Thursday, December 24, 2015

An image of the sun

To not look at the sea, but over it.
In winter, not at the tree, but through it.
With art, not to look at or through but with it.

- Roger Ackling (1947-2014)

These lines appear in one of the short essays and appreciations collected together in a new book, Between the Lines: The Work and Teaching of Roger AcklingThey suggest why Ackling rarely discussed his own work: 'not to look at or through but with it'.  However, he was persuaded to give a talk as part of a 2002 residency at Morai in Hokkaido, from which the quote above is taken.  One of the organisers, Toshio Nakamoro, recalls the beach there having 'all the elements Roger needed - clear and intensive sunlight, water and air' and Ackling told his audience that the melancholy, remote beauty of this place had impressed him greatly.  He had become a regular visitor to Japan, where his meditative approach to art has always been appreciated - in 1986 the Acklings chose to celebrate their wedding at the Meiji shrine in Tokyo.  The talk ended with him modestly admitting that he still did not necessarily know what he was doing.  He described the means by which he had been making sculpture for nearly thirty years: pieces of wood, found by the sea's edge and then burned with a magnifying glass.  How long this took would depend on cloud cover, the time of day and year, the altitude and the age of the wood.  'I usually work from left to right and against the grain.  Each line is made up of many black dots.  Each dot is an image of the sun.'

Between the Lines includes many contributions from Japan, along with reminiscences by his fellow British artists Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Thomas A. Clark.  There is a short piece by Evan Parker, whose album Lines Burnt in Light (2001) refers to Ackling's work.  Former Tate curator Judith Collins contributes the transcript of an interview she did for a BBC Radio 3 programme, Artists and the Landscape, in January 1994.  For this she travelled to the Norfolk coast, where the Acklings lived in a coastguard cottage on an eroding cliff.  'Ackling worked on the beach in front of his cottage, in the shifting space between land and sea.  But his sculptures were actually made in the 93 million miles of space between the sun and the piece of found driftwood he held in his hand.'  On winter days like the one on which they met for this interview, it was not possible for Ackling to make his work as the light was too weak.  But this enforced break meant he could return to it refreshed each year in April.
 Reading Between the Lines in weak winter sunlight

As ever here, I have been focusing on landscape and art, but Ackling did not see himself as a land artist and the later sections of the book on his teaching practice illustrate how open he always was to new ideas.  In a catalogue essay from 1997, Sylvia Ackling explained that
'he still identifies strongly with the more abstract elements: ideas of remoteness and isolation, an art that is not necessarily object-based, a lack of respect for a hierarchy of materials fixed by commercial values.  However, although his fellow Saint Martin's students Hamish Fulton and Richard Long continue to be important influences, together with Dada and Carl Andre, he also looks to the work of Alan Charlton and Peter Joseph, and to that of the sixteenth-century Japanese sculptor Enku.  Increasingly, Roger finds inspiration in Enku's work, the Buddhist monk whose life was a journey as he walked from temple to temple throughout Japan in his quest to carve one hundred thousand buddhas...'

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


It is high time I drew attention here to the admirable Longbarrow Press, whose strapline is 'Poetry from the Edgelands'.  I recently bought from them Steps by Mark Goodwin, one of the 'radical landscape poets' selected for Harriet Tarlo's 2011 anthology The Ground Aslant.  You can read and hear one of its poems at The Journal of Wild Culture, but much of the book is taken up with one long seventy-page walk poem, 'From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny.'  As the title suggests (those indefinite articles inserted before the places names) this poem is not always an easy stroll in terms of language and an endnote recognises that use of 'an' and 'a' will jar with some readers. But I enjoyed it, partly because it reminded me of our own walks years ago on the Cornish coast (Goodwin is accompanied by 'the woman I love' who has a 'creaturely' connection with the animals they encounter.  It brought to mind an incident when we spotted some other walkers down on the rocks and I pompously remarked on their irresponsibility in letting a dog swim among the rough waves, only to be told by my wife that what I was looking at was a seal).  The walk from St Juliot has strong cultural associations with Thomas Hardy and his future wife Emma, 'the woman whom I loved so' as he refers to her in 'Beeny Cliff', a poem quoted within Goodwin's.  On finishing this poem a strong impression of the landscape remains: its broken black slates and white-watered zawns, its sea-pinks and samphire, steep paths, holloways, gorzy slopes and views out to sea.

