Monday, June 29, 2009

Straight Miles and Meandering Miles

The catalogue to the Richard Long exhibition Heaven and Earth, which I discussed here recently, draws attention to Long's early career at art school, when he first developed the ideas that have motivated his art ever since. Long has recalled one important influence at the time was John Cage. He saw Cage lecture at the Saville Theatre in November 1966: 'It was all about chance and eccentric lateral thinking and humour - all sorts of John Cage ideas which were new to me.' A year later he experienced a recorded lecture, Indeterminacy, in which Cage told sixty stories in sixty minutes, varying the pace according to the length of the story. As Clarrie Wallis points out, this procedure is similar to that used in Cage's map work A Walk of Four Hours and Four Circles (1972), where concentric circles were each walked in one hour (the smallest circle slowest, the largest fastest).

Thinking of avant garde composers in this context, I was reminded of La Monte Young's Compositions 1960 - an early example of conceptual art as instructions, e.g.
#2: Build a fire in front of the audience…
or
#5: Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area. When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside…
One of these compositions sounds like a Richard Long walk:
#10: Draw a straight line and follow it
You could imagine one of Long's early map works re-written in this way as instructions for an imaginary walker:

A Ten Mile Walk, England, 1968
1. Pick a starting point x
2. Pick a round number y
3. Draw a straight line from x of length y in a direction that it is possible to walk
4. Walk the line

Of course the fact that Long has done his walks is the whole point. It is his landscape experience that we are presented with, even though we can accompany him in our imagination (just as we can join Gary Snyder on the riprap trail, or Basho on the narrow road). His work is not participative in the style of contemporary relational aesthetics. Still, while I'm on this road not taken, here are four more Richard Long walks recast as instructions. They might come in useful if you are short of ideas this summer, and, adapted for cities, they could even be used as the basis for some Situationist dérives...

A Walk of Four Hours and Four Circles, England, 1972
1. Draw a circle a on the map of diameter x
2. Superimpose a second circle b centred on the same spot with diameter 3x
3. Superimpose 2 more circles c and d with diameters 5x and 7x
4. Spend exactly an hour walking each of the four circles

A Hundred Tors in a Hundred Hours, Devon, England, 1976
1. Pick a distinctive common land form
2. Locate a round number of them, x
3. Walk to all of them in exactly x hours

A Five Day Walk, England, 1980
1. Choose a route that is x miles
2. Walk 1/15 of this distance x on the first day
3. On the second and subsequent days walk 2/15, 3/15, 4/15 and 5/15 of the distance

Straight Miles and Meandering Miles, England, 1985
1. Choose a long distance walk
2. Map out a certain number of locations where it is possible to walk a straight mile
3. Walk the route by, alternatively, normal paths and straight lines

Friday, June 26, 2009

The horizon of Holland


Back in 1965 the ICA organised an exhibition called 'Between Poetry and Painting' which included work by Ian Hamilton Finlay. Forty-four years later the ICA now has a similar exhibition entitled 'Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.', named after Ian Hamilton Finlay's magazine of that title. In addition to Ian Hamilton Finlay, the new exhibition includes work by two other artists I've discussed here before, Robert Smithson and Carl Andre. I've just taken the photo above which shows the catalogue for the 1965 exhibition next to the catalogue for the current show (which takes the form of a magazine called 'Roland'). The earlier exhibition took place before I was born but I think my uncle must have been to it and so the catalogue has found its way into my library. At that time Ian Hamilton Finlay had not yet moved to Stonypath to start work on the garden that would become Little Sparta - the catalogue says simply that he 'has lived in Perthshire, Orkney and Edinburgh, and now lives in the north of Scotland.'

On Tuesday Stephen Bann came to the ICA to give a talk about Ian Hamilton Finlay. He focused on the pre-Stonypath period and included some never-published colour photographs that he had been unable to use in an Architectural Review article (it was only printed in black and white in those days). One of these photographs showed THE HORIZON OF HOLLAND IS ALL EARS, a concrete poem made into a wooden structure and placed in the garden of Finlay's home in Ross-shire. This is the first of Finlay's interventions in the landscape, the ancestor of the sculptures at Little Sparta.

