Monday, September 28, 2009

Paper City

I was at the Royal Academy today for the Anish Kapoor exhibition which has received quite a lot of media coverage.  The kind of mirrored sculptures that I talked about here before in reference to landscape are inside the gallery where they focus attention very much on the viewer.  The exception to this is Tall Tree and the Eye, sited outside, which provides multiple images of the RA courtyard.  Among the other works on display is Yellow (1991), one of Kapoor's monochrome optical illusions designed to evoke the Sublime: 'overwhelming in scale, this vast landscape of yellow hovers between apparition and surface.'

In addition to this exhibition, the RA currently has a nice little show called Paper City: Urban Utopias which 'showcases a selection of extraordinary drawings, collages and photomontages that have been produced for Blueprint as part of their back-page ‘Paper City’ commissions over the past three years.'  They're the kind of images familiar to readers of Pruned and BLDGBLOG.  Visitors can take copies home; the AJ describes the decision to give out printed images as a 'U-turn for the YouTube generation'... 

Shown below are some that I picked up: cityscapes by Marc Atkins, Emily Allchurch, Peter Cook with Gavin Rowbotham, Paul Williams, Duggan Morris, Javier Mariscol and James Wines.  I particularly liked James Wines' image of post-global warming structures rising from the submerged towers of an old city.  Wines is the creative director of SITE and his writing on environmental architecture argues for sustainable buildings that also harmonise with the surrounding landscape.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The South Country

Another good source for free access soundscape recordings: the British Library Sound Archive.  They have various atmospheric recordings of the English countryside and some specific soundscapes from East Poland, Hungary, and locations further afield, like 'An Afternoon at Mayam Lake'.

But in addition to soundscapes the archive also has recordings taken from a series of old Linguaphone 78s called 'English Landscape Through Poets' Eyes'.  This was 'compiled by Stephen Usherwood, MA, Oxford, July 1958'.  Here are the poems and links:

And finally, 'Lines from 'The South Country' by Hilaire Belloc - from which the following three verses are taken:

The men that live in North England
I saw them for a day;
Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,
Their skies are fast and grey;
From their castle-walls a man may see
The mountains far away.

The men that live in West England
They see the Severn strong,
A-rolling on rough water brown
Light aspen leaves along.
They have the secret of the rocks
And the oldest kind of song.

But the men that live in the South Country
Are the kindest and most wise,
They get their laughter from the loud surf,
And the faith in their happy eyes
Comes surely from our sister the Spring
When over the sea she flies;
The violets suddenly bloom at her feet,
She blesses us with surprise.

Source: British Library

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Iron wind

My previous post described Peter Cusack's recordings of the sounds of nature at Chernobyl.  Jacob Kirkegaard's Four Rooms project, in contrast, sought to capture the atmosphere of the site's abandoned spaces: 'The sound of each room was evoked by sonic time layering: In each room, he recorded 10 minutes of it and then played the recording back into the room, while at the same time recording it again. This process was repeated up to ten times. As the layers got denser, each room slowly began to unfold a drone with various overtones.'

In J.G. Ballard's story 'The Sound Sweep', extraneous ultrasonic noise can be swept up, leaving only the most  beautiful vibrations of earlier sounds, like those emanating from the fragments of a thirteenth century church pediment.  Kirkegaard's amplification of the hidden sounds in resonant spaces like Chernobyl seems predicated on the idea that they hold a sonic memory of past events.  He has recently been working at Belchite, a village destroyed by Franco in the Spanish Civil War, making a book and CD in collaboration with Lydia Lunch. (I note in passing that Lydia Lunch is one of many post-punk musicians involved in one way or another with environmental sound art - Chris Watson and Jem Finer, for example, have been discussed here previously).

The Wire magazine had a feature on Kirkegaard earlier this year and their website includes 'images from Nagaras, a series of eight photographs shot on an expedition into the deserts of Oman in December 2008. The work explores a sonic phenomenon which only occurs in a few deserts around the world: The Singing Sands. The photographs aim to capture momentary visual fragments of the millions of sand grains which, in joint movement, emit such "marvelous" sounds. The seemingly chaotic patterns generated on the desert dunes during the sands' sonic emissions offer a visualization of sound in the making, through movement in matter.'