Extracts from Goodwin's walk/poem appeared in Longbarrow's anthology of walking poetry, The Footing. With the exception of Goodwin this book features poets based in Sheffield and can be read as an exploration of the city's streets and rivers.  On the Longbarrow Press site you'll find sound and video clips of poets reading their work out in this landscape.  I've embedded one of them below, in which Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne are filmed in the woods and by a canal, accompanied by birdsong, the singing of leaves and a brief bit of laddish chanting from a passing boat (6 minutes in).  Harder to appreciate from a website is the high production standard of the Press's books, and also their pamphlets, like Peter Riley’s The Ascent of Kinder Scout.  The black and grey fonts in Steps look beautiful on the page and an interview with Longbarrow's Brian Lewis makes clear how much care has been taken over their layout.  In 'From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny' the text follows the poet's steps along the Cornish coast for seven kilometres, varying the pace, diverted by memories and then returning to attend to such things as the river, dotted with shadows, where water circles and light slides and rolls over 'layered pages of still slate.'

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565

According to Robert D. Denham's, Poets on Paintings: A Bibliography (2010), Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus has been the subject of at least sixty-three poems.  In addition to the well-known ones by W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, there have been others by, for example, Dannie Abse, Gottfried Benn, Allen Curnow, Michael Hamburger and Philip Whalen.  However, it is clear from this bibliography that Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow has also drawn an interesting range of writers: Williams again, John Berryman, Anne Stevenson, Walter De La Mare (and they keep coming: the new edition of Granta has one by Andrew Motion).  Berryman considers the hunters frozen at a moment in history and Stevenson imagines their moment of arrival as they 'pull / off their caked boots, curse the weather / slump down over stoups. . .'  Williams describes Bruegel's artistry, beginning matter-of-factly - 'The over-all picture is winter / icy mountains / in the background...' - and ending by noting the way he chose 'a winter-struck bush for his / foreground to / complete the picture.'  Walter De La Mare begins in ekphrasis, starting like Williams with the distant landscape: 'Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green / Wall in the wild, cold scene below'.  His poem ends on a mysterious note:
But flame, nor ice, nor piercing rock,
Nor silence, as of a frozen sea,
Nor that slant inward infinite line
Of signboard, bird, and hill, and tree,
Give more than subtle hint of him
Who squandered here life's mystery.

William Carlos Williams' Bruegel poems appeared posthumously in Pictures from Brueghel and other poems (1962).  Denham's bibliography lists other examples of poets who have written extended sequences or whole volumes devoted to painting.  Perhaps the most prominent of these is, R. S. Thomas, whose ‘Impressions’ in Between Here and Now (1981) include landscapes by Monet, Pissaro and Gauguin.  One of them is devoted to Cézanne’s The Bridge at Maincy which was featured in one of my earlier posts here.  There have also been whole books devoted to single artists, such as Turner and Monet.  Robert Fagles, best known for his translations of Homer, published one of these in 1978: I, Vincent: Poems from the Pictures of Van Gogh.

Denham has compiled a long list of individual poems but my impression on leafing through it is that relatively few of them have been about independent, unpeopled landscape paintings.  It is though unsurprising to find that writers have been more attracted to paintings suggesting drama, complexity or ambiguity - in the last century artists like Edward Hopper and Marc Chagall were common subjects.  Even in paintings where landscape dominates the composition, people exert a fascination (Czeslaw Milosz, reflecting on a painting by Salvator Rosa, writes of 'figures on the other shore tiny, and in their activities mysterious.')  Simple unadorned description of a what a painting shows is rare, although William Carlos Williams, advocate of 'no ideas but in things', does this in 'Classic Scene', recreating in words Charles Sheeler's 1931 view of the new Ford plant near Detroit.

Although Denham explicitly excludes from the book examples of reverse ekphrasis (paintings inspired by poems), the variety of poems listed invite speculation on ways of combining writing, painting and landscape.  It occurs to me that you could use a kind of algebra (which would need to allow for poets painting and painters writing poems): if, say, the combination of a poet, P, writing, w, about landscape, L, gives rise to a landscape poem, P.w(L), and, similarly, a landscape painting arises from an artist creating a landscape, A.c(L), then a poet writing about a landscape painting is P.w(A.c(L)).  Reverse ekphrasis involving a landscape poem would then be A.c(P.w(L)).  Here's an example of something more complicated.  John Hollander (whose visual poetry I have mentioned here before) wrote a poem about another Charles Sheeler painting, The Artist Looks at Nature (1943).  Sheeler's painting is a kind of landscape - there are grassy slopes and the walls of battlements - but it also contains an artist working on a canvas.  And though apparently painting from nature, his canvas depicts the interior of a studio.  Thus Hollander's poem could be represented as P.w(A.c(L+A.c(L'))).

