Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sunset Landscape

I have mentioned the Southern Song landscape painter Ma Yuan here before in connection with a Wallace Stevens poem. I’ve just been reading about the Ma family in Richard M. Barnhart’s chapter of Yale’s Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. They served Chinese emperors for five generations, starting with Ma Ben (Fen) in the early twelfth century and ending with Ma Lin, who was active in the early to mid thirteenth century. Ma Lin’s ‘touching Sunset Landscape seems almost to be an elegy for his dynasty, so preoccupied is it with the end of light and vision.’ It is a minimal landscape set beneath two lines by Wang Wei, “Mountains hold the autumn colour near / Swallows cross the evening slowly.” Barnhart notes that many scholars have detected a melancholy mood in Ma Lin’s paintings, but, since it was the emperor that commissioned these works, their poignancy cannot solely be attributed to the artist. In Ma Lin, the doomed Song dynasty court ‘found the perfect voice to sing their sad songs for them as they presided over the end of a great empire.’

Ma Lin, Sunset Landscape, 1254

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Things seen at Mabillon Junction

An alternative to soundwalks is to stay in one place and record the sounds heard over a period of time. Or, one could enumerate things seen... Georges Perec's Tentative de description de choses vues au carrefour Mabillon le 19 mai 1978 was a two-hour edited condensation of a day in which the writer used a mobile recording studio at Place Mabillon in Paris to describe everything he saw over the course of a day. I've never heard this, but David Bellos describes the finished product, broadcast on French radio in February 1979, as 'a hallucinatory audio experience' where repetition turns into rhythm: 'no one but Perec could have had the combination of self-restraint (he never comments on what he sees, he just says, another 68 bus, three red cars, a lady with a dog...), modesty, and sheer gall to carry on for hours on end, to the end.' (Georges Perec: A Life in Words p640).

While on the subject of Perec, I can't resist noting on a landscape theme that the main character in his magnum opus, Life A User's Manual, spent twenty years travelling the world painting watercolours of sea ports. Having completed each one in to an identical format, the artist, Percival Bartlebooth, sent them to a craftsman, Gaspard Winckler, to have them made into increasingly complex jigsaws. For another twenty years, Bartlebooth would complete these jigsaws at the same rate at which he had painted the original seascapes, one a fortnight. As he went along, each painting was removed from its backing, returned to the original spot at which it had been painted twenty years earlier, and then erased so that the final product was a fresh sheet of watercolour paper. However, Bartlebooth died (on the night the novel is set) before he could complete the great project. The puzzle he was working on at the end depicted 'a little port in the Dardenelles, at the mouth of the river which the Ancient Greeks called Maiandros, Meander.' As David Bellos remarks, 'the story of Meander figures both the tortuousness of attempts to defer the moment of dying and the impossibility of doing so forever.'

Friday, December 21, 2007

Soundwalk, Queen Elizabeth Park, Vancouver

Writing the last entry made me dig out the excellent survey of acoustic ecology in The Wire 226, which describes the original World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Their work varied from activities that might be considered broadly as a kind of landscape art, recording soundcapes across Canada and in five European villages, to more practical work on noise abatement, reviewing legislation and mounting an international car-horn count. Phil England interviewed Hildegard Westercamp for the article, an original member of the SFU team, assistant to R. Murray Schafer, and the person responsible for re-launching the soundscape movement in 1991 with the first Soundscape Newsletter. Asked why she thought the movement arose in Vancouver, Westercamp pointed to the experimental cultural environment in Canada in the early seventies, but also to the influence of the Canadian wilderness. "There's a huge silence out there. And when you experience that silence against what urban environments are like, there's a major difference. I was walking through London today and I thought, my god, how far away the Earth is at King's Cross."

As someone who waits for a bus at Kings Cross several times a week, I can only agree... But then, as noted in the last entry here, the sounds of the city have their own beauty and emotional charge. Peter Cusack is quoted in the same Wire article describing his CD Your Favourite London Sounds, which includes a list encompassing traffic, trains, aeroplanes, buskers, people chatting, even the sound of breaking glass. Cusack goes on to suggest that the use of sounds recorded in a landscape for music or sound art is diverging from the more direct approach where soundscapes are recorded to investigate or dramatise social or ecological issues. Here, I am more interested in the former approach, typified by someone like Chris Watson.

There is a whole dissertation by Andra McCartney on Hildegard Westercamp available online here. The site also includes a soundwalk McCartney took with Westercamp in Queen Elizabeth Park, 'Vancouver's Oasis'. You can listen, for example, to a recording of a creek, described by McCartney as follows: "We spent more time at the creek than anywhere else. Westercamp is fascinated by the endless variety of water voices, and her approach to close-up recording articulates them well. She shifted from one stepping-stone to another, moving the stereo microphone to highlight how the water found its way through crevices, over boulders, around branches in its path, illustrating the architecture of the creek bed, and the dance of the water through its sculptural forms..."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Baorittaolegainuoer - Natural Booming

I've been listening to the environmental recordings compiled on a CD for Uovo 14 by David Toop. In his notes, Toop says that the origins of this kind of modern sound art lie in 'a complex network of specialist and esoteric activities: scientific research into animal communication and bioacoustics; oral history and radio drama; birdwatching, trainspotting and similar ocular pursuits; documental filmmaking; exotic sonic backgrounds; post-Cageian environments; and the soundscape studies pioneered in Vancouver in the early 1970s by R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape project. Because of these origins, many of them located in looking as much as listening, and an uneasy relationship to landscape as visual spectacle, in the past, field recording as an art practice has tended towards the picturesque, benign and static.'

