Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three-Mountain Pass

'Autumn Landscape'
A sample page from Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương 
made available on translator John Balaban's website.

When the Copper Canyon Press published Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương, the New York Times discussed it in its Technology section.  'A nearly extinct ideographic script known as Nôm, similar to Chinese but representing Vietnamese, was painstakingly put into a computer program, and thus did the works of Hồ arrive in Western bookstores. Considered one of Vietnam's greatest poets, Hồ was born in the late 1700's and wrote with unusual irreverence and shockingly erotic undertones for her time.  Hồ's work really ''jumped from woodcut to digitization, skipping the whole Gutenberg process,'' said John Balaban, the North Carolina poet who translated her folk poems and helped oversee their presentation in the strikingly designed book. Each poem is presented in three versions, across facing pages: in the original Nôm, in modern romanized Vietnamese, and in English.'  One of these is shown above; another translation is reprinted in full at the Smith College Poetry Center site, so hopefully it is OK to include it here:
Three-Mountain Pass
A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:

the cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,
the black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
and shaky in his knees, to mount once more?
At first site this is a simple landscape poem but as the New York Times notes, Hồ's poems tend to have 'shockingly erotic undertones'.  This is partly facilitated by the tonal nature of Vietnamese - words can take on second meanings depending merely on the pitch of each syllable.  In John Balaban's notes to accompany 'Three-Mountain Pass', he says that Maurice Durand, a French-Vietnamese scholar whose edition of  Hồ's poems remained incomplete at his death in 1966, thought that the poem probably describes the Đèo Tam Điệp mountains, 'but, he adds innocently, "l'on n'a pas de grotte avec une grande ouverture."  While an actual landscape may have suggested this poem ... the particular contours, the active pine and willow constitute a sexual landscape as well. Pines traditionally stand for men; willows for women.'  'Three-Mountain Pass' is about the compulsion to explore both the landscape and the body - perhaps, it suggests, the differences are no more than a matter of tone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sketch of Anacapa Island

James McNeill Whistler, Sketch of Anacapa Island, 1854

It could be said that we owe those vivid etchings currently on display in the Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition Whistler and The Thames to the United States Coast Survey, who employed the young artist as a draftsman on $1.50 a day for two months in the winter of 1854-5.  It was there that he made his first etching under the eye of a 'kindly, genial Irishman' Mr McCoy, as John Ross Key another young artist employed by the Survey recalled years later.  Whistler at that time 'was a slender young man of medium height, with dark, curly hair and a small mustache. A Scotch cap was set well forward over his eyes, and he wore a shawl of dark-blue and green plaid thrown over his shoulders, as was the fashion of the day. He was assigned to a room on the third floor, adjoining the one where I was employed as a draftsman, and we soon became good friends. It was reported about the office that Whistler had been at West Point, and that his disinclination to obey rules, chief of which had been his lack of promptness, had led to his retirement.'  Whistler did not readily appreciate the drier aspects of his new work and so 'when, after many trials, it was plain that he would not take to map-drawing, it was suggested that he might etch the little views of entrances to harbors that were then engraved upon the lower part of coast-maps' (Recollections of Whistler, Century Magazine, April 1908).

Key describes Whistler's first experiment in etching.  'I watched him with unabated interest from the moment he began his work until he completed it, which took a day or two.  At intervals, while doing the topographical view, he paused to sketch on the upper part of the plate, the vignette of "Mrs. Partington" and "Ike," a soldier's head, a suggestion of a portrait of himself as a Spanish hidalgo, and other bits, which are the charm of the work.'  These characters, contrasting oddly with the precise landscape below them, were drawn from a humorous story by Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, the Life and Sayings of Mrs Partington (1854).  'I have heard it stated that he lost his position because of the drawings on this plate, but there is no foundation for this report. As I have explained, this plate was merely an experiment, intended as such.'  Key later found this plate and kept it, intending to return it to Whistler when he was in London, but they never managed to meet again.  The rocky coastline with its doodled characters can be seen in engravings made from this plate; the other sketch surviving from Whistler's time with the survey, showing Anacapa Island, is reproduced above. 

Key's recollections of Whistler are disappointingly short of good anecdotes.  'He had no bad habits, and did not smoke. His manners were quiet and sedate ... and he was not interested in young ladies.'  His evident facility in portraying coastal features was not motivated by an enthusiasm to explore and understand the surrounding landscape.  It is easy to imagine here the future painter of Nocturnes, exercises in atmosphere and colour inspired more by the Japanese prints in Whistler's room than the precise topography of the river outside.  Key remembered that 'one of the draftsmen, an old Englishman, was then in the habit of taking long walks to sketch the woods and to fish in the streams near the city. I often went with him, and did my best to persuade Whistler to join us, but he could not be induced to make the exertion. He was the most indolent young man I have ever known.'

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea, 1871

Friday, December 20, 2013

Where sea-grass tangles with shore-grass

The hard sand breaks,
And the grains of it
Are clear as wine.
Far off over the leagues of it,
The wind,       
Playing on the wide shore,
Piles little ridges,
And the great waves
Break over it.

These are the opening lines of H.D.'s poem 'Hermes of the Ways', which was published in Ezra Pound's anthology Des Imagistes almost a hundred years ago.  It was one of the poems Pound had been shown in 1912 by the 'ardent young Hellenists', H.D. and Richard Aldington and which he sent in to Harriet Monroe's Poetry.  It was, he thought, "objective - no slither - direct - no excess of adjectives. etc.  No metaphors that won't permit examination. - It's straight talk - straight as the Greek!"  In The Pound Era Hugh Kenner describes the first three lines of this poem: 'perception slides over perception, each line the natural unit of the process ... one line of statement, its narrative implication (feet crushing salty dried shore) compressed to the uttermost; one line of microscopic attention, discerning the grains; one line of arresting comparison, casual and evaluative (like wine, this shore is welcome; like sand, the benison is equivocal).'

Hermes, Orator - Roman copy from the late 1st century CE-early 2nd century CE
 after a Greek original of the 5th century BC

In H.D.'s poem a statue of Hermes - the god of travellers, transitions and boundaries - stands 'where sea-grass tangles with / shore-grass.'  Nearby there is an orchard with twisted trees and small hard apples ripened late by 'a desperate sun / that struggles through sea-mist.'  The statue 'fronts the great dunes' where the wind rushes through coarse grass, crusted in salt.  A small white stream flows underground from a poplar-shaded hill and emerges on the sands.  'Hermes of the Ways' (as you can see at the Modernist Journals Project site) was published in the January 1913 edition of Poetry under the title 'Verses, Translations and Reflections from 'The Anthology''.  This is a reference to The Greek Anthology which has a group of epigrams by Anyte, including the one that H.D. adapted and expanded for her poem.  This prose translation of Anyte's poem is by Richard Aldington and was first published in 1915:


I, Hermes, stand here at the cross-roads by the wind-beaten orchard, near the hoary-grey coast;
And I keep a resting-place for weary men. And the cool stainless spring gushes out.

