Saturday, April 30, 2011

Top Withens

OK third time lucky. I've written this post twice now and both times it's been deleted - I don't know if other blogspot users are having the same difficulties (basically just as you're editing something it wipes a whole paragraph or, the first time it happened, the whole post, and then instantly saves it so you cannot recover the earlier version).  Anyway, what I've been trying to write something about is Bill Brandt’s Literary Britain (1951), a collection of photographs he had taken of the places associated with British writers from Chaucer to Lawrence.  The montage below gives you an idea of the book’s layout (without reproducing directly the actual photographs) and shows Brandt’s elemental landscapes: George Crabbe’s Aldeburgh, Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, William Langland’s Malvern Hills, where Piers the Plowman went to rest ‘under a brode banke bi a bornes side.’  But this is a little misleading because many of Brandt’s images are writers’ homes – after Richard Jefferies’ Marlborough Downs, for example, you turn to the birthplace of Samuel Johnson and it is tempting to move swiftly on to the next page, illustrating Johnson’s journey to the Western Isles of Scotland with the desolate moorland on Skye where Sir James Macdonald tried in vain to plant a forest, ‘expecting, doubtless, that they would grow up into future navies and cities,’ but resulting only in a ‘useless heath.’

The next photograph after that is another house: Wentworth Place, where John Keats live.  We visited it on a sunny Spring day last year but in Brandt’s photograph all is dark, except for one partially open window - Keats's room.  The accompanying text quotes a letter to Fanny - 'come round to my window for a moment when you have read this' - and lines from 'Ode to Psyche': 'A bright torch, and a casement ope at night, To let the warm love in.'  Looking at this I started to feel that the photographs of houses were just as interesting as the landscapes in their own way.  Turning back to the image of Johnson's house, you see the same aesthetic of simplified forms and strong shadows that Brandt uses in his landscapes, and notice details that start to seem suggestive of the writer - a sturdy white structure with three classical pillars but an asymmetric roof and a set of windows with small rectangular panes that resemble rows of books.

In Romantic Moderns Alexandra Harris writes about the pains Brandt took to get just the right conditions, travelling with heavy equipment and waiting for the perfect weather conditions.  ‘Reclaiming the pathetic fallacy, he ensured that each writer got the weather he deserved … Literary Britain is a catalogue of English weather: D. H. Lawrence’s Eastwood terrace is slushy with half-thawed snow, menacing clouds hang suspended over Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, and an ecstatically illuminated mist fills Anthony Trollope’s cathedral.’  The last image of the six above is Top Withens, the supposed location of Wuthering Heights, which Brandt first tried to capture in 1944.  “I went to the West Riding in summer, but there were tourists and it seemed quite the wrong time of year.  I liked it better misty, rainy, and lonely in November.  But I was not satisfied until I saw it again in February.  I took the picture just after a hailstorm when a high wind was blowing over the moors.”  And yet even this was insufficient, so Brandt superimposed a sky from a different photograph, ‘over-exposing both negatives so that the moorland earth became impenetrably black, pitted with the spectral white of the settled hailstones.’

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sonorous stones

In one of my earliest posts here I talked about the wide range of landscapes on show at the Royal Academy's 2005 exhibition China: The Three Emperors, but I didn't mention one of the most memorable exhibits, dating from 1764: a set of sixteen sonorous stones, hung from a gold-lacquered frame three and a half metres high.  According to the catalogue 'sonorous stones made of dark green nephrite, such as those in this chime, were reserved for Grand Sacrifices performed at the Altar of Heaven and the Altar of Land and Grain, whereas the sonorous stones used in other state rites were made of limestone.'  Examples of these stone chimes (bianqing) exist going back thousands of years - the earliest were made of marble.  Similar instruments have been constructed in many different countries: rock gongs in Kenya, stone church bells in Ethiopia, castanets made of basaltic lava in Hawaii and the rarely heard Mongolian lithophone known as the shuluun tsargel.  In England a rock harmonicon, built by the Richardson family, was played in front of Queen Victoria in 1848 and she was apparently so impressed she requested two further performances.  A photograph of Neddy Dick with his rock instrument features in Rob Young's Electric Eden (see my previous post) and it can be seen on Mike Adcock's excellent website, which I am drawing on here.