Here are some other examples on Kirkegaard's website that use recordings made out in the landscape:
  • Tide (2006) - '16-channel sound installation located at the tidal sea shore of the Danish west coast, Vadehavet. The sounds are processed water sounds recorded in the area'.
  • Iron Wind (2006) - 'recordings of iron fences stretching along the Cologne Rhine river in Germany. The movement of water, wind and passing ships make the iron fences vibrate and thereby to emit subtle tones. Attaching highly sensitive contact microphones (accelerometers) on the iron Jacob Kirkegaard recorded the hundreds of meters of fences throughout a period of four years. Unfolding the resonating body of the fences is the immense force of the Rhine river acoustically brought to life.'
  • Sphere (2007) - 'a collection of VLF (very low frequency) recordings of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). It was captured during travels in Iceland in the year of 2004. Kirkegaard used electromagnetic antennas in order to pick up the electric and magnetic oscillations of the solar winds.'

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Autumn leaves

Gruenrekorder's Autumn Leaves is a really good survey of current work in environmental soundscape composition and it can all be dowloaded for free from their website.  It ranges from the pastoral to the decidedly anti-pastoral, as exemplified by two of Ari Koivumäki '100 Finnish soundscapes':
  • 'Throwing small pebbles on thin ice': "When I was ten I remember going to the lake with my friends. There we would throw small pebbles on the thin ice, just after the first frosty night." The recording was made at Tesoma lake in Tampere . Ducks are heard in the foreground, ice hockey is being played in the background
  • 'Parolannummi': "The soundscape of Parolannummi garrison is from the winter of 2006 and is mixed with archive sounds of Finnish Proto Sisu lorries, BTR 60 armoured cars that has been reassembled from old Russian Zil and Gaz vehicles, and T 55 and T 72 battle tanks."
Among other recordings of most interest in the context of this blog (i.e. which seem closest to 'landscapes', broadly defined) are Lasse-Marc Riek's 'Storm' and 'Waves' recorded in Boltenhagen, Germany in 2007; Charlie Fox's 'Four Wild Places' in Canada (open prairie, wetlands, rainforest and the transition zone between foothills and mountain); and Robert Curgenven's 'Silent Landscape No. 2' - 'nightfall by a riverside camp near Wollumbin (Mt Warning), walking in dry grass, the sharp call of a single insect emerges...'

How important is to know where such sounds have been recorded?  It depends, but some of the compositions are specifically about their sites, such as Peter Cusack's 'Chernobyl Dawn' and 'Chenobyl Frogs' - beautiful Arcadian soundscapes which belie their source. He writes: 'Since the nuclear catastrophe of April 26 1986, and in complete contrast to human life, nature at Chernobyl is thriving. The evacuation of people has created an undisturbed haven and wildlife has taken full advantage. Animals and birds absent for many decades – wolves, moose, black storks – have moved back and the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now one of Europe’s prime wildlife sites. Radiation seems to have had a negligible effect. The increase in wildlife numbers and variety means that the natural sounds of springtime are particularly impressive. For me the passionate species rich dawn chorus became Chernobyl’s definitive sound.  Chernobyl is also famous for its frogs and nightingales. Nighttime concerts were equally spectacular.'

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Gert Jonke's novel Homage to Czerny describes a garden party in which reality and representation, perception and memory become confused in various ways.  It opens with the hanging of 'a cycle of garden pictures done especially by the painter Florian Waldstein for this park and the summer garden parties held in it - precision work whose complexity could hardly be grasped by an outsider: the individual pictures portrayed exactly those parts of the garden that were covered by the surfaces of the respective pictures, and the portrayals were so lifelike that they were constantly being confused from every angle with the respective parts of nature itself.'  As the pictures are being hung, the characters hear a radio lecture talking about the possibility of a picture that 'exactly represents the world in which it hangs' and the possibility it opens for the viewer that they themselves are perhaps not in a world at all, 'but rather  picture of the world within a world or within a picture of the world, etc.'

