Friday, March 30, 2012

The location of a Great Malady

On Wednesday I managed to have a quick first look at 'The Robinson Institute', Patrick Keiller's new exhibition for the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain.  It is based on his film Robinson in Ruins, which I mentioned here two years ago after seeing some preview footage and a roundtable discussion with Keiller and his collaborators: Doreen Massey, Patrick Wright and Matthew Flintham.  You can see footage of a similar discussion at the BFI site, and what they say there is equally applicable to the exhibition.  Keiller contrasts our sense of displacement and mobility with nostalgic concepts of settlement; Massey questions the natural state of markets and asks that instead of thinking about belonging to a landscape, we ask to whom the landscape belongs; Wright argues that ruins are not the product of neglect but are actively created; and Flintham describes the saturation of military sites and the impact of symbols of military power.  On this last point, I wonder how the visitor numbers will compare to Fiona Banner's installation of two fighter jets in the same space last year, which became the UK's most visited exhibition (proving according to Florence Waters in the Telegraph, 'that many of us agree with Charles Moore's terrifying observation in this newspaper's review of the show: that killing machines are objects of great beauty').

The exhibition includes stills and footage from Robinson in Ruins along with related books and artifacts, and art chosen by Keiller from the Tate's collection.  It is almost like a blog in physical form, although a blog's chronological sequence is what orders Robinson's observations in the film; here the images and objects are grouped thematically.  The review by Adrian Searle includes a description of the exhibits visible in the photograph I took below and it gives a good impression of how the exhibition is structured. 'Lumpen black bronze sculptures by Lucio Fontana and by Hubert Dalwood, squat on the floor below a giant full stop painted by John Latham. Each was made within a year or so of each other, around 1960, and all have an air of finality. Little wonder – nearby, in a vitrine, is a copy of the agreement between the UK and the US for the sale of the Polaris nuclear missile, and across the way Quatermass II, a movie based on Nigel Kneale's clunky but still frightening sci-fi thriller, runs on a monitor. A shiny but slightly menacing 1967 sculpture by Kneale's brother Bryan Kneale glowers on the floor nearby. Coming across cloud studies by Alexander Cozens and John Constable, you expect to see rockets slewing through their skies, and below an LS Lowry industrial townscape hangs an Ed Ruscha pastel, emblazoned with the phrase: mad scientist. There's a lot that's mad here. But it's the world, not the art that's crazy.'

Robinson in Ruins begins with a memorable line from Frederic Jameson: "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations."  Robinson, armed with a notebook and an ancient cine camera, is in a car park in Oxford.  "He surveyed the centre of the island on which he was shipwrecked: ‘the location,’ he wrote, ‘of a Great Malady, that I shall dispel, in the manner of Turner, by making picturesque views, on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest."  These views are, filmed (according to Brian Dillon) in 'Keiller's customarily austere but rapt visual style – though in this case, as suits a film partly about the persistence of pastoral in the face of rapacious land grabs, the shots are longer. The camera tarries with fields of oil seed rape, nodding foxgloves and shivering primroses until they start to look monstrous, every bit as alien as the relics of 19th-century architecture and d├ęcor that so exercised the surrealists. Before Keiller's (or Robinson's) prophetic gaze, the English countryside is a monument to itself, and ripe for revolutionary appropriation.'  Interviewed about this new installation at Tate Britain, Keiller says “I think what is most urgently required to address the economic/environmental crisis is the political will to do so, followed by a certain amount of forward planning. Neither is much in evidence. But art, especially landscape art, has a key role. Henri Lefebvre wrote that ‘to change life we must first change space’. Art can do this.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

The stationary blasts of waterfalls

Paintings freeze the vision of landscape at a moment in time, whilst poems can convey the shifting impressions of a walk.  But a poem that pauses whilst the writer pictures the landscape may be more successful than a painting at slowing and focusing the attention on nature.  Elements of a landscape will in any case be in motion themselves, or appear in a state of constant movement that comes to seem a form of stillness.  In his book Can Poetry Save the Earth? (2009) John Felstiner suggests that this permanence in transience is a natural figure in poetry: William Carlos Williams 'senses an "unmoving roar" in Passaic Falls, A. R. Ammons in an "onbreaking wave" finds "immobility in motion." Derek Walcott recalls Caribbean swallows "moving yet motionless."' Waterfalls in particular seem to elicit this response from poets: ‘Coleridge in the Alps is struck by “Motionless torrents!” and Wordsworth by “The stationary blasts of waterfalls” ... Imagination, momentarily grasping things in flux, admits in the same moment that nature is ungraspable.’  Felstiner quotes Thomas Cole who saw in waterfalls ‘“fixedness and motion – a single existence in which we perceive unceasing change and everlasting duration.”  A poem like a painting catches life for the ear of eye, stills what’s ongoing in human and nonhuman nature.’ 

