Sunday, October 31, 2010

Water Asleep

Eadward Muybridge, Rekootoyen (Water Asleep) 
Mirror Lake from the Western Bank, 1867

The Tate's Eadward Muybridge exhibition gives a good account of his famous experiments in the photography of movement but also includes his earlier landscape photographs and panoramas of San Francisco, in which all movement is frozen and the emphasis is on the clarity of a single view.  In Rekootoyen (Water Asleep) Mirror Lake from the Western Bank (1867) he found a subject in which the lake surface was so still that you can see the individual trees reflected on the distant mountains.  Looking at Toloolweach Fall in South Canyon, Yosemite (1867) you see the waterfall slowed by the long exposure to a shaft of light which could just as easily be shining upwards, out of the rocky valley. When Muybridge returned to Yosemite in 1872, he went to great lengths to capture the view he wanted - the Daily Alta California reported worryingly that 'he has cut down trees by the score that interfered with the cameras from the best point of sight'.  And to bring out 'the full beauty of the object to be photographed' Muybridge apparently had himself lowered over precipices by ropes.  Back in the studio, like a nineteenth century Andreas Gursky, he would touch up and combine images: two landscapes in the exhibition, photographed a year apart in Yosemite and at Pigeon Point in California, have exactly the same sky.

Seeing these panoramic photographs so carefully composed into timeless views, followed by Muybridge's sequences of images where motion is abstracted from any setting, made me think about the separation of space and time in his work.  Having downloaded the Tate's Muybridgizer iPhone app to take little zoopraxiscope movies of my sons, I tried filming the view across the river outside Tate Britain, to see the small changes visible over even just a few seconds.  It's probably impossible to make out from the composite image below, but the waves on the Thames and the wind in the trees can be seen moving if you view these photographs in quick succession. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hearing the leaves and the breathing shore

W.S. Merwin, the current American poet laureate, long ago renounced the city for a life of poetic retreat on the island of Maui, where he writes and plants trees, restoring the natural forest surrounding his home.  In The Compass Flower (1977), the first book published after his move to Hawaii, he looked back without fondness on city life, where 'the light of the streets is the color of arms kept covered' and 'the veins of the sleepers remember trees.'  Living in the city myself, I can't help feeling something of a reproach in poems like this.  'Are you modern', he asks in 'What Is Modern' - the lack of a question mark adding extra weight to the enquiry.  Well, yes, I think, and not ashamed to be counted as an admirer of Joyce and Mies and Mondrian...  Then he asks: 'Is the first / tree that comes / to mind modern / does it have modern leaves.'  Well, right now, yes (see below), but I take the point - real trees aren't 'modern' and we should see them for what they are. In another poem, 'Native Trees', Merwin complains that his parents never knew what the trees of his childhood were called, and it's not just trees that we fail to register: among the ironic 'Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field' Merwin asks 'What and where was the last   bird you noticed / do you remember   what sort of bird it was'.  

Piet Mondrian, Trees in Blossom, 1912

Merwin has written some of the best known modern ecopoems, like 'Place', where he says that on the last day of the world he will plant a tree, and 'Witness' where he suggests that a forgotten language is needed to tell what the forests were like.  However, in these poems the trees are ideas of trees and it is perhaps surprising not to find in his books more poems of place that specify and describe the island's natural features in detail.  A poem like 'Anniversary on the Island', which you can hear read by Garrison Keiller at his Writer's Almanack site, gives only a general idea of the landscape - backdrop to an idyllic life, waking day after day as 'the light rises through the drops on the leaves', watching 'the long waves glide in through the afternoon' and at night 'hearing the leaves and the breathing shore.'  Perhaps Merwin's interest in the island's trees is ultimately more direct and practical - he is one of those artists who has created his own landscape and the intention is that it will be preserved after his death by The Merwin Conservancy and Hawaiian Coastal Land Trust.

Fifteen years ago Dinitia Smith interviewed Merwin for the New York Times. 'I'd got lost looking for W. S. Merwin's house on the Hawaiian island of Maui, driving along roads lined with palms and sugar cane, then turning into a dense area of ironwood and heliconia trees. It was almost like rain forest here -- pink and red hibiscus, ginger flowers filled with rain from the night.  Then, suddenly, there he was, as if he'd somehow materialized out of the rain ...  Over the years, Merwin has almost reinvented himself in the 19th-century Romantic ideal of the poet at one with nature. When he isn't writing, he's down in his forest, trying to restore it to its primeval state. In conversation, he refers constantly to "the environment," to a tree that doesn't belong in Hawaii but was brought here by merchants or missionaries, to a geothermal project on a neighboring island that he's campaigning against. ... One afternoon, in the rain, Merwin takes me on a tour of the garden. "That's a koa tree, what Hawaiian canoes were made from," he says as we trudge along a wet, rocky path. "I put that in as a tiny tree." We come to an eroded ledge, one patch he hasn't restored yet. "See there, that's what it used to be like. It wants to be a forest!"'

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dream Vision in The Time of the Wolf

Albrecht Dürer, Dream Vision, 1525

There has not been much time for this blog of late as I've been working on a big publication that appeared last week.  It has all been rather tense, so I'm not sure why I ended up last night trying to relax by watching a typically bleak Michael Haneke film...  Le Temps du Loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) is set after an unspecified apocalypse and begins with a family escaping from the city and then, after the father is shot, wandering through the inhospitable countryside until they meet other people waiting at an abandoned station.  The hoped for train never comes, although the long take that ends the film is the view from a train.  It passes through a landscape of hills, trees and valleys but with no signs of humanity anywhere.