I thought about the fictional painter Florian Waldstein while reading an article about trompe l'œil in the new edition of Tate etc.  In his article, Michael Diers discusses Thomas Demand's Clearing (2003): 'a poster-like photo-installation of a colourful woodland scene. Although this picture-wall was strikingly large (192 x 495 cm), it was perfectly possible to overlook it, because it was presented without any frame.   From a distance one already had the impression that the image was of the trees in the immediate surroundings - in fact, of the very trees that it was obscuring. Games of this kind, toying with reality, are already familiar from the paintings of Magritte. One of the most famous, La Condition Humaine (1933), is a depiction of the view from a window, partly hidden by a painting on an easel. The painting, a landscape, fills in almost seamlessly the view of the real countryside outside the window - on the same scale, in the same colours and with the same perspective - so that picture and reality seem to have become one: an illusion that gives (visual) form to a long (art-) philosophical discussion.'

As the article explains, Clearing is more complex than the fictional paintings of Gert Jonke's novel.  Viewers of the work discovered that 'the thousands upon thousands of leaves in the picture had in fact been made from paper, carefully positioned as foliage and only then photographed. Viewers found themselves contemplating a three-dimensional, superbly-lit paper world, captures on film as a photographic image, printed on a scale of 1:1 and mounted on a board - a large-format image behind plexiglas of a sculpture made from coloured paper and card, presented as a hoarding of sorts; a lengthy, technically complex process of reproduction that had ultimately returned the image to exactly the same spot where it had started.'

Friday, September 11, 2009

Belegaer the Shoreless

It is hard not to believe there is something atavistic in the powerful emotions stirred by the sight of the sea, come upon suddenly after a long journey.  There is a description of this that I've always remembered in Tolkien, where he writes 'Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin':

'In this way Tuor passed into the borders of Nevrast, where once Turgon had dwelt; and at last unawares (for the cliff-tops at the margin of the land were higher than the slopes behind) he came suddenly to the black brink of Middle-earth, and saw the Great Sea, Belegaer the Shoreless. And at that hour the sun went down beyond the rim of the world, as a mighty fire; and Tuor stood alone upon the cliff with outspread arms, and a great yearning filled his heart. It is said that he was the first of Men to reach the Great Sea, and that none, save the Eldar, ever felt more deeply the longing that it brings.'

I'm conscious that it seems a bit odd to follow a posting on Deleuze and Guattari with one that quotes Tolkein, but that's the rhizomic nature of blogs...  Anyway, while I'm on the subject of Tolkien, here's part of a good (partial) defence of his work and its appeal to teenage readers (of which I was one) by Jenny Turner, which I read in the LRB a few years ago:

'Studying and researching - the everyday activities of the scholar - are deeply pleasurable. They're fun and they're more than fun. All sorts of visceral needs and desires are involved, with all the obvious psychosexual analogues: controlling the material; penetrating appearances; consuming the primary sources, and so on. Tolkien, I think, felt all these things acutely, whether or not he was aware of it. And so, in his fiction, he created a machine for the evocation of scholarly frisson. The thrills are the thrills of knowledge hidden, knowledge uncovered, knowledge that slips away.

'This or something like it is what Freud called the Unheimlich, 'the uncanny': 'the over-accentuation of psychical reality in comparison with material reality'. Isn't that what being a bookish adolescent is all about? Children, Tolkien wrote, don't know enough about the world to be able always to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Their boundaries are blurred. And Tolkien played those boundaries like a master. The kicks I used to get from Lord of the Rings were sensual, textural, almost sexual, a feeling of my mind being rubbed by the rough edges of the different layers. And the elegiac, valedictory aspect of the novel perhaps speaks with particular power to the swotty teenager, sorry to be leaving the figments of childhood, but itching to get to a university library. All those lists and footnotes. All those lovely books.'

Sunday, September 06, 2009

All landscapes are populated by a loved or dreamed-of face

"All faces envelop an unknown, unexplored landscape; all landscapes are populated by a loved or dreamed-of face, develop a face to come or already past. What face has not called upon the landscapes it amalgamated, sea and hill; what landscape has not evoked the face that would have completed it, providing an unexpected complement for its lines and traits?" - Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980, trans. Brian Massumi)

In responding to a comment on an earlier posting I said I would try to get round to the subject of faciality and landscape, which Deleuze and Guattari discuss in the section of A Thousand Plateaus entitled 'Year Zero: Faciality'.  They describe the face as a surface and a map, 'overcoding' the head so that it is no longer simply part of the body, indeed this process of 'facialisation' can extend to the whole body. The face is to the body what the 'landscape' is to the world.  'Architecture positions its ensembles - houses, towns, or cities, monuments or factories - to function like faces in the landscape they transform.' The close-up in film treats the face as a landscape.  Painting positions landscape as face and vice versa. 

