Friday, October 26, 2012

Deep South

‘I look for it always, the thick, vespertine gloaming that douses the day’s heat. When it comes, the landscape grows soft and vague, as if inadequately summoned by some shiftless deity, casually neglectful of details. Making a photograph in these conditions is a challenge, even for modern blue-sensitive film, and the resulting image often appears to have been breathed onto the negative, a moist refulgence within deepening shadows.’
Sally Mann, Deep South (2005)
Looking through the black and white images in Deep South you see this Southern light, creating a halo round ivy coloured tree trunks, illuminating the mist over a river, or saturating the view of a wooded slope so that the landscape is barely visible at all.  One photograph shows the gateway to what looks like some abandoned antebellum house, trees blurred by light or wind, by the camera’s focal length, by imperfections in the old glass negative she has used, or in some mysterious way by the action of time itself.  She writes that Southerners, like Proust, ‘know love emerges from loss and becomes memory, and that memory informs and enriches art.’ This aesthetic transformation was harder to make however when she travelled further into the Deep South.  'It was impossible for me to drive the vine-hung back roads of Mississippi and not think of the invisible sediment of misery deposited at every turn.’ One image simply shows a nondescript bank of grass and a flat expanse of river. This was taken ‘one serenely mote-floating, balmy, yellowish October afternoon' at the spot from which the fourteen-year old Emmett Till was thrown into the Tallahatchie River.’

Whilst some of the photographs in this book may seem overly nostalgic or Picturesque, others taken on the Civil War battle fields make use of the antique printing processes in interesting ways.  They look 'authentic', although they differ from the old photographs familiar, for example, from Ken Burns' series The Civil War, in being empty of people.  Dark skies appear almost molten, an expressionist effect resulting from the liquid nature of her wet-plate negatives.  A sombre image of a grey landscape crossed by a wooden fence like a low barricade seems to have two huge dark suns.  Another, in which a black tree looms over a field, is pockmarked in a way that resembles shrapnel damage.  Many are blurred, like the vision of wounded soldiers.  Walking these fields, Mann found that ‘physical traces of the struggle remain. I have a lead minié ball, flattened and deformed, that was picked up at Fredericksburg. The sinuous earthworks still weave through the fields, so well preserved that they appear serviceable for the next civil war. In this peculiar place of stilled time, the spirits seemed to drift up in the fog rising from the fields.’

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dew-Drenched Furze

On my morning walks to the Underground this week I have passed front gardens strewn with delicate dewy cobwebs, as you can see from the photograph above.  I realise there is a beer bottle in this particular bush too, but this, after all, is London, not a remote forest glade (as the great Charles Reznikoff once said, 'this smoky winter morning - / do not despise the green jewel shining among the twigs / because it is a traffic light.')  It must have been on some such autumn morning that John Everett Millais set out to paint Dew-Drenched Furze (1881), a work recently acquired by the Tate.  Millais got his title from In Memoriam, where Tennyson wrote ‘Calm and deep peace on this high wold, / And on the dews that drench the furze, / And all the silvery gossamers / That twinkle into green and gold...’  According to his son, Millais aimed 'to capture the morning sun streaming through a clearing of gorse illuminated by droplets of dew, a subject ‘probably never painted before’, and one that as he begun he feared ‘might be unpaintable.’'  This son, the ornithological artist J.G. Millais, added a cock pheasant in the right foreground of the painting, but this was subsequently removed (no doubt as distracting as a stray beer bottle).  The result is a beautiful and surprisingly abstract landscape painting, which draws the eye over sunlit spider's webs and feathery gorse towards a veil of distant golden mist. 

John Everett Millais, Dew-Drenched Furze, 1881

Friday, October 19, 2012


To the ICA last night for the London Film Festival Screening of Pat Collins' film Silence.  Like the film I saw at last year's festival, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea, it is slow cinema, situated somewhere between documentary and drama.  'The film follows a softly spoken sound recordist, played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who wields a mic on a stand rather like a pilgrim would a staff as he treks through bleak and beautiful Irish locations as part of a vague professional assignment to record spaces "away from man-made sound."' As Frances Morgan goes on to say in her article in November's Sight & Sound, 'the idealisation of remoteness, of depopulated or liminal spaces, and of the man (it's rarely a woman) wandering or living among them' has surfaced recently in the work of many writers and film-makers: Sebald, Sinclair, Keiller, Ben Rivers and Robert Macfarlane. But Silence sets up 'a tension between the need for solitude and the responsibility to hear, speak, bear witness to human history.  Ruined houses glimpsed across a bay may seem picturesque, but a fisherman's story of mass economic migration is a corrective to romanticising their decay.  Eoghan describes childhood evenings spent following his father's often dangerous fishing trips via CB radio, an evocative image of sound and its attendant technology connecting humans across the wilderness of the sea.'