From a landscape perspective, I am particularly interested in the way certain locations provide particularly musical rocks.  This was the case in England, where 'in the eighteenth century rocks found on the river bed in Skiddaw in the Lake District were found to possess a particularly sonorous quality.  Peter Crosthwaite, who had opened his own museum in Keswick assembled a set of musical stones in 1785, some of which were already in perfect tune, the rest he tuned himself by chipping away at the stone.  In the years following a number of people began to make musical instruments using the stone, known as hornfels or spotted schist, meticulously tuning them by cutting them into different length slabs and laying them horizontally.'  One of these was the Richardsons' rock harmonicon and another was commissioned by John Ruskin (now in the museum at Coniston - see below).

Carl Orff used a lithophone in his opera Antigonae (1949) and lists many contemporary sound artists and musicians who have made use of stone - from Sigur Rós to Stephan Micus (see clip below). There are also examples of stone instruments being made and sited in the landscape as musical sculptures, like Paul Fuchs' Garden of Sound in the Italian village of Boccheggiano.  Lithophones have been constructed using agate, marble, basalt and sonorous stones “gathered from the shores of Lake Superior”. Terje Isungset, who recently played his ice instruments here in London,has also performed on blocks of Norwegian granite. It would be good to know more about performances using stone that have taken place outside, like John Luther Adams' Inuksuit which I discussed here previously (there is a Youtube clip where you can see stones being rubbed together).  And it would also be nice to know more about cases where rock forms have been played directly in situ - an ancient practice, as evinced by the marks of use on stalactites found near prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne.  However, on his website Mike Adcock points out that 'in many parts of the world there is sometimes a reticence about talking about ringing stones, possibly because of their sacred quality, and even their whereabouts remains a local secret.'

Friday, April 22, 2011

Electric Eden

Britain's rural landscape is a constant presence in Rob Young's exploration of visionary folk music, Electric Eden. His prologue follows Vashti Bunyan as she sets out from London in 1968 on the road to Skye, where Donovan was hoping to set up a 'Renaissance Community' of artists (it was the same year that Paul McCartney introduced Linda Eastman to his farm on the Kintyre peninsula).  At the same time groups like the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention were retreating to cottages and developing psychedelic folk music with a shifting cast of like-minded musicians and artists.  Some of this is familiar history, like the recording of Liege and Lief at Farley Chamberlayne, where Fairport Convention reinvigorated songs from the archives of the English Folk Dance and Song Society whilst recovering from the M1 crash that killed Richard Thomspon's girlfriend and drummer Martin Lamble.  But Young also discusses forgotten groups like Heron, who went to seek inspiration in rural seclusion for their two albums at a farmhouse in Berkshire and a cottage in Devon.  Their lyrics are infused with what Rob Young describes as a 'Wordworthian hippy mood'; 'Lord and Master' for example, 'a reverie sung by a pantheistic nature-god whose being is entwined with the seasonal cycles he describes: 'I am the maker of everything and I soar with the birds in the sky'.'

I have described two examples here recently of recordings made en plein air - Richard Skelton's Landings and Movietone's The Sand and the Stars - but Heron pursued this approach forty years ago, as can be heard from the birdsong at the end of the clip above.  For their first album, the band played their songs outside on a circle of chairs, whilst an additional microphone was set up some distance away to capture the surrounding ambience, as if Nature were a fifth member of the group.  For their follow-up, Twice as Nice & Half the Price (1971), a local RAF base commander was persuaded to suspend flights so that the outdoor recording would not be sullied with the sounds of jet fighters.  Later in the book Young gives another example of outdoor recording from what he calls 'the final bright bloom in the garden of British folk-rock' - John Martyn's One World (1977).  Sitting overlooking the lake on Chris Blackwell's Berkshire estate, Martyn played his guitar through amplifiers floating on the water. 'Time seems arrested; the music is the still centre of a turning world of surging waves and intermittent bird calls.'