Landscape, as we know, is an artificial construct, whether political or aesthetic.  Deleuze and Guattari associate the face and landscape with 'certain social formations' - 'the face is not universal.  It is not even that of the white man; it is White Man himself, with his broad white cheeks and the black hole of the eyes.  The face is Christ.'  They therefore see the face in abstract terms as a white screen with black holes (after landscape painting, 'when painting becomes abstract, all it does is rediscover the black hole and the white wall').  And in medieval and Renaissance art, Christ presides over 'the facialisation of the entire body (his own) and the landscapification of all mileus (his own)'.

I was reminded of faciality last week, reading about the weeping ice cap photographed by Michael Nolan.  Here are black holes on a white surface apparently showing the face of a mother ('mother nature in tears').  The concept of faciality is linked to the image of the mother - Deleuze and Guattari trace the importance of the black eyes and white screen to the face perceived by breast feeding infants.  But they also warn that faciality is not just about resemblances and anthropomorphism.  The process of facialisation could therefore be seen to lie behind many artists' images of the arctic landscape.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sadness of the Gorges

Triple Gorge one thread of heaven over
ten thousand cascading thongs of water,

slivers of sun and moon sheering away
above, and wild swells walled-in below,

splintered spirits glisten, a few glints
frozen how many hundred years in dark

gorges midday light never finds, gorges
hungry froth fills with peril. Rotting

coffins locked into tree roots, isolate
bones twist and sway, dangling free,

and grieving frost roosts in branches,
keeping lament's dark, distant harmony

fresh. Exile, tattered heart all scattered
away, you'll simmer in seething flame

here, your life like fine-spun thread,
its road a trace of string traveled away.

Offer tears to mourn the water-ghosts,
and water-ghosts take them, glimmering.

These are some lines from David Hinton's translation of Meng Chiao's Laments of the Gorges.  It is a frightening vision of nature, a world away from the contemplative landscapes found in other Tang dynasty poems.  This poem (the third of Meng's ten laments) appears on David Hinton's website - I like his description of the poet there: "Late in life, Meng Chiao (751-814 C.E.) developed an experimental poetry of virtuosic beauty, a poetry that anticipated landmark developments in the modern Western tradition by a millennium. With the T'ang Dynasty crumbling, Meng's later work employed surrealist and symbolist techniques as it turned to a deep introspection. This is truly major work, work that may be the most radical in the Chinese tradition."

There is another translation of this poem by Matthew Flannery, under the title 'Sadness in the Gorges' ('...Hungry maw foamed with danger its naked curling roots encoffin jumbled bones that hang and swing while monkeys whine from icy trees faint unhappy elegies...')  However, I think my favourite translation remains the first one that I read, A. C. Graham's in Poems of the Late T'ang (1965).  Graham's punctuation is clearer than Hinton's, which I makes it seem less avant garde, but allows some memorable phrases to stand out - 'The shock of a gleam, and then another, / In depths of shadow frozen for centuries.'

The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Poetry describes Meng's poem as an encounter with cosmic malice embodied in the landscape.  David Hinton writes that Laments of the Gorges articulates 'nonbeing as a murderous furnace at the heart of change.' A. C. Graham remarks upon the violence of the imagery, e.g. 'the spray on rocks compared with the spittle of the hungry ghosts of the drowned'.  Meng Chiao acknowledged the bleakness of his style, especially in comparison to that of his friend Han Yü.  He wrote: 'The bones of poetry jut in Meng Chao, / The waves of poetry surge in Han Yü.'  The great Song dynasty poet Su Shih described Meng Chao's verse as a 'cold cicada's call'.

The title of Meng's poem has an added poignancy today.  His imagery reflected the dangers of the upper Yangtze river, but the inexorable progress of the Three Gorges Dam has gradually been flooding these gorges.