Friday, April 29, 2016

The Golden Island

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Nichiren going into exile on the island of Sado, 1835-6

Exile has been a spur to some of the greatest literature: would we have The Divine Comedy if Dante had not had to leave Florence and learn 'the bitter taste of others' bread'?  It could be said that the whole 'rivers-and-mountains' tradition in Chinese poetry stems from the exile of Hsieh Ling-yün in 422 to the wild southern coast.  Literary heroes from Prince Rama to Prince Genji have found themselves sent into exile.  Just recently I was looking round the National Gallery's Delacroix exhibition which includes his painting Ovid Among the Scythians.  Beyond the small group coming to the aid of the poet, there is a dark, inhospitable landscape.  The banishment of a writer like Ovid can evolve into a kind of legend itself, the historical facts having become lost to us.  Here I want to write about the exile of Zeami Matokiyo, banished in 1434 at the advanced age of seventy-one by the shogun for reasons that are also no longer fully clear.  He was sent to the island of Sado, a place that already had a long history as a place of banishment - the great Buddhist monk Nichiren, for example, was exiled there in 1271.  Zeami is famous for in the West for his Noh plays and writings on aesthetics, but 'The Book of the Golden Island' (Kintosho, 1436), which describes his journey to Sado, deserves to be better known.

Arthur Waley, in his anthology The Nō Plays of Japan, wrote that Zeami's Kintosho 'bears the same relation to his plays that Basho's prose-sketches bear to his hokku.'  It is shorter than Basho's travel sketches, only fourteen pages in the translation Susan Matisoff published in the Winter 1977 edition of Monumenta Nipponica, and structured in eight sections.

Jakushu: Leaving the capital, Zeami reaches the port of Obama where he looks across the bay to the mountains.  He had visited this place before, many years ago, but now his memories of it are uncertain.  

Sea Route: His boat sets sail across the northern sea to Sado.  Far to the east, the mountain of Shirayama (now called Hakusan) is visible, wit hits lingering snow patches.  Other landmarks are sighted as the boat travels day and night.  Finally, he sees pine trees amid dawn waves: Sado.

Plaec of Exile: Zeami makes his way inland and stays at a small temple where water trickles through moss and the walls are damp and weathered.  He looks at the moon, a lingering connection to the capital for it can be seen from there too.

Hototogisu: This section contains a story that Arthur Waley translatedThe hototogisu (Japanese cuckoo) can be heard everywhere on Sado but at a certain shrine.  Minister Tamekane, exiled to Sado, had composed a poem there asking the singing birds to leave because they reminded him of Kyoto.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Hototogisu, mid-nineteenth century
Images source: Wikimedia Commons

Izumi: At this place in Sado Zeami is reminded of another exile, Emperor Juntoka, whose poetry he quotes.  Juntoka lived with the pure heart of a lotus and at Izumi 'must have walked the refreshing path', the road to the Pure Land paradise.

Ten Shrines: Time passes: autumn, winter, and in the spring of 1435, Zeami composes a poem to the gods of the Ten Shrines.

Northern Mountain: Zeami meets a man who tells him of this golden island's origins.  Here on the highest peak the 'light of the moon of Buddha's nirvana' has shone unceasingly.  Zeami comes to accept that he must live for a time this unsettled life of clouds and water.'

Firelight Ceremony: The last section of the Kintosho focuses on the traditional ceremony marking the beginning of the cycle of the seasons.  It concludes with these beautiful lines:
'Look on these words,
The plover tracks
Of one left on the Golden Island,
To last as a sign, unweathered,
For future generations.'