Anyte of Tegea lived in Arcadia in the early third century BCE.  She seems to have been, as it says in my Penguin edition of The Greek Anthology, 'the first poet to write epitaphs on animals, and to introduce bucolic themes into epigram.'  Her epigram 'Hermes of the Ways' interests me both as a condensed landscape poem (orchard, coast and spring) and as the evocation of a landscape sculpture.  Another (given in Aldington's translation below) provides a contrasting image of a statue by the sea. In poems like this, Marylin B. Skinner has suggested that Anyte offers an 'introspective' approach to ekphrasis, in contrast to male poets' detached way of reporting a visual experience (see 'Ladies' Day at the Art Institute: Theocritus, Herodas and the Gendered Gaze'). 'Aphrodite's benevolent mood is mirrored in the translucent expanse of water viewed from her headland and transmuted into concern for the mariners she beholds from afar. In the third line, there is an abrupt switch in perspective to the reverent tremor of the water as it, in turn, observes the goddess' glistening statue.'


This is the land of Kypris, since it pleases her to gaze for ever from land over the glittering sea.
So that she may bear the sailors safe to land; and the sea quivers, looking upon her shining image.

The Cyprus Mail reported earlier this year on plans to build a four-metre tall bronze statue of Aphrodite on a rock in the sea. Ten years ago a more controversial proposal for a hundred-foot statue based on Botticelli's Venus was stopped. 'Artists and environmentalists branded published photographs as ‘ugly’, and reminiscent of Hollywood and Las Vegas kitsch.  One artist said it looked like a cake.  The Chamber of Fine Arts (EKATE) said the idea of a Statue of Liberty sized goddess of love was “base, barbaric, morbid, bizarre, provocative, flashy, grotesque, monstrous, out of proportion, over the top, tacky, cheap, pointless and offensive”'.  Planning for the new project is in its early stages so it is not yet clear whether this bronze Aphrodite will one day be gazing over the glittering sea.  There are no such statues of gods in the other two 'landscape poems' of Anyte that survive in The Greek Anthology: just trees and spring waters and a cool breeze.  I think Ezra Pound's advice to poets in 'A Few Don'ts By an Imagiste', written for the March 1913 edition of Poetry, should be heeded by all those commissioning public artworks: 'Use either no ornament or good ornament'. 


Sit beneath the beautiful leaves of this laurel, and draw the sweet water from the fresh spring:
You are breathless from the heat; rest your dear limbs and let the breath of Zephyros touch them.


O wanderer, rest your tired limbs under this elm; the breeze murmurs in the light-green branches. Drink a cool draught from the spring. This resting place is dear to wayfarers in the hot summer. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A landscape built of pure life

Among the Convolutes of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin MacLoughlin), one section is devoted to 'Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris.'  There, Benjamin observes that 'few things in the history of humanity are as well known to us as the history of Paris':
'Many of the main thoroughfares have their own special literature, and we possess written accounts of thousands of the most inconspicuous houses.  In a beautiful turn of phrase, Hugo von Hofmannsthal called [this city] 'a landscape built of pure life:' And at work in the attraction it exercises on people is the kind of beauty that is proper to great landscapes - more precisely, to volcanic landscapes.  Paris is a counterpart in the social order to what Vesuvius is in the geographic order: a menacing, hazardous massif, an ever-active hotbed of revolution.  But just as the slopes of Vesuvius, thanks to the layers of lava that cover them, have been transformed into paradisal orchards, so the lava of revolutions provides uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.'

Vesuvius, from Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher, 1664

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Field of Reeds

This is my annual post on landscape music - the earlier ones (with apologies for a few dead links now) are here: 2010, 2011, 2012.  I discussed a couple of excellent records earlier in the year so won't linger over these here: My Garden State by Glenn Jones and In St Cuthbert's Time by Chris Watson (I also wrote about Hiroki Sasajima's work but neglected to mention Circle Wind, sounds recorded at night around Tokyo and other urban locations).  Many of the themes I observed in 2012 were present this year too: encounters with mountains, rivers and islands; the search for politically charged sites and landscapes haunted by history; continuing attempts to expand field recording beyond simple notions of soundscape; music composed in studios or outdoors as an offshoot of wider artistic endeavours and then sold in a range of collectible formats.  Particularly noticeable this year, I think, has been the way some musicians and sound artists have engaged in different forms of field work, walking the landscape and documenting their findings in film and text as well as recorded sound.  The finished compositions are therefore the product of a period of research: digging in archives and libraries, investigations of particular sites or topographical features, close observation of natural phenomena and acoustic experimentation.      

Typical of this trend is an album by The Memory Band, on whose website you can read a series of Stephen Cracknell's Field Reports.  They were made whilst exploring the South Country and composing On the Chalk (Our Navigation of the Line of the Downs).  Cracknell explains that his steps were guided by old topographical writings - Belloc, Massingham, R. Hippisley Cox’s Green Roads Of England, Ancient Trackways Of Wessex by H.W. Timperley & Edith Brill.  On the day the record was complete he set off again on The Harrow Way, a semi-legendary ancient path: 'I walked the best part of sixty miles in those three days ending at Stonehenge, blistered and hobbled but elated.'  There is a Caught by the River review of the album by Rob St. John in which he describes On the Chalk as a place 'where the pastoral meets the produced, where machines (whether cars, planes or drum machines) plough patterned furrows through rich and partially-obscured landscapes. As Cracknell puts it in the sleeve notes: It is an album about change, the power of human will and our relationship with the landscape as we pass through it’.'

Place and its relationship to history have been the subject of another ongoing investigation by lo-fi duo Way Through.  Last year I mentioned here seeing them play at Cafe Oto, supporting James Brooks / Land Observations, whose own landscape project was dedicated to Roman Roads (and who contributed this year to Simon Fisher Turner's new soundtrack for The Epic of Everest).  Way Through's latest album, Clapper is Still, includes ‘Dedham Vale’ and 'Eyam', songs about two very different villages preserved as heritage sites, 'Sipson', on a site that is, in contrast, under threat from the expansion of Heathrow Airport, and ‘Imber and Tyneham’, referring to places that were cleared of their inhabitents during World War Two (the latter is Patrick Wright's 'Village that Died for England').  Rob St. John has reviewed this one as well for Caught by the River: 'lyrics cribbed from local history leaflets, information boards and bus stop graffiti become spoken and sung invocations of the sublime, the suburban and the specific. Chiming, often-dissonant guitar gusts off into post-punk angles: plotting new cartographical soundings over old ground.'