Being thirsty,
I filled a cup with water,
And, behold!—Fuji-yama lay upon the water,
Like a dropped leaf!

This is Amy Lowell's imagist poem inspired by Hokusai's 'Hundred Views of Mt Fuji'.  Denham's book doesn't really get into the subject of Japanese or Chinese poetry about landscape painting, although he does mention Su Shi's ‘Two Poems on Guo Xi’s Autumn Mountains in Level Distance'. In Chinese art where the 'three perfections' (poetry, calligraphy, painting) are combined in one object, we are often not sure what came first: the poem or the painting.  Where artist and writer are one and the same, my algebraic distinctions would be meaningless. I will end here with part of another poem inspired by a Hokusai, 'Lightning Storm on Fuji' by Howard Nemerov.

Katsushika Hokusai, Rainstorm Beneath the Summit, c. 1830
                        ... the serene mountain rises
And falls in a clear cadence.  The snowy peak,
Where the brown foliage falls away, is white
As the sky behind it, so that line alone
Seems to be left, and the hard rock become
Limpid as water, the form engraved on glass.
There at the left, hanging in empty heaven,
A cartouche with written characters proclaims
Even to such as do not know the script
That this is art, not nature. ...

Friday, December 11, 2015

When We Came To This Shore

Following a big survey of landscape and music in 2013 and similar but shorter posts in 2012, 2011, and 2010, I highlighted just four releases this time last year.  One of these, John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, has apparently been an inspiration to Taylor Swift.  Perhaps one of these four will be up her street too?  Each illustrates the way contemporary musicians are organising albums round a landscape idea or sense of place.  Of course I could have chosen others and have deliberately excluded some musicians whose work I have discussed here before - Richard Skelton, Rob St John, Simon Scott.  Feel free to suggest others in the comments below.

I'll begin with The Thompson Fields, an album for jazz orchestra by Maria Schneider which is named after farmland on the prairie where she grew up.  The Telegraph's review explains that 'the liner notes are an indispensable part of the experience, picturing the landscape and its wildlife through Audobon’s bird paintings and photographs of country lanes that to a British viewer look remarkably familiar – until you turn the page and encounter another image, which shows this landscape is on an altogether vaster scale.'  In an interview with extracts from the music at the NPR site she describes the region's great skies and spectacular weather.  'Maria Schneider, nature poet of jazz' she is called in a Boston Globe article.  It notes that 'The Monarch and the Milkweed' was 'inspired by the delicate relationship between the title butterfly and the host environment on which it depends.'  Asked about this tune she said “I pictured each soloist as a person walking through a landscape and commenting on it.”

Another widely-praised American album drawing on memories of a specific locale was Daniel Bachman's River.  As Pitchfork's review explains, 'he is a native of the northern Virginia city of Fredericksburg, near where the Rappahannock River winds out of the Chesapeake Bay.'  The album includes two cover versions, 'Levee' by Jack Rose and an old 1928 number by William Moore. 'Though divided by nearly a century, Rose and Moore both lived in the riverine area Bachman extols here; Rose grew up in Fredericksburg, and Moore used to cross the Rappahannock for work. Bachman treats their tales with the same familiarity and fondness he treats the land and his own life there.'  Bachman writes in the record's liner notes that the Rappahanock, 'divides north and south, mountain and bay and, at one point in time, it even separated two great armies.'  In the clip below from the NPR site you can see him playing a track from the album at Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

Stefan Betke recorded seminal glitsch albums as Pole in the nineties but has been relatively quiet since.  He is now making music related to the walks he takes in the German countryside.  According to Boomkat his new album Wald 'breaks down to three movements: firstly a trio of tracks establishing and mirroring the forest's spatial intricacy via sparse, overgrowing electronics; secondly a trio of tracks focused on raw sounds - bird calls, rustling textures, woody drums and naturally discordant drones; followed by a 3rd and final section emulating nature's inherently psychedelic patterning in filigree yet barely harnessed matrices of echo, reverb and delay.'  Pitchfork think it 'may bring to mind Wolfgang Voigt's Gas project, whose foggy swirls of classical samples were inspired by the Black Forest and its role in German Romanticism. But the two artists' impressions of the woods couldn't be more different. Where Gas is either dark and claustrophobic or starlit and idyllic, Pole's Wald evokes porous thickets and branches stripped bare by the elements.' 

