Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Last week I visited the Architectural Association Gallery in London, where there is an exhibition devoted to the British Exploratory Land Archive, a collaboration between architects Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen) and Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. You probably all know BLDGBLOG, but in case not, my earlier post 'Landscape Futures' included a few of its ideas, taken from The BLDGBLOG Book. One of these, I now see, was that Rachel Whiteread should begin filling whole cave systems with plaster to create monumental sculptures. This exhibition gives an idea of what that might look like, in the shape of a 3D-printed rendering of the Nottingham Cave systems. These tunnels in the 'frozen Sahara' beneath the city were explored in a long BLDGBLOG post last year. The exhibit's white plastic gives their warm desert sandstone the appearance of ice. The model reveals a hidden structure to the caves which, I imagine, would be difficult to describe even by someone familiar with their twisting underground passages.
BELA call this work 'a Speleological Pantograph for the aboveground reproduction of subterranean spaces, objects and volumes. Although functioning very much like a traditional pantograph, this device will instead act three-dimensionally, connected to tools of volumetric analysis installed in underground spaces, such as caves, mines and basements, in order to reproduce those spaces on the Earth's surface.' Imagining the reality of Nottingham's old sand mines from a pale plastic facsimile might seem as futile as trying to envisage a living snake on the basis of its discarded skin. But the pantograph, in rescaling an object, always alters it (imagine how Rachel Whiteread's sculptures would fail if they were reduced in size). The Tate, incidentally, have an etching, Head, by Eduardo Paolozzi in which he used a pantograph 'assembled wrongly to distort his original drawing by curving and elongating it.' Presumably it would be possible to reprogram the Speleological Pantograph in order to create an uncanny transformation of some well-known underground space.
This photograph shows another speculative envirographic instrument being tested in the slate spoil heaps of North Wales. It is a 'Clinometer', which 'combines 2D and 3D graphic mapping languages into a faceted 3D form composed of nine triangular aluminium sheets, upon which hanging weights are fixed. The device can be assembled in numerous configurations, using a bungee cord laced across the face of the sheets through eyelets along their edges and lever arms attached to the weights.' How would this actually work, I wondered, looking at the stack of metal triangles on the floor of the gallery. This might simply reveal my ignorance of survey techniques, or it may be entirely missing the point, like asking how Tarkovsky's Stalker navigates the Zone by throwing bolts. Looking at the photograph above, the Clinometer seems to operate through some metonymic principle, unfolding itself to resemble a fragment of the landscape. And you can imagine its aluminium surfaces reflecting the surrounding spoil heaps, like the zig-zag mirror piece Robert Smithson made in 1969 at an abandoned open-cast mine further south at Tredegar.
The exhibition includes photographs of other instruments in situ. A Capture Blanket for soil-remediation on the side of Parys Mountain resembles the spent parachute of a planetary probe. A Sniffer for aerosol sampling in a field of corn gave me the idea for an anti-hayfever device (yes, I write as a sufferer...) However, BELA are also thinking about installing instruments on a larger scale where they 'become indistinguishable from landscapes'. The Flywheel Reservoir (below), designed for Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, would be 'a constellation of architectural features, geological augmentations and topographic ornaments that 'harvests' and smooths the fluctuating electrical supply' generated by the London Array, the world's largest offshore wind farm. The model resembles Walter De Maria's Lightning Field. 'Power levels and flywheel capacity is displayed in an elevated point cloud of laser light that ebbs and flows in the air like a mist over the landscape.'