Thomas Cole, Falls of the Kaaterskill, 1826

Can Poetry Save the Earth? has reproduced on its cover Joseph Farington's view of the waterfall at Ambleside (1816).  Felstiner says that 'Keats saw these falls soon after he'd said "The poetry of the earth is never dead," and they blew his mind'.  It was on his tour of the Lakes in 1818: Keats and his friend Charles Brown arose at six in the morning and headed out before breakfast to search for the falls.  Having heard the noise of the water through the trees, they made their way down to the bottom of a valley ("Keats scrambled down lightly and quickly") to watch the cataract's waters darting and spreading over the rocks, descending into "the thunder and the freshness".  "What astonishes me more than any thing," Keats wrote in a letter to his brother Tom, "is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the relish of one's fellows."  Felstiner quotes this letter and truncates that last sentence after the first five words, turning it into a resounding affirmation of the way Keats felt art could flow from nature: "I shall learn poetry here."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sounding out the Territory

Last night I was at Cafe Oto for The Wire Salon and a discussion of sound mapping, featuring artist Kathy Hinde, academic Joseph Kohlmaier and Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey.  Of course the notion of mapping sounds pre-dates the internet; R. Murray Schafer's book The Soundscape (1977) for example contains an isobel map of Stanley Park in Vancouver and a sound event map of downtown Boston. But the internet has given rise to a new form of interactive visual map, offering sound clips uploaded and linked to the locations where they were recorded. These maps won't help you find your way, they are designed to take you on a mental journey and often include visual and written documentation as well.  The mapping aspect may even seem superfluous - Ian Rawes started his collection of London field recordings as a lists of sound files.  To some extent, he suggested last night, maps are simply a nice way of organising material, like the London Sound Survey's map of waterway sounds.  And yet another of his maps is entirely visual: derived from field recordings evenly spaced across the city, it simply records variations in the acoustic environment diagrammatically.  It is the kind of map Shafer designed, albeit with more of a sense of humour: the Richmond Park square consists entirely of aircraft sound and 'bloody parakeet squawking noise'.

Yesterday evening began with a quiz (much easier than you'd have thought given that this was a Wire event!) and the purpose of this was partly to prompt thoughts about the representativeness and authenticity of the sound clips you find on the internet.  Would the audience guess that the muezzin chant was recorded in Whitechapel?  (Yes we all did, but the point was made).  Ian Rawes had a similar example, recording an outdoor Caribbean religious service on Canvey Island, a landscape normally associated with oil refineries and the sound of Dr Feelgood.  He thinks that field recordists are generally better than photographers at restraining themselves from trying to 'improve' their material ("you don't get people recording Tibetan monks and then adding reverb").  Modest about his own ambitions, he nevertheless feels that sound maps have a distinct role, and referred to the Hudson Mohawk Sound Gate Spiral Map which combines high quality sound and video recordings in order to demonstrate the limitations of the fixed point of view in a visual experience of landscape.  The website's creators remind us that 'sound waves bend round objects that would easily filter out light' and, in contrast to the visual field, our ears give us '360 degrees of aural perception in all directions at once.'

Whilst the London Sound Survey collects untreated recordings and includes proper documentation (see above), most of the field recordings used in the landscape related-sound art and music I've written about here will have been altered in some way.  Digital sound, like digital imagery, is a sequence of data, rather than a physical trace, and can be manipulated to provide access to otherwise inaudible phenomena like insect sounds or seismic processes (slowed down or sped up to last as long as our attention span).  But the process of sonification can go further, converting maps themselves into sounds, and allowing us to listen in to the ebb and flow of information.  It offers the prospect of hearing the slow or silent processes - economic, social, technological - altering what might otherwise seem be static landscapes.  And it can give us access to places beyond our reach - one of the quiz sound clips was a sonification of data plotting the movement of Saturn.  I was hoping it might sound like Sun Ra, and no doubt it would be possible to design an algorithm to achieve this: the possibilities are endless and there is clearly a risk of creating a misleading separation between sign and signified.  This was certainly brought home to everyone in the audience last night when Joseph Kohlmaier raised the possibility that if you played the sounds of a sonified universe long enough you might get to hear a speech by David Cameron...  