There were several references in the talk to Finlay's poetic interests and links with contemporaries like Lorine Niedecker. Finlay wrote to Bann saying that the landscape of Orkney was equivalent to a Wallace Stevens poem. He also said that Orkney resembled concrete poetry, whilst Perthshire seemed more like the writing German poets like Trakl. The less particularised landscape of Ross-shire on the other hand required more effort to make a poem out of the place... the kind of effort Ian Hamilton Finlay put there into making his first artist garden and his first poem in the landscape.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Design for an artificial echo

In a previous post here I quoted an extract from Gilbert White's A Natural History of Selborne, which included a proposal: "Should any gentleman of fortune think an echo in his park or outlet a pleasing incident, he might build one at little or no expense. For whenever he had occasion for a new barn, stable, dog-kennel, or the like structure, it would be only needful to erect this building on the gentle declivity of an hill, with a like rising opposite to it, at a few hundred yards distance; and perhaps success might be the easier ensured could some canal, lake, or stream, intervene. From a seat at the centrum phonicum he and his friends might amuse themselves sometimes of an evening with the prattle of this loquacious nymph..."

Back in the late seventeenth century, John Evelyn had the same thought and provided a design in his unpublished Elysium Britannicum, "to instruct you how to produce an Artificial Echo and by an innocent magick & without superstition, to raise up & deprehend that vocal & fugitive Nymph." The illustration below is reproduced from John Dixon Hunt's Greater Perfections, in which it is used to illustrate the point that Evelyn, generally a proponent of natural gardens, was nevertheless happy to recommend artificial effects where nature had not provided them.


In John Evelyn's "Elysium Britannicum" and European Gardening Therese O'Malley describes this as a sketch of the artificial echo at the Tuileries in Paris. The excellent Gardenvisit.com includes an extract from Evelyn's diary from 4 February 1644: "I finished this day with a walk in the great garden of the Tuileries, marvelously contrived for privacy, shade, or company, by groves, plantations of tall trees, especially that in the middle, being of elms, the other of mulberries. It has a labyrinth of cypresses; not omitting the noble hedges of pomegranates, fountains, fish-ponds, and an aviary; but above all, the artificial echo, redoubling the words so distinctly; and, as it is never without some fair nymph singing to its grateful returns; standing at one of the focuses, which is under a tree, or little cabinet of hedges, the voice seems to descend from the clouds; at another, as if it was underground..."

Evelyn's experience in Paris is referred to in a 1995 survey of artificial soundscapes by Joseph Dillon Ford, 'From Vocal Memnon To The Stereophonic Garden, A Short History Of Sound And Technology In Landscape Design': He concludes: 'the creation of acoustically pleasant and appropriate landscapes represents a significant opportunity for those who recognize that a design which delights the eye but neglects the ear is likely to be as well-received as a handsomely costumed actor who mumbles, butchers or forgets his lines. An excerpt from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (part II, line 62) seems especially appropriate in this connection: "Tis not enough no harshness gives offence; / The sound must seem an echo to the sense." Those landscape architects who fully appreciate the historical role of sound as a design element essential to the creation of a strong sense of place and who accept the considerable technical, aesthetic, environmental, and legal challenges required to renew the soundscape, will have the distinct satisfaction of extending their art into new, ever-richer realms of poetic experience.'

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Woods

The BBC has recently been running a Poetry Season. I didn't get to see all of it, but made a point of watching Simon Armitage on Gawain and the Green Knight. Unfortunately it was marred by some desultory attempts at popularisation - instead of discussing the poem with literary scholars Armitage was filmed trying on a suit of armour with a couple of medieval re-enactors, one of whom was called Gandalf. We saw Armitage walking in the landscape, dressed for the British weather, but there was no sense of the extremes of winter experienced by Gawain in the poem (see my earlier post on this). Still, the programme afforded my wife and I a good opportunity to play 'name that tune' with the soundtrack...
Me "Always great to hear Joy Division..."
Mrs. P "Isn't that a bit of Nick Drake?..."
Me "Goodness, he's put in 'Sheela-Na-Gig'!"
Mrs P "Now that's The Cure - 'A Forest'"
Me "Ah... very appropriate - nice touch."


