Friday, February 24, 2012

Place: Taking the Waters

Reeds at Snape, Sunday morning

As promised last time, here are a few thoughts prompted by a weekend of reflections on water.  First onto the stage at Snape Maltings was Robert Macfarlane, who recalled how reading Roger Deakin's Waterlog had opened up a whole new aspect of the landscape for him, as well as raising wider questions about how to live.  The talk began with a recording of Deakin swimming in his moat and describing his frog's eye view of the water.  Macfarlane recalled his visits to Walnut Tree Farm, seeing Deakin relaxing in an old bath full of water that had been warmed over the course of day by the simple action of sunlight on a hose.  We liked the idea of Deakin raking out a maze from the autumn leaves for Macfarlane's young daughter to play in.  I'm afraid Mrs Plinius got the giggles when the unflattering pair of Speedos Deakin was wearing in one photograph were referred to by Macfarlane as 'a banana hammock.'  Deakin's achievement was to to combine a sense of rootedness with a wide ranging curiosity about the world; for Macfarlane he seemed to have resolved the tension between settling and moving which has troubled other nature writers like Edward Thomas.  He was, Macfarlane said, like a compass, with its base planted in Suffolk and the other point tracing a long sequence of journeys across the watery landscape.

The sea at Aldeburgh, Sunday morning
Jules Pretty was on next, describing his walks round the The Luminous Coast of East Anglia.  In this liminal zone, where the position of the coast shifts and changes during the course of the day, he encountered a two mile collective art work in the form of sea wall covered in graffiti, an old tip gradually eroding to reveal the detritus of Victorian London and fishermen's cottages on the North Norfolk coast whose windows all point inland away from the sea.  One ten day walk left him with the vision from one eye faded like an old photograph.  'I felt I was carrying an imprint of the sun holding position somewhere slightly behind my right eye. I had headed east, north, occasionally west inland and east again, and so the light was almost always ahead or off to starboard. It left me with an imbalance, and a sense that the whole world was luminous on one side. As dark clouds raced over the water it turned slate grey and menacing. But when the sun came out again, the water became a shimmering mix of silver and mercury, and I was lit from below as well as above.'

Ken Worpole, Saturday afternoon

Ken Worpole's talk, '350 Miles - the Essex Coast', drew on the short book of that title he wrote with photographer Jason Orton (a collaboration he characterised as a form of parallel play), and on his essay 'East of Eden' for the anthology Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and its Meanings.  The whole PLACE event was partly a continuation of this earlier Re-Enchantment Project (last year, we were in the same hall listening to talks on landscape and W. G. Sebald, including Robert Macfarlane on the wild places of Essex).  In an earlier post I mentioned one of Orton's photographs of a solid brick church with 'an uncanny correspondence between some of these austere church buildings, with their minimal window apertures, and the fortified military buildings in and around the coast.'  In his talk on Saturday, Worpole dwelled on the way the coast has been a key symbolic site for religious belief, from 'Dover Beach' to Don Cupitt's The Sea of Faith.  He showed an interesting photograph of a religious congregation meeting on the beach at Southend, which reminded me of the shore sermons of Gotthard Ludwig Kosegarten and their link to Caspar David Friedrich's painting of a Monk by the Sea.

David Rothenberg playing with Beluga whales

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the sea itself: David Rothenberg played along to field recordings of waves and whales, Jay Griffiths read from the sea section of Wild, and Olivia Chaney performed some sea-related songs.  We also saw The Forgotten Space, a long film ('agit-prop', not art, according to co-director Noel Burch, who introduced it) about the effects of globalisation on the sea and the people who live and work in the vicinity of the great ports at Los Angeles, Rotterdam and Hong Kong. Watching an interview with an Indonesian sailor in his cabin, I wondered how Gary Snyder (who worked as a seaman in the fifties) would write about these vast container ships.  The 'seafarers' at a sailor's retreat in Hong Kong, built by British Christians in the days of empire, were all croupiers on the local casino ships, moored permanently offshore. There is striking footage of a Piranesi-like tower in Hong Kong, with container lorries circling endlessly upwards through the petrol fumes (ventilation would have been too expensive to install), and scenes of Rotterdam's robot trucks moving the containers around in an unfathomable sequence, with one human operative sitting alone in his tower.  The film explores the consequences of Rotterdam's expansion, from the construction of a freight-only train line through the crowded landscape of the Netherlands, to the alienation of port workers, like the man (not very old) who recalls wistfully how differently it had been when he first started working on his parents' barge.  Meanwhile, Antwerp is being developed as a rival to Rotterdam and we are shown the dilapidated village of Doel, set for demolition, the dike that protected it from the sea no defence against the tide of global capital.

