Sunday, May 29, 2016

Throwing Plastic Balls into the Bořín Pond

I have written here before about the connection between land art and The Velvet Underground: Walter de Maria, best known for his Lightning Field, was briefly in an early version of the group.  However there is also a connection between land art and The Plastic People of the Universe, the Prague band who modelled themselves on the Velvets and subsequently went down in history for their role in inspiring Charter 77 and thus, indirectly, the Velvet Revolution.  In 1969, members of the newly formed group took part in an action by Zorka Ságlová, Throwing Plastic Balls into the Bořín Pond in Průhonice.   Ivan Jirous, the art critic who managed the Plastics (a similar role to Andy Warhol in relation to The Velvet Underground) wrote that Ságlová had, with this work, 'joined the growing tendency in contemporary fine art when the artists leave their studios in order to dig ditches in the Nevada Desert, to create configurations of grass turfs, to draw half mile long parallel lines on the desert plateau, ragged with heat' (Nadezda Blazickova-Horova ed., Landscape in Czech Art).  Ságlová had already been involved in the music scene, making costumes for The Primitive Group, another VU-influenced psychedelic rock band (we really need Julian Cope to write Czechrocksampler as their Wikipedia entry is just 'a stub').  Members of The Primitive Group were also on hand that day to throw some balls into Bořín Pond.

Zorka Ságlová made three more works that can be aligned with land art, bringing hay inside a gallery, lighting nineteen bonfires on a snowy plain and laying napkins at a site associated with the Hussite wars.  She was by no means the only Czechoslovakian land artist active in the early seventies.  In April 1974 Jan Mlčoch climbed the Kotel Mountain in 'foul weather' and took some photographs, in an action reminiscent of Hamish Fulton.  In contrast to Mlčoch's brief engagement with landcape, Miloš Šejn has built up an impressively diverse body of work since the late sixties addressing the interface between nature and the body through performance, installation and photography.  And finally there was Petr Štembera, whose early work like Line in the Snow and Painting the Stones (both 1971) treated the environment as a kind of canvass.  In Large Pool (1970) he had gone to an island of the Vltava and shaped two sides of a rain puddle into the sides of a triangle, only to see his intervention washed away by the rain.  As the Kontact site explains, 'later pieces dealt with the relationship between the human body and a natural entity, such as Grafting (1975) when Štembera grafted a bush sprig into his arm in a way common in arboriculture, or in Sleeping in a tree (1975) when, after three sleepless nights, he spent the fourth night in a tree.'

Miloš Šejn, Zelený muž (Green Man), 2003
Photograph: Sejn

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reed writing

Sesonji Koreyuki, Wakan rōeishū Anthology, 1160

Ashide, reed writing, developed in the Heian dynasty as a form of calligraphy written in such a way as to imitate natural forms: reeds, rivers, trees.  By the twelfth century they were being written over actual landscape paintings, creating a hybrid form.  There is an example dating from 1160 in the Kyoto National Museum by Sesonji Koreyuki (or Fujiwara no Koreyuki), Poems from Wakan Roeishu'As the line of characters crosses the drawn-out contours of the image, it transforms into sprouting grasses and cranes standing along what might be a riverine strand' (Thomas LaMarre, Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaelogy of Sensation and Inscription). Landscape is depicted in the overall image and text, but also registered at different levels of magnitude in the shapes and sounds of the individual words.  This artwork opens up the possibility that calligraphy can itself evoke elements of the setting and atmosphere, like a film soundtrack, whilst words and pictures tell the story.

If calligraphy were to take on too many of the attributes of landscape painting it would lose its status as an artform.  The point is made by Stephen Addiss in relation to the first piece in his book 77 Dances: Japanese Calligraphy by Poets, Monks and Scholars, 1568-1868.  This poem, a detail of which is shown here, was written by Emperor Goyozei (1571-1617).  The most heavily inked characters mean big well river and the next most visually stressed character means snow. ‘Even a quick viewing therefore reveals the main theme of the poem: the Ōi River in snow.’ And although this is not an example of reed writing, since its symbols do not have a dual role as words and image, the paper itself provides a subtle link to its subject matter:
‘The primary pattern on the paper is that of waves, sometimes almost still and sometimes curving, with a secondary element of reeds appearing several times. Near the top, however, a heavier undulating line in blue suggests possible islands in the river or perhaps even the nest of reeds covered with snow. If the latter, it is done in a semi abstract manner, since too much visual correspondence with the poem might be considered vulgar by refined court aesthetes.’
 Vincent Van Gogh, Marsh with Water Lilies, 1881