Recording silence in the Burren

At the brief question and answer session after last night's screening, Pat Collins talked about the film's use of music and improvised dialogue.  In editing the film he wanted to be free to include sounds and imagery that felt right, without being tied to a clear narrative structure. At one point, for example, he cuts to an unnamed poet walking through the mist, reflecting that "the mind turns upon silence" (it is one minute into the trailer embedded above). Elsewhere we hear the voice of cartographer and landscape writer Tim Robinson, the subject of a documentary Collins made last year. In the trailer for that earlier film embedded below you can hear hear Robinson talking about sound and silence. “Sometimes from my doorstep on a still night I become aware that the silence is set in a velvet background like the jewel in a display case. A hushing that, when attended to, becomes ineluctable. It is compounded of the crash of breakers along distant strands variously delayed, attenuated, echoed and re-echoed...”

Near the start of Silence, there is a scene in a hotel where the barman tries to engage Eoghan in conversation, telling him about a deserted Scottish island where starlings still mimic the mechanical sounds of the lawnmowers once used by its inhabitants. Is this story the sort of thing he is looking for?  Eoghan replies quietly that what he has come to Ireland to find is silence.  The possibility that an anecdote about birdsong might be of more interest than the sounds themselves is a sign perhaps of how much has been written and said about soundscapes in recent years.  It seems only a matter of time before the boom in sound art is accompanied by new narratives centring on the figure of the field recordist, fictional versions of Chris Watson perhaps, who worked on Silence and told its director the Scottish island story. Will these resemble earlier characterisations of landscape painters in nineteenth century literature?  Rose Tremain's story 'Wildtrack' was written in 1986, when the purpose of crouching over a tape recorder in a Suffolk field was to record a soundtrack for use in radio rather than make an art installation or an album for Touch. Her protagonist, like Eoghan in Silence, returns to the places of his childhood and the story becomes more about memory than landscape.  Perhaps this focus is inevitable given the way that recordings preserve and bring back lost time.  Pat Collins has referred to David Toop's idea that sound is ‘a haunting’and his film ends with Eoghan exploring an abandoned house while faint sounds of conversation can be heard: they may be old tapes he made as a child, or ghostly presences, or both.

Friday, October 12, 2012

By the Open Sea

A strange work of land art avant la lettre is created in August Strindberg's extraordinary novel By the Open Sea (1889).  Although summer has arrived on the island of Österskär, 'drift-ice was still coming from the north, where an unusually severe winter on the coast had resulted in the formation of bottom-ice, which, drifting south, had so chilled the water that the lower layers of air were denser than those above.  Consequently, refraction had distorted the contours of the skerries and, during the last few days, had produced the most magnificent mirages.' The scientific explanations voiced by Strindberg's doomed anti-hero, the government fisheries inspector Axel Borg, fail to dispel the supernatural ideas of the suspicious islanders.  Maria, the young woman towards whom Borg is attracted (she is staying on the island for the summer for reasons of health), likens the distorted shape of the pink-gneiss skerries to the cliffs of Normandy.  Borg decides he needs to appear to the islanders as some kind of magician simply to gain a hearing. 'He therefore asked the credulous if they would believe that they were seeing a reflection of Italy if they saw an Italian landscape, and when the answer was yes, he determined to combine the useful with the entertaining.  By making a few minor alterations he would produced the promised southern landscape for Miss Maria's birthday, so that when the next mirage occurred this, seen through the colossal magnifying glass provided by the varying density of the layers of air would appear on the horizon greatly magnified.'

Borg rows out to the skerry and begins work by stripping away lichen, leaving a few dark lines so that the rock resembles stratified sedimentary rock.  On the crest of the ridge he fells a few pine trees, isolating the best one so that it will be silhouetted against the sky.  He thins out its crown and trains some of its branches upwards with zinc wire to achieve the look of an Italian stone pine.  A juniper tree is converted into a cypress using an axe and darkened in colour using lamp-black dissolved in water.  At first he had felt rather disgusted with himself for indulging in this activity but as he works he comes to feel 'like a Titan storming creation, correcting its originator's blunders, twisting the earth's axis so that the south turned a few degrees northwards.'  He goes to work with a crowbar, trying to remove slabs of eurite to reveal the marble underneath, eventually resorting to the use of dynamite.  Having thus uncovered what would serve as the facade of a palace, he paints on windows and the outline of a rusticated socle.  He adds a pergola festooned with vines (three poles and some plaited runners of bearberry) and finishes his work by touching the area up with hydrochloric acid diluted with an equal part of water.  'Thus he obtained a gleaming shade of white among the green grass.  This produced an effect of bellis, or galanthus, so characteristic of the Roman Campagna in its 'second spring', which occurs in October after the end of the grape harvest.'