It was mist over the Isle of Sheppey that reduced visibility and caused a 130 vehicle pile up recently on its new road bridge (sixty people were injured but none killed). Thinking of this makes me wonder how safe a vast landscape battery under the island would be. BELA worked on the design with Williams Hybrid Power whose flywheel technology was developed for Williams Formula 1 cars. The island in their architectural model resembles a circuit board and beneath the table (under the bonnet, as it were) wires dangle, waiting to be connected. What kind of subterranean architecture would be needed to keep the 'garden of flywheels' going? Perhaps like the old slate and sand mines this site too would eventually be abandoned, left for exploration by future architects and then taken as inspiration for a new cycle of landscape speculations.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
This week Ken Worpole was talking at the LRB bookshop about his latest collaboration with photographer Jason Orton, The New English Landscape. A full review of the book can be found on the Landscapism blog so I will just say a few words here prompted by what was said on Thursday. Ken was joined by Rachel Lichtenstein, who read an extract from her work in progress on the Thames estuary, and interviewed by writer, film curator and cultural catalyst Gareth Evans. The New English Landscape partly develops the ideas in an essay Ken wrote for the anthology Gareth co-edited, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (just re-printed, highly recommended). It was obviously a very productive project: since I discussed it here three years ago Kathleen Jamie has expanded her essay for inclusion in Sightlines and Robert Macfarlane's contribution has seeded a new book, Landmarks, currently in preparation, on language and landscape. The New English Landscape also incorporates material Ken presented at one of the Place events Gareth has organised at Snape (the next one in February is dedicated to various forms of landscape 'occupation'). However, notes on Essex had been accumulating in boxes for some years and Ken before the opportunity came to collaborate with Jason on 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (2005). Mainstream publishers were only interested in books that dealt with the stereotypes of Ford Escorts and white stilettos.
Unsurprisingly, Essex held few attractions for Rachel Lichtenstein growing up in Southend, but ten years ago she moved back and has experienced a kind of personal re-enchantment with its landscape (she says she is "a born again Essex girl"). Ken has followed a similar trajectory: leaving Canvey Island just before the great flood of 1953, but returning there for walks in its wild places and unassimilated landscapes. Of course distance lends enchantment and there was some discussion about the risk of seeing landscape at a remove from its lived reality. I thought of Wordworth, who chose to settle in the Lakes not among the people he had grown up but at Grasmere, surrounded by Romantic scenery. Rachel's current project is engaging with the working river through interviews with fishermen, tugmen, cocklers and river pilots (see embedded clip below). People are absent from the images in The New English Landscape but, as Ken explained, there are traces of their presence: broken fences, overgrown greenhouses, a forlorn flag planted on an empty beach stretching almost to the horizon.
It was a shame Jason Orton could not be present to say more about how he seeks to avoid the aestheticisation of dilapidation and decay that was central to Picturesque taste and what we now call 'ruin porn'. By eschewing filters and shooting on film he tries to arrive at a truthful representation of place as it is actually experienced - Ken was scornful of the artificiality on display in the recent Landscape Photographer of the Year awards. Muted colours and flat light might not grab the attention but they reflect a persistent strain in twentieth century English painting. Ken mentioned in passing the work of Prunella Clough, who lived in Lowestoft and depicted its dockyards, cranes, warehouses and fishermen. I can see a clear resemblance to Jason's photographs in paintings like Sheds by a Quarry (1947). Frances Spalding's description of this in her recent book Prunella Clough: regions unmapped seems to want to excuse its mundane subject matter: 'A conglomeration of pale corrugated roofs shimmer with an unearthly light, cradled within the warm umbers of a barren landscape ... bleakness, however, is made exquisite through subtle alterations of texture, colour and light.' The photographs in The New English Landscape are not there to be admired like this for their formal qualities. As Ken writes in his most recent blog post, the book seeks to establish 'a tension between words and images, the exigencies of social history and visual richness, so that there is an interrogative presence at work in our response to landscape as well as an appreciative one.'
Sunday, November 24, 2013
The Wallace Collection has several fine pageant shields with dramatic mythological scenes, but this one is unusual: its dark steel surface is inlaid with a classical landscape. You might just be able to make out Europa and the Bull at the bottom of the shield, but they are not the focal point: instead the eye is drawn to buildings and bridge, woods and mountains, clouds and birds. The action is overshadowed by its setting, and by a pervading darkness that gives this picture the appearance of a night scene (dramatic nocturnal light effects were being used by artists like Tintoretto at about this time). The collection's inventory notes that this composition is 'curiously but accidentally reminiscent of the Chinese willow-pattern.' The story of the Chinese lovers turned into a pair of doves has the structure of one of Ovid's tales, although in the story on this shield Europa is herself the victim of a metamorphosis and is taken by Zeus, disguised as a bull, over the sea to Crete.