From a Western perspective the idea of 'reed writing' evokes the idea of the reed pen, used in landscape art by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. In 1888 Van Gogh wrote to tell his brother "These drawings are done with a reed cut the same way as you’d cut a goose quill. I plan to do a series like that. And I hope to do better than the first two. It’s a process I already tried in Holland in the past, but I didn’t have as good reeds there as here."  I have mentioned his use of a reed pen before in relation to an 1881 drawing of the marsh at Passievaart.  And I'll end here by quoting Robert Hughes on the way Van Gogh used his reeds to draw stems of grass in a style that approached calligraphy.
'The reed was not flexible, like other pens. Nor did it hold a lot of ink, so it would not produce long, sinuous lines. The style it favoured was short, blunt, angular and (in a limited way) calligraphic. In some drawings you can see Van Gogh brilliantly exploiting the limitations of the reed. He draws a tuft of grass, for instance, as five or six springing, more or less parallel strokes. The first one is heavy with ink. The next, less so. By the fourth or fifth, the reed is almost empty and the ink strokes faint. This creates the impression of a round tussock, rendered not as flat pattern, but turned towards the light. Then he dips his reed in the ink bottle, recharges it and begins again, on a different clump of grass.'

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss

It's that time of the year when the National Gallery starts to seem humid and crowded, but take the stairs down to Level 0 and you find yourself almost alone. I had Room C to myself yesterday and was able to have a good look at the Gallery’s two newest acquisitions, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827) by Johan Christian Dahl and At Handeck (c1860) by Alexandre Calame.  Neither are as immediately striking as the Calame on loan hanging next door, Chalets at Rigi, with its bright Alpine sunlight and misty purple distances, but after a while I started to appreciate Dahl's Norwegian landscape, painted after a trip he made back to the country of his birth in 1826.  Dahl left Norway originally in 1811 to study in Copenhagen and there is a letter he wrote there in which he says ‘first and foremost I study nature – a pity there are no cliffs and water here, but then one has to make do with the water fountain.’  It must have been a relief to head back north and sketch a real cataract, although in this painting Dahl, characteristically, does not try to make it appear too spectacular.  The falls are just one part of a wider landscape of dark slopes and trees under a wintry sky. 

The new wall text for The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss notes that this location is now the site of a hydroelectric power station.  Reading this I imagined curating a whole exhibition of paintings of rivers that were subsequently tapped for their hydroelectric power - images of the Romantic sublime that could only now be depicted in terms of the industrial sublime.  In providing this information for the visitor, the Gallery turns the painting into a kind of an environmental art work.  But Dahl was not painting a pristine wilderness.  The foreground is strewn with tree trunks that are too large to have been felled by the river.  They were the product of a lumbering operation were logs were thrown into the river and then collected downstream.  Thus the forest trees and running water depicted in this painting were already being treated as a 'standing reserve' for technological exploitation when Johan Christian Dahl passed this way, nearly two centuries ago.

Johan Christian Dahl, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss, 1827

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Shiogama Bay

To Kings Place last night for Yugen – the mysterious elegance of classical Noh, part of the Noh Reimagined weekend.  It featured Yukihiro Isso on nohkan flute along with five other artists designated by the Japanese government as Important Intangible Cultural Assets: two actors from the Kanze school of Noh and three drummers.  Yukihiro has combined his career in classical Noh with improvisation - as you can hear in the recent Cafe Oto performance embedded above - and has worked with people like Cecil Taylor, John Zorn and Peter Brötzmann.  He represents the 15th generation of a family of Noh musicians and his collection of flutes includes heirlooms that are five hundred years old.  The concert yesterday ended with music and dance from the play Tōru by Zeami (c. 1363 – c. 1443), whose account of his exile on the island of Sado was the subject of a post here last month.  Here is the story of the play, based partly on the synopsis available on the Noh Plays Database.
On an autumn evening a monk visiting Kyoto comes to a mansion, where he meets an old man who is carrying buckets of brine on a pole, even though this place is far from the sea.  The curious monk is told that this mansion used to belong to Minamoto no Tōru.  Long ago he had built here a replica of the scenery of Shiogama, a place renowned for its saltwater bay.  Tōru requested that people carry brine every day from Naniwa to fill the lake.  He let people bake sea salt in his garden until his death.  Afterwards the mansion became deserted.
The monk and the old man talk about the mountains of Kyoto and the exquisite harvest moon.  The old man disappears and the monk realises that he must have been the ghost of Minister Tōru.  The monk goes to sleep and in his dream the ghost of Minister Tōru returns, appearing now as he did when he lived in this mansion.  Illuminated in the moonlight, he dances to elegant music whilst recalling his beautiful home with its replica of the saltwater bay.  At dawn, Tōru returns to the capital of the moon.
It was this this last dance that we saw, with the shite (main role actor) Masaki Umano gliding slowly round the stage, dressed in a shade of pale blue that suggested the view over a saltwater bay, while behind him the flute and drums traced the course of Tōru's remembrances.  As I watched, I thought about landscape and memory: the Minister compelled in life to build a replica of a place he had loved, returning from death to try to keep alive this simulacrum and then transformed from an old salt carrier to the nobleman he had once been. 

