Tuesday, January 31, 2017

An ancient earthworks project

In his book Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, Alexander Nagel writes about the way ideas and practises associated with relics, chapels, mosaics and other pre-modern art forms informed twentieth century artists and critics.  One of the artists he discusses is Robert Smithson, whose Non-Sites installation at the seminal New York Earthworks exhibition in 1968 consisted of containers full of rocks that Smithson had collected on a trip to Franklin, New Jersey with Nancy Holt and Michael Heizer.  Bringing stones back from significant landscapes was what Christian pilgrims did - the box shown below contains an assemblage of such precious fragments, each labelled with its location in Greek.  Nagel doesn't mention Richard Long, but he too brings back stones, or photographs of stones, as indexical signs of the walks he makes, walks that have aspects of both ritual and pilgrimage.

Box with stone and woods from sites in the Holy Land, 6th century
In the Vatican Museum
Source: Image linked to a review in the LARB 

The stones in this box are small relics of sacred sites, but Nagel describes a more ambitious attempt to bring a holy landscape back to Europe.
'Throughout the Middle Ages there was a site that was popularly known as "Jerusalem", despite the fact that it was located in Rome.  It is a chapel in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme ... where Saint Helena (c. 246/50-330) placed the relics she had brought back from the Holy Land.  The chapel came to be known as "Jerusalem" not only because it housed relics from there, most important among them fragments of the cross of the Crucifixion, but because Helena had also transported, with great effort, soil from the site of the Crucifixion "soaked with the blood of Christ," which she then laid into the floor of her chapel.  An ancient earthworks project, this site was a piece of transported territory, a bit of Jerusalem reinstalled in Rome.'
Corrado Giaquinto, The Virgin presents St Helena and Constantine to the Trinity (detail), 1744
Ceiling painting in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

One of the interesting aspects of this earth floor is that it was not an attempt to recreate a sacred landscape - as was done, for example, in the garden built by Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong which I wrote about here last year.  The earth Saint Helena had transported was not framed or sculpted into something, but simply laid out in a formless way on the ground, sufficient in itself as a sample of the prime loca sancta.  The chapel itself is interesting too, in that it predates the cathedral and was originally simply part of a private residence where the relics were held - Nagel draws a comparison with Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau.  I'll end here with a miniature by Jan Van Eyck which shows earth being turned over to uncover the cross while Saint Helena looks on.  This location doesn't resemble the landscape round Jerusalem - it is more like the kind of field familiar to the painter in Flanders.  Writing this I am reminded that bags of earth were brought across the Channel for the Flanders Fields 1914-2014 Memorial Garden at Wellington Barracks.  There is an article about this event in the Daily Express: 'Sacred soil from Flanders fields arrives for war memorial.'

Jan Van Eyck, Discovery of the True Cross, 1422-4
From the Tres Belles Heures de Notre-Dame

Friday, January 27, 2017

Rose, open door of the year

The fourth volume of the journal Reliquiae is now available.  I have referred here in previous posts to authors included in earlier editions: Hans Henny Jahnn, and Étienne Pivert de Senancour.  This time I was particularly keen to read some new translations by Tess Lewis from the journals of Philippe Jaccottet, the Swiss poet I wrote about here back in 2009.  That post gave some brief notes on Jaccottet's ideas about landscape, based on Mark Traherne's introduction to the Bloodaxe volume, Under Clouded Skies / Beauregard.  Traherne quotes an entry in Jaccottet's notebook selection La Semaison ('Seedtime') for 1966 which could be a description of the pleasures of a volume like Reliquiae: 'The ideal book is in fact several books, by different authors, each one capable of dealing only with certain aspects, writing only certain pages.'

Intertextual dialogue with other other writing is, for Traherne, a particularly rich element of Jaccottet's writing.  You can see this in the selections from La Seconde Semaison included in Reliquiae, where Jaccottet mentions Mallarmé and Petrarch and quotes Yeats and Silesius ('God is the green of the fields').  After Jaccottet, in a nice anthology juxtaposition, there are four brief poems by Silesius, translated by Paul Carus in 1909.  Here's my favourite:  
Rain rains not for itself,
Nor to himself adorn
Shineth the sun; so thou
Not for thyself art born.
The German mystical writer Angelus Silesius (c. 1624-77) was an influence on Jorge Luis Borges, who once ended a lecture on the nature of poetry by saying that everything he had said could be summarised in the line, 'Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet' - 'The rose is without 'why'; it blooms simply because it blooms.'  Borges used the symbol of a rose in a moving poem on blindness, 'The Unending Rose', which closes my old Penguin edition of The Book of Sand.  Jaccottet often uses the French adjective/noun 'rose' - see for example Helen Constantine's translation of a poem on a mountain landscape from his collection Cahier de Verdure ('Rose, sudden as a rose / appearing in the cold season ... Rose, open door of the year').

