewell trips which included composers and sound artist like Jarvis Cocker and Max Eastley.

John Muir & Theodore Roosevelt above Yosemite Valley, California.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it came to making a work about Yosemite, Range Light, Stephen Lias chose to work from photographs by Ansel Adams rather than his own direct experiences of the National Park.  Justin Ralls has written an environmental chamber opera, Two Yosemites, about the famous camping trip that President Theodore Roosevelt took with John Muir.  His Tree Ride, for orchestra, was 'inspired by Muir, backpacking, and listening to the breath of the world in California.'  He has also composed a string quartet, Tree Wavings, which derives from a beautiful passage in John Muir's The Mountains of California.
“We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travellers in an ordinary sense. They make little journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journey, away and back again, are little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.”

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Henri Le Sidaner, The Quay: View of the Quai Long in Bruges, 1898
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When landscape reflects the emotions of a fictional character it is usually through some mood of the weather, but sometimes there is a more profound connection, when a location is sought out because it resonates deeply with a particular state of mind.  This is the case in Bruges-la-Morte (1892), the short Symbolist novel by Georges Rodenbach, whose bereaved hero finds solace in the melancholy streets of the old medieval city.  Bruges, Rodenbach says in his preface, 'establishes a powerful influence over all who stay there.  It moulds them through its monuments and its bells.'  In an essay he published three years earlier, The Death Throes of Towns, (included in the Dedalus edition I am quoting here), Rodenbach decribed the city as stricken by a kind of consumption.  The cause of this was the silting up of the waterway linking Bruges to the sea, isolating it economically and leading to its slow decline.  The essay ends with a memorable passage in which the city's mute pain mirrors that of a troubled soul.  In Bruges,
'one gradually submits to the creeping counsel of the stones, and I imagine that a soul, bleeding from some recent, cruel sorrow, that had walked amidst this silence, would leave that place accepting the order of things - not to live any longer - and, beside the neighbouring lake, sense what those gravediggers of Shakespeare said of Ophelia: it is not she who goes to the waters, but the water which comes to meet her grief.'  (Translated by Will Stone.)
Fernand Khnopff, Book Cover Design for 'Bruges-la-Morte', unknown date
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A 2005 article in Frieze describes Rodenbach's use of photographs in Bruges-la-Morte, which could be seen as prefiguring Andre Breton's Nadja and the writings of W. G. Sebald.  
'The images were taken from the picturesque local stock of prints and postcards sold to tourists; they picture a city almost wholly uninhabited. Occasionally, minute figures in the distance have even been excised, so that these photographs, in 1892, are already outdated, resembling daguerreotype city views of half a century earlier, with their vanished or blurred citizens.
'For the most part these photographs of deserted squares, looming bell-towers and impassive façades have been left out of subsequent editions of Rodenbach’s novel, as though they added a touch of distracting realism to his dreamlike narrative. The opposite, in fact, is the case: where the story merely reflects the lurid expectations of the writer’s Parisian audience, the photographs reveal an act of grand deception — the Bruges they depict is in many places an architectural concoction of the 19th century, a renovation further finessed by the photographers’ choosing to leave out the incidental evidence of modern life. In an inexplicable twist to this tale of trompe-l’oeil medievalism the latest edition of the book, from Dedalus Press, has replaced the original images with 23 new photographs taken by the translator: once again the ‘real’ town has been carefully cropped out.'

Photograph in the 1892 edition of Bruges-la-Morte
This and others can be seen at Wikimedia Commons

I have been looking back at some old photographs I took in Bruges almost exactly a century after the book's publication, but even with some careful cropping I don't think they would convey a sense of melancholy (I should have risen earlier perhaps, before the tourists, when the streets were empty and autumn mist still hung over the motionless canals).  A modified version of Bruges is the basis for one of the most remarkable images drawn under the influence of Rodenbach, Fernand Khnopff's The Abandoned Town (1904).  Here too there is an absence of people and even the statue is missing, leaving just an empty plinth.  An incoming tide is starting to cover the stones of the Woensdagmarkt.  Instead of having been separated from the sea, the city here looks as if it is being flooded and abandoned to the waters.

Fernand Khnopff, The abandoned city, 1904
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frances Fowle's essay 'Silent Cities', in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, describes Rodenbach's influence on artists like Khnopff and Henri Le Sidaner (called the Rodenbach of painting by one critic).  Knopff, she says, 'spent part of his childhood in Bruges, which he described as 'truly a dead city, unfrequented by visitors'.  As an adult he allegedly wore opaque dark glasses while travelling through the city, so as not to confuse his memory with modern reality.'  She notes however, that visitors had been drawn to Bruges before Rodenbach, including Holman Hunt and Rossetti, whose poem 'On Leaving Bruges' describes its grey towers under a sunless sky.  Baudelaire too had been there and called it a 'ghost town, a mummified place that smelled of death and the Middle Ages.'

After Rodenbach, more writers of 'dead-city-prose' emerged (a type of writing it would be interesting to trace forwards and backwards from this Symbolist moment).  Will Stone mentions Camille Lemonnier and Franz Hellens, whose En Ville Morte (1906), written about Ghent, 'gives the impression that the town is literally decomposing'  Other more recent writings can be linked to Bruges-la-Morte: there is a website, Villes Mortes, which provides a list works that provide context for Rodenbach's novel.  The book has also featured on two excellent blogs which have stimulated my reading over the years: Writers No One Reads and Vertigo.  And, finally, while I'm on further reading, see also the Preface to the 2005 Dedalus edition, written by Alan Hollinghurst, which The Guardian reprinted. As Nicholas Lezard pointed out in his review of the book, Hollinghurst's own '1994 novel The Folding Star is itself a homage to Bruges-la-Morte.'