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Black World

I did a post here back in 2010 about Trevor Paglen, the artist-geographer who has explored the 'black world' of US military and intelligence agencies.  I focused then on his 'limit telephotography' in which restricted landscapes, cut-off and unseeable with the naked eye, can be glimpsed using high-powered telescopes.  Today I popped into an excellent small exhibition of his work to coincide with the Deutsche Börse prize (like the exhibition of Richard Mosse photographs I described here two years ago).  Three exhibits of particular interest from a landscape perspective:
  • They Watch the Moon (2010), which you can see above in the window of the Photographers Gallery, is a beautiful vista of hills completely covered in rich green vegetation.  At their centre, a constellation of artificial lights and the dishes of telescopes arranged in a circle like orbiting moons.  In an essay on Paglen's work, 'Visiting the Planetarium: Images of the Black World', Brian Holmes has written of this photograph that whilst we may see in it something grand, an image of the cosmic relation of earth and sky, in fact 'the radio telescope depicted is devoted to banalities: it picks up stray cell-phone conversations bouncing off the lunar surface from halfway around the globe.'
  • Untitled (Reaper Drone) 2010, is just as visually stunning: a late-Turner swirl of yellow light - the desert sky near Las Vegas - and caught in the image the tiny silhouette of military drone.  This series of photographs, the curators explain, are achieved with a large-format camera trained on the sky: 'when the film is developed, small insect-like drones are peppered throughout the images.'  There is another, Untitled (Predators), not in the exhibition, which could be a high cirrus sky over Suffolk - an ominous contemporary version of Constable's cloud studies.
  • NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Marseilles, France (2015) partly comprises another large-scale landscape photograph, juxtaposed with a nautical map onto which various diagrams and images have been pinned like the visual prompts on a crime investigation board.  The view of rocky islands in the bay of Marseilles inevitably brings to mind The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel that features surveillance, secret locations, political plots and, here where the NSA-tapped cable came ashore, the fortress prison where the novel's hero is cut off from all communication with the outside world. 

Paul Cézanne, The Bay of Marseilles from L'Estaque, c. 1885
(a postcard of this painting is one of the items Paglen has attached to the map of Marseilles)

Having written this I see that the Photographers Gallery have just today posted an interview with Paglen on their website.  In this clip, embedded here, he talks in front of the map of Marseille about the way his work aims to make visitors look at the world more closely and more suspiciously.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Composing in the Wilderness

This week I thought I would highlight a website called Landscape Music and the associated Landscape Music Composers Network.  They are run by a Brooklyn-based artist and composer, Nell Shaw Cohen, who writes of having tried 'to achieve the sonic equivalent of what visual artists accomplish with landscape art. I coined the term “Landscape Music” to communicate this ideal and philosophy.'  Among the projects on her CV is an app, Explore John Muir’s Yosemite.  Looking through the biographies of the Network composers on her site it becomes clear that California, the American National Parks and John Muir are recurring interests.  The soundcloud above, for example, is Jenni Brandon's The Sequoia Trio, 'inspired by the Big Trees in Sequoia National Park and the words of John Muir'. 

In this video clip you can see Rachel Panitch, another of the Network composers, playing the fiddle in Zion National Park.  The film also provides an insight into the way the National Parks' artist-in-residence programmes facilitate this kind of work.  Such schemes are welcome and it will be interesting to see what kind of music they give rise to in future.  I can't help thinking though that the way the park authorities pay for an artist to reside in a cabin is a little reminiscent of the way wealthy eighteenth-century landowners employed hermits to occupy huts on their estates.  These hermits would sometimes have to make themselves available to speak to visitors, just as the modern artist in residence needs to give occasional talks or performances.  One composer, Stephen Lias, has been taking advantage of several of these residencies to build up a body of work that responds to the parks' rivers, forests, mountains and storms.  Some of this music has been collected on a CD, Encounters.

Stephen Lias calls himself an 'adventurer-composer' and some of his research sounds quite arduous.  For the Gates of the Arctic National Park residency he was required to prove his fitness beforehand on a 10-day backcountry patrol.  He has led a regular field seminar with other composers in Alaska, 'Composing in the Wilderness'.  Its website advises applicants that they'll have to make do with pen and paper (no electricity) and notes that 'it is important that all participants are comfortable “roughing it” in close quarters for a few days.' Another Network composer, Justin Ralls has described being a participant on the first of these trips, reflecting on his need to get away from city life and wondering to what extent he was being a 'creative tourist' in the wilds of Alaska.  It would be easy to find historical precedents for this kind of activity too in the Romantic period.  Nowadays, wilderness expeditions organised for the benefit of artists are an alternative to the residency model - I have referred here more than once to the Cape Farewell trips which included composers and sound artist like Jarvis Cocker and Max Eastley.