The Reliquiae selection from Jaccottet begins with a description of the colours of a summer evening ('une bande rose persiste au-dessus de l'horizon gris-bleu').  Just before night descends, the light resembles pink dust ('une poussière rose').  Colours fade, a nightjar begins to hunt, a cold white moon shines at the roofline and the first star in the east is visible: 'it, too, is crackling, icy.'  Six months later, in an entry for January 1981, Jaccottet compares poetic images to doors that seem to open: a nightjar's flight, an invisible stream, or 'the dog rose, which surprised me each time I saw it.  Its branches formed an arch under which one is tempted to pass, as if to enter a different space while nonetheless aware that it was, in a sense, not 'real'.'  All art, he concludes, is of this order, 'converging towards what is secret and without name.'

 The forthcoming translation of La Seconde Semaison 
and a 1977 New Directions translation of La Semaison

Friday, January 20, 2017

Journey to the Land of the Real

Returning from the Small Publishers Fair last November and looking on the bus at my new copy of Journey to the Land of the Real felt like being a teenager again, after finally tracking down some long-desired record I had read about but never actually seen.  Victor Segalen is my favourite French writer.  Not having known the Atlas Press were bringing out a new translation of Equipée (first published posthumously in 1929), I was astounded to see it lying on their table, like some precious piece of calligraphy or mysterious jade artefact.  The book is a beautifully printed hardback with endpapers reproducing photographs of a mountain pass taken by Jean Lartigue, Segalen's travelling companion in 1914.  The text was partly inspired by this journey, an archaeological expedition in China and Tibet, although, as the editors of the Wesleyan UP edition of Stèles note, Segalen 'wrote travel literature only in the sense that we might say Proust wrote an autobiography or Baudelaire recorded Parisian street life.'  At the beginning of the Journey to the Land of the Real, Segalen says that what follows is 'not a poem about a journey, nor is it the travel diary of a wanderer’s dream.'

The question of landscape description is addressed in Chapter 21, which opens with a criticism of conventional writing, 'pleasant verbal colour.'  He says he cannot describe some of what he has seen in words - the red hills of western China, the entrance to Tibet, 'so many mineral landscapes'.  He talks about the chaos of forms in the valleys.
'A landscape of yellow earth.  Literally made entirely of earth, yellow earth enriched with subtle tones, pinky-yellow in the morning, salmon-yellow in the light from the west, growing pale towards midday, violet in the evening, and at night, deepest black - for not the slightest glimmer of diffused light penetrates at that hour.  Perspectives, indentations and architecture, both bland and fantastical, all more astonishing than the colours themselves.  [...]  I find respite and calm only by climbing as high as possible, fleeing the low, chaotic regions for the high, paradoxical plateaux, where the soothing plain dominates and unfolds beneath the skies.'
This passage reminded me of 'Terre Jaune', one of the poems in Stèles (1912) which, according to the free online collection of sources and contexts, was based on some notes Segalen made in August 1909.  I've reproduced the French version in full below - the Chinese characters mean 'high plain (tranquillity above), chaos below'.  Stèles is not a collection of landscape poems but it takes its title from the stone tablets dotted around China which could, I suppose, be thought of as a great authorless text covering the landscape.  In his introduction to Stèles, Segalen says that these 'embed their low foreheads in the Chinese sky.  One encounters them unexpectedly: on roadsides, in temple courtyards, before tombs.'  'Terre Jaune' is placed in a section entitled 'Stèles by the wayside.'  Such monuments 'offer themselves without reserve to passers-by, to mule-drivers, to chariot drivers, to eunuchs, to footpads, to mendicant monks, to people of the dust, to merchants.  Towards all of these they turn their faces radiant with signs...'

Terre Jaune
D'autres monts déchirent le Ciel, et portant le plus haut qu'ils peuvent les tourments de leurs sommets, laissent couler profondément la vallée.
Ici, la Terre inversée cache au creux des flancs ses crevasses, tapit ses ressauts, étouffe ses pics -- et tout en bas
Les vagues de boue chargées d'or, délitées par les sécheresses, léchées par les pleurs souterrains gardent pour quelque temps la forme des tempêtes.
Alors que, supérieure, ignorant les tumultes, droite comme une table et haute à l'égal des cimes, -- la plaine étendue
Nivelle sa face jaune sous le Ciel quotidien des jours qu'elle recueille dans son plat.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers

'The four seasons move on in their lush cycles; but stillness of heart is important for them to enter into a writer's meditations.  However opulent and dense the sensuous colors of physical things may be, their expression in language demands succinctness.  They will produce a flavor in the writing that floats above the world; it will make the circumstances glow and be always new. [...]  Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers are indeed the mysterious treasuries of literary thought.  Yet if the words are too brief, the description will lack something; and if it is too detailed, it will be too lush.'
- Liu Xie (c. 465-522), The Literary Mind Carves Dragons, Chapter 46, on 'The Sensuous Colors of Physical Things', trans. Stephen Owen.
This comes from the first book-length study of literature in Chinese, written in the Southern Qi (Ch'i) period (479-502) by Liu Xie (Liu Hsieh), a Buddhist scholar who came from what is now Jiangsu Province.  A translation of the whole book was recently republished in NYRB's Calligrams series.  In the chapter on 'The Sensuous Colors of Physical Things' Liu discusses nature poetry, beginning with the turn of the seasons - the ease of spring, the lushness of summer, the high, clear skies of autumn and the frosts of winter.  'The year has its physical things, and these things have their appearances; by these things our feelings are changed, and from our feelings comes language.'

