Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Library of the Forest

In 1980 Miguel Angel Blanco retired to the woods of the Fuenfría Valley, in the Guadarrama Mountains outside Madrid.  One winter's day, returning from a long walk, he decided to place the objects he had found in the snow into a small glass-lidded box and bound it together with pages to create a book-box, the first in what was to become an ever-expanding library of the forest.  Each book is the indexical trace of a walk, using 'ink-sprinklings, positive or negative imprints of the materials used in the box, fire lines, water marks or different engraving techniques.'  The box itself, he writes, 'is a small recondite sanctuary, a sancta sanctorum. Sealed with glass, hermetic, to preserve its contents, it is at the same time ark, essence-container, shrine and crucible. Moss, lichen, barks, needles, pine cones, pollen, brambles, fungi, wax, roots, earth, minerals or resins are some of the materials I have collected. Materials that liberate secret images. Unfathomable abysses, deep lakes, infinite spaces, storms, creeks, fires... may open inside a small box ... The Library is a pine grove, where the variable scale of the trees is reflected in the different formats of the books.'

Miguel Angel Blanco, La Biblioteca del Bosque 
Image used with permission of the artist

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane describes a visit to the artist and his library, which now covers the ground floor and basement of an apartment building in Madrid.  Blanco and his wife talk quietly, watching while he browses through this archive of landscape and memory: 'they had seen the magic of the library work on people before.  The last box I looked at was entitled Luz Eterna, 'Eternal Light'.  It was arrestingly beautiful.  The inside of the book was covered in gold leaf, over which had been poured a layer of pine resin, tapped from a Guadarraman pine and honeyish in lustre.'  The box seems to brighten the dim room - closing the book feels like turning off a light.  The next day Macfarlane sets out with Blanco to walk through the pine woods towards the mountains.  On an old Roman road, they pass 'among granite boulders fleeced with green and grey moss that was as soft to the touch as jewellery-box velvet.'  The monks in the nearby monasteries used this moss for pillows, 'to draw away bad thoughts from the mind.'  Eventually they part company, but not before finding a strange feather on the path (from an azure-winged magpie): '"Caminar es atesorar!"', says Blanco: '"To walk is to gather treasure!"' 

Miguel Angel Blanco is one of several walking companions who accompany Robert Macfarlane on The Old Ways (another is Raja Shehadeh, whose writing I have described here before).  But many of the book's most beautiful passages describe moments of solitude: striking out for the high pass over the Guadarrama, he is 'glad to have had Miguel's company but glad also now to be alone in the forest'. From a clearing he watches a black vulture, its shadow gliding over the treetops, and after resting at the pass he climbs on, up a zig-zag path towards the first of the Siete Picos (Seven Peaks).  To the north he can see ochre plains stretching away and the distant city of Segovia seemingly floating above the heat haze.  The white quartz mountain-top paths eventually lead him to a sleeping place in a natural cave.  'When dusk came I lit my candles, and my shadows flickered of the rock interior.  The night: a milk-white half moon, cool air. Owls in the forests below, their hoots pushing through the dusk.  The light soughing of wind in the pines.  Sound drifting, two shooting stars.  Dawn was dewless and dry.  When the sun came it was a storm of gold, rich on the face, Miguels' luz eterna pouring through the air.  I ate apples, bread and cheese, and watched the light flood the land.  Where it reached the dark pines across the valley they appeared to shake.  I felt uncomplicatedly happy to be in that place and at that time.'

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pine Barrens: Trees

In 1969 Robert Smithson was invited to exhibit in an ICA show, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, and so he and Nancy Holt took the opportunity to come over and make their own kind of picturesque tour of England and Wales.  In an interview in Tate etc. magazine, Holt talks about their route, taking in Chesil Beach, Old Sarum, Pentre Ifan, Stone Henge and the Cerne Abbas Giant.  But 'besides the books on prehistoric monoliths in Europe and England that we had brought with us, Bob also had a book on Welsh mines. We visited many gravel pits and quarries, often quite out of the way. One place labelled Ash Hill on one of the slides is likely where Bob made a mirror piece called Untitled (Zig-Zag Mirror Displacement), probably on the outskirts of Tredegar. We found these abandoned, edge-of-the-world places intriguing; mines that had at one time railroad tracks and tunnels to transport rock. These structures are now overgrown and broken down. Bob and I both grew up in northern New Jersey, where you could find hidden quarries, forbidden places, scattered throughout the landscape. The coal mines in Wales were like that too. These socalled depressing, forgotten places that fall within the gaps of one’s consciousness are often described negatively. But if you look at them with a neutral eye, you start to see them differently; you begin to see a beauty in their entropic condition.'