John Muir & Theodore Roosevelt above Yosemite Valley, California.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it came to making a work about Yosemite, Range Light, Stephen Lias chose to work from photographs by Ansel Adams rather than his own direct experiences of the National Park.  Justin Ralls has written an environmental chamber opera, Two Yosemites, about the famous camping trip that President Theodore Roosevelt took with John Muir.  His Tree Ride, for orchestra, was 'inspired by Muir, backpacking, and listening to the breath of the world in California.'  He has also composed a string quartet, Tree Wavings, which derives from a beautiful passage in John Muir's The Mountains of California.
“We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travellers in an ordinary sense. They make little journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journey, away and back again, are little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.”

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Henri Le Sidaner, The Quay: View of the Quai Long in Bruges, 1898
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When landscape reflects the emotions of a fictional character it is usually through some mood of the weather, but sometimes there is a more profound connection, when a location is sought out because it resonates deeply with a particular state of mind.  This is the case in Bruges-la-Morte (1892), the short Symbolist novel by Georges Rodenbach, whose bereaved hero finds solace in the melancholy streets of the old medieval city.  Bruges, Rodenbach says in his preface, 'establishes a powerful influence over all who stay there.  It moulds them through its monuments and its bells.'  In an essay he published three years earlier, The Death Throes of Towns, (included in the Dedalus edition I am quoting here), Rodenbach decribed the city as stricken by a kind of consumption.  The cause of this was the silting up of the waterway linking Bruges to the sea, isolating it economically and leading to its slow decline.  The essay ends with a memorable passage in which the city's mute pain mirrors that of a troubled soul.  In Bruges,
'one gradually submits to the creeping counsel of the stones, and I imagine that a soul, bleeding from some recent, cruel sorrow, that had walked amidst this silence, would leave that place accepting the order of things - not to live any longer - and, beside the neighbouring lake, sense what those gravediggers of Shakespeare said of Ophelia: it is not she who goes to the waters, but the water which comes to meet her grief.'  (Translated by Will Stone.)
Fernand Khnopff, Book Cover Design for 'Bruges-la-Morte', unknown date
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A 2005 article in Frieze describes Rodenbach's use of photographs in Bruges-la-Morte, which could be seen as prefiguring Andre Breton's Nadja and the writings of W. G. Sebald.  
'The images were taken from the picturesque local stock of prints and postcards sold to tourists; they picture a city almost wholly uninhabited. Occasionally, minute figures in the distance have even been excised, so that these photographs, in 1892, are already outdated, resembling daguerreotype city views of half a century earlier, with their vanished or blurred citizens.
'For the most part these photographs of deserted squares, looming bell-towers and impassive façades have been left out of subsequent editions of Rodenbach’s novel, as though they added a touch of distracting realism to his dreamlike narrative. The opposite, in fact, is the case: where the story merely reflects the lurid expectations of the writer’s Parisian audience, the photographs reveal an act of grand deception — the Bruges they depict is in many places an architectural concoction of the 19th century, a renovation further finessed by the photographers’ choosing to leave out the incidental evidence of modern life. In an inexplicable twist to this tale of trompe-l’oeil medievalism the latest edition of the book, from Dedalus Press, has replaced the original images with 23 new photographs taken by the translator: once again the ‘real’ town has been carefully cropped out.'

Photograph in the 1892 edition of Bruges-la-Morte
This and others can be seen at Wikimedia Commons

I have been looking back at some old photographs I took in Bruges almost exactly a century after the book's publication, but even with some careful cropping I don't think they would convey a sense of melancholy (I should have risen earlier perhaps, before the tourists, when the streets were empty and autumn mist still hung over the motionless canals).  A modified version of Bruges is the basis for one of the most remarkable images drawn under the influence of Rodenbach, Fernand Khnopff's The Abandoned Town (1904).  Here too there is an absence of people and even the statue is missing, leaving just an empty plinth.  An incoming tide is starting to cover the stones of the Woensdagmarkt.  Instead of having been separated from the sea, the city here looks as if it is being flooded and abandoned to the waters.