I've observed in various entries here how visual art and poetry have shifted over time from traditional views of 'landscape' to more complex ideas about 'place'. In the same way, Toop suggests that field recording suffered from an 'unspoken anti-urbanism which would exclude people, motor vehicles, industry, and all other interventions that could be considered the audio equivalent of telegraph poles in a beautiful landscape. Sounds have been recorded for specific human purposes, such as the melodic beauty of a particular birdsong that somehow reflects the structure of human music. This has been changing for some time, however, with more concentration given to sound environments that Murray Schafer might once have described as an 'earsore', and more focus on the sonic ecology in which we actually live.' Typical of this modern approach would be Lee Patterson's 'Ox Bow Pool & Airliners', or unpromising sounding soundscapes like Jeph Jerman's 'Clarkdale Slag Heap', recorded in Arizona, or Peter Cusack's 'Oil Field Soundwalk', recorded in Azerbaijan.

Clive Bell's review of the Uovo compilation in The Wire notes that the hypnotic song of Chris Watson's tree frogs triggers 'thoughts about human tribal music, just as the deep-throated humming of Rob Mullender and Isobel Clouter's Mongolian sound mountain inevitably recalls the local overtone singing.' Far fetched I suppose, but there's an appeal to the idea that natural sounds have embedded themselves in local musical forms.

Incidentally, the Mullender / Clouter piece,'Baorittaolegainuoer - Natural Booming', is an example of the way artists have been recording singing sands, as discussed here before. In a paper here, Clouter writes about the importance of preserving the sounds of these sands, which have always provoked stories, as in the account she quotes by the monk Hiuen Tsang from 629: 'At times sad and plaintive notes are heard and piteous cries, so that between the sights and sounds of the deserts, men get confused and know not whither they go. Hence there are so many who perish in the journey. But it is all the work of demons and evil spirits.'

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Dead Sea

Last night some friends were showing me photographs of Bonneville Salt Flats. I immediately dredged from childhood memory the name of Gary Gabelich, who set the land speed record there in 1970. Bonneville was in fact the site for all the land speed records from 1935 (Malcolm Campbell) to 1970: most of the earlier record breaking attempts took place on beaches like Daytona Beach (which has always sounded highly glamorous to me) and Pendine Sands in Wales (which doesn't). The most recent records have been set in Black Rock desert, which may look less spectacular than Bonneville, but which is still a fairly extreme landscape. Water speed records have also taken place in spectacular places of maximum flatness: Malcolm Campbell, for example, sped across the Romantic settings of Lake Maggiore (1937) and Coniston Water (1939).

The Bonneville photographs also reminded me of a trip I once made to the Dead Sea where I convinced our host to keep driving and driving in the hope of finding some spectacular salt landforms (no luck). I had in mind the kind of thing Michel Tournier describes towards the end of his novel Four Wise Men (1982): 'the blue surface of the water was sprinkled with white dots... they were great mushrooms of white salt, rooted in the bottom and emerging at the top like reefs.' Tournier goes on to tell of elephants spraying each other with the salt water and inadvertently crystallising themselves (the kind of thing that makes you question where, in a landscape like The Dead Sea, realism ends and magical realism begins). Salt's tendency to encrust and transform has always lent itself to metaphor (Stendhal's description of love, for example). The transformation of Lot's wife in the Bible seems like a story straight out of Ovid's Metamorphoses, except that the mention is all too brief: "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."

Geological formation overlooking the Dead Sea, called Lot's Wife (from Wikimedia Commons)

The growth of salt deposits has continued to affect the appearance of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Smithson chose to work at the Great Salk Lake partly for the blood-red colour of the water. However, it wasn't his first artwork based on a salt landscape: Mono Lake Nonsite (Cinders Near Black Point) brought some rocks collected at "The Dead Sea of the West" into the gallery. There is a film of the 1968 trip Smithson made to the lake with Nancy Holt and Michael Heizer, described by Lennie Bennett here as "guileless and optimistic, a self-portrait of three young artists on the brink of fame, scrambling around the ancient landscape with voiceovers by Smithson and Heizer reading passages from books about the lake. Smithson picks up handfuls of rocks that he later incorporated into an installation, along with his famous mirrors. At the end, they set fire to a map of the area; Smithson also used the cinders as part of that installation."

