Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mountain R

Mountain R is a 1996 novel by the French Oulipian writer Jacques Jouet (1947-) about a failed attempt to construct an artificial mountain.  The Dalkey Archive published an English translation by Brian Evenson in 2004.  The story is a dark satire told in three parts, from three different points of view.  It begins with a speech by The President of the Republican Council, setting out the proposal for this grand projet and arguing that a 1,500 meter high mountain would bring in tourism, reduce unemployment and provide a fitting symbol for the greatness of the nation.  The second part is a dialogue between one of the contractors involved in building Mountain R and his daughter, which gradually reveals shocking truths about the human cost of its construction.  The third part is an excerpt from the trial of those responsible for the project's failure, recounted by another unreliable narrator, a novelist paid to write about Mountain R, whose full role in the enterprise becomes progressively more apparent.

As I began reading I thought back to The Man Without Qualities, a novel about a pointless national celebration that I read at about the same time the Millennium Dome fiasco was unfolding here. However, as a construction project driven by hubris, funded in murky circumstances and failing to leave anything worthwhile it actually reminded me more of several recent initiatives, some of them in London.  For many years, cities have measured themselves on who can erect the biggest tower.  In Mountain R the President begins his speech by complaining that the Republic, though magnificent already, 'looks like a flat-chested girl.  Too bad!  But we are going to alter her, the Republic ... we are here to act ... to give her what we can: a womanly figure.'  It sounds like 'Northumberlandia', the proposal for a giant 'curvaceous woman' which I wrote about here in 2009 (it was subsequently built and opened in 2012).  

I have discussed the construction of other artificial mountains here before, from the marble peak on a Greek island made sometime between 2550-2400 BCE, to the holy mount for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in post-Revolutionary France.  All such ventures share common traits, but perhaps the closest precursor to Mountain R that I have written about is the Mountain of Stability, centre piece of Emperor Huizong's great garden at Kaifeng, which led to instability in China as resentment rose over the costs of building it, until Huizong was deposed and his construction left in ruins. Mountain R is built by migrant workers who have to live in appalling conditions.  There are an unknown numbers of fatalities as the authorities try to hide the true cost of the project.  Reading this brought to mind what we have heard about the Qatar World Cup - see for example the BBC's 2015 report on the death toll there, which had been put then at 1,200 workers.

There was an article about Mountain R in The French Review by Oulipo scholar Warren Motte (whose actually crops up in the book as the name of an American funding body).  He shows how the book is about language and the processes of narration, pointing in particular to a passage in which the third narrator compares the writing of a novel to a construction project.  The failure to complete his novel mirrors the failure to complete the mountain.  Motte has also provided a useful introduction to Jouet's work on the Dalkey Archive website.  Of Mountain R he says that 'Jouet asks us to consider how we view monuments and how we tend to monumentalize our leaders, our progenitors, and the tasks we pursue, both individually and severally.' 

Motte also discusses some of Jouet's other works and, although it has nothing to do with Mountain R, I can't resist ending here by quoting the first of Jouet's Poèmes de métro, which itself defines the Oulipian constraint involved in writing them.  Something to consider, for those of us who use the London Underground everyday...
A metro poem is a poem composed
in the metro, during the duration
of a trip.
A metro poem has as many verses as
your trip has stations, minus one.
The first verse is composed in your
head between the two first stations
of your trip (counting the station
from which you departed).
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the second station.
The second verse is composed in
your head between the second and
third stations of your trip.
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the third station. And
so forth.
One must not transcribe when the
train is in motion.
One must not compose when the
train is stopped.
The last verse of the poem is
transcribed on the platform of
your last station.
If your trip involves one or more
changes of subway lines, the poem
will have two or more stanzas.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Lunar surface and horizon

Apollo 11 Mission image - Lunar surface and horizon
Source: Internet Archive
Tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing and it feels too momentous to let it pass without mention on this blog.  I have written here before about landscape art and poetry in which the moon plays a central role, like the poetry of Du Fu, the drawings of Samuel Palmer or the long-exposure photographs of Darron Almond.  I have also mentioned here the lunar landscape itself, as imagined by artists before the Apollo programme, like Chesley Bonestell who painted a mural for the Boston Museum of Science, and then photographed by astronauts from orbit and the surface of the moon.  Jonathan Jones (or his Guardian sub-editor) recently called the shots taken by Armstrong and Aldrin 'the greatest photographs ever'.  In Armstrong's images of Aldrin, 'his scientific work seems ritualised and meaningless. It’s the astonishing fact of being on this desolate landscape that we’re drawn to.'