Rob St. John himself has been exploring Edinburgh's waterways, documenting his researches as a 7" single with accompanying essays and prints. This was part of the Year of Natural Scotland, for which numerous artists seem to have been making work in 2013, navigating a system of funding streams as complex as the lochs, drains, springs and sewers of the city.  Chris Dooks was another sound artist involved in this, with a film, Tiny Geographies and accompanying soundtrack; he has also recently completed Ciga{r}les, a set of treated field recordings made partly for therapeutic reasons (I think the looped voices on the former and combination of bagpipes and cicadas on the latter may not appeal to everyone).  Although the Natural Scotland projects sound interesting, they make you wonder how far records themselves can be appreciated out of context.  To stand on its own, a set of sound recordings need to be reorientated: Geoff Mullen's Filtered Water for example, is two long pieces derived from a 'multi-channel sound installation in the backwoods of Hudson Valley', converted into a mono recording.  Similarly, Jem Finer and Andrew Kötting's Visionary Seascapes is more than simply the soundtrack to the film they made last year with Iain Sinclair, Swandown.  

Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails by Sharron Kraus is another album dedicated to a specific landscape.  One sunny day, she writes, whilst driving through the Welsh countryside, "I had the overwhelming sense that there was music contained in the landscape, waiting to be discovered. I decided to move to Mid-Wales, to a quiet place just north of that valley and try to tap into that music and draw it out."  The resulting compositions couldn't be less like Way Through; Joseph Stannard in The Wire praised their 'wild magic and windswept beauty.'  Kraus cites Richard Skelton as an influence, and this year he has been re-visiting music inspired by the landscape of Ulpha, in south-west Cumbria.  These kind of recordings, like field notes or diaries, can be returned to and developed in new ways.  He and Autumn Richardson describe the composition of Succession in almost scientific terms: 'the process of recovering these fragments and threading them into song is analogous to the work of palynologists, reconstructing images of past landscape ecologies from the layers of sediment. It is a kind of archaeology, a work of archivism.' 

Swiss sound artist Marcus Maeder has been leading 'trees', a research project conducted by the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).  Their aim is to 'combine field recordings of meteorological phenomena, recordings of acoustic emissions in trees and acoustic representations (sonifications) of ecophysiological data in one single auditory experience and make their correlation acoustically and aesthetically experienceable and explorable.'  Some of this sounds like the old dream of listening to the landscape directly, an idea I have often referred to here (see for example my post from earlier this year, Shoreless River).  Maeder's own CD, topographie sinusoïdale, constructs music as if it were a landscape: 'arranged in space, defining upper and lower boundaries of spatial objects, cliffs, edges, slow passages from one scene to another, at times focusing on details of a larger group of objects.'  Reviewing it recently in The Wire, Richard Pennell found it 'a very pretty, gently fluid piece of music, but a little too anodyne, an overlong watercolour wash.'  

The same could not be said for Emptyset - Paul Purgas and James Ginzburg - who specialise in subjecting resonant sites to noise at high volumes and frequencies and recording the results.  At the start of the year they had an installation at Tate Britain as part of the Performing Architecture series.  Here's what Boomkat had to say about their latest release, Material: 'In what has become the dominant theme of Emptyset's work, the cavernous architecture of the different settings - Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station in Snowdonia, Ambika P3 in London, and Chislehurst Mine in Kent - becomes a component of the music itself, the duo's bowel-shaking low frequencies responding to every nook, curve and surface texture of these man-made caves. When you think of the uses these spaces have historically been put to (chalk and flint mining, Magnox nuclear reaction, concrete testing), it's hard to think of Material as anything but industrial music in its purest, or at least most literal, form.'

Touch always feature in my annual surveys, and a new BJ Nilson album coming out shortly sounds interesting - 'a somewhat surreal audio rendition of the sounds of The City of London.'  Earlier in the year they released Diluvial, a collaboration between Wire's Bruce Gilbert and Beaconsfield ArtWorks on the theme of rising sea levels. Another album of note was Burkhard Stangl's Unfinished. For William Turner, painter, inspired by the artist's extraordinary late work (Tate Britain has an exhibition planned for next year, Late Turner: Painting Set Free, so I expect to see this CD on sale in their shop).  Then there was Stromboli, a collection of field recordings by Geir Jenssen, better known as Biosphere for his 'arctic techno' - most recently N-Plants (2011), an album inspired by the Japanese nuclear industry and recorded a month before the Fukashima disaster.  Jenssen has also been active in mountaineering and in 2001 climbed the Himalayan peak Cho Oyu.  The sounds he assembled on that expedition were released a few years later as Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings from Tibet.  The new album for Touch consists of a Stromboli soundscape on the first side and a 'dub version' (subtly different) on the other.

Another volcanic area, Lyttelton, on the South Island of New Zealand, has been explored by Jo Burzynska, who records as Stanier Black-Five.  For her album Avast! 'sounds were captured at sites around the natural amphitheatre of this extinct caldera: from abandoned wartime bunkers on the top of the crater rim to the port and its cacophony of cargo ships, tugs and workshops.'  This area was also the epicentre of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011.  Burzynska 'grabbed a recording device as she ran from her home, leaving it running on her doorstep capturing the aftershocks that ricocheted though her house and the disaster unfolding on the street outside.'  These sounds were then used in the album Body Waves, a collaboration with Malcolm Riddoch (whose exotic pseudonym is Zeug Gezeugt).  Reading about some of these sound artists, I sometimes end up thinking I'm in the wrong line of work... Jo Burzynska manages to combine field recording with being a wine writer and this summer created a 'multi-sensory sound and wine installation' for an event called Oenosthesia in Auckland.

It is impossible here to cover all the significant field recordings released in 2013 - hopefully The Field Reporter will put together a survey like they did last year.  However, I'd like to mention two of the organisers of In the Field, the symposium I attended in February, who have releases out this year: Cathy Lane, who has brought together interviews, archive recordings and natural sounds in The Hebrides Suite (see 'On the Machair', above) and Ian Rawes, who has put together together a record of some highlights from his London Sound Survey.  Last year Ian's British Library colleague Cheryl Tipp gave me some suggestions for notable releases to mention here.  This year she has drawn my attention to Luis Antero's project O Rio / the RiverThe first part is a confluence of water sounds recorded along the Alvoco river in Portugal.  The newly issued second instalment documents the memories of  an old river-keeper and three villagers who talk about the disused watermills.  The Impulsive Habitat label that put out Antero's recordings (run by David Velez, who set up The Field Reporter) has dealt in a diverse range of soundscapes this year: the Madagascan rainforest, the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Columbia, the Crack of Humahuaca in Argentina, the road between Takasaki and Tokyo, the platforms of Union Station in Kansas City, and the 'grimy laneways' of inner Sydney Camperdown

Back in 2010 I devoted a post here to the music of John Luther Adams, including Inuksuit, a composition designed to be played and heard out in the landscape.  Cantaloupe, the label run by Bang on a Can, have now put this out on CD for the first time: a recording made in the forest surrounding Guilford Sound in Guilford, Vermont.  Back in July, Ivan Hewitt interviewed Adams and it is worth reading his account of experiencing Inuksuit among the beech trees at the University of Richmond.  Having reached a crescendo the music subsided, the musicians went their separate ways and the audience 'ambled out into the trees and along the lake, pausing to listen to a vibraphone player here, a flautist there. Waves of sound rose, changed colour very slowly, and passed through the trees. Eventually they dispersed, but one couldn’t be sure for some time that the music was finally over.'