Fernand Khnopff, The abandoned city, 1904
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frances Fowle's essay 'Silent Cities', in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, describes Rodenbach's influence on artists like Khnopff and Henri Le Sidaner (called the Rodenbach of painting by one critic).  Knopff, she says, 'spent part of his childhood in Bruges, which he described as 'truly a dead city, unfrequented by visitors'.  As an adult he allegedly wore opaque dark glasses while travelling through the city, so as not to confuse his memory with modern reality.'  She notes however, that visitors had been drawn to Bruges before Rodenbach, including Holman Hunt and Rossetti, whose poem 'On Leaving Bruges' describes its grey towers under a sunless sky.  Baudelaire too had been there and called it a 'ghost town, a mummified place that smelled of death and the Middle Ages.'

After Rodenbach, more writers of 'dead-city-prose' emerged (a type of writing it would be interesting to trace forwards and backwards from this Symbolist moment).  Will Stone mentions Camille Lemonnier and Franz Hellens, whose En Ville Morte (1906), written about Ghent, 'gives the impression that the town is literally decomposing'  Other more recent writings can be linked to Bruges-la-Morte: there is a website, Villes Mortes, which provides a list works that provide context for Rodenbach's novel.  The book has also featured on two excellent blogs which have stimulated my reading over the years: Writers No One Reads and Vertigo.  And, finally, while I'm on further reading, see also the Preface to the 2005 Dedalus edition, written by Alan Hollinghurst, which The Guardian reprinted. As Nicholas Lezard pointed out in his review of the book, Hollinghurst's own '1994 novel The Folding Star is itself a homage to Bruges-la-Morte.'

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Light on the reservoir

I have not yet read any obituaries in the national media for David Blackburn, whose passing was reported last month in the Huddersfield Examiner.  This may just be a matter of time, although perhaps he is not as well known now as he once was.  There has always been a sense that he was swimming against the main currents of contemporary art, with his visionary abstract landscapes executed in pastel.  Perhaps the praise he received from Kenneth Clark whilst still a student didn't help in this respect, although a quote still appears on the front page of the artist's website. Writing in 1990, Malcolm Yorke pointed out that though Blackburn had achieved a strong international following, he had not 'courted the fickle attentions of the London galleries.'  I used to see small exhibitions of his work at the Hart Gallery, a little oasis among the crowds on Upper Street in Islington (now closed, and recently in the local news when squatters took over the premises).  More recently he has been represented by Messum's, who in 2005 made the hour-long documentary David Blackburn Landscapes of the Mind.  This includes contributions from another famous son of Huddersfield, Simon Armitage, as you can see from the slightly unfortunate thumbnail image below, where he is caught in mid-gesticulation.

Although the Hart Gallery was much more welcoming than a West End gallery, the paintings on sale were sadly beyond my means.  I recall wondering though whether the rich colours that draw you into Blackburn's images might eventually start to pall.  What did intrigue me was the way both individual pictures and composite works were constructed.  Sometimes he would mount a set of landscape studies to form a composite vision of a place, where each view remains ambiguous, poised between abstraction and the actual forms of trees, mountains, bodies of water.  Malcolm Yorke likened these grids to film stills or the panels on an altarpiece.  In this article (published in Modern Painters) he described the process of exploring a David Blackburn picture:
'A landscape can appear domesticated until you notice the tiny sun-dot in the sky, which suddenly throws the scale switch and the fields become vast as prairies.  On the other hand gross, misshapen, orange suns have recently begun to overwhelm the skylines of the hills they are supposed to set behind.  Blue stands for both sky and water, and, since we have no clouds or waves or reflections to guide us here, we might be disconcerted to find that it is water occupying the top third of the picture, not sky.  We must remember the artist's fondness for flying and take off with him.'
These ambiguities appeal to Simon Armitage, who (unlike me) does own some David Blackburns and talks about them in the film I have embedded above. One of these pictures had seemed to him to be an aerial view of fields, but, as he says in the film, "a few months ago I was driving back, not far from David's actually, near Blackmoorfoot Reservoir, almost on eye level with the reservoir, and it was something to do with the light in the evening, on the top of the reservoir, that made me realise that that could well be what's happening in the picture." And so the image changed into a vision of water.  This mutable quality is what Kenneth Clark identified as the essence of David Blackburn's art:
'People ask: What is his work like? I don’t know any artist to whom I can compare him. He is not a landscape painter, not an abstractionist in the ordinary sense of the word. He is a painter of metamorphosis.'