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire

"In a crowd, he that talks loudest, not he that talks best, is surest of commanding attention; and in an art exhibition, he that does not attract the eye, does nothing."  This was the regrettable conclusion of John Opie, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy (1805-09), who urged artists to paint '"for eternity," not for fashion and the contemporary acclaim of corrupt and incompetent judges"' (Kay Dian Kriz, The Idea of the English Landscape Painter).  Kriz notes that 'such practices may have prompted changes in the exhibition sites themselves.  In 1807 a commentator on the state of the arts, writing in the short lived Beau Monde, speculated that the (much-hated) red walls of the new British Gallery might serve "perhaps as a precaution against too vivid colours, which a desire of attracting notice has introduced into the school of painting."'  When a few years later John Martin started exhibiting those spectacular paintings that were on show at Tate Britain earlier this year, the Royal Academy were not impressed (but still found it convenient to promote Francis Danby as a poential rival to Martin).  One of the best known art stories from this period involves Turner turning up to add a bright red buoy to the foreground of his seascape, Helvoetsluys, so as to attract attention away from Constable's Opening of Waterloo Bridge.  "He has been here," said Constable, "and fired a gun."

Three years ago I went to the Royal Academy to see Anish Kapoor's gun firing brightly coloured red wax at the gallery wall.  Last weekend I was back, with the whole family, for another contemporary art spectacle, David Hockney's A Bigger Picture.  This new exhibition was inspired by the success of his Bigger Trees Near Warter (40ft by 15ft) at the 2007 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (see Richard Dorment's Telegraph review: 'Hockney shows that biggest is best.')  My expectations were relatively low, based on what I had seen in 2007, when Tate Britain showed some of Hockney's East Yorkshire landscapes along with his selection of Turner paintings.  But overall I enjoyed the exhibition, having stopped worrying about the quality of individual works and begun to view it more as a set of huge installations documenting a kind of postmodern performance of painting en plein air.  For Hockney this now involves iPad sketches, blown up here to about sixty times their original size, and whilst it's true that as Laura Cumming says, they 'appear inert and dehumanised', perhaps that's partly the point.  They depict The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) and comprise a 52-part work, wallpapering the gallery in a bright computer-screen colours.  According to the RA there is 'a deliberate sense of theatricality ... the viewer is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.'  It is the kind of theatricality that was criticised in the sixties by advocates of Modernism like Michael Fried, but, like John Opie a century and a half earlier, they were swimming against the tide.

Rosalind Krauss, in her essay 'Grids' (1979), argued that grids 'declare the modernity of modern art'; they are 'what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.'  In the grids that make up Hockney's landscapes he reintroduces a stylised version of nature, patterns and bright colours that reference artists from the early days of Modernism (Van Gogh, Vuillard, Vlaminck).  In her review, Laura Cumming complains of 'a neutralising tidiness. It isn't just those regular blocks into which the big works are split for ease of construction; it isn't even the superlatively concise draughtsmanship that underpins every image. It is a kind of graphic fastidiousness – nothing too out of place or too wild – bordering on neatness. Can Yorkshire be like that these days?'  Not according to The Telegraph: 'there are calls for the area to be cleaned up before it becomes a major tourist trail.One visitor said: "A tourist trap was mentioned but hopefully not in its present state. We travelled the whole length of Woldgate recently and the whole route was an eyesore. "The woods and copses were more like tips – strewn with abandoned household items. The hedgerows were littered with plastic and paper. It's fly-tipping on an almost industrial scale."'  