There are still composers writing more traditional programmatic music inspired by nature: Jennifer Higdon for example, whose An Exaltation of Larks and Sky Quartet appeared this year (she can be heard on the Q2 music Soundcloud site introducing her music, including other landscape related compositions like 'City Scape', 'Summer Shimmers', 'Autumn Reflexions' and 'Dooryard Bloom', a setting of Walt Whitman). There is landscape too in the poetry of Ted Kooser, whose words were put to music this year by Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider for their song cycle Winter Morning Walks.  Personally I would rather listen to Hirta Songs, a collaboration between Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson (whose poetry and compelling voice I have referred to here before).  Robertson has written self-deprecatingly in The Guardian that the poem he wrote after visiting the island of St Kilda was 'really just a list of place names' - 'although it gave some sense of the scale of the place, and allowed for the sea-rhythms, the poem had lots of topography, but no real narrative.'  So he got together with Roberts to work up a set of folk songs and tell the island's stories, but that original poem, 'Leaving St Kilda', remains in the middle of the album, read to the accompaniment of Corrina Hewat's gentle harp.

Musical collaboration increasingly occurs remotely over the internet: one example from 2013 was Temperament as Waveform by field recordists Lee Patterson and Vanessa Rossetto.  It was interesting therefore to read that Taylor Deupree and Australian Cameron Webb (Seaworthy) deliberately went to great lengths to meet and walk together  the snow before composing Wood, Winter, Hollow.  Deupree prefers 'the human interaction and local landscapes over the soulless exchange of sound files.'  So 'the pair struck out in a New York February to a 4,000 acre nature preserve near Deupree’s studio called Ward Pound Ridge, a park rich in history that supports a diverse range of plant and animal life. While the cold of winter kept most of the animals quiet the landscape nonetheless teemed with sounds.'  They recorded raindrops on stone, wind in the beech trees and a creak slowly flowing through ice.  Later, in the warmth of the studio, these were combined with bells, sticks, melodica, analog synthesiser and the gentle sound of Seaworthy's guitar.  The result (see below) is quite different from 'Rusted Oak', Deupree's ambient soundscape that I featured in my 2010 Landscape Music round-up.

Field of Reeds, These New Puritans' follow-up to Hidden (NME's album of the year for 2010) has been a difficult one for reviewers to get their heads round.  It has been interesting to see it described by some critics as if it were another exploration of Essex (the 'new English landscape', according to Ken Worpole's recent book).  Here is Luke Turner, writing for The Quietus... 'The estuarine landscape of Field Of Reeds is best seen in two ways: in grand panorama from an aircraft banking over London, when sun glints off the water of the Thames widening toward the North Sea. Or, on the other hand, oozy intimacy along the rough shoreline, traditionally a site for dumping the waste of London. Here, alongside creeks where air bubbles rattle from the mud with the ebbing tide, a rutted horizon offers up gifts of ancient marmalade pots, broken clay pipes, fused and rusted metal. It's a landscape that refuses, like memory or dreams, to be defined or contained, that forever shifts and opens itself up to new narratives and fresh explorations.'

With both musicians and reviewers taking inspiration from the new nature writers and psychogeographers, it was no real surprise earlier this year to come across a project directly influenced by W. G. Sebald.  I can't now recall the exact circumstances in which I initially read The Rings of Saturn back in 1995, but it would have been in my first flat, at the top of a house in Tufnell Park.  I imagine my concentration was occasionally broken by the sound of baselines throbbing from the flat below, owned by record producer Dilip Harris.  Now, all these years later, I see that he and Rob Gallagher of Galliano have assumed the joint identity William Adamson and recorded Under An East Coast Moon, an album that draws 'inspiration from the Suffolk landscape – ancient burial grounds, fortifications against Nazi invaders, sea defences now inadequate against global warming and forests felled by the great storm of 1987.' Its 'cautionary tales of fallen women, folk songs and gothic legends fuse with reflections and refractions from W. G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn.'

Well that'll probably do for now, but feel free to comment below on the interesting landscape related music I have neglected to mentioned. I'll end this post with the trailer for The Epic of Everest, scored by Simon Fisher Turner. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Envirographic instruments

Last week I visited the Architectural Association Gallery in London, where there is an exhibition devoted to the British Exploratory Land Archive, a collaboration between architects Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen) and Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG.  You probably all know BLDGBLOG, but in case not, my earlier post 'Landscape Futures' included a few of its ideas, taken from The BLDGBLOG Book.  One of these, I now see, was that Rachel Whiteread should begin filling whole cave systems with plaster to create monumental sculptures.  This exhibition gives an idea of what that might look like, in the shape of a 3D-printed rendering of the Nottingham Cave systems.  These tunnels in the 'frozen Sahara' beneath the city were explored in a long BLDGBLOG post last year.  The exhibit's white plastic gives their warm desert sandstone the appearance of ice.  The model reveals a hidden structure to the caves which, I imagine, would be difficult to describe even by someone familiar with their twisting underground passages.

BELA call this work 'a Speleological Pantograph for the aboveground reproduction of subterranean spaces, objects and volumes. Although functioning very much like a traditional pantograph, this device will instead act three-dimensionally, connected to tools of volumetric analysis installed in underground spaces, such as caves, mines and basements, in order to reproduce those spaces on the Earth's surface.'  Imagining the reality of Nottingham's old sand mines from a pale plastic facsimile might seem as futile as trying to envisage a living snake on the basis of its discarded skin.  But the pantograph, in rescaling an object, always alters it (imagine how Rachel Whiteread's sculptures would fail if they were reduced in size).  The Tate, incidentally, have an etching, Head, by Eduardo Paolozzi in which he used a pantograph 'assembled wrongly to distort his original drawing by curving and elongating it.'  Presumably it would be possible to reprogram the Speleological Pantograph in order to create an uncanny transformation of some well-known underground space.