There are photographs of the moonscape from the Apollo 11 mission in which the astronauts do not feature.  They have an austere beauty, despite the absence of colour or any significant landforms.  The ones I have embedded here resemble Rothko's black paintings.  Paintings of the lunar surface have been made by the fourth man on the moon, Alan Bean, who pursued a career as an artist after retiring from NASA in 1981.  He has incorporated dust from the lunar surface into some of these. Here is what he has written about his influences:
"I have been inspired by other explorer artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. As the first artist on another world, I believe I am doing the same thing for the opening of the universe that they did for the opening of the American West, that my painting will satisfy the human need to record and remember new beginnings."

Naturally the anniversary of the moon landing has prompted various art events, like The Met's exhibition, 'Apollo's Muse'.  Last month, James Attlee wrote a piece on artists and the moon, appropriately for Apollo Magazine, mentioning the Katie Paterson piece I discussed here recently, Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon). Moon-related music is a theme at this year's Proms, which opens with Zosha Di Castri's 'Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory', a piece partly inspired by the famous moon poems of Sappho and Leopardi.  There's an acclaimed documentary that I haven't seen yet, Apollo 11, and many new or reissued books about the mission. The photograph below shows two of my own books - a Penguin Special published in 1969 that my father passed on to me and Andrew Chaikin's superb account of the Apollo programme.  Chaikin carries the story all the way through to Apollo 17 and it is noticeable how much emphasis there was on geology in those final missions.  With no life to discover, the moon landings became increasingly focused on the moon's grey landscape, and eventually there was not enough interest in this to keep the Apollo programme going. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Black ice

Sólheimajökull glacier, Iceland
Photographed by me in May 2019

After returning from Iceland recently I was keen to write something about its landscape but realised I had already covered a lot of the ground here previously - see for example 'An eagle, a mountain, a ship' and 'To Place: Verne's Journey'.  The photograph above was taken at a rapidly retreating glacier, beautifully sculpted by melting water and blackened by the underlying volcanic rock.  My excuse for including it here is a bit tenuous - it's that I was reading in Robert Macfarlane's new book Underland about glacier ice.  In Greenland he encounters a very different kind of black ice, dark from the compression of millenia, emerging 'from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour.'  As Colin Thubron writes in his review, this sight 'induces a kind of nausea.'
'The first block has fallen from the glacier’s face before he and his companions turn to look, and then an enormous white train seems to be driving out of its wall before plunging into the water, and it pulls white wagons after it, followed by the semblance of a cathedral and a whole fracturing city. ... Then, he adds, something terrible happens. A submerged, black pyramid of ancient, compacted ice rears up from the water as high as the glacier itself, a shape as hard as meteorite, and he and the others are dancing and shouting, “appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced.”'
An object like this can perhaps only be conveyed effectively in words.  Googling for images of black icebergs, I learned that a few years ago one particular photograph went viral - someone described it as 'goth as fuck' - and there was an article about it on the Smithsonian website.  Apparently 'flipped' icebergs, with the older parts on top, may become more common.  Glaciers no longer stretch into the cold seas but break apart at the edge of the land, "so you get these really thin pieces of ice that flip over right when they’ve broken off."  Nonetheless, this black iceberg was extremely rare, and the photographer considered himself incredibly lucky: "it’s like if you see a double rainbow over a whale breaching".  You can imagine Rob Macfarlane feeling equally lucky that the landscape had delivered up such a perfect metaphor for him.

Blue iceberg, Greenland
Photo: Wikimedia Commons - claire rowland

When I got back from Iceland, several people at work asked if I had gone 'to see the northern lights'.  It brought home to me what a bucket-list tourist phenomenon this has become.  No, we had not, and I suspect that if I did organise such a trip it would only be disappointing.  One of my colleagues went recently, to Norway I think he said, and said it had been cloudy until the last night, when they finally experienced the sky flickering, but witnessed none of the green light you see on photographs.  In Greenland, Rob and his companions first experience the Northern Lights as 'a scarf of radar-green' with the mountains shooting 'jade searchlights into space.'  On another night it appears as 'green fog-banks, rolling, coalescing, ebbing.'  And finally, at the end of the trip, they see a display that is 'profuse, extravagant, spinning over thousands of miles of sky.'  The stars seem to shine more brightly through the aurora. It seems paradoxical - 'none of us can explain how the green light could be collaborative rather than competitive with the starlight.'