Liu praises the compressed imagery of the Classic of Poetry (c. 600 BCE) where simple phrases like "gleaming sun" 'give the natural principle in its entirety.'  He then moves forward in time to the late third century BCE and mentions the more extensive treatment of things in Qu Yuan's Li Sao ('Encountering Sorrow'), where descriptions are piled on top of each other.  Then, 'by the time we get to Sima Xiangru [c. 179 – 117 BCE] and those around him, the scope of mountains and waters was displayed with bizarre momentum and outlandish sounds, and characters were strung together like fish.'  Twentieth century Chinese critics shared this negative view of the Han Dynasty's ornate fu poetry, of which Sima was the greatest exponent.  In Liu's own day, he writes, the best poets have achieved a balance by attending to the world, 'sculpting' the landscape, delineating details but with no need of additional embellishment.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Terra Incognita

Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita was published twenty-one years ago, before the hundredth anniversaries of the expeditions led by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen.  Reading it recently, I wondered if we have been living through a golden age of artistic exploration, with a new series of 'firsts', as writers, filmmakers, sound artists and photographers have followed in the footsteps of the explorers and scientists, recording the environment or making site-specific work on the ice.  Perhaps this pioneering period can be said to have come to an end with the first Antarctic Biennale.  According to an article in Slate, 'the current plan is for the artists to construct installations in Antarctica that will be documented and removed, and then to show some of the works later in Venice. The culturati have officially reached the end of the world.'

For most of her stay in 1994-5, Sara Wheeler was hosted by the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists & Writers Programme.  Their website provides a fascinating insight into the range of cultural work that has taken place under its auspices.  There are very few household names - the most famous is Werner Herzog, who made his enjoyable documentary Encounters at the End of the World there in 2006 (the shot of a penguin walking in the wrong direction to certain death has become famous).  Herzog's musical collaborator Henry Kaiser had already been there and it was footage he had taken on his trip that persuaded Herzog to take on the project.

The list of people who preceded Sara Wheeler on the program is not long - some historians and science writers, illustrators and photographers (who must all go south highly conscious of the heroic efforts of Ponting and Hurley) and one poet, Donald Finkel, who wrote two books about Antarctica.  Barry Lopez went too - the program's website lists two articles, published in 1989 and 1994, and "future book." Wheeler mentions Lopez once or twice in Terra Incognita.  She recalls how Ranulph Fiennes had scoffed at the idea that the Antarctic can provide a transcendental experience: "I prayed for help there, but I would have done so in Brixton.  Mr Lopez writes about it but he's hardly been there at all." Wheeler's footnote to this: 'Lopez is an established and highly respected author who has visited Antarctica five times.  His trips were not exercises in seeing how dead he could get - he went to see, and to learn.'

Herbert Ponting, A Cavern in an Iceberg, 1910
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, according to the list, Kim Stanley Robinson was in Antarctica at the same time as Sara Wheeler.  I rather wish they had encountered each other because she is quite amusing on cultural differences between America and Britain.  Her book was conceived and written in the tradition of British travel writing (her favourite is The Road to Oxiana) whilst Robinson was researching his science fiction novel Antarctica.  The one other artist she did spend time with on her second trip, which coincided with the end of the Antarctic winter, was a watercolourist called Lucia deLeiris.  They shared a hut on the frozen sea and there, she writes, 'the landscape spoke to me so directly that it no longer seemed to be made of corporeal ice.'

At the end of the book, before leaving Antarctica, Wheeler returns to the Dry Valleys where she had experienced a memorable hike the previous summer.  On that earlier occasion she had been visiting scientists studying Lake Fryxell, its surface 'filled with tiny white bubbles and twisted into apocalyptic configurations - a fall might land you face down on a sword reminiscent of Excalibur.'  The opportunity arose to take a walk up the valley, the passing Suess and Canada Glaciers, where she noted a mummified seal on the moraine, and coming eventually to Lake Bonney, where 'ribboned crystals imprisoned in the ice glimmered like glowworms.  It was swathed in light pale as an unripe lemon.'  Now, months later, after the long polar night and a brief return to England, she was back.  
'I knew this landscape, but I had never seen the pink glow of dawn over the Canada Glacier, or the panoply of sunset over the Suess, or in between, sunlight travelling from one peak to the next and never coming down to us on the lake.  We lived in a bowl of shadow during those days.  One morning the sun appeared for ten minutes in the cleft between Canada and the mountain next to it, and everyone stopped working to look up. The lake was carpeted with compacted snow, and from the middle, where the Canada came tumbling down in thick folds, the Suess was cradled by mountains like a cup of milky liquid.'