Zeami's play (which I have referred to here before) draws on a story that has its origins in a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, who visited this mansion shortly after the death of Minamoto no Tōru in 895.  Tsurayuki's poem refers to the lonely beach and vanished smoke of Shiogama, as if he were looking at the real bay instead of its replica.  Tōru's death is alluded to in the image of smoke that no longer emanates from the salt fires tended by his servants.  It was said that Tōru had ocean fish and crustaceans living in his lake.  The real Shiogama Bay (now a harbour for Shiogama City) was a renowned beauty spot (Matsushima Bay, as the wider area is known, with its rocky islands rising out of the sea, is one of the Three Views of Japan).  Shiogama was, according to legend, the first place in Japan where salt was extracted by boiling sea water.  In The Art of Japanese Gardens (1940), Loraine E. Kuck speculated that Tōru may have originally seen Shiogama on an expedition to what was then the country's northern frontiers, where Ainu tribes were still fighting the advance of the Japanese.  Back in Kyoto at his villa on the banks of the Kamo, while his servants boiled salt on the edge of his lake, Tōru could 'sit and watch the ever-changing flutter of the smoke banner across the sky and romantically imagine himself far away in the picturesque north country.'

Kikuchi Yosai, Minamoto no Tōru, 19th century

Friday, May 06, 2016

Forest, Field & Sky

A programme about art in the landscape can currently be seen on the BBC iPlayer: Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature.  It is presented by Dr James Fox, who sets out his ambitions at the beginning of the programme: "I'll trek through forests and fields, around gorgeous gardens and to the very edges of our island and I'll gaze afresh at the skies above.  What I find will I hope change the way we think about the landscape and it might just change your view of modern art."  As this opening indicates, the programme was not written as a critical appraisal of British land art - it is more of an introduction for nature lovers who have a passing interest in art.  Nevertheless I found it an enjoyable hour's TV, well worth watching.

I'm afraid that what will remain most prominently in my memory is the moment (22 minutes in) when Andy Goldsworthy, having all but completed a stack of stones balanced laboriously against an old tree trunk, sees them overbalance and come crashing down.  There are no expletives, just a moment of sad resignation with bowed head, then a slow climb down his ladder.  After the broadcast, on Twitter, @doctorjamesfox revealed that this Sisyphean labour was in fact eventually completed, at the sixth attempt.  In addition to Goldsworthy the programme features four other famous names - David Nash, Richard Long, Charles Jencks and James Turrell - plus an artist whose work I had not seen before, Julie Brook.  In the early nineties she spent two years living in a cave on the island of Jura, abandoning painting in favour of making constructions called fire stacks.  Fox encounters her on a remote beach on the island of Lewis where she has been building one of these Goldsworthy-like circular structures at low tide, filling it with wood and seaweed to be set alight.  As the water rises and the sun goes down, the fire burns and the light of the flames flickers on the waves.

Ash Dome is a work of much longer duration.  David Nash tells James Fox that clips of him working on it over the years show the sculpture gradually growing while he just gets older (Fox tells us he wasn't even born when Nash planted the saplings in 1977).  The programme then moves on to Richard Long, shown only in archive footage; Fox gamely retraces his 1968 ten-mile straight-line walk across Exmoor - tough going but a lot shorter than some of Long's subsequent walks.  After a digression on eighteenth century landscaping at Stourhead, which brought back pleasant memories of my visit there a couple of years ago, Fox is shown round Jencks's Garden of Cosmic Speculation.  Finally he visits Turrell's Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and sits inside, gazing up at the blue aperture of sky as it slowly darkens.  He says that art like this teaches us patience, although in the programme's speeded up footage, night encroaches in a matter seconds.  It is a reminder perhaps of the central message of the film: that this art is about experience that can only be found away from our screens, outside in the landscape.