Saturday, June 25, 2011

A rain-swept valley and two lines of sheep

I have been watching the DVD of Gideon Koppel's acclaimed film sleep furiously (2009), a remarkably poetic documentary shot over the course of a year around the faming village of Trefeurig in Wales, where the filmaker grew up.  Koppel has said 'I wanted to make a film in which moments of intimacy and human gesture became juxtaposed with the infinite space and time of the landscape. I think about the landscape of sleep furiously as an ‘internal landscape’: it has a quality of childhood about it.' The film has the soft light and muted colours of childhood memories (rather like Tarkovsky's polaroids).  At the end of the BBC interview below Koppel explains his preference for using film because it can evoke a world, like paint.  A landscape on a big screen shot in HD video "works like a signifier - it says very strongly: 'this is a beautiful landscape', but that's all it does. The same landscape shot on film allows the audience to engage with that image through their imagination."

There may be nothing new in breaking off from scenes of people interacting to show, for a few seconds, a panoramic landscape like a gently moving painting (as in Werner Herzog), or in holding a camera steady while a car makes its way slowly across the screen and into the distance (Kiarostami), but each time Gideon Koppel does this in sleep furiously it seems fresh and original.  A practice session for the village choir is intercut with shots of an epic landscape of shadowy hills, drifting clouds and crepuscular rays on a distant sea - it sounds too obvious but the effect is genuinely moving, and the sequence concludes modestly with the choir leader's verdict: "well done... at least we have an end now."  John Banville, writing of another landscape in sleep furiously, says 'one of the most beautiful and mysteriously affecting sequences is shot from a high mountainside down into a rain-swept valley into which two lines of sheep straggle slowly from different directions to form a kind of ragged magic square. It is the inexplicable beauty of these images that one remembers long after the screen has gone dark.'

Friday, June 24, 2011

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths

'The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,' writes Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  Blue is 'the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not.  And the color of where you can never go.  For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.'

Solnit goes on to describe the blue distances of Renaissance paintings - the hills in Solario's Crucifixion (1503), for instance, or in the right hand panel of Memling's Resurrection (c1490).  I was gazing into one such painting by Jacopo del Sellaio last Saturday at the National Gallery of Scotland when my reverie was broken by the announcement that the room was closing for an hour, due to staff shortages.  (I just found the painting online - reproduced below - but failed to note down any information on it as I was hurried out of the gallery, and there is no information on the website).  I felt like offering to sit in for the attendant so as to look undisturbed at the painting while he had his lunch, but I could see that in the National Gallery of Scotland all male staff must wear tartan trousers.

Jacopo del Sellaio, St Jerome in the Wilderness 
with Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene

In Sellaio's painting the eye follows a succession of mountains set further and further into the distance where sky and sea merge.  These mountains resemble waves of rock, emanating from beyond the horizon.  They look as if they could form an infinite series - every time you reached one, another peak would be visible further on and, as Rebecca Solnit says, you could never actually reach that blue at the world's edge. 

To stare out to sea may be to overlook what is happening in the foreground, and here there is a stark reminder of this in the crucified Christ.  And yet this figure, which entirely fills St Jerome's attention, exists only in his mind's eye...  There is much to look at in Sellaio's figures of the Saints, their rocky backdrops in three contrasting types of stone, the curiously transparent stream flowing around their feet, and the stylised, perfectly shaped trees behind them.  But in the end my eye gets drawn back to that mountain range, receding into the distant blue.

Friday, June 10, 2011

To repeat the forest

Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone both came to prominence in the late sixties making art in the landscape, and their most recent work is currently being shown together at Haunch of Venison in London.  I went along last week keen to see Long's new work but equally interested in Penone, whose installations, sculptures and interventions have involved trees, leaves, rivers, earth and stones. I remember really liking his Breathing the Shadow - a room lined with fragrant laurel leaves containing a small gilt bronze lung - which we saw in 2000 in the old Tour de la Gache of the Palais Des Papes in Avignon.  This new exhibition is full of trees and starts with To repeat the forest - fragment 28, part of a series Penone has been making since 1969 where the trees hidden inside mass-produced lumber are liberated by carving away the pulp to reveal 'the way the tree rose into the sky, from which side it absorbed the southern light, whether it was born in a crowded forest, in a meadow or at the edge of a wood.'  Several works connect the skin of a tree to the touch of the artist - a wall drawing where rings propagate out from a finger print and photographs of like It Will Continue to Grow Except at This Point (1968-78) where a tree has been growing round a cast of the artist's hand.  One room is shared between Long and Penone - a stone spiral and a block of wood.  'Here Penone has chosen to show a wood work in which he has carved into the block following the rings of growth.  Long's sculpture in river stones is a spiral which echoes the expanding rings.'