In marked contrast to this, Owen Sheers' series ‘A Poet’s Guide to Britain’ was exemplary - completely accessible but no dumbing down. He clearly felt no need to jazz up the poetry with snatches of post-punk and his interlocutors were all interesting and relevant. Each programme lasted half an hour and circled round one poem, so that by the end you felt you really knew it. As can be seen, the list was an eclectic mixture of the famous and the not-so-famous:
  • ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth – May 4th
  • ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Sylvia Plath – May 11th
  • ‘Hamnavoe’ by George Mackay Brown – May 18th
  • ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold – May 25th
  • ‘Poem from Llanybri’ by Lynette Roberts – June 1st
  • ‘Woods’ by Louis MacNeice – June 8th

I liked the way he didn't choose the most obvious landscape poets (Edward Thomas, say) or the most renowned poems by each writer ('Woods' is not I think that well known). The programme that opted to feature Sylvia Plath on Yorkshire instead of Ted Hughes worked really well. The poems in this list are not 'just' about the landscape - George Mackay Brown and Louis MacNeice talk about their fathers, for example; it seems to me that Owen Sheers' own poetry often combines landscape and personal memory in this way ('My Grandfather's Garden').

Louis MacNiece's poem 'Woods' was new to me. It reflects on the fact that his father, 'found the English landscape tame' - for him Escape meant an Irish landscape of 'bog or rock'. But MacNiece himself had another choice, experienced first as a schoolboy in Dorset, 'a kingdom free from time and sky'. These English woods were the landscape of 'Malory's knights, Keats' nymphs or the Midsummer Night's Dream'. 'So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined / By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago / Was the last of Lancelot's glitter...'

This Father's Day post is dedicated to my father (who has never 'found the English landscape tame').

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ruined

To imprint the landscape on a work of art somehow, rather than copy it in paint or describe it in words, seems a natural instinct for a landscape artist. Photography does this of course, but there are other approaches, like Roger Ackling's traces of concentrated sunlight on driftwood. The grains of sand embedded in beach paintings by plein air painters like Manet suggest a next step that might have been to leave the canvases outside for a time to weather before adding paint to them. Artists painting found objects, like the driftwood used by Alfred Wallis, may feel that they are soaking up the spirit of a place through their materials. A musical analogy to this would be the approach Ross Bolleter and the World Association for Ruined Piano Studies take, in finding and making music on old abandoned pianos. Bolleter writes:

"A piano judiciously left in the open and exposed to all weathers will ruin. All that fine nineteenth-century European craftmanship, all the damp and unrequited loves of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin dry out, degrading to a heap of rotten wood and rusting wire. The piano returns to aboriginality, re-enters the earth where the chirrup of its loose wires blown about by the desert Easterly is almost indistinguishable from the cicadas' long electric blurt.

"In which case it's not necessary (or desirable) to burn or bury a piano in order to ruin it. A Ruined Piano should be an object trouve. However, I cannot eradicate the fantasy of a piano theme park - ancient Ronischs and Bechsteins hidden in the reeds at the edge of Camel Lake or behind the Banksia being lovely watered through the long harsh West Australian summer, nurtured gently towards ruin by members of WARPS."

A sanctuary for ruined pianos has now actually been created at Wambyn Olive Farm near Perth.


Alison Croggan has a good review at the Theatre Notes blog of Bolleter's concert / installation Ruined in Tasmania earlier this year (source for the photograph above). If you want to hear a ruined piano, the WARPS website has some examples of Bolleter's music, e.g. Myo Sei / Dark Sky.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Line Made by Walking


Earlier this week we took a day off work and went to see the new Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain, Heaven and Earth. I was prepared to be a bit disappointed, wondering what he'd been doing in the years since 'Walking in Circles', the last big Richard Long retrospective in 1991. Since the rise of the young British artists, Long's walks have seemed somewhat out of step with the times. In recent years it has almost seemed as if Hamish Fulton (who had a big solo show at Tate Britain and a mural in the Tate Modern cafe) was coming to overshadow Richard Long - the walking land artist equivalent of Manchester City finishing above Manchester United... I'm also not sure how much he has benefited from the growing interest in outdoor, green pursuits. Long doesn't document global warming, reclaim poisoned sites or dramatise ecological issues and, as I've discussed here before, his approach to walking in distant wilderness areas can
be criticised.