Collaboration is a key theme in Underland and one of the reasons why companionship is important on the trips it describes.  Rob is accompanied to Greenland by Helen Mort, 'a rock climber, a runner and a writer of rare abilities', and Bill Carslake, a composer who is able to hear notes in the sound of wind on the glacier ("it's the harmonic series of D!")  Nick Papadmitriou has complained that everyone encountered in Underland is 'imbued with a wisdom and roundness of character that marks them out as irritatingly exceptional human beings', but this is not a conventional travel book and there isn't space to develop proper portraits of people.  As a reader, part of the pleasure is trying to imagine travelling with Rob and his companions, coping with the exhausting ice peaks and crevasses, negotiating a dangerous scree slope and a narrow snow bridge, not to mention keeping pace conversationally with three erudite Cambridge graduates (a kind of intellectual Sublime).  I know I would not have made it far (I've an image of myself stuck on the glacier, driven mad with fear and exhaustion, like Leni Riefenstahl's husband in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, who has to be tied up for his own safety).  Fortunately, our holiday in Iceland presented no such hazards.  There were also many memorable sights in addition to the black and white Sólheimajökull glacier.  Nevertheless, I would love to have been on that beach in Greenland to witness the appearance of that extraordinary iceberg...

Twenty minutes after falling into the sea, it settles in the water.  Gulls land 'on this new territory in their dozens, shake out their wings, tuck one leg up into their breast feathers for warmth, hunker down.'  The next day Rob finds a small chunk of it, washed up on the shoreline and, with difficulty, lifts the dark ice and carries it back to the tents.
'The sun shines through it.  Air bubbles inside it show as silver: wormholes, right-angle bends, incredible zigzags and sharp layers.
That night an arctic fox comes to our camp, a playful blue shadow.
The little berg takes two days to melt.  It leaves a stain on the rock that won't vanish.'

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The white island

Keros and Dhaskalio
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Zde

I've just been reading an interesting article in the Independent about a kind of artificial mountain in the Aegean, built 'within 100 years or so of the creation of Stonehenge, the first Egyptian pyramids, the great cities of the Indus Valley and the first known Mesopotamian kingdoms.'  From around 2550-2400 BCE, an islet off the coast of Keros was gradually transformed using marble brought to it by boat. Excavations have revealed buildings and Cycladic artefacts, but from a landscape art perspective I am most interested in the idea of constructing an artificial landform:
'The architects “terra-formed” the pyramid-shaped island “mini-mountain”, known in recent centuries as Dhaskalio (possibly just meaning “islet”), to create around 1,000m of artificial terracing, arranged in six “steps” on its steep slopes. ... The 7,000-10,000 tonnes of white marble, needed for the project, were quarried in the southeastern part of Naxos.
From the south, the island would have been visible from many miles away as a gleaming white pyramid-shaped mini-mountain rising out of the sea.  It is not known for sure whether the pyramidic shape was in any way significant. But the place had certainly been specifically selected as a religious site in preference to other much higher, more impressive and potentially more accessible mountains that did not have that shape.'
The article goes on to talk about the Egyptian pyramids, which were made to gleam in the sun (like the white marble of Dhaskalio) by having their summits painted with gold leaf.  In both places the builders may have wanted to symbolise the idea of earth arising out of primordial chaos. '“It is potentially a fundamental place of origin for the phenomenon of sacred mountains within the Greek world,” said the world’s leading expert on Greek mountain-top sanctuaries, Dr Alan Peatfield.'

The findings at Dhaskalio are not all news - an piece from last year noted that 'visits to the island were presumably seen as a special activity, and the way that the terraces on Dhaskalio were constructed to create rising walls in receding planes must have made the site look very impressive to those approaching by sea from the north.'  Dhaskalio is not accessible to ordinary visitors, but last year the writer Ben Okri went there to meet the archaeologists and wrote about his impressions in the FT.  He doesn't sound like he had a particularly interesting time. 'I shift soil and rock in a task that seems to yield nothing but that adds to the slow revelation of what was there.'

The Independent's article was picked up by the Evening Standard today with a hyperbolic headline: 'Archaeologists unearth probable origins of ancient Greece in groundbreaking discovery '.  An hour or so ago another article appeared on the Daily Mail site: 'Pyramid-shaped island in the Aegean Sea where sailors hauled marble to build complex structures and forged DAGGERS from copper 4,600 years ago reveals new clues on early Greek society'. I love the way the word daggers is in capitals!  You can read more on their website but be warned that the 'sidebar of shame' next to the article has some 'Love Island Spoilers'.  Looking at this made me very aware of the gulf of time separating those pilgrims to the sacred island of Dhaskalio and the 'hot young singles' of Love Island... 