Nancy Holt currently has a really nice exhibition of photo works at Haunch of Venison (five minutes' walk away from the Burtynsky show covered in my last post).  You can see in it two works made on her trip with Smithson: Wistman's Wood and Trail Markers.  I've mentioned Wistman's Wood here before - Smithson and Holt were stunned by it and Holt made her first Buried Poem piece there. She says in the interview, 'a site evokes a person, and I bury a poem for that person and later the person a booklet including maps, detailed directions and a list of equipment (such as a compass and shovel) in order to find it. To me, Wistman’s Wood conjured up Bob’s persona in a striking way…' Trail Markers is a set of photographs of Dartmoor rocks, each distinguished by an orange paint spot, used to identify a route across the moor.  As I looked at these I felt a strange sense of recognition, perhaps recalling other trails like this from childhood holidays in the seventies: was this how most such trails were marked out before the spread of wooden sign posts?  Holt says 'I hadn’t seen markers like these before. I didn’t know if they were unique to this place or not, but in any case they lent themselves to my project.'

The exhibition includes other works derived from the trips Holt and Smithson made together: Ruin View (1969), for example, showing the Temple of the Sun at Palenque (Smithson used photographs of the dilapidated Hotel Palenque to illustrate his notion of a 'ruin in reverse').  Her best known work, Sun Tunnels, is represented by photographs of light and shadow, taken at half hour intervals one summer's day in 1976.  These are hung near a very different work about sunlight - California Sun Signs (1972) - eighteen colour shots of garish signs in which the sun is word or symbol signifying some kind of retail opportunity.  The same year, at the other end of the country, she made View Through a Sand Dune, inserting a piece of pipe into the sand of Narragansett Beach, Rhode Island, and photographing the sea through it.  The circular view created by this pipe-frame has a curious distancing effect, like a seascape seen through an old stereoscope.  After seeing this I promised myself I would pack a bit of piping with the bucket and spades next time we head for the seaside... 

Not everything in the exhibition relates to landscape (there is, for example, a beautiful series of Light and Shadow Photo-Drawings), but I'd like to end this post by mentioning Pine Barrens: Trees (1975), a seven by four grid of video stills showing solitary stunted pine trees in a wilderness area of New Jersey.  In the original film local people can be heard describing the area and its local myths, but here the images are stark and silent, their transfer from the original 16mm film giving them a slightly blurred quality that reminded me of Chinese ink paintings.  In her Tate etc. interview Nancy Holt traces the origin of this piece to that 1969 trip with Robert Smithson.  'Looking back, I feel that the Pine Barrens film may have been seeded in our visit to Wistman’s Wood. Walking on that Dartmoor trail was a pivotal experience. Not long before our visit there, we had seen Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill. It all works on the psyche.'

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Oil fields

I last wrote about Edward Burtynsky here four years ago, after seeing Manufactured Landscapes. Some of the images in that film, like the Chittagong shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh, have appeared subsequently in various exhibitions entitled Burtynsky: Oil.  The series continues to develop: in May 2010 Burtynsky flew to the Gulf of Mexico to take some extraordinary aerial shots of the BP oil spill.  These feature in a new version of the exhibition that marks the re-opening of London's Photographer's Gallery.  I was there yesterday, reflecting on how hard it is here in England to even imagine landscapes like Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA or Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, CanadaWriting about these photographs for the LRB, Tony Wood notes that sometimes their scale is so vast that any actual humans are too small even to register.  He describes Alberta Oil Sands #6: 'a massive installation for extracting oil from tar sands. The picture is dominated by two huge yellow rectangles that seem like abstract forms drawn onto the landscape – but then you realise they are vats of sulphur hundreds of metres wide and hundreds more long.'  Such images prompted another reviewer to conclude: 'Turner might have believed the landscape to be an ineffable manifestation of God, but Burtnysky proves that, post-industrially, it’s in the firm grip of the devil.'

A similar set of Burtynsky: Oil photographs is currently also on display at the Nevada Museum of Art (such things are possible in the age of mechanical reproduction...) Linked to this, there was an interesting conversation between Burtynsky, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley - the first manifestation of Venue, a travelling 'pop-up interview studio and multimedia rig'. Their discussion touches on Burtynsky's preference for photographing during “the shoulders of the day" (early morning and late evening), his desire not to frame the work in an activist or political terms, and his difficulties in gaining access to certain sites, like the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia.  But the most interesting exchange occurs when Geoff asks him, "Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?" Burtynsky: "I’m already doing it." Twilley: "You have a drone?" Burtynsky: "Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture."