The elaborate decoration of pageant shields inevitably brings to mind the Shield of Achilles, described in detail by Homer in classical literature's most famous example of ekphrasis. The shield, wrought by Vulcan, seems to contain the whole world, from the ocean and the heavens: cities at peace and war, a wedding, a trial, people working the fields and enjoying the wine harvest. Here, in Pope's translation, is a glimpse of landscape: 'Next this, the eye the art of Vulcan leads / Deep through fair forests, and a length of meads, / And stalls, and folds, and scatter'd cots between; / And fleecy flocks, that whiten all the scene.' W. H. Auden wrote a poem called 'The Shield of Achilles' which contrasts the Sublime imagery of Homer with a featureless modern landscape of weeds, barbed wire and bored officials. Here is the opening verse:
She looked over his shoulderThe Academy of American Poets site has a little introduction to ekphrasis which concludes with lines from another Auden poem, 'Musée des Beaux Arts', and William Carlos Williams' equally well known 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', both of which describe Bruegel's painting (below). Here, as in the Wallace Collection's shield, myth is reduced to a detail. Icarus and his father Daedalus fly from the palace where they had been imprisoned by Europa's son, King Minos. And then, as Williams puts it: 'unsignificantly / off the coast / there was a splash / quite unnoticed / this was / Icarus drowning'. Bruegel's landscape glittering in the fatal spring sunshine, where 'the whole pageantry / of the year was / awake tingling', distracts us from the fate of Icarus. It is interesting that Williams uses the word 'pageantry' here; what, you wonder, was happening unnoticed as those sixteenth century nobleman processed in their elaborate armour and the sunlight flashed off a damascened shield and its landscape with the Rape of Europa?
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1560s
Thursday, November 21, 2013
'I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street...'
On Tuesday the ICA screened All This Can Happen, a new adaptation of Robert Walser's story 'The Walk' (1917). I went along wondering why a choreographer, Siobhan Davies, had been drawn to make this film (in collaboration with David Hinton), although perhaps Walser will always attract unusual collaborations - when the Quay Brothers filmed his Jakob von Gunten they were known as stop-motion animators. In fact, the initial intention, as Davies explained at the post-screening Q&A, was to explore everyday bodily movements, inspired initially by the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey. The split screen techniques used in All This Can Happen partly came about because they were experimenting with putting together forms of film made at such an early date that there was as yet no standard frame size. Davies thought that a walk could provide a narrative spine and Hinton came upon Walser's story in a bookshop. The old footage they have used is, I think, remarkably effective at evoking the moods of hope and sadness in 'The Walk', as it moves between the 'phantoms' of Walser's imagination and the real life of the street.
I have found several excuses to write here about Walser (one of my favourite writers) by talking about his approach to landscape, remarking for example in 'The region appeared to be smiling' on his distinctive use of the pathetic fallacy. The voice-over in All This Can Happen included a nice example of this from 'The Walk': "I came into a pine forest, through which coiled a smiling, serpentine, and at the same time roguishly graceful path, which I followed with pleasure." But it was inevitable that a few enjoyable landscape vignettes in Walser's story didn't make the cut, such as the incident that leads him to this conclusion: 'painted landscape in the middle of real landscape is capricious, piquant. This nobody will contest.' The walker had been looking at a cottage that 'abounded with wall paintings, or noble frescoes, which were divinely subtle and amusing and showed a Swiss alpine landscape in which stood, painted again, another house, to be accurate a Bernese mountain farmhouse. Frankly the painting was not good at all. It would be impudent to maintain that it was. But, nonetheless, to me it seemed marvellous. Plain and simple as it was, it enchanted me; as a matter of fact, any sort of painting enchants me, however foolish and clumsy it is, because every painting reminds me first of diligence and industry, and second of Holland.'