This photograph shows another speculative envirographic instrument being tested in the slate spoil heaps of North Wales.  It is a 'Clinometer', which 'combines 2D and 3D graphic mapping languages into a faceted 3D form composed of nine triangular aluminium sheets, upon which hanging weights are fixed. The device can be assembled in numerous configurations, using a bungee cord laced across the face of the sheets through eyelets along their edges and lever arms attached to the weights.' How would this actually work, I wondered, looking at the stack of metal triangles on the floor of the gallery.  This might simply reveal my ignorance of survey techniques, or it may be entirely missing the point, like asking how Tarkovsky's Stalker navigates the Zone by throwing bolts.  Looking at the photograph above, the Clinometer seems to operate through some metonymic principle, unfolding itself to resemble a fragment of the landscape.  And you can imagine its aluminium surfaces reflecting the surrounding spoil heaps, like the zig-zag mirror piece Robert Smithson made in 1969 at an abandoned open-cast mine further south at Tredegar. 

The exhibition includes photographs of other instruments in situ.  A Capture Blanket for soil-remediation on the side of Parys Mountain resembles the spent parachute of a planetary probe.  A Sniffer for aerosol sampling in a field of corn gave me the idea for an anti-hayfever device (yes, I write as a sufferer...)  However, BELA are also thinking about installing instruments on a larger scale where they 'become indistinguishable from landscapes'.  The Flywheel Reservoir (below), designed for Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, would be 'a constellation of architectural features, geological augmentations and topographic ornaments that 'harvests' and smooths the fluctuating electrical supply' generated by the London Array, the world's largest offshore wind farm.  The model resembles Walter De Maria's Lightning Field.  'Power levels and flywheel capacity is displayed in an elevated point cloud of laser light that ebbs and flows in the air like a mist over the landscape.' 

It was mist over the Isle of Sheppey that reduced visibility and caused a 130 vehicle pile up recently on its new road bridge (sixty people were injured but none killed).  Thinking of this makes me wonder how safe a vast landscape battery under the island would be.  BELA worked on the design with Williams Hybrid Power whose flywheel technology was developed for Williams Formula 1 cars.  The island in their architectural model resembles a circuit board and beneath the table (under the bonnet, as it were) wires dangle, waiting to be connected.  What kind of subterranean architecture would be needed to keep the 'garden of flywheels' going?  Perhaps like the old slate and sand mines this site too would eventually be abandoned, left for exploration by future architects and then taken as inspiration for a new cycle of landscape speculations.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The New English Landscape

This week Ken Worpole was talking at the LRB bookshop about his latest collaboration with photographer Jason Orton, The New English Landscape.   A full review of the book can be found on the Landscapism blog so I will just say a few words here prompted by what was said on Thursday.  Ken was joined by Rachel Lichtenstein, who read an extract from her work in progress on the Thames estuary, and interviewed by writer, film curator and cultural catalyst Gareth Evans.  The New English Landscape partly develops the ideas in an essay Ken wrote for the anthology Gareth co-edited, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (just re-printed, highly recommended).  It was obviously a very productive project: since I discussed it here three years ago Kathleen Jamie has expanded her essay for inclusion in Sightlines and Robert Macfarlane's contribution has seeded a new book, Landmarks, currently in preparation, on language and landscapeThe New English Landscape also incorporates material Ken presented at one of the Place events Gareth has organised at Snape (the next one in February is dedicated to various forms of landscape 'occupation').  However, notes on Essex had been accumulating in boxes for some years and Ken before the opportunity came to collaborate with Jason on 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (2005).  Mainstream publishers were only interested in books that dealt with the stereotypes of Ford Escorts and white stilettos.

Unsurprisingly, Essex held few attractions for Rachel Lichtenstein growing up in Southend, but ten years ago she moved back and has experienced a kind of personal re-enchantment with its landscape (she says she is "a born again Essex girl").  Ken has followed a similar trajectory: leaving Canvey Island just before the great flood of 1953, but returning there for walks in its wild places and unassimilated landscapes.  Of course distance lends enchantment and there was some discussion about the risk of seeing landscape at a remove from its lived reality.  I thought of Wordworth, who chose to settle in the Lakes not among the people he had grown up but at Grasmere, surrounded by Romantic scenery.  Rachel's current project is engaging with the working river through interviews with fishermen, tugmen, cocklers and river pilots (see embedded clip below).  People are absent from the images in The New English Landscape but, as Ken explained, there are traces of their presence: broken fences, overgrown greenhouses, a forlorn flag planted on an empty beach stretching almost to the horizon.  

It was a shame Jason Orton could not be present to say more about how he seeks to avoid the aestheticisation of dilapidation and decay that was central to Picturesque taste and what we now call 'ruin porn'.  By eschewing filters and shooting on film he tries to arrive at a truthful representation of place as it is actually experienced - Ken was scornful of the artificiality on display in the recent Landscape Photographer of the Year awards.  Muted colours and flat light might not grab the attention but they reflect a persistent strain in twentieth century English painting. Ken mentioned in passing the work of Prunella Clough, who lived in Lowestoft and depicted its dockyards, cranes, warehouses and fishermen.  I can see a clear resemblance to Jason's photographs in paintings like Sheds by a Quarry (1947).  Frances Spalding's description of this in her recent book Prunella Clough: regions unmapped seems to want to excuse its mundane subject matter: 'A conglomeration of pale corrugated roofs shimmer with an unearthly light, cradled within the warm umbers of a barren landscape ... bleakness, however, is made exquisite through subtle alterations of texture, colour and light.'  The photographs in The New English Landscape are not there to be admired like this for their formal qualities.  As Ken writes in his most recent blog post, the book seeks to establish 'a tension between words and images, the exigencies of social history and visual richness, so that there is an interrogative presence at work in our response to landscape as well as an appreciative one.'

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Landscape with the Rape of Europa

The Wallace Collection has several fine pageant shields with dramatic mythological scenes, but this one is unusual: its dark steel surface is inlaid with a classical landscape.  You might just be able to make out Europa and the Bull at the bottom of the shield, but they are not the focal point: instead the eye is drawn to buildings and bridge, woods and mountains, clouds and birds.  The action is overshadowed by its setting, and by a pervading darkness that gives this picture the appearance of a night scene (dramatic nocturnal light effects were being used by artists like Tintoretto at about this time).  The collection's inventory notes that this composition is 'curiously but accidentally reminiscent of the Chinese willow-pattern.'  The story of the Chinese lovers turned into a pair of doves has the structure of one of Ovid's tales, although in the story on this shield Europa is herself the victim of a metamorphosis and is taken by Zeus, disguised as a bull, over the sea to Crete. 