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Natural Gallery

On Saturday, the only rain-free day so far this month, we headed across London to see David Nash At Kew: A Natural Gallery.  Looking now at the website I see it suggests capturing 'a lasting memory of your visit to the exhibition with one of our exclusive products. Each item in our very special collection reflects the spirit and ethos of David Nash.'  We failed to buy any of the Nash-inspired homeware, but I'm hoping instead to retain a lasting memory of our visit by uploading a few photographs here.  The sculptures on show were much as you would expect, some more striking than others, but the location for each was well chosen to echo or contrast with the surrounding trees and buildings.  In her review Laura Cumming thinks Nash suffers by comparison: 'a park filled with so many stunning variations on the essential tree form is bound to throw an emphasis on beauty (and variety) that is not always kind to this artist, whose work is so much the result of conspicuous labour.'  Ultimately, none of the sculptures were as interesting to me as the film of Wooden Boulder, which you can see along with Nash's drawings and photographs in Kew's Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.  I have described here before this floating sculpture and its eventual disappearance in the sea, although I was writing prior to the boulder's brief rediscovery in 2009.  The film begins with grainy images of the boulder entering the river and ends with beautifully shot and recorded footage of it floating and resting along the estuary among the reeds and sandbanks.

The photograph above shows the Wood Quarry, where David Nash is making sculptures at Kew Gardens using old or diseased trees.  Kew's head of trees Tony Kirkham has taken comfort from seeing a victim of "acute oak decline" gradually transformed by Nash into an artwork.  'The neighbouring tree was also poorly, but has recovered dramatically. "Saying to it 'Buck up or there's a man coming for you with a chainsaw' seems to have worked," Kirkham said.'  As artist in residence, Nash has welcomed the chance to reveal to visitors how he goes about his work as a sculptor.  'I’ve often felt that in the shows I’ve done before, much of the process is hidden. What’s unique about Kew is to make the process part of the exhibition.’  Unfortunately there was no sign of him last Saturday, but you can see him working among the upended trees in the video clip below.  I would like to have seen how he interacts with members of the public (in a recent post I mentioned the group walk Hamish Fulton organised to accompany his Margate exhibition - no talking allowed...)  It is quite hard to imagine Nash chatting with bystanders, but I imagine many would in any case be shy of striking up conversation with someone wearing ear protectors and wielding a chainsaw.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Cataract of Lodore

The Robert Southey poem I mentioned in my previous post is 'The Cataract of Lodore'.  It was written in 1820 for his children and begins '"How does the Water / Come down at Lodore?" / My little boy ask'd me...' Sadly the little boy, Herbert, had died in 1816, so the playful tumbling water that ends 'all at once' could be read in part as a poignant memory of his son.  Southey's poem traces the water 'from its sources which well / In the Tarn on the fell', 'through meadow and glade, / In sun and in shade', until 'it reaches the place / Of its steep descent.'  There, the second part of the poem describes the cataract itself in onomatopeiac rhymes.  I've reproduced below its last 37 lines and, as you can see, the line lengths seem to take on the form of the waterfall itself. Thus the poem could be compared, for example, to John Hollander's mountain-shaped verse, 'A View of the Untersberg', which I discussed here recently. 

... flowing and going,
And running and stunning,
And foaming and roaming,
And dinning and spinning,
And dropping and hopping,
And working and jerking,
And guggling and struggling,
And heaving and cleaving,
And moaning and groaning;
And glittering and frittering,
And gathering and feathering,
And whitening and brightening,
And quivering and shivering,
And hurrying and scurrying,
And thundering and floundering,
Dividing and gliding and sliding,
And falling and brawling and sprawling,
And diving and riving and striving,
And sprinkling and twinkling and wrinkling,
And sounding and bounding and rounding,
And bubbling and troubling and doubling,
And grumbling and rumbling and tumbling,
And clattering and battering and shattering;
Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,
Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,
Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,
Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling,
And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,
And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,
And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,
And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;
And so never ending, but always descending,
Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending,
All at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar,
And this way the water comes down at Lodore.

If you converted the rhythms and rhymes of this poem to music, you might hear echoes of the way water sounds change as they cascade down the rocks.  I was more intrigued by its shape, and so I erased the poem's words entirely and superimposed an image of the waterfall.  The shape below is formed from the full 71 lines describing the cataract and the photograph of the Lodore Falls I used appears on the Footless Crow site, where it accompanies the text of a letter Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to Sara Hutchinson in 1802.  'Lodore' he says 'is beyond all rivalry the first and best thing of the whole Lake Country.'   It is 'broad and wide, and from top to bottom it is small waterfalls, abreast, and abreast'; so, not actually like the picture below at all... In fact, to convey a visual impression of the falls, the poem would need several columns of text cascading down the page, joining and dividing at various points.  But Southey's goal was to trace the water's course rather than capture it in a sketch, and if there is music in the words it is not the sound of the falls at one particular place, but the noises the water makes on its journey down the rocks: moaning, groaning, rumbling, tumbling, clapping, slapping and ending in a mighty uproar.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Wastelands to Wonderlands