At one point in the film Eva, the daughter, looking round the empty rooms of the station, comes across a reproduction of Dürer's Dream Vision taped to a wall (see the start of the YouTube clip below).  Dürer's watercolour tried to capture his fear of an apocalypse, falling in the form of water on a landscape resembling the countryside in Le Temps du Loup.  The text below it reads:

`In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst. And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best.'

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Mosques of Tanger

Last night I sat in a room full of people listening intently to the sound of an egg being fried.  We were at Cafe Oto for The Wire Salon, Environmental Agents: The Art of Field Recording, and  Lee Patterson was playing some of the sounds he has recorded in and around his home in Prestwich.  Using cheap contact mics and home made hydrophones, he explores the unheard sounds around us, staging experiments that transmit a kind of magical realism - the sonic equivalent of writers like Bruno Schulz whose characters perceive the strangeness of ordinary rooms, streets and gardens.  The evening ended with Patterson's unnerving recordings of pondweed, apparently shrieking in pain, although the noises result from the release of thousands of tiny oxygen bubbles.

The panel discussion started with Peter Cusack playing us two field recordings from specific locations.  One turned out to be the buzzing of a hoverfly, captured inadvertently in Prague whilst trying to record the sound of a rail as a train passed over it.  The other documented an encounter with the London transport police, who were suspicious of the recording equipment he was using at London Bridge station. (I've just checked and this recording doesn't appear on Cusack's Sound Data Base - click on London Bridge and you just hear trains and announcements).   Asked about the politics of sound recording and acoustic ecology, he described his work, with a sonic metaphor, as political 'in a muted way'.  He also modestly put the activities of sound artists in perspective, reminding us of the huge range of environmental recordings constantly being made but not presented to the public as aesthetic objects - by scientists, the military, archeologists, geographers, anthropologists, planners and so on. 

The third speaker was Justin Bennett, sound artist and member of BMB con., who played an extract from Sundial, the closest thing we heard to a sonic landscape.  The aim of the piece was to analyze the daily rhythm of a particular city over 24 hours from one single location. Listening to 'Istanbul' and imagining the sights took me back to the opposite experience watching Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and imagining the missing soundscape.  Bennett also makes urban sound walks and praised the work of Dutch artist Cilia Erens who gets people to walk around a landscape while listening to noises from a contrasting location.  At Justin Bennett's website you can download a different work made in Istanbul, The Well: 'voices, machines, footsteps, tunnels, but also bronze cymbals and electric guitars ... a personal journey through layers of narrative, memory, sounds and music - an attempt to uncover the secret well that lies deep under the city.' And as I write this I'm listening to another of his soundscapes, The Mosques of Tanger, of which Wire writer Clive Bell says: 'it begins and ends with Mediterranean dawn ambience, cicadas and cockerels. We hear the first call, maybe a mile away; gradually other calls are layer in, but the best moments are to do with the eerie beauty of sound heard at a great distance.'

Friday, October 01, 2010

A Galloway Landscape

George Henry, A Galloway Landscape, 1889

While in Scotland I visited the Kelvingrove Museum's exhibition 'Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880–1900' (it was full of visitors, very popular).  Among the works on show was George Henry's experimental Galloway landscape, which mystified contemporaries. A reviewer from the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times wrote in 1890 that 'it may be clever but it is not art.  It is utterly destitute alike of perspective, atmosphere, and poetry, three very serious defects, as we take it, in a landscape picture.' The painting has many admirers today, including broadcaster Andrew Marr who praises it in the current RA magazine. 'A truly great painting is endlessly mysterious and never quite reveals its secret. The flatness, the hot haze of umbers, pinks and yellow-olive, and the radical design of the dark burn or small river in the foreground, added by the artist to the ‘real’ view, can be continuously analysed. Perhaps Henry is nodding to Hokusai, yet there is also something of the Dutch Golden Age, and something, too, of the late landscape pastels of Degas, but in the end it’s a mystery, and I know of no painting that is like it.'

Dumfries and Galloway Council have started a website, Artists Footsteps, which features various paintings by the Glasgow Boys. 'Landscape and light have combined to lure painters to live and work in the area for at least 200 years. The Artists’ Footsteps website documents the landscape paintings, their artists and the places that inspired their work.'  In the case of  Galloway Landscape they cannot provide a specific site - 'although some have tried to identify the location of the painting it seems a pointless exercise.  It is simply a hill, a burn and some cows.'

In 1893 the dealer Alexander Reid and shipping magnate William Burrell paid for George Henry to travel to Japan with fellow artist E. A. Hornel - some of the paintings they did there have been on show at the Kelvingrove exhibition.  The two artists had collaborated in 1890 on The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), a kind of combination of Japonisme and Celtic Revivalism.  There is an interesting Tate Paper by Ysanne Holt which sees the same combination in a Japanese garden Hornel later designed at his home in Kirkcudbright (her photographs put me in mind of Little Sparta).  Planted with pink Japanese wind flowers, magnolia, and cherry trees, it included, in addition to Japanese elements like a lily pond and stone lanterns, 'relics of local origin; meal querns, curling stones, a tiny stone trough (actually an ancient coffin for a young child), an eleventh or twelfth century wayside cross from nearby Dalshangan village and a collection of stones, some decorative or inscribed, purloined from the ruins of nearby Dundrennan Abbey.'