I have embedded here the trailer for All This Can Happen, a sequence from the film in which the narrator enters a local tax office and explains to the inspector his philosophy of walking. 'A walk.' Walser writes, 'is always filled with with significant phenomena, which are valuable to see and to feel. A pleasant walk most often teems with imageries and living poems, with enchantments and natural beauties, be they ever so small.' These things are to be found by simply stepping out into the street; if 'The Walk' is not already a sacred text among psychogeographers it ought to be. In his recent book The New English Landscape, Ken Worpole likens Walser's modest walk to Robert Smithson's tour of the 'Monuments of Passaic' (1967), which treats a post-industrial landscape as a sequence of 'enchantments'. Smithson, I now recall, ends his essay with an illustration of entropy, imagining a sandbox divided into two halves of black and white and a child running repeatedly in a circle over it, gradually turning the whole thing grey. He imagines filming this child (like one of Marey's experiments in motion) in order to play the the sequence backwards and watch entropy reverse itself. 'But then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility.'
This film ends, like the story and its walk, with the narrator lying down by a lake and thinking sadly about the past. 'All this rich life,' he reflects, from family and friends to the 'dear gentle roads, must one day pass away and die.' He looks at the flowers that he had gathered earlier in the forest and the fields.
'"Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?" I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand. I had risen up, to go home, for it was late now, and everything was dark.'
Friday, November 15, 2013
Ten landscape highlights from the V&A's exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900:
(1) Possibly Yan Wenghui - Landscape with Pavilions (early 11th century)
There is an aura of great age about this scroll, although its exact date and the authenticity of its signature are in doubt. Peering through the mist of fine grey ink and sepia-coloured paper you can discern little figures with umbrellas: it is a landscape in bad weather. The catalogue describes the sky as 'dark and leaden' - 'as one moves towards the last section, the mountains become increasingly steep and rugged; a swiftly moving stream appears, and bent trees tell of the power of the wind and rain.' The painting's fine details draw you into its world: you feel that with a magnifying glass it would be possible to enter even further into the past. The Song Dynasty critic Liu Daochun found in Yan Wengui's paintings that 'the ship is like a leaf and the figures are like seeds of millet ... A thousand miles in a single foot - such was his subtlety!'
(2) Unidentified Artist - Reading the Memorial Stele (14th century or earlier)
This is a remarkably atmospheric painting, darkened by age (although not as dark as it appears in the catalogue, which is either badly printed in places or aiming to convery what these ancient silk hanging scrolls would look like in the shadows of an old library; fortunately it is much easier to see online.) Skeletal trees surround the stele and you wonder how the two travellers have the courage to linger there to decipher the inscription. The warlord Cao Cao remains baffled as they ride away, but his attendant realises immediately that it commemorates a famously filial daughter of the Han Dynasty. Another inscription to one side of the stele identifies the artists as Wang Xiao (the rather stylised figures) and Li Cheng (the extraordinary trees and rocks). Li Cheng (Li Ch'eng, 919-967) was the great early Song Dynasty painter but sadly this scroll is probably from a later date, executed in his style.
(3) Mi Youren - Cloudy Mountains (1140s)
This painting has been impressed with the red seal marks and colophons of collectors and admirers over the course of 800 years, and yet it seems to be nothing more than an empty landscape of a few trees and distant peaks, brushed in thin dabs of watery grey ink. It is owned by the Met who explain the appeal of the 'cloudy mountain' genre developed by Mi Fu and his son Mi Youren: 'referred to by scholar-artists as "ink play," the style suggests the importance of the painter's psychological expression, thereby raising the status of painting to that of poetry and calligraphy.' The Mi style became popular again in the early Yuan dynasty, when the calligrapher and scholar Xianyu Shu wrote in his colophon to this painting (quoted in the exhibition catalogue) that 'an artisan's painting is short in ideas but long on representative likeness, but the opposite is true with the works of lofty souls and superior scholars.' The vagueness of the view is such as to leave the viewer free to imagine 'a choice stretch of river shore lying far beyond the actual brushwork.'