The elaborate decoration of pageant shields inevitably brings to mind the Shield of Achilles, described in detail by Homer in classical literature's most famous example of ekphrasis.  The shield, wrought by Vulcan, seems to contain the whole world, from the ocean and the heavens: cities at peace and war, a wedding, a trial, people working the fields and enjoying the wine harvest.  Here, in Pope's translation, is a glimpse of landscape: 'Next this, the eye the art of Vulcan leads / Deep through fair forests, and a length of meads, / And stalls, and folds, and scatter'd cots between; / And fleecy flocks, that whiten all the scene.'  W. H. Auden wrote a poem called 'The Shield of Achilles' which contrasts the Sublime imagery of Homer with a featureless modern landscape of weeds, barbed wire and bored officials.  Here is the opening verse:
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead. 
The Academy of American Poets site has a little introduction to ekphrasis which concludes with lines from another Auden poem, 'Musée des Beaux Arts', and William Carlos Williams' equally well known 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', both of which describe Bruegel's painting (below).  Here, as in the Wallace Collection's shield, myth is reduced to a detail.  Icarus and his father Daedalus fly from the palace where they had been imprisoned by Europa's son, King Minos.  And then, as Williams puts it: 'unsignificantly /  off the coast / there was a splash / quite unnoticed / this was / Icarus drowning'.  Bruegel's landscape glittering in the fatal spring sunshine, where 'the whole pageantry / of the year was / awake tingling', distracts us from the fate of Icarus.  It is interesting that Williams uses the word 'pageantry' here; what, you wonder, was happening unnoticed as those sixteenth century nobleman processed in their elaborate armour and the sunlight flashed off a damascened shield and its landscape with the Rape of Europa? 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1560s

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Walk

'I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street...'

On Tuesday the ICA screened All This Can Happen, a new adaptation of Robert Walser's story 'The Walk' (1917).  I went along wondering why a choreographer, Siobhan Davies, had been drawn to make this film (in collaboration with David Hinton), although perhaps Walser will always attract unusual collaborations - when the Quay Brothers filmed his Jakob von Gunten they were known as stop-motion animators. In fact, the initial intention, as Davies explained at the post-screening Q&A, was to explore everyday bodily movements, inspired initially by the  chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey. The split screen techniques used in All This Can Happen partly came about because they were experimenting with putting together forms of film made at such an early date that there was as yet no standard frame size.  Davies thought that a walk could provide a narrative spine and Hinton came upon Walser's story in a bookshop. The old footage they have used is, I think, remarkably effective at evoking the moods of hope and sadness in 'The Walk', as it moves between the 'phantoms' of Walser's imagination and the real life of the street.

I have found several excuses to write here about Walser (one of my favourite writers) by talking about his approach to landscape, remarking for example in 'The region appeared to be smiling' on his distinctive use of the pathetic fallacy.  The voice-over in All This Can Happen included a nice example of this from 'The Walk': "I came into a pine forest, through which coiled a smiling, serpentine, and at the same time roguishly graceful path, which I followed with pleasure."  But it was inevitable that a few enjoyable landscape vignettes in Walser's story didn't make the cut, such as the incident that leads him to this conclusion: 'painted landscape in the middle of real landscape is capricious, piquant. This nobody will contest.'  The walker had been looking at a cottage that 'abounded with wall paintings, or noble frescoes, which were divinely subtle and amusing and showed a Swiss alpine landscape in which stood, painted again, another house, to be accurate a Bernese mountain farmhouse.  Frankly the painting was not good at all.  It would be impudent to maintain that it was.  But, nonetheless, to me it seemed marvellous.  Plain and simple as it was, it enchanted me; as a matter of fact, any sort of painting enchants me, however foolish and clumsy it is, because every painting reminds me first of diligence and industry, and second of Holland.' 

I have embedded here the trailer for All This Can Happen, a sequence from the film in which the narrator enters a local tax office and explains to the inspector his philosophy of walking.  'A walk.' Walser writes, 'is always filled with with significant phenomena, which are valuable to see and to feel.  A pleasant walk most often teems with imageries and living poems, with enchantments and natural beauties, be they ever so small.'  These things are to be found by simply stepping out into the street; if 'The Walk' is not already a sacred text among psychogeographers it ought to be.  In his recent book The New English Landscape, Ken Worpole likens Walser's modest walk to Robert Smithson's tour of the 'Monuments of Passaic' (1967), which treats a post-industrial landscape as a sequence of 'enchantments'. Smithson, I now recall, ends his essay with an illustration of entropy, imagining a sandbox divided into two halves of black and white and a child running repeatedly in a circle over it, gradually turning the whole thing grey.  He imagines filming this child (like one of Marey's experiments in motion) in order to play the the sequence backwards and watch entropy reverse itself.  'But then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility.'

This film ends, like the story and its walk, with the narrator lying down by a lake and thinking sadly about the past.  'All this rich life,' he reflects, from family and friends to the 'dear gentle roads, must one day pass away and die.'  He looks at the flowers that he had gathered earlier in the forest and the fields.
'"Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?" I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand.  I had risen up, to go home, for it was late now, and everything was dark.'

Friday, November 15, 2013

Clouds and Mist in the Mountains

Ten landscape highlights from the V&A's exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900
(1) Possibly Yan Wenghui - Landscape with Pavilions (early 11th century)
There is an aura of great age about this scroll, although its exact date and the authenticity of its signature are in doubt.  Peering through the mist of fine grey ink and sepia-coloured paper you can discern little figures with umbrellas: it is a landscape in bad weather.  The catalogue describes the sky as 'dark and leaden' - 'as one moves towards the last section, the mountains become increasingly steep and rugged; a swiftly moving stream appears, and bent trees tell of the power of the wind and rain.'  The painting's fine details draw you into its world: you feel that with a magnifying glass it would be possible to enter even further into the past.  The Song Dynasty critic Liu Daochun found in Yan Wengui's paintings that 'the ship is like a leaf and the figures are like seeds of millet ... A thousand miles in a single foot - such was his subtlety!'
(2) Unidentified Artist - Reading the Memorial Stele (14th century or earlier)
This is a remarkably atmospheric painting, darkened by age (although not as dark as it appears in the catalogue, which is either badly printed in places or aiming to convery what these ancient silk hanging scrolls would look like in the shadows of an old library; fortunately it is much easier to see online.) Skeletal trees surround the stele and you wonder how the two travellers have the courage to linger there to decipher the inscription.  The warlord Cao Cao remains baffled as they ride away, but his attendant realises immediately that it commemorates a famously filial daughter of the Han Dynasty.  Another inscription to one side of the stele identifies the artists as Wang Xiao (the rather stylised figures) and Li Cheng (the extraordinary trees and rocks).  Li Cheng (Li Ch'eng, 919-967) was the great early Song Dynasty painter but sadly this scroll is probably from a later date, executed in his style.
(3) Mi Youren - Cloudy Mountains (1140s)
This painting has been impressed with the red seal marks and colophons of collectors and admirers over the course of 800 years, and yet it seems to be nothing more than an empty landscape of a few trees and distant peaks, brushed in thin dabs of watery grey ink.  It is owned by the Met who explain the appeal of the 'cloudy mountain' genre developed by Mi Fu and his son Mi Youren: 'referred to by scholar-artists as "ink play," the style suggests the importance of the painter's psychological expression, thereby raising the status of painting to that of poetry and calligraphy.'  The Mi style became popular again in the early Yuan dynasty, when the calligrapher and scholar Xianyu Shu wrote in his colophon to this painting (quoted in the exhibition catalogue) that 'an artisan's painting is short in ideas but long on representative likeness, but the opposite is true with the works of lofty souls and superior scholars.'  The vagueness of the view is such as to leave the viewer free to imagine 'a choice stretch of river shore lying far beyond the actual brushwork.'