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rough Seas

The Tate's Susan Hiller exhibition begins with Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76) an installation first shown at the Gardner Centre, Sussex University, when she was artist in residence there (I wonder if I saw it there at the time as I was being taken to one of the pantomimes they used to put on for children).  Rachel Withers has described it well: 'several hundred vintage and contemporary "rough sea" postcards: visually seductive views purporting to show gigantic waves bombarding British beaches, piers, and esplanades. The piece marshals these in grid formation, systematically logging details of the cards' locations, captions, and message content ("We had a storm today, just like this one," and so on), and evidencing generations of British natives themselves colluding in the anthropological myth of the "British love affair with lousy weather" ... Its postcard images reiterate the ideologically saturated motif of the Sublime--reason's battle with cosmic chaos. In parallel, the work's King Canute-like "empirical" sorting system threatens to be swamped by the morass of material it strives to tame and contain.'

Fred C. Palmer of Tower Studio, Herne Bay - postcard, 1913
Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Brian Dillon in Tate Etc. 'something of the same semantic exchange between image, text and unseen history circulates in The J. Street Project (2002–2005): a film, photographic series and wall display which record the 303 thoroughfares (streets, alleyways, modest paths) in Germany that are still named for the Jewish communities that once resided, worked or traded there. “Still named” is not exactly the phrase here, of course, because what Hiller has archived is a series of places that lost their names in the Nazi era and have since had them reinstated ... As Hiller’s film demonstrates, contemporary life carries on around these traumatic inscriptions as though they were not there: the memorial name becomes just another textual element (ignored by passers-by) in the street furniture of the modern city, so that it is entirely unclear if it functions as a means of recall or amnesia.' I sat and watched the film for a while and noticed the way that she classified and ordered the material, just as she had earlier devised a typology of rough sea imagery, except that the sequencing here seemed to be based more on the people passing the camera than the specifics of the view.  The section I saw edited together footage of streets being entered by children, giving way to further scenes with old people - the places might have been interchangeable, but in each case the street signs were visible reminders of the contrast between past and present.

The final room of the Susan Hiller exhibition includes Voyage on a Rough Sea: Homage to Marcel Broodthaers from last year - the latest of various various works that have returned to the theme of rough seas.  She says she actually met Broodthaers in 1972 at a London exhibition: 'in the pub afterwards I shyly mentioned that I was working with postcards of rough seas, and he told me something about his own postcard projects'.   Broodthaers was himself concerned with classification and curation - that year in Düsseldorf he organised a display of eagles 'From the Oligocene to the Present', mixing together valuable sculptures with worthless modern objects like product labels and old champagne bottle corks.  His film A Voyage on the North Sea (1974) (below) is often cited as a key work in the history of conceptual art and is explicitly referred to in Hiller's montage of re-coloured postcard images.  His work has also inspired Tacita Dean (whose approach often resembles Susan Hiller's) and she paid tribute to him in Section Cinema (Homage to Marcel Broodthaers) (2002).  Dean also made two of her large blackboard drawings derived from Broodthaers' film Chère petite soeur (1972), which was itself based on a found postcard from 1901, depicting a boat in a rough sea. Broodthaers used the postcard's message as subtitles, leaving  the viewer to wonder (as in Hiller's rough sea installation) why people choose to send these particular postcard images... 'Dear little sister, this is to give you an idea of the storm which we had yesterday.  I'll give you more details about it, best wishes and see you soon, Marie.' 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Atlasov Island

I read Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will last month, but keep flicking back through it and looking at the maps.  They are all printed on the same scale and as you can see from the examples above, each island seems to possess a uniquely satisfying shape.  Various reviews will give you the background on this book, which won the German Arts Foundation Prize for the Most Beautiful Book of the Year (a version of which it would be good to have here) - there's an excellent piece about it on John Self's blog, for example, and another by Robert Macfarlane in The Guardian.  The short prose pieces accompanying each map reminded me, as they have others, of Calvino's Invisible Cities. The island of Tikopia, for instance, has 1,200 inhabitants who believe in zero population growth; then there is Pingelap, where a significant minority are colour blind but insist they can see things hidden from the others, like dark shoals of fish in the moonlit sea; and Takuu, where the old people build dykes to combat rising sea levels and the young spend their time drinking the juice of the coconut palm but, either way, 'Takuu will sink - next month, next year...'