In one of his conversations with Denis Wheeler, Smithson talked about Mono Lake and pointed Wheeler to Mark Twain's Roughing It (1872). There Twain says "This solemn, silent, sailless sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied." But Twain does find something of the picturesque in the some landforms that recall Tournier's description of the Dead Sea: "all around its shores stand picturesque turret-looking masses and clusters of a whitish, coarse-grained rock that resembles inferior mortar dried hard; and if one breaks off fragments of this rock he will find perfectly shaped and thoroughly petrified gulls' eggs deeply imbedded in the mass. How did they get there? I simply state the fact—for it is a fact—and leave the geological reader to crack the nut at his leisure and solve the problem after his own fashion."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Buried rivers of mercury

Yesterday I got to see the British Museum's Terracotta Warriors exhibition, The First Emperor. There is more than just an army buried down there: there are bronze birds, musicians, civil servants - everything an emperor might need to make the afterlife more agreeable. In his Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) Sima Qian had written (c90 BCE) of 'Palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects were brought to fill up the tomb... Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed. Above were the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth' (trans. Burton Watson). Now it seems this description may not have been hyperbole. Intriguingly, tests have shown high levels of mercury at the site, so perhaps there really is a whole buried landscape under there. Chinese archaeologists are proceeding cautiously, searching for non-invasive ways of uncovering the past without a full excavation, so it could be some years before we know.

The first page of Sima Qian's Shiji (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Update: April 2015
From The Guardian today: 'An archaeologist has discovered liquid mercury at the end of a tunnel beneath a Mexican pyramid, a finding that could suggest the existence of a king’s tomb or a ritual chamber far below one of the most ancient cities of the Americas.'  It's fascinating that a similar idea was in use on the other side of the world.  Apparently the ancient Mesoamericans could produce liquid mercury by heating mercury ore (cinnabar) which they also used for its blood-red pigment.   According to Annabeth Headreck, an expert on central American art, the mercury “could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.”  Shiny and scintillating materials seem to have been particularly important: many ritual objects were made reflective with mica and in 2013 'archaeologists using a robot found metallic spheres which they dubbed “disco balls” in an un-excavated portion of the tunnel, near pyrite mirrors. “I wish I could understand all the things these guys are finding down there,” Headrick said, “but it’s unique and that’s why it’s hard.”'

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Olympic Park

A few weeks ago, at The Printed Path event, I heard Iain Sinclair describing his walk to the 2012 Olympics site in the company of writer Robert Macfarlane. Sinclair spoke amusingly of Macfarlane's youthful enthusiasm and described his attempt to climb the sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock at Gainsborough Studios, thwarted by security, noting that climbing seems to be the way Macfarlane 'gets to grips' with a landscape. I have thought of going up with my camera to take a look at the Olympic site myself - I once did a Sinclair-influenced walk up the Lea Valley, before the Olympics came to town - but my opportunities for psychogeographical wandering are limited these days. I imagine it's quite a popular destination at the moment... Sinclair said that he and Macfarlane had encountered at least one photographer with 'art pretensions'...

In his talk, Iain Sinclair praised Stephen Gill's photographs of the Olympic Park site, and in today's Guardian, Robert Macfarlane discusses these, as well as giving his own account of the walk with Sinclair. When they reach the construction site Sinclair says "Are you ready for the zone? From here on in it's pure Tarkovsky." But beyond the 'light-industrial spaces, car-wrecker's yards, square-windowed studios, haulage depots' there is the perimeter fence 'designed to exclude not only access, but also vision. There are no viewing windows built into it, no portholes for the curious stakeholder. To see inside the zone, you must ascend a Stratford towerblock, hire a helicopter, or - the desideratum - visit the ODA's website, which provides stills of the construction process and mocked-up futuramas of the park.' Images of the future like this one really do have an eerie quality...

Robert Macfarlane refers to the The Manor Gardens Allotments, a green oasis and vital part of the area's history, which has now been demolished despite the efforts of a strong campaign. A lot of people will be reading about the allotments in Moro East, the latest cookbook from Moro restaurant (you can see a clip here). But sadly they will never now be able to see the allotments that have inspired the cooks at Moro and so many other local people over the years.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Chinese rock gardens

We were at the Museum of Childhood last weekend and the photograph here shows my older son walking past a pair of interesting Chinese landscapes. Their caption reads as follows:

'The Chinese Rock Gardens together with two other landscapes were gifts for the French Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. They were sent by Chia Ch'ing, Emperor of China (1796-1820). It is said that the ship carrying these gifts was captured by an English warship. They were offered back to the French after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. The offer was declined. It is recorded that the models arrived at the East India Company's India Museum in 1809. They passed to the Victoria and Albert Museum, then the South Kensington museum, in 1880.'

I'm not sure why these miniature landscapes are in the Museum of Childhood - the implication is that they were toys, but they look more like decorative art works, not dissimilar to the jade mountain I've described here before, showing the The Nine Elders of Huichang. I would love to know more about them. It is hard to imagine Napoleon drawing any inspiration from these little Chinese rock gardens...