From the industrial sublime to the faintly ridiculous: Saturday evening saw a work-in-progress presentation of Swandown, in which Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair 'pursue a suitably English voyage into the heart of place and politics' by 'taking a swan pedalo from Hastings beach to Hackney’s Olympic site via the South Coast, the inland waterways of Kent and the Thames estuary'.  There was a lot of joking around on stage but Iain Sinclair was allowed to be a bit highbrow in introducing the film extracts and duly made a connection between them and those recurring Modernist myths of the Odyssey and the Wasteland.  He talked about a recording of Basil Bunting, reading from Pound's Cantos, which he had lost and then been reunited with.  I thought of the post on Bunting and Pound I wrote here only a few weeks ago; Sinclair's method of making these cultural connections across a landscape or on a journey sometimes feels like a form of hyperlinking.

 Swandown snippets

It is hard to tell what the finished film will be like but there should be some amusing moments: a pedalo encounter with a UKBA motor launch, for instance, and the moment when a real swan attacks their fake one, knocking its head off.  My wife has always found Iain Sinclair "too blokeish" for her taste and didn't think much of a scene in which our heroes peddle their pedalo impassively past a drowned Ophelia, her white dress spreading on the waters like the wings of a swan.  The soundtrack to Swandown promises to be good though - put together by Jem Finer, whose time-lapse film of an ancient beech wood, Still, was installed in an upstairs room for the day.  As the extracts from Swandown were screened, he sat behind his laptop controlling various sound effects, accompanied by photographer Anonymous Bosch, whilst Sinclair, Kötting and singer Kirsten Norrie did their thing on stage.  The other member of the team, Kristin O'Donnell (Ophelia), walked on and lay down silently among the plastic swans.

Reeds at Snape, Sunday morning

PLACE: Taking the Waters resumed on Sunday, the eighteenth anniversary of Derek Jarman's death, with a showing of The Garden (1990) - a film I last saw many years ago at the ICA in London (with a rather different audience).  I can think of river films that might have flowed more readily together with the day's talks - William Raban's Thames Film for example - but it was nonetheless nice to see again Jarman's tinted, sped-up and slowed-down images of the beach and skies at Dungeness.  I had forgotten scenes like the Zéro de conduite style pillow-fight, re-staged on an iron-framed bed in which Jarman seems to be dreaming his own film.  The floating white feathers were a Sinclairesque connection to Swandown and my mind wandered on from this to Jean Vigo's other great film, L'Atalante, set on a working barge long before the coming of the containers.

Derek Jarman's The Garden extract
Swans and barges would appear again in the final three talks of the day.  Manu Luksch presented footage from her recent Kayak Libre project, in which she set up a water taxi service on London's canal system and recorded the thoughts of her passengers. One day she saw the body of swan floating by and found then that stories of dead swans kept coming up.  Simon Read showed a painting of the barge that he had brought over from Holland in 1980, at a time when the Dutch government was trying to clear the canals of unnecessary traffic.  He paints large maps of the shifting shorelands and sketches the potential impact of flood water and estuarine development in a style reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci.  Finally, the day's last journey was in another barge: down river to the mouth of the Thames.  Estuary is a film by James Price with texts read by Rachel Lichtenstein, originally shown at a similar arts festival in Southend last year, Shorelines.  These landscape-themed events seem to be becoming increasingly popular, and the hope is that PLACE will become an annual event.

Estuary, filmed by James Price

I think the best way to end this post is with Joseph Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea and a description of the Thames that was mentioned in Ken Worpole's talk and used at the start of Estuary.
'In the widening of the shores sinking low in the gray, smoky distances the greatness of the sea receives the mercantile fleet of good ships that London sends out upon the turn of every tide. They follow each other, going very close by the Essex shore. Such as the beads of a rosary told by business-like shipowners for the greater profit of the world they slip one by one into the open: while in the offing the inward-bound ships come up singly and in bunches from under the sea horizon closing the mouth of the river between Orfordness and North Foreland. They all converge upon the Nore, the warm speck of red upon the tones of drab and gray, with the distant shores running together towards the west, low and flat, like the sides of an enormous canal. The sea-reach of the Thames is straight, and, once Sheerness is left behind, its banks seem very uninhabited, except for the cluster of houses which is Southend, or here and there a lonely wooden jetty where petroleum ships discharge their dangerous cargoes, and the oil-storage tanks, low and round with slightly-domed roofs, peep over the edge of the fore-shore, as it were a village of Central African huts imitated in iron.  Bordered by the black and shining mud-flats, the level marsh extends for miles.  Away in the far background the land rises, closing the view with a continuous wooded slope, forming in the distance an interminable rampart overgrown with bushes.'


Alan Parkinson said...

Many thanks for this post on an event which I was unable to attend. Plenty of interest to follow up :)

Jo Dacombe said...

Lovely to read this, having just written a blog post myself about recent walks by water (as guest blogger for, so it won't appear online until next week). There is definitely something about being near, on or in water that creates a sense of stillness of time, so great to read about other artists responses to water. Thank you!

Plinius said...

Thanks, GB.
Jo, thanks I'll look out for your post. I like the idea of 'Three Jos in a Boat' - I think we know enough Jos to crew quite a sizeable vessel.