(4) Qiu Ying - Saying Farewell at Xunyang (early 15th century)
Leaping forward from the early Song Dynasty due to my self-imposed limit of choosing just ten, and passing over works like Ni Zan's Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (which you can see in an earlier post here), I come to this scroll, which is still 600 years old, although its colours remain as vivid as enamel. You can see it at the Google Art Project and even from the small reproduction above, it should be evident that this is a beautiful example of 'green and blue' landscape painting, the style that had arisen in the Tang dynasty when the subject of this scroll, Bai Juyi (Po-Chü-i) was writing his poetry. In the middle a small group of men can be seen in a boat, listening to a woman playing a pipa, the Chinese lute. It is a scene from Bai's famous poem 'Song of the Lute', written in 816. Hearing the the sound of a pipa, Bai and his friends ask the musician to join them, but after playing some selections she puts down her plectrum and lapses into silence. Then she tells them of the sad contrast between her youth as a beautiful courtesan in the capital and her current lonely existence. Bai, who had been exiled from the capital the year before, is moved to tears. There is a lovely translation of this poem in Burton Watson's Po Chü-i: Selected Poems.
(5) Wen Zhengming - Garden of the Inept Administrator (1551)
I have chosen this one partly for its amusing title: 'Inept' is rather different from 'humble', the usual translation of the name for this famous garden in Suzhou. In 1535 Wen Zhengming painted aspects of it in a 31-leaf album for Wang Xianchen, its owner and designer. This exhibition includes a different, later set of eight views, drawn in a 'humble' style so understated that the garden architecture has been diminished in size. The artist himself might be described as an inept administrator, having first sat the civil service exam in 1495 and failed another nine times before at last being granted an honorary position in 1522 (extraordinary to think that Wen, China's most famous sixteenth century artist, spent the whole period of the Italian High Renaissance failing to become a government administrator). Having finally made it into the elite Hanlin Academy he resigned, disillusioned, after just three years and devoted the rest of his life to painting and calligraphy.
(6) Fan Qi - Yangzi Riverscape (1660s)
'Fan Qi was one of the first artists in Chinese art history to paint a true horizon, namely a horizontal line separating heaven and earth. In earlier and most later Chinese painting, including most landscapes by Fan Qi himself, the meeting of earth or water with the sky is ambiguous and blurred by clouds and a misty vagueness. In fact, in the revolutionary horizon line here, which is about 75 centimetres long, there are only two short stretches of about 5 centimetres where sky and water really touch: at the three boat sails, and to the right of the tip of the tallest tree. Everywhere else, shoals and clifs in pale grey and brown washes without contour lines appear behind the horizon, as if floating on it. It is as if Fan Qi was afraid to show directly the full implications of his line: the earth is round, and even the tallest mountain, if far enough away, sinks beneath the horizon.' (Kure Motoyuki, writing in the exhibition catalogue).
(7) Wang Jian - Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters (1669-73)
Twelve large scrolls in a row, each showing mountains and rivers in a different style but composed in a similar way: as the catalogue points out, 'from the stones and banks to the soaring peaks near the apex: a ridge almost like the undulating backbone of a dragon runs through each work.' This ought to be a fascinating lesson in the history of Chinese landscape painting but neither the exhibition or the catalogue explain whose work Wang was imitating. All we are told is that 'while some of the original paintings on which this set was based remain obscure to us today, others are instantly recognisable' (Fan Kuan's famous Travellers amid Streams and Mountains is clearly one of them). Wang Jian was one of 'The Four Wangs', influenced by Dong Qichang (who I mentioned here last year), working in the lineage of literati-painters going back to Wang Wei. The exhibition contrasts their more orthodox work nicely with the individualistic styles of Shitao and Bada Shanren.