The Richard Long exhibition is called 'Human Nature' and in addition to the expected text pieces, photographs and floor sculptures it includes a small room with objects that hint at the peopled landscape generally missing from his work - North African tent pegs, scrap metal from Niger and driftwood from the river Avon.  The final room includes a huge mud work called Human Nature (2011) which has a 'human' side made from clay with a Chinese blue pigment and a 'natural' side where Long has used a red clay from Vallauris in France.  Moor Moon (2009) is also a work in two parts, a 39 mile walk 'from one metaphor to another', pairing landmarks on Dartmoor with landmarks on the moon. I have listed the locations below as I think they each have their own poetry.  There is something poignant in the way an airless grey plain of basaltic lava on the moon has been named Sinus Iridium, the bay of rainbows. Here it is matched with Raybarrow Pool, described on Dartmoor Walks as a dangerous mire, 'an enclosed and isolated place'.

Visualising Richard Long striding through the landscape I couldn't help having the rather banal thought that all the walking has certainly kept him fit.  Fibonacci Walk, Somerset (2009) is a text work recording 'continuous walks on consecutive days' in 2009.  These increased in length according to the Fibonacci number sequence: 1 mile, 1 mile, 2 miles, 3 miles, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89.  89 miles?  So he walked 89 miles in one day?  After walking 55 miles the previous day?  Maybe it just seems extraordinary because I spend my days walking something more like a Kolakoski number sequence (1 mile, 2 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile...)  Long now has a lengthy back catalogue of walks that he can return to, re-trace and reinterpret. Two Continuous Walks Following the Same Line, England (2011) for example matches a straight walk northward across Dartmoor with another straight walk northward in 1979. Not much seems to have changed - a pair of buzzards, dead sheep, gorse, ponies... some larksong this time, foxes last time.  You could probably write a whole article on the different ways in which land artists have returned to those places they once made into artworks (for another example see the Simon English project I described last year). Giuseppe Penone too has gone back to the woods in order to photograph the trees he first came upon back in the early Arte Povera days; at Haunch of Venison, It will continue to grow except at this point - radiography (2010) shows the trace of the young artist's hand on a tree, in the form of a ghostly x-ray.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Morning Glory

If I hadn't been so busy at work I might have tried to get to the Aubin & Wills Literary Salon this evening, where Travis Elborough was talking about his seaside book Wish You Were Here and Gavin Pretor-Pinney was due to discuss The Wavewatchers' Companion. Never mind - I was actually at the seaside watching the waves last week, and although I've not yet got round to either of these books, I did have Gavin Pretor-Pinney's earlier bestseller The Cloudspotter's Guide with me.  You can read various reviews and articles online that tell the story of The Cloud Appreciation Society, which Pretor-Pinney founded in 2004, and the writing and design of The Cloudspotter's Guide, rejected by 28 publishers before becoming a runaway bestseller.  The book is not a cultural history, although there are references to clouds in the work of Mantegna and Correggio, Kalidasa and Thoreau.  Keen not to be seen as too highbrow, the author describes himself wondering through the Tate's American Sublime exhibition with the catalogue upside down (his point being that the skyscapes in Bierstadt and Church are as important as the landscapes).  His sense of humour did grow on me - it is hard to resist the comparison of strato-cumulus, 'always in transition', with 'the pop singer Cher at the height of her costume-changing stage routines'.  One species of this cloud, the Morning Glory, is likened to Cher 'in the brass armour bikini and gold Viking helmet she wore on the sleeve of her 1979 album Take Me Home'.  This is a long way from Hubert Damisch and A Theory of /Cloud/, I thought, as I read this, but then Damisch was interested in the painted signifier, Pretor-Pinney in explaining and celebrating the real thing.

Altocumulus stratiformus translucidus I believe
(but feel free to correct me if I've got it wrong...)

The Cloudspotter's Guide includes a brief description of the Cloud Harp, an instrument designed by Nicolas Reeves that responds to the shape of the clouds above it (see video clip below), and in the chapter on stratus there is an account of the Blur Building, designed by Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio for the 2002 Swiss Expo, which took the form of a cloud floating on the surface of Lake Neuch√Ętel.  The design for this consisted of a metal skeleton covered with 31,400 high-pressure water jets controlled by computer which took account of temperature, humidity and prevailing winds.  'By responding dynamically to the constant changing atmospheric conditions, the system ensured there was always enough fog to envelop the structure, but not so much as to cause a nuisance downwind.'  Artificial clouds and the manipulation of weather for military ends are the depressing subject of the book's penultimate chapter.  A 1996 report for the US government, Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025, describes a future in which an enemy can be hit with fog, rain, storms and lightning, and where clouds are controlled through nanotechnology and are able to communicate with each other.  After this it is a relief to turn to the final chapter, where Gavin Pretor-Pinney travels to a small town near the Gulf of Carpentaria in search of the Morning Glory (the cloud he likened to Cher in her brass bikini).  There he meets the glider pilots who surf this magnificent roll of cloud as it heads inland, and is taken up himself to see the morning sun cascading 'down the cloud's face, casting long shadows along the ripples of its surface.  The undulations gently rose up with the progress of the wave, before disappearing over the crest.'