The other day in Somerset House I was listening to 'What Does the Sea Say?', a soundscape composed by Martyn Ware (ex-Human League) and reflecting on how many famous names from post-punk bands are now composing music inspired by the landscape.  John Foxx (once of Ultravox) is another, although he has now been working for many years in a psychogeographical vein, producing art and music on the theme of ruins and rewilding.  This year he released London Overgrown, based on an idea of London as future garden city that would incorporate The Hanging Gardens of Shoreditch, The Glades of Soho and a resurrected Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.  A collaborative work also released this year, Codex, includes tracks like 'The Pleasure Of Ruins' and 'When We Came To This Shore'.  There is an interview at Metropolis/2520 with Foxx which mentions these albums and, although it's not strictly relevant, I will end here by quoting from this his lovely description of first hearing Erik Satie:
'I heard someone play the Gymnopédies one afternoon in the old lecture room at art school.  I can still picture the instant – early summer, big open doors, the view down the marvellous avenue of trees at Avenham, and that beautiful elegant music. It is perfect minimalism, with poise and tranquillity, like distilled civilisation in a few notes and a sound. I was transfixed. it seemed to alter everything. I’ve loved piano ever since. It really is my favourite sound in the world apart from a blackbird’s song.'

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Southern Light Stations

Inspecting a tiny stereoscopic cloud study in 
Noémie Goudal's Southern Light Stations

Here's the Photographers' Gallery summary of the work on display in Noémie Goudal's Southern Light Stations exhibition.
'In Towers, large-scale follies or telescopic structures sit within vast, featureless landscapes, as if suspended between heaven and earth, while Stations depict seemingly free-floating spheres, reminiscent of celestial bodies: the sun, moon and planets. Closer investigation of the images reveals ropes, scaffolding and smoke referencing their construction. The exhibition centrepiece is an observatory-style architectural structure, offering a selection of stereoscopic cloud studies.'
Goudal has been identified as part of a group of younger photographers 'choosing to foreground the formerly ‘repressed’ aspects of the medium', i.e. the physical means and technical processes necessary to create an image. The apparatus required to keep her spheres in place comes over though as more than just a reaction to photoshop and a means of focusing attention on the actions of the artist.  It gives the Stations photographs a mysterious quality, as we wonder what purpose they serve - are they remnants of some installation or performance, or envirographic instruments of the kind imagined by the British Exploratory Land Archive? As she says in the interview embedded below, the work is partly based on early astronomers like Copernicus and the instruments they might have used.  The gallery's central observatory like-structure with its stereoscopic viewers provides a way to imagine studying the form of clouds before the invention of the telescope.

The exhibition includes one Stations photograph that takes up a whole wall.  Watching my son walking up to this it looked as if he was on a stage set, and then as if he might enter the imaginary space.  In a short essay on the artist's work Marta Gili sees her images in terms of an emptying of the landscape. 'As in the theatre of The Absurd it could be said that here nature is represented in order to be vacated, like a stage ultimately intended to be inhabited by other sets, which are in turn nothing other than masks of something that might have been or might have taken place in another time, past or future, or another place, near-at-hand or far off.'  This theatrical element is echoed by Bernard Marcelis who writes of the way Goudal has chosen to situate her constructions in caves and islands, places that are 'imbued with a certain dramaturgy, or at least are propitious to reconstructions or particular mises en scenes'.  In a third essay reprinted on the artist's website, Sebastien Montabonel and Emma Lewis relate her imagined spaces to Foucault's notion of heterotopias. 'Building a stage on which our imaginations can play out, a narrative in which we are protagonists, Goudal’s images brings us, as viewers, back to ourselves.'

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Lorca's Olive

Laurie Clark, To The Hills, 2006

A recent survey by Jeremy Cooper, Artists' Postcards: A Compendium, divides the field into ten categories (aside from promotional postcards), each of which could be illustrated with cases involving landscape imagery.