(4) Qiu Ying - Saying Farewell at Xunyang (early 15th century)
Leaping forward from the early Song Dynasty due to my self-imposed limit of choosing just ten, and passing over works like Ni Zan's Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (which you can see in an earlier post here), I come to this scroll, which is still 600 years old, although its colours remain as vivid as enamel. You can see it at the Google Art Project and even from the small reproduction above, it should be evident that this is a beautiful example of 'green and blue' landscape painting, the style that had arisen in the Tang dynasty when the subject of this scroll, Bai Juyi (Po-Chü-i) was writing his poetry.  In the middle a small group of men can be seen in a boat, listening to a woman playing a pipa, the Chinese lute.  It is a scene from Bai's famous poem 'Song of the Lute', written in 816.  Hearing the the sound of a pipa, Bai and his friends ask the musician to join them, but after playing some selections she puts down her plectrum and lapses into silence.  Then she tells them of the sad contrast between her youth as a beautiful courtesan in the capital and her current lonely existence.  Bai, who had been exiled from the capital the year before, is moved to tears.  There is a lovely translation of this poem in Burton Watson's Po Chü-i: Selected Poems.
(5) Wen Zhengming - Garden of the Inept Administrator (1551)
I have chosen this one partly for its amusing title: 'Inept' is rather different from 'humble', the usual translation of the name for this famous garden in Suzhou.  In 1535 Wen Zhengming painted aspects of it in a 31-leaf album for Wang Xianchen, its owner and designer.  This exhibition includes a different, later set of eight views, drawn in a 'humble' style so understated that the garden architecture has been diminished in size. The artist himself might be described as an inept administrator, having first sat the civil service exam in 1495 and failed another nine times before at last being granted an honorary position in 1522 (extraordinary to think that Wen, China's most famous sixteenth century artist, spent the whole period of the Italian High Renaissance failing to become a government administrator).  Having finally made it into the elite Hanlin Academy he resigned, disillusioned, after just three years and devoted the rest of his life to painting and calligraphy.  
(6) Fan Qi - Yangzi Riverscape (1660s)
'Fan Qi was one of the first artists in Chinese art history to paint a true horizon, namely a horizontal line separating heaven and earth.  In earlier and most later Chinese painting, including most landscapes by Fan Qi himself, the meeting of earth or water with the sky is ambiguous and blurred by clouds and a misty vagueness.  In fact, in the revolutionary horizon line here, which is about 75 centimetres long, there are only two short stretches of about 5 centimetres where sky and water really touch: at the three boat sails, and to the right of the tip of the tallest tree.  Everywhere else, shoals and clifs in pale grey and brown washes without contour lines appear behind the horizon, as if floating on it.  It is as if Fan Qi was afraid to show directly the full implications of his line: the earth is round, and even the tallest mountain, if far enough away, sinks beneath the horizon.'  (Kure Motoyuki, writing in the exhibition catalogue). 
(7) Wang Jian - Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters (1669-73)
Twelve large scrolls in a row, each showing mountains and rivers in a different style but composed in a similar way: as the catalogue points out, 'from the stones and banks to the soaring peaks near the apex: a ridge almost like the undulating backbone of a dragon runs through each work.'  This ought to be a fascinating lesson in the history of Chinese landscape painting but neither the exhibition or the catalogue explain whose work Wang was imitating.  All we are told is that 'while some of the original paintings on which this set was based remain obscure to us today, others are instantly recognisable' (Fan Kuan's famous Travellers amid Streams and Mountains is clearly one of them).  Wang Jian was one of 'The Four Wangs', influenced by Dong Qichang (who I mentioned here last year), working in the lineage of literati-painters going back to Wang Wei.  The exhibition contrasts their more orthodox work nicely with the individualistic styles of Shitao and Bada Shanren.
(8) Fa Ruozhen - Clouds and Mist in the Mountains (c. 1690)
Fa Ruozhen is known now for cloud and mountain paintings in which the mist and rock are hard to distinguish.  The Met has one: ' like a great cumulonimbus cloud, the landscape billows upward in roiling layers of earth punctuated by misty vales harbouring half-concealed groves of trees.'  For this exhibition the V&A have borrowed a hanging scroll from Stockholm, and, as the catalogue says, 'it is sometimes difficult to decide whether cliffs and rocks are protruding or receding.  The space is relatively constricted, he clouds and mist failing to create any sense of depth.  The crags reaching almost to the top of the painting contribute to an almost claustrophobic atmosphere.'  Entering this place you would encounter cumulus boulders and trees like dark rain clouds; ascending through the mist you could never be sure how far the mountain extended.  If you kept on going you might realise you had left solid ground behind some time ago without ever having reached a summit.
(9) Bada Shanren - Flowers on the River (1697)
This painting of lotus flowers is so long, 14 metres, that following it feels like walking by a real riverbank.  What you can't really appreciate from reproductions is the sense of joyous freedom in Bada Shanren's gestural brushstrokes.  His poem at the end concludes: 'Happily singing my way, I immerse myself in the splashes of spring water and the sprays of flowers.  East and west, south and north after all are the same.'  A contemporary wrote that the artist's colophons 'were so strange that no one could understand them.  His brushwork was impulsively reckless; he did not stick to any established method, but worked in a firm and thorough and often unrestrained manner.' Michael Sullivan quotes this in his book Symbols of Eternity and goes on to wonder how Bada Shanren (Pa-ta Shan-jen) would have explained another landscape scroll which I have reproduced to the right.  'He might (if he were sober) have spoken of the Tao, or of the Void out of which form is manifest and into which it dissolves again.  This picture, executed with no preconceived composition in a kind of aesthetic ecstasy, carries us to the outer limits of pictorial art, to the edge of Void, stopping just short of the point of pure abstraction.'
(10) Xu Yang - Prosperous Suzhou (1759)
Finally, in complete contrast, this scroll is similar in length to Flowers on the River, but so detailed it seems to contain a whole world.  On reaching it, visitors to the exhibition stop and become immersed in its detail, edging along the display case from the morning light on Lingyan Hill past wharves and workshops, streets and shops, to the evening mist over the outskirts of the city.  It was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, whose own paintings and poetry I have described on this blog before.  Five years after completing it, Xu Yang and his assistants were asked to create scrolls depicting the Emperor's southern tours.  Six years and a hundred and fifty metres later they finished in time for his sixtieth birthday.  Art historians (and David Hockney) have compared these unfavourably with a similar set of scrolls painted in the 1690s by Wang Hui, attributing a certain stiffness in Xu Yang's work to the deleterious influence of new Western pictorial conventions that had arrived with the Jesuits.
NB: for copyright reasons I have not included images here beyond what is on Wikimedia Commons, although I have added links where possible.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Collection of Sand