(8) Fa Ruozhen - Clouds and Mist in the Mountains (c. 1690)
Fa Ruozhen is known now for cloud and mountain paintings in which the mist and rock are hard to distinguish. The Met has one: ' like a great cumulonimbus cloud, the landscape billows upward in roiling layers of earth punctuated by misty vales harbouring half-concealed groves of trees.' For this exhibition the V&A have borrowed a hanging scroll from Stockholm, and, as the catalogue says, 'it is sometimes difficult to decide whether cliffs and rocks are protruding or receding. The space is relatively constricted, he clouds and mist failing to create any sense of depth. The crags reaching almost to the top of the painting contribute to an almost claustrophobic atmosphere.' Entering this place you would encounter cumulus boulders and trees like dark rain clouds; ascending through the mist you could never be sure how far the mountain extended. If you kept on going you might realise you had left solid ground behind some time ago without ever having reached a summit.
(9) Bada Shanren - Flowers on the River (1697)
This painting of lotus flowers is so long, 14 metres, that following it feels like walking by a real riverbank. What you can't really appreciate from reproductions is the sense of joyous freedom in Bada Shanren's gestural brushstrokes. His poem at the end concludes: 'Happily singing my way, I immerse myself in the splashes of spring water and the sprays of flowers. East and west, south and north after all are the same.' A contemporary wrote that the artist's colophons 'were so strange that no one could understand them. His brushwork was impulsively reckless; he did not stick to any established method, but worked in a firm and thorough and often unrestrained manner.' Michael Sullivan quotes this in his book Symbols of Eternity and goes on to wonder how Bada Shanren (Pa-ta Shan-jen) would have explained another landscape scroll which I have reproduced to the right. 'He might (if he were sober) have spoken of the Tao, or of the Void out of which form is manifest and into which it dissolves again. This picture, executed with no preconceived composition in a kind of aesthetic ecstasy, carries us to the outer limits of pictorial art, to the edge of Void, stopping just short of the point of pure abstraction.'
(10) Xu Yang - Prosperous Suzhou (1759)
Finally, in complete contrast, this scroll is similar in length to Flowers on the River, but so detailed it seems to contain a whole world. On reaching it, visitors to the exhibition stop and become immersed in its detail, edging along the display case from the morning light on Lingyan Hill past wharves and workshops, streets and shops, to the evening mist over the outskirts of the city. It was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, whose own paintings and poetry I have described on this blog before. Five years after completing it, Xu Yang and his assistants were asked to create scrolls depicting the Emperor's southern tours. Six years and a hundred and fifty metres later they finished in time for his sixtieth birthday. Art historians (and David Hockney) have compared these unfavourably with a similar set of scrolls painted in the 1690s by Wang Hui, attributing a certain stiffness in Xu Yang's work to the deleterious influence of new Western pictorial conventions that had arrived with the Jesuits.
NB: for copyright reasons I have not included images here beyond what is on Wikimedia Commons, although I have added links where possible.
Friday, November 08, 2013
Collection of Sand joins our collection of Calvinos
I don't know why it has taken twenty-nine years for Italo Calvino's Collezione di sabbia to appear in English but now it can be enjoyed here in Martin McLaughlin's new translation. In his introduction, McLaughlin notes Calvino's fondness for mineral imagery: the 'stone' of his earlier collection of essays on politics and literature, Una pietra sopra, has become fragmented into granules of sand in this subsequent volume - short articles on art works and unusual books that captured Calvino's interest, along with travel sketches written after visits to Japan, Mexico and Iran. Several essays describe different forms of stone, from the raked gravel gardens of Kyoto to the sculpted rocks of Persepolis. One even mentions George Sand, who aside from her novels painted what she called 'dendrites', landscapes whose textures resemble 'those stones which exhibit a faint pattern of branching, multicoloured veins.' Calvino finds rock sculpted to imitate natural forms (the overgrown temples of Mexico, the frieze of Trajan column) and writes about trees themselves, painted and real. McLoughlin highlights this 'luxuriant arboreal theme', perhaps unsurprising in a book from the author of The Baron in the Trees.