  • Artist-designed postcards - there are many examples; in an earlier post here I am holding up one that features in the book - by Francis Alÿs, a view of a flat sea with a description of the artist's journey on the reverse.  See also the postcard by Laurie Clark above.  Artists have been designing postcards since their invention.  The future Expressionist Emil Nolde earned money by designing them in the 1890s and his strangest designs were a sequence of giant faces drawn into mountain ranges.
  • Manipulated postcards - where artists overpaint or erase parts of an image; in Bridges for example Tim Davies covers over the landscape to leave their structures floating in space.  I get the impression many artists have done this privately - I've referred before to playful postcards sent to friends by Peter Lanyon and Cooper includes an example by Josef Albers in which he has overwritten an aerial view of the woods near Black Mountain College.
  • Composite postcard pieces - a fine example of an installation involving a collection of photographs is Susan Hiller's Rough Seas, which I described here at the time of her Tate exhibition.
  • Postcards in collage - John Stezaker's uncanny film star portraits with landscape postcards over their faces are a well-known example (on show at the Whitechapel recently).
  • Boxes, sets and books of postcards - among the book's examples of these kinds of work there is Carl Andre's Three Works on Land (1979), a concertina of nine black-and-white postcards documenting three land art sculptures: 'Angellipse', 'Timbering' and 'Quadrill'.
  • Postcards in mail art - this art form which emerged alongside Fluxus is obviously central to a discussion of postcards in art and the book includes many examples. Michael Leigh's The Arses of Scotland (1996) can be seen in a Lawrence Norfolk article on the Tate Archive. 
  • Postcard presses, designers and photographers - this disparate category includes the output of presses I've often referred to here, such as Coracle, Wild Hawthorn and Moschatel.  Among photographers Paul Greenleaf has dealt with landscape in projects like Correspondence (2007-9), where he re-photographed scenes from 1960s postcards.
  • Graphic postcards - Thomas A. Clark's postcard for his Moschatel Press, below, is an example of a purely textual image; the book provides another one by Peter Liversidge printed in a font that looks as if it might disappear in snow: In the bleak mid-winter months very little stirs on the North Montana Plains (2000).

 Thomas A. Clark, Anything which is understood is a postcard to yourself, 2008

  • Postcards as pictures  - lastly there is art in which postcard images are transferred into paintings, as in the photorealism of Malcolm Morley, or prints, like the Katharina Fritsch images of Essen that I've mentioned here previously.
The other artist I mentioned in that earlier post on Fritsch and postcard-based landscape art was Tacita Dean.  She is quoted in the introduction to Artists' Postcards: A Compendium: 'recently I have begun, quite unintentionally, to collect old postcards thematically.  It started with finding an attractive postcard of a frozen water fountain.  On finding the second frozen water fountain, I had begun a collection...'  Among her postcard-related works is Washington Cathedral (2002), two grids of non-identical found postcards published at different times; the cathedral was begun in 1907 and only finished in 1990 so these postcards represent a colorized dream of the yet-to-be-completed monument.  She also produced an edition of postcards linked to her film The Green Ray; I said here recently that the green flash of the setting sun is difficult to see on screen but it is visible in the postcard.   

Here is Jeremy Cooper's description (he is fond of exclamation marks) of another Tacita Dean postcard, Lorca's Olive (2007), inspired by a trip to Cadaqués, where 
'her host informed her that his grandfather used to tell of having seen the painter Salvador Dali and the poet flirting in a particular olive grove in the village!  Dean looked for the olive grove but discovered it had been destroyed by a fire, only one tree remaining.  She photographed the tree and made it into a postcard, as if from the 1920s, the time of the alleged affair, putting two coats of silver on the surface of the black-and-white photograph to give the impression of age.' 
This postcard is referred to at the end of a 2011 James Purcell review of an exhibition of personal postcards at the Federico García Lorca Foundation, curated by Martin Parr.  'The framed cards extend along the wall in an unbroken line. But look closer, and you can find the moment when Lorca’s correspondence ends. The family postcards themselves sweep on, albeit with gaps in time. No mention is made of the atrocities, grief and terror having been expressed elsewhere, privately...'  Tacita Dean's postcard, which featured in another exhibition at Lorca's house/museum in Grenada, can also be related to the writer's death.  After being killed by a Fascist militia his body was dumped among olive trees, or so it was thought.  'The postscript to the postcard: Lorca’s presumed grave was excavated in 2009, and was found to contain no bodies. To date, there is still no news of Lorca’s whereabouts.'