Collection of Sand joins our collection of Calvinos

I don't know why it has taken twenty-nine years for Italo Calvino's Collezione di sabbia to appear in English but now it can be enjoyed here in Martin McLaughlin's new translation.  In his introduction, McLaughlin notes Calvino's fondness for mineral imagery: the 'stone' of his earlier collection of essays on politics and literature, Una pietra sopra, has become fragmented into granules of sand in this subsequent volume - short articles on art works and unusual books that captured Calvino's interest, along with travel sketches written after visits to Japan, Mexico and Iran.  Several essays describe different forms of stone, from the raked gravel gardens of Kyoto to the sculpted rocks of Persepolis.  One even mentions George Sand, who aside from her novels painted what she called 'dendrites', landscapes whose textures resemble 'those stones which exhibit a faint pattern of branching, multicoloured veins.'  Calvino finds rock sculpted to imitate natural forms (the overgrown temples of Mexico, the frieze of Trajan column) and writes about trees themselves, painted and real.  McLoughlin highlights this 'luxuriant arboreal theme', perhaps unsurprising in a book from the author of The Baron in the Trees.

George Sand, Landscape, painted using her dendrite technique

This book's title essay was written after Calvino had been to see an exhibition in Paris devoted to the art of collecting.  Among the bizarre collections there was a set of jars containing nothing but sand, each a sample from a different location, carefully labelled.  Calvino describes becoming absorbed in their minute differences, although at first he 'takes in only the samples that stand out most, the rust coloured sand from a dry river-bed in Morocco, the carboniferous black and white grains from the Aran Islands...'  Reading this reminded me of helping my children make sculptures in these grey Aran Island sands, earlier this year.  However, Calvino wonders whether it is possible for containers of sand to retain traces of lived experience: the sight of an indigo sea, the heat of the wadi, the sensations of the beach.  Were these jars nothing more than a sad 'cemetery of landscapes reduced to a desert'?  And yet perhaps they provided a means of allowing the collector to remove herself from 'the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence.'

 '...the carboniferous black and white grains' 
(Trá Leitreach, August 2013) 

Calvino's short sequence of essays on Japan were particularly interesting for me and I only wish there were enough for a whole book, along the lines of Barthes' Empire of Signs.  They touch on the emptiness of old wooden temples, the solitude of pachinko parlours and the way the white sand of Kyoto's Silver Pavilion seems to retain the light of the moon.  In 'The Obverse of the Sublime', Calvino has a 'haiku moment', watching a flock of birds landing on a single bare tree, isolated among the red, yellow and rust colours of autumn.  But the Japanese poet accompanying him seems unconvinced: 'a sure sign that haikus are composed in a different way.  Or that it makes no sense to expect a landscape to dictate poems to you, because a poem is made of ideas and words and syllables, whereas a landscape is composed of leaves and colours and light.'

Sand garden at Ginkaku-Ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion

'The Thousand Gardens' describes the experience of walking a path through the garden of the imperial villa at Katsura, where each footstep is designed to reveal a new landscape.  These conveniently placed stones are 'a device for multiplying the garden, but also for removing it from the vertigo of the infinite.'  The path takes Calvino to a tea house where there are only mats on the floor and a few carefully placed objects: 'it is by limiting the the number of things around us that one prepares oneself for accepting the idea of a world that is infinitely larger than ours.'  He concludes with a story about the great tea master Sen-no Rikyu, who deliberately obscured a view of the sea with hedges so that the visitor could only see it when they bent down to take water from a pond.
'Rikyu's idea was probably this: bending down over the pond and seeing his own image shrunk in that narrow stretch of water, the man would consider his own smallness; then as soon as he raised his face to drink from his hand he would be dazzled by the immensity of the sea and would become aware that he was part of an infinite universe.  But these are things that are ruined if you try to explain them too much.  To the person who asked him about why he had built the hedge, Rikyu would simply quote the lines of the poet Sogi: 'Here, just some water, / There amidst the trees / The sea!''

Friday, November 01, 2013

Inside the circle of fire

Three months ago I wrote about experiencing Chris Watson's tranquil Lindisfarne soundscape installation at Durham cathedral.  Earlier this week I was in Sheffield, 'inside the circle of fire', surrounded by a 20-speaker ambisonic system, listening to Watson's soundmap of the city.  Projected around me on the walls of the Millenium Gallery were a sequence of black and white images: remnants of industry and old machines, woods in low sunlight, moorland and river banks.  Listening over the course of half an hour, impressions of nature and urban space began to blend together: bird song starts to sound insistent like machinery and the rumble of the streets feels like the premonition of a storm.  Water is a constant presence and in the video clip above, Watson talks about how he thought abou the work in terms of Sheffield's network of rivers.  In another interview for The Guardian, he reflects on the relative silence of the modern city: "There's still this huge, vast, steelworks called Forgemasters who allowed me in, and what's interesting in there, in a perverse way, is how quiet it is now because it's very much an automated process. This history in Sheffield of people hearing these vast, steam-driven hammers, hammering out steel echoing down the Don Valley, that's certainly gone now. The steel mills are still active, to some extent, but they are now much quieter."

In the second of his Reith lectures last week, Grayson Perry suggested that one of the reasons Christian Marclay's The Clock has received such universal acclaim is that gallery goers have been able to view it on comfy seats.  As you can see from the phone photo I took, Inside the Circle of Fire has a little circle of sofas and cushions in which you sit in slightly uncomfortable intimacy with people, not talking.  In this setting it was odd to listen to the extraordinary communal singing recorded at Sheffield United: a rousing rendition of their anthem 'The Greasy Chip Butty Song' ("You fill up my senses / like a gallon of Magnet...")  These euphoric crowd sounds gave way to the twenty-first century version of Pierre Shaeffer's Étude aux chemins de fer: bland recorded announcements playing over the constant motion of passengers at Sheffield station.  A low sound that I couldn't make out then began to vibrate my seat whilst I tried to identify the source of some gentle music audible in the distance.  Both eventually faded to leave the song of a solitary bird, which was in turn overtaken by the sounds of wind, rain and thunder.  Sadly I had to leave at this point, but I see from The Guardian that 'the journey ends in a huge, echoing storm drain below the city's railway station' which I must have been sitting above, waiting for the train to take me back to London.