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The ink dark moon

I read in the New York Review recently of another new translation of Murasaki's The Tale of Genji and recalled that it is not that long ago that The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon was reissued in a new version by Penguin Classics.  Strange then that their great contemporary Izumi Shikibu (c. 974-c. 1034) remains relatively unpublished and neglected in comparison.  However, anyone curious about her poetry can find a rewarding set of translations made in the late eighties and published in 1990 by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani.  Their book, The Ink Dark Moon also contains a selection of earlier poetry by Ono no Komachi (c. 834-?), the only woman writer included among the 'Six Poetic Geniuses' of Japan by Ki no Tsurayuki, writing in the Preface to the Kokinshū, c. 905.

It is a bit of a stretch to make a connection between The Ink Dark Moon's short love poems and themes of landscape, although both writers' inner emotions find their objective correlatives in the sounds, scents and colours of nature.  In one of her poems Ono no Komachi, picturing the evergreen pine trees of Tokiwa Mountain, wonders whether they recognise the coming of autumn in the sound of the blowing wind.  Izumi Shikibu observes that pine trees may keep their original colour, but everything that is green looks different in spring.  As Jane Hirshfield says in her notes, it is interesting to see in these examples the different use made of the idea of unchanging evergreen trees.  Many Japanese poems feature this trope, although it is not actually true that pine trees retain their colour, since the older needles turn brown and fall to the ground.  Edwin A. Cranston mentions this in his note on a poem in the second of his monumental waka anthologies, in which a sad lover sees that 'even the treetops of the pines' are changing colour.  'The possibility of paradox is not lightly to be dismissed from poetry - or from considerations of the workings of the human heart.'

In Jane Hirshfield's own poetry written over the decades since The Ink Dark Moon she has occasionally written about Japanese and Chinese culture.  'Recalling a Sung Dynasty Landscape', for example, describes moonlit mountains and a solitary thatched hut, a place to rest the eye.  She concludes that
... the heart, unscrolled,
is comforted by such small things:
a cup of green tea rescues us, grows deep and large, a lake.
In other poetry the influence of studying writers like Izumi comes through in the metaphors she uses.  There is, for example, a poem in her collection The Beauty on 'The landscape by Dürer / of a dandelion amid grasses' (the painting appears on the cover of he Bloodaxe edition).  In this she sees 'exiles / writing letters / sent over the mountains' - the exiles are the flowers and their messengers the passing horses and donkeys.

There are two Jane Hirshfield poems in the Bloodaxe ecopoetry anthology Earth Shattering - one of which 'Global Warming' is particularly striking (you can Google it but as ever I'm trying to adhere to fair-use copyright rules here).  The clip below is a short talk on ecopoetics that she delivered in 2013.  It traces environmental attitudes in literature from Gilgamesh cutting down the cedar forest, to Gary Snyder, whose haibun series 'Dust in the Wind' achieves a balance between the human and natural worlds.  Hirshfield wrote a beautiful poem herself in haibun form (prose:haiku) which can be found in the collection Come, Thief.  It describes walks over the course of a summer in which she sees an old man building a boat until, 'finally, today, it is being painted: a clear Baltic blue.'  This boat, at rest on its wooden cradle, resembles a horse waiting in a stable.  She thinks of the way horses dream and of the hopes of the old man.  The brief concluding poem is simply the image of that blue boat, high on a mountain among the summer trees.