Not all the islands are inhabited though, and one I thought I would highlight in this landscape blog is Atlasov Island, known in Japanese as Araido-tō and 'more beautiful than Mount Fuji.'  Apparently haiku have been written in praise of it, but I have not managed to track any down.  Schalansky notes that in the early 1950s a 'women's penal colony was set up', but no one lives there now.  There is a myth that the mountain was forced to move from its original home in the middle of Lake Kurile on the Kamchatka peninsula, where its perfect beauty made the surrounding peaks jealous.  'So it started out on a long journey, finally settling itself down in a peaceful spot far away in the sea. ... The river Ozernaya flows in the tracks of the mountain's reluctant journey.  When the mountain lifted itself from its place, the water of the lake rushed after it.  It is a thin blue umbilical cord that will always bind the exiled mountain to its homeland.'

Atlasov island
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, April 07, 2011

High in the gorges a rock dam will rise

I have been reading about contemporary Chinese artists this week - disturbing news of the detention of Ai Weiwei and an interesting survey of recent art questioning Chinese state power in David Clarke's book Water and Art.  Clarke traces the importance of water control schemes in modern China: the Yangtze river bridge at Wuhan linking north and south for the first time, the bridge at Nanjing built in 1968 entirely by Chinese engineers, the South-North Water Transfer Project and most recently The Three Gorges Dam which has flooded a landscape celebrated in Chinese literature.  Whilst earlier artists celebrated these achievements (Wei Zixi's The Yangtze River Becomes a Thoroughfare, 1973), recent artists have been freer to depict their human cost (Liu Xiaodong's Three Gorges: Displaced Population, 2003)In 1995, a year after the Three Gorges Dam was given the go-ahead, Zhuang Hui made a series of transitory marks at locations that would soon be submerged, had them photographed and exhibited as Longitude 109.88 E and Latitude 31.09 N.  These were among the works in a show in Chicago a couple of years ago called 'Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Chinese Contemporary Art.'

Wang Jin's Fighting the Flood - Red Flag Canal (1994) involved a trip to another famous Mao era water-control project.  There the artist released 50kg of red pigment into the water, transforming the colour of communism into an agent of pollution, as well as a memorial to the blood sacrificed by those who built the canal.  David Clarke relates this work to Olafur Eliasson's similar Green River works, in which green dye has been poured into various rivers around the world and the artist has waited to observe people's reactions.  In an interview Eliasson recounted how in Tokyo 'a lot of people stopped and looked... And of course they were stunned. I did it in a spot where the cherry blossom comes out a month later. It's well known as a beautiful place. Actually the police came and. basically I ran away. And the police then put up posters asking anybody who had seen somebody suspicious to contact them.'  Incidentally, both of these river dying projects were preceded by an attempt by Denis Oppenheim and Peter Hutchison in 1969 to paint the irregular shape of Highway 20 onto the waters of a Caribbean cove, using magenta dye and gasoline.  Unfortunately the dye seeped ashore, impregnated beach towels and then, through the hotel washing machines, contaminated other laundry so that "everything was pink".  Oppneheim said later that he considered the outcome a better work than the one he had originally envisaged.

Some of the contemporary Chinese artists discussed in Water and Art have been producing work that challenges the Chinese cult of swimming, typified by Mao, who developed it into a public spectacle (see clip below).  This was not about immersion in nature or a Daoist sense of going with the flow; Mao said that 'swimming is an exercise of struggling with nature', and 'the current going against you can train your will and courage to be stronger.'  Mao's swim across the Yangtze in 1956, with its emphasis on the body and endurance, in some ways 'strangely prefigures aspects of Chinese performance art.' An earlier chapter of Clarke's book is devoted to Fu Baoshi, who specialised in rainswept landscapes but also painted On the Theme of Mao Zedong's 'Swimming'.  'Swimming' was the poem Mao wrote after crossing the Yangtze, but its emphasis on the mastery of nature is barely felt in Fu's painting, which seems to show Mao's head marooned in a vast expanse of water.  Painted in 1958, this work could not be directly critical but was hardly heroic either.  And in adding calligraphy to the painting, Fu chose to ignore those lines in which Mao looked to the future: 'high in the gorges a rock dam will rise, / cutting off Wu Mountain's cloud and rain. / A still lake will climb in the tall gorges.'