Well, regardless of what Long has done recently, you can't help being struck in this exhibition by the range and creativity in his early work...
  • A Ten Mile Walk 1968 - map with route
  • A Line in Ireland 1974 - sculpture: in situ
  • Stone Line 1980 - sculpture: on the gallery floor
  • River Avon Mud Circle 1982 - mud wall painting
  • A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon 1977 - photo/text conceptual walk
  • Mountains to Mountains 1980 - text: instructions
  • A Straight Northward Walk Across Dartmoor 1979 - text: impressions
  • From Along a Riverbank 1971 - a pamphlet
  • A Hundred Stones 1977 - a book
  • Campfire Ash 1972 - a trace of the journey
These are ten examples from the fifteen years that began with A Line Made by Walking (1967), a work that seems increasingly important with the passing years. (Its status as a classic was confirmed for me when I saw Sinisa Mitrovic urban take on it, Lines Made By Walking (2003), a film in which a woman walks against the ceaseless flow of commuters on London Bridge one morning).

But what of Long's work over the last twenty years? Like Hamish Fulton, he has been making larger work with colour photographs and bolder messages, but they do not seem loud or overstated. He still does his stone circles, his text works describing simple walk-generating procedures, and his photographs of minimal grey rock piles (which can make Andy Goldsworthy's sculptures look unnecessarily laborious). Long is treading a familiar path, but the landscape is constantly changing and I found myself admiring many of these recent works as much as his older ones. Here, to conclude, are some extracts from Jonathan Jones' highly complimentary review in The Guardian:

'Richard Long's day has come, and the controlled note of triumph in his new Tate Britain exhibition, Heaven and Earth, suggests he knows it.... An exhibition by an artist of his vintage ought by rights to be a yawn - yet another retrospective by yet another pillar of the establishment. But this is more like the birth of a new artist than the affirmation of an old one...

Long takes us back to the origins and innocence of conceptual art. The reason so much British art of the last 15 years has disappointed is not that it is "conceptual" - that it treats ideas as forms - but that so much of it is weakly conceived: pastiche conceptualism. Encountering Long again is like a great blast of fresh Dartmoor air. This is a masterclass in what an art of ideas can be, from the simple declarative prose to the grandeur of a wall that seems to seep mud. There is modesty, but no false modesty. There is reticence, but no inarticulacy.

There are criticisms to make of Long. Perhaps he is too pure, too clean an artist - not visceral enough. Perhaps his simplicity lacks nuance and depth. But, to be honest, in this deeply attractive and moving exhibition, it's hard to remember what potential reservations there might be. Today he seems like a wonderful British visionary, heir to Blake as much as to Constable.'

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Vatnajoküll

In his most recent Guardian column Charlie Brooker reminisced about compiling C90s for friends and mentioned that something similar was possible using the playlist option on Spotify. 'If you're not familiar with it [Spotify], it's effectively a cross between iTunes and a customisable online radio station. I'd heard people raving about it and didn't grasp why, until suddenly I realised you could compile a playlist, then generate a URL for it that others can click on. It's like being able to mass-produce a compilation tape in minutes. OK, so it's broken up with irritating adverts now and then, but hey, it's easy to use and it seems to work.'

Here, then, is a Some Landscapes playlist featuring some of the music I have discussed on the blog:
http://open.spotify.com/user/plinius/playlist/1hSMm6tNhRU62No0rUWgov
I hope this works... you'll need to install Spotify first. (And apologies - I realise that Spotify is not yet available in some parts of the world, e.g. Canada and the USA).