But that evening is a troubling one: Maria is ill, or appears to be, and Borg, with another kind of magic trick, goes through the motions of curing her.  Tired and confused he walks out into the night, where he is eventually rejoined by Maria.  They talk about their future together but fall silent on reaching a cairn erected in memory of the people drowned in a shipwreck.  Borg already feels a yearning for the time of their initial enchantment, 'the intoxication that blinded, that changed grey to rosy red, that built pedestals, that painted golden rims on cracked porcelain.'  Next morning they are talking over coffee when they become aware that a crowd has gathered looking uneasily out to sea.  Stepping outside they realise immediately that it is not the miraculous mirage Borg had planned.  'They saw swimming on the surface of the sea, in the middle of a clear sunny morning, a colossal moon, deathly white, rising over a churchyard of black cypresses.  The inspector, who had not calculated what the effect would be from this viewpoint, and who did not grasp the hang of the matter swiftly enough, turned deathly pale himself from shock.'  His intended marble palace, partly obscured by the pine tree and projecting rock and with windows painted on too faintly, resembled the face of the moon.  'He had never expected an otherwise law-abiding nature to produce such a monstrous phenomenon.'

   August Strindberg, Double Picture, 1892

Quotes here are from the 1984 translation by Mary Sandbach, which some publisher like New York Review Books really ought to reissue (Penguin Classics used to have an edition of By the Open Sea but it is no longer in print). 

Friday, October 05, 2012

A Shaded Path

Next month Tate Britain will feature a new display of its works by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  Meanwhile in Edinburgh there are still a few more weeks of 'Ian Hamilton Finlay: Twilight Remembers' at the Ingleby Gallery.  It is worth finding your way there (through the confusion of construction work in and around Edinburgh Waverley) if only to see Carrier Strike!, a short film in which a sea battle a fleet of irons and an ironing board aircraft carrier.  Climb the stairs and you encounter a line of bricks called A Shaded Path, each one stamped with the word 'Virgil' - a pastoral version of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII. The room contains examples of Finlay's garden sculptures: Three Inscribed Stones bearing the names of Japanese war planes, a stile inspired by De Stijl, a pairs of benches Glade / Grove and a 'milestone' which says simply 'MAN / A PASSERBY'.  Downstairs there is a whole wall devoted to prints and postcards of Finlay's concrete and experimental poetry.  These poems can also be read, along with early verse and prose, later texts and 'detatched sentences', in Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, a new anthology edited by Alec Finlay.  I thought I would include here a few extracts from the Introduction that give a sense of Ian Hamilton Finlay's engagement with landscape over the years.

late 1940s: Finlay left Glasgow with his first wife for the Highlands, where they lived in a whitewashed cottage resembling his later home at Stonypath.  'Druim-na-Cille was "an extraordinary landscape of pines and mountains which I still owe many poems to," and "bittersweet, like a mixture of Heine and Trakl."  ... In these glens he had a dream of 'young men engaged in learned discourse', a vision that would eventually become the garden where the thought of Hegel, Schelling and Heidegger was actualised in herm, stile and wood-path.  ... The more one reflects on his biography the more clear it is that each new landscape of home became, in time, a created landscape, shaped by the memory of a lost idyll.'

mid 1950s: 'In a rite familiar to Scottish writers, Finlay found refuge on an island, Rousay, one of Orkney's smaller islands.  ... For all its wildness, Rousay has a platonic perfection, its constituent parts - loch, mill and farms; the single road, upon which he worked as a labourer; the rugged coast - were, "being on an island ... like a concrete poem, very particular, very realised."'

late 1960s: After some years in Edinburgh Finlay wrote to George Mackay Brown that he had found a new home with his partner Sue: "STONYPATH ('Of life' being understood in brackets, no doubt).  I am looking forward to the wildness very much." 'The area around the house was wild, except for an overgrown walled garden at the front, with lilac trees, currant bushes and an old ash - this last Finlay celebrated with a stone plaque 'MARE NOSTRUM' ('Our Sea'), after the Roman Mediterranean: "except on very calm days [...] the ash fills the garden with its sea-sound.  When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea."'

1970s: The garden at Stonypath took shape. 'Year by year the composed landscape distinguished itself from the wild hillside and the broad waste of the moor.  Finlay extolled the 'slow excitement' of his new art.  His imaginative fancy conjured Stonypath as a belated episode in the English landscape garden tradition - those "quite extraordinary PURE SYMPHONIC creations', in which nature is poeticized, abstracted: pond as Pool, grass as Lawn, sundial gnomon dividing shadow into measure and order.'

1980s: By 1982 Finlay had renamed his garden 'Little Sparta' and transformed his gallery into a Garden Temple dedicated 'To Apollo: His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.' 'For Finlay, poetics now became secondary to the lightning flash of incitement, which found its apotheosis in Robespiere's protégé Saint-Just, a Spartan Rimbaud or Young Apollo, identified by his flute and blade. ... Balancing the insurrectionary mood are the poet's sober meditations, as the era of rebellion gradually gives way to an era of contemplation, and the garden itself matures to enclose the still shadows of a cypress grove.'

late 1990s: 'There unfolded a last long autumnal decade whose emblems were the wild flower and the fishing-boat, and whose ideal literary form was the proverb.  Sometimes Finlay expressed puzzlement that he had lost the energy for battles.  In truth his imagination had returned to the pastoral, in poems which recalled the early days at Stonypath, celebrating the moor, with its larks and bog-cotton, and the wild roses that grew by the burn.'