There has already been a huge amount written about the exhibition online, but I've noticed that some reviewers omit to mention the room devoted to Hockney's versions of a landscape by Claude, The Sermon on the Mount (c. 1656). These come as a bit of a surprise, hung between all those images of the arrival of spring in Woldgate and a darkened seating area where you can experience the Yorkshire Wolds through two grids of video screens, showing footage taken from the bonnet of Hockney's jeep.  Charles Darwent in The Independent could 'see why Hockney would be fascinated by Claude Lorrain, who, like him, invented a light that was more real than real. But his computer-cleaned takes on Claude's Sermon on the Mount are just appalling: it is as well that the dead cannot sue.'  Brian Sewell in The Evening Standard complained that 'Hockney is not another Turner expressing, in high seriousness, his debt to the old master' and described Hockney's engagement with The Sermon on the Mount as 'a sickening impertinence, contemptible.'  I would agree that he doesn't seem very reverential: you can't help thinking that Hockney's figures (elongated like Claude's) are climbing the Mount in order to dive into the swimming pool coloured sea beyond.  In an article for The Economist Karen Wright recounts her meetings with David Hockney over the last few years and recalls being shown his vast painting after Claude as a work-in-progress. 'It fills the entire wall, about 15ft high and 40ft wide, and the colours are eye-popping: there are fields of jacaranda purple in the background, and the sea has been lightened to a soft, milky, opalescent blue. ... As we leave the “Sermon” behind, he says, “I have named it ‘The Bigger Message’,” and he laughs uproariously.'

Friday, March 02, 2012

The coast line of spring slowly emerges

Here at winter's edge
The coast line of spring
Slowly emerges
And the harsh cliffs of March
Carve themselves upwards from
Gales of granite
And winds of stone... 

These are the first lines of 'Spring' by Ronald Duncan, one of the poems set to electronic music on The Seasons (1969), a strange and rare album originally made to accompany BBC Schools Radio's Drama Workshop series.  The record has just been reissued by Johnny Trunk, who describes finding his copy in Tunbridge Wells in the late 1990s. 'Several people in my small circle of peculiar musical chums also came across it, and by the mid naughties it was coming across as a major influence on retro futurism and the new fangled scene they named hauntology. This comes as no surprise as the album has several layers and levels to it; it is weird, spooky, unsettling, very British, has an unusual whiff of childhood to some, it comes scattered with pregnant language and is full of unexpected metaphors, pagan oddness, folk cadences and insane noises. Does it get any better? Considering this was an LP made for children’s education and improvised dance, I think not.' 

If you think the landscape described in 'Spring' sounds slightly forbidding for use in schools, have a listen to 'October' (above): 'Like severed hands the wet leaves lie / flat on the deserted avenue...' Adam Harper in Wire magazine describes Duncan's verse as 'adult, disconcertingly pagan and fatalistically depressive, teeming with bizarre metaphors and personifications: "When winter whips, old men discover their life is a dream they can't remember", and "The sun bleeds on the horizon till the day, like a fallow deer is bled and the light is devoured and the lake is dead".  When not aggressively melancholy, the register is madly affirmative, as if looking back through cavorting medieval bumpkins clutching crumhorns and terrified Druids.'  Ronald Duncan turned his hand to many kinds of writing but lived in Devon and wrote about the countryside in his first book, Journal of a Husbandman (1944).  In the sixties his work encompassed experimental work (O—B—A—F—G: A Play in One Act for Stereophonic Sound, 1964), the script for Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and two rather misanthropic-sounding volumes of autobiography All Men Are Islands (1964) and How to Make Enemies (1968).

In addition to Duncan's poems and the Radiophonic Workshop accompaniment of David Cain (who has been interviewed about his music by Ghost Box's Julian House), this record originally came with the option of using a set of slides - visual images of the four seasons - which could be ordered from the BBC for an additional 15s. Detective work in the BBC archives revealed the names of the artists involved and Johnny Trunk was able to track down one of them, Judith Bromley, who still possessed the original slides.  Her painting for winter shows water and brown reeds, in a scene very similar to the photographs I was taking outside the Britten Studio at Snape recently (Benjamin Britten actually worked with Ronald Duncan, who helped write the last scene of Peter Grimes).  The depiction of spring is a more abstract view of burgeoning life, with leaves twisting upwards in shades of yellow like the sunlight in childhood photographs.  It is reproduced in the CD booklet next to Duncan's poem for 'March' and, again, one wonders what children were supposed to make of something like this: 'The Earth is sleeping, who will wake her? / Let the rusty ploughshare take / Strength from her thighs...'  The sexual imagery continues until the end: 'The Earth is ready, who will take her? / The Earth's a woman.  Time will take her.'