I've listed the 20 tracks below with links to earlier posts. Some things I would like to have included aren't yet available on Spotify - for example, you can't hear Jonathan Richman singing 'Twilight in Boston', although you can listen to a rather mediocre cover version. Spotify are also a bit short on soundscapes and sound art, although I've included a Chris Watson track here. They don't have Gavin Bryars' 'The South Downs', but I've put in a Roxy Music instrumental of the same title instead (a B-side from 1980). The list features composers I haven't yet discussed here in detail, e.g. Vaughan Williams (I picked his 'Norfolk Rhapsody') and Mahler, from whose Das Lied von der Erde I've selected 'Der Einsame im Herbst' ("The lonely one in Autumn"), based on a poem by Chang Tsi. A few other tracks not yet covered on this blog are Cage's 'Imaginary Landscape', one of Moondog's evocations of the New York cityscape and a Durutti Column track that seemed appropriate.
The order here is the one imposed by Spotify (alphabetic based on album title, from Ambient 4: On Land to Weather Report). But it's not a bad one - and I like the way it ends with 'Vatnajoküll', the sound of "the 10,000 year climatic journey of ice formed deep within this Icelandic glacier and its lingering flow into the Norwegian Sea."

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Scenery that retains its wild poetry and bucolic charm


We watched Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon last night. As Peter Bradshaw wrote in his review last year: 'it is an adaptation of the 1607 pastoral fantasy by Honoré d'Urfe about a lovelorn shepherd in fifth-century Gaul. There are absolutely no modern twists or inventions. The actors wear flowing robes and speak in earnest classical language. The movie is performed largely in the open air, and the wandering camera follows the players unobtrusively, keeping largely a stone's throw away. The action takes place on sunny, blowy days in an unspoilt rural landscape that could belong to any century, and filmed in such a way that it could have been made at any time in the past 30 years.'

The film has divided opinion and I'm with those like Jonathan Romney who like it. In pastoral literature, landscape is of little importance, love is all. But in filming the shepherds and shepherdesses of Honoré d'Urfe, Rohmer gives them a real backdrop, where their dialogue competes with the sounds of birdsong, water and wind in the trees. The film's opening text explains that they chose to film in a location which retains its bucolic charm (the Auvergne) - see below (the final words of this paragraph are "et de leur charme bucolique.") It makes you wonder what the film would have looked like if they had filmed it in the Forez plain, where the book was set, but I am glad Rohmer took the less obvious option of playing it straight rather than devising a post-pastoral update on the story.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Third nature

In Garden Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory, John Dixon Hunt identifies the cultural landscape (agriculture, urban development, roads etc.) with Cicero's 'second nature.' In De natura deorum Cicero wrote "We sow corn, we plant trees, we fertilize the soil by irrigation, we dam the rivers and direct them where we want. In short, by means of our hands we try to create as it were a second nature within the natural world." 'First nature' - wilderness - is the realm of the gods, but it is also the raw material for second nature. John Dixon Hunt thinks that Cicero's formulation would have been in the mind of Jacopo Bonfadio when he wrote in 1541 to a fellow humanist that gardens make a 'third nature, which I would not know how to name.' Later in the century, another humanist Bartolomeo Taegio also used the term 'terza natura' in describing gardens.


Frontispiece to l'Abbé de Vallemont's Curiositez de la nature et de l'art (1705)

The illustration here shows a distant mountain (first nature) giving way to cultivated agricultural land (second nature) and then a formal garden (third nature). The transition is reversed in the foreground - garden, regularly planted trees, waste ground. Gardens have usually, as here, been contiguous with second nature, but sometimes they have been created directly from first nature - early American gardens carved out of the 'wilderness' for example, like Middleton Place in South Carolina. According to John Dixon Hunt, gardens have tended to represent within their own areas aspects of the three natures. In the garden above, for example, the fountain echoes the mountain spring and the cultivated garden beds can be related to the fields beyond the hedge.

Charles Jencks suggests that underneath these three natures there is 'what I have called 'zero nature', the planet, that level of nature that interests me particularly--the cosmos, its laws, the underlying physics.... The Nobel Laureate, the chemist Ilya Prigogine, often spoke about the new sciences of complexity as being 'in a dialogue with nature' because they revealed the dynamic processes of feedback and change over time. This transformation is the essence of a garden, and those I am constructing are chiefly engaged with presenting zero nature in conversation with the others. Often this discourse is carried out, literally, with letters, phrases, a rebus, and unfolding DNA codes in short, an iconography referring to zero nature built with non-living matter, or sculpture.'