This J. G. Ballard poster can be seen outside the British Library, advertising the exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, which 'examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works.'  It is quite an ambitious aim and you'll have no trouble spotting omissions in the list of exhibits, including people I've written about here (The Anathemata by David Jones, for example). There is an understandable emphasis on the visual - so a whole case is devoted to Remains of Elmet and there is no place for, say, Charles Tomlinson's Stoke poems or Roy Fisher's City.  The writers are mostly British, so we don't get Sebald on Suffolk, and the language is almost always English, although one notable exception is a reading of Edwin Morgan's 'The Loch Ness Monster's Song' (my five-year-old son's favourite exhibit).  'Britain' is taken to extend as far as the Ireland of Yeats, Joyce and Heaney but there is quite a large focus on the city and suburbs of London, the River Thames and the M25.  Perhaps this reflects the 'London 2012' tie-in and the site of the exhibition.  I was puzzled by the inclusion of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone among these 'great literary works' permeated by the British landscape, but it may have something to do with the fact that the British Library is next door to the refurbished Kings Cross Station, with its newly sited mock-up of Platform 9 ¾.

As with earlier British Library exhibitions, the main pleasures are to be had from simply looking at books as objects - from fine art editions like Auden Poems, Moore Lithographs, to well-remembered paperbacks (Susan Cooper and Alan Garner) - and seeing original manuscripts like the 14th century copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or a poignant letter from John Clare asking for help from the Royal Literary Fund, or the heavily annotated typescript of J. G. Ballard's Crash.  There may be time to say more in later posts here about some of the specific exhibits - one listed simply as 'Robert Southey poem', for example, is much more interesting than it sounds. The texts are complemented by readings and sound clips: in addition to the Loch Ness Monster you can hear Ballard on Crash (it was not easy convincing my son he wouldn't want to listen to this exciting-sounding book).  There is also Ezra Pound performing his translation of The Seafarer, which John Woolrich wrote amusingly about some years ago: an attempt to fuse poetry with the sound of kettle drums, 'it would have been "magnificent", someone said, "with a rehearsal."'  Several short videos were made to accompany Writing Britain and I have included three of these below.  In the first clip Simon Armitage says "if I had to choose one thing that characterised British literature - both prose and poetry - I would have to say it was geography and, more widely, I would say: landscape."

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Agitated Sea at Etretat

There may be unexpected dangers in the gentle art of plein air painting, as is evident in a letter Monet wrote to his future wife Alice Hoschedé from Etretat on the evening of November 27th 1885.  'I was hard at work beneath the cliff, well sheltered from the wind, in the spot which you visited with me; convinced that the tide was drawing out I took no notice of the waves which came and fell a few feet away from me.  In short, absorbed as I was, I didn't see a huge wave coming; it threw me against the cliff and I was tossed about in its wake along with my materials!  My immediate thought was that I was done for, as the water dragged me down, but in the end I managed to clamber out on all fours, but Lord, what a state I was in! My boots, my thick stockings and my coat were soaked through; the palette which I had kept a grip on had been knocked over my face and my beard was covered in blue, yellow etc.'

Claude Monet, Agitated Sea at Etretat, 1883

Four years later Monet was in central France, painting the Creuse river and writing to Alice from Fresselines about the 'damnable' spring weather (the translation here is, again, by Bridget Stevens Romer).  'It will be a gloomy series.  A few have some sunlight in them but they were started so long ago that I'm very much afraid that when the sun finally re-emerges I shall find my effects considerably altered.'  It was changes in the weather that really frustrated his efforts.  'The weather's wearing me down, a terrible cold wind which wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest if I'd captured my effect, but the endless succession of clouds and sunny intervals couldn't be worse, especially when I'm getting to the end; but the thing that is upsetting me the most is that with the drought the Creuse is shrinking visibly and its colour is altering so radically that everything around it is transformed.'

Claude Monet, Valley of the Creuse at Sunset, 1889

You would think an artist averse to fluctuations in the weather might stay clear of England but in March 1900 he was here, complaining to Alice of the effects of the fog. 'I've never seen such changeable conditions and I had over 15 canvases under way, going from one to the other and back again, and it was never quite right; a few unfortunate brushstrokes and in the end I lost my nerve and in a temper I packed everything away in crates with no desire to look out of the window...'  This blog post is being written on a cold and misty morning, with the weather forecasters promising a very British day of rain showers for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the Thames.  Monet himself witnessed a royal spectacle whilst in London - the funeral procession for Victoria - and pronounced it superb: a 'feast of gold and colour'.  He was still in a good mood the following day as the sun rose dazzling over the river and the joys of impressionism seemed to outweigh its frustrations.  'I can't begin to describe a day as wonderful as this.  One marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes, it was enough to drive one mad.  No country could be more extraordinary for a painter.'     

 Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge. Effect of Fog, 1903