George Sand, Landscape, painted using her dendrite technique
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This book's title essay was written after Calvino had been to see an exhibition in Paris devoted to the art of collecting. Among the bizarre collections there was a set of jars containing nothing but sand, each a sample from a different location, carefully labelled. Calvino describes becoming absorbed in their minute differences, although at first he 'takes in only the samples that stand out most, the rust coloured sand from a dry river-bed in Morocco, the carboniferous black and white grains from the Aran Islands...' Reading this reminded me of helping my children make sculptures in these grey Aran Island sands, earlier this year. However, Calvino wonders whether it is possible for containers of sand to retain traces of lived experience: the sight of an indigo sea, the heat of the wadi, the sensations of the beach. Were these jars nothing more than a sad 'cemetery of landscapes reduced to a desert'? And yet perhaps they provided a means of allowing the collector to remove herself from 'the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence.'
'...the carboniferous black and white grains'
(Trá Leitreach, August 2013)
Sand garden at Ginkaku-Ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion
Source: Wikimedia Commons
'The Thousand Gardens' describes the experience of walking a path through the garden of the imperial villa at Katsura, where each footstep is designed to reveal a new landscape. These conveniently placed stones are 'a device for multiplying the garden, but also for removing it from the vertigo of the infinite.' The path takes Calvino to a tea house where there are only mats on the floor and a few carefully placed objects: 'it is by limiting the the number of things around us that one prepares oneself for accepting the idea of a world that is infinitely larger than ours.' He concludes with a story about the great tea master Sen-no Rikyu, who deliberately obscured a view of the sea with hedges so that the visitor could only see it when they bent down to take water from a pond.
'Rikyu's idea was probably this: bending down over the pond and seeing his own image shrunk in that narrow stretch of water, the man would consider his own smallness; then as soon as he raised his face to drink from his hand he would be dazzled by the immensity of the sea and would become aware that he was part of an infinite universe. But these are things that are ruined if you try to explain them too much. To the person who asked him about why he had built the hedge, Rikyu would simply quote the lines of the poet Sogi: 'Here, just some water, / There amidst the trees / The sea!''
Friday, November 01, 2013
Three months ago I wrote about experiencing Chris Watson's tranquil Lindisfarne soundscape installation at Durham cathedral. Earlier this week I was in Sheffield, 'inside the circle of fire', surrounded by a 20-speaker ambisonic system, listening to Watson's soundmap of the city. Projected around me on the walls of the Millenium Gallery were a sequence of black and white images: remnants of industry and old machines, woods in low sunlight, moorland and river banks. Listening over the course of half an hour, impressions of nature and urban space began to blend together: bird song starts to sound insistent like machinery and the rumble of the streets feels like the premonition of a storm. Water is a constant presence and in the video clip above, Watson talks about how he thought abou the work in terms of Sheffield's network of rivers. In another interview for The Guardian, he reflects on the relative silence of the modern city: "There's still this huge, vast, steelworks called Forgemasters who allowed me in, and what's interesting in there, in a perverse way, is how quiet it is now because it's very much an automated process. This history in Sheffield of people hearing these vast, steam-driven hammers, hammering out steel echoing down the Don Valley, that's certainly gone now. The steel mills are still active, to some extent, but they are now much quieter."
In the second of his Reith lectures last week, Grayson Perry suggested that one of the reasons Christian Marclay's The Clock has received such universal acclaim is that gallery goers have been able to view it on comfy seats. As you can see from the phone photo I took, Inside the Circle of Fire has a little circle of sofas and cushions in which you sit in slightly uncomfortable intimacy with people, not talking. In this setting it was odd to listen to the extraordinary communal singing recorded at Sheffield United: a rousing rendition of their anthem 'The Greasy Chip Butty Song' ("You fill up my senses / like a gallon of Magnet...") These euphoric crowd sounds gave way to the twenty-first century version of Pierre Shaeffer's Étude aux chemins de fer: bland recorded announcements playing over the constant motion of passengers at Sheffield station. A low sound that I couldn't make out then began to vibrate my seat whilst I tried to identify the source of some gentle music audible in the distance. Both eventually faded to leave the song of a solitary bird, which was in turn overtaken by the sounds of wind, rain and thunder. Sadly I had to leave at this point, but I see from The Guardian that 'the journey ends in a huge, echoing storm drain below the city's railway station' which I must have been sitting above, waiting for the train to take me back to London.