Saturday, July 06, 2019

The Sun's my Fire

Joan Carlile, The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham 
in Richmond Park, detail, 1650s

Today we made our way through the Pride crowds in London to Lyon & Turnbull for “Bright Souls”: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists, an exhibition curated by Bendor Grosvenor devoted to Mary Beale, Joan Carlile and Anne Killigrew.  The landscape above and below is by Joan Carlile (1600-79), the first female professional artist in Britain, who lived in Richmond.  I like the fact that it is recognisable as Richmond - a park I have been visiting since I was a child - whilst in its distant vista framed by trees it reveals a rural landscape that has now largely disappeared.  Up close the sky's craquelure is rather beautiful, conveying the distance separating us from the time and place of this group portrait.  The portrait below also contains a  landscape, possibly inspired by a painting seen in the collection of King Charles I (her husband was a courtier).  Beneath the arch of rock, rosy light touches the tips of trees and tops of mountains.  This soft light, contrasting with the bright sheen of the lady's dress, draws you into a world of mist and shadows.  The name of the artist is wrong on the painting - ironically the attribution was to another female artist, Mary Beale.  It was Carlile who, according to Grosvenor, was the first artist of any gender in Britain to master complex landscape backgrounds.

Joan Carlile, Portrait of a Lady, possibly Elizabeth Massingberd, 1650s

Mary Beale mainly painted portraits, as did the third of the artists in Bright Souls, Anne Killigrew, although in her painting below you can see to the left of the lady a dark, melancholy landscape. There is a lake bordered by trees, a ridge of green hills and the last traces of a sunset in the sky.  The sad subject of the picture may be the artist herself, depicted as Venus grieving over Adonis, possibly marking some personal loss.  Sadly, Anne Killigrew was only 25 when she died, already a renowned poet as well as a painter - Dryden compared her to Sappho in his ode 'To The Pious Memory of the Accomplish'd Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew'.  Here is one of her poems, which includes some landscape imagery and takes as its subject one of her own paintings: 'St. John Baptist Painted by her self in the Wilderness, with Angels appearing to him, and with a Lamb by him.'
The Sun's my Fire, when it does shine,
The hollow Spring's my Cave of Wine,
The Rocks and Woods afford me Meat;
This Lamb and I on one Dish eat:  
The neighbouring Herds my Garments send,
My Pallet the kind Earth doth lend:
Excess and Grandure I decline,  
M'Associates onely are Divine.

Anne Killigrew, Portrait of a Lady, probably the Artist, detail, c. 1685

The image above is a screen grab from the exhibition video trailer, which I have embedded below.  I'm afraid today was the last day of Brights Souls, but I suspect over time we will see more exhibitions devoted to these artists.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon (1958)

In 1959, the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Live Action) was won by a Walt Disney film, Grand Canyon.  Nearly twenty years early the studio had received critical acclaim for Fantasia, its animated interpretations of eight pieces of classical music, and it was one of the directors of Fantasia, James Algar, who made Grand Canyon.  It was also conceived in relation to music, in this case as 'a pictorial interpretation of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.'  The film contains actual landscape footage but was initially shown with the animation Sleeping Beauty.  You can see all thirty minutes of Grand Canyon on YouTube at the moment - I'm not sure how long it will stay up, but I've embedded a link below.  The music was composed by Grofé between 1929 and 1931 structured into five parts: I. Sunrise, II. Painted Desert, III. On the Trail, IV. Sunset, and V. Cloudburst.

Who was Ferde Grofé?  He began as a jazz pianist and was the arranger for Paul Whiteman in the twenties, when the band leader was calling himself "King of Jazz".  The New York Times actually called Grofé the Prime Minister of Jazz in 1932 (an absurd title, but I'm now imagining my own fantasy jazz Cabinet).  'On the Trail', the middle section of the Grand Canyon Suite was used for thirty years to advertise a brand of cigarettes.  In addition to the Grand Canyon, Grofé composed musical evocations of the Mississippi and Hudson rivers, Death Valley and the Nigara Falls (a suite commissioned by the Niagara Falls Power Generation project). Grofé conducted some of these pieces outside in the landscape: the Death Valley Suite was performed in Desolation Valley at a centennial celebration of the '49ers, with a narration by film star James Stewart.  The event was far more popular than anticipated - crowds came by bus from Las Vegas, planes circled trying to land at the small airstrip and a long line of automobiles stretched into the desert. 

How mant other landscape films won the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Live Action)?  Originally there were two categories - 'comedy' (the first winner was that famous Laurel & Hardy film where they have to get a piano up a flight of stairs) and 'novelty' - early nominees included short documentaries about Krakatoa and Everest.  Then the films were categorised by length - in 1937 Julian Huxley's celebrated British nature film The Private Life of the Gannets won the 'one reel' Oscar (it beat Jacques Tourneur's Romance of Radium). The Grand Canyon was actually the subject of a 1942 nominee, Desert Wonderland.  Disney and James Algar won the Oscar in 1949 for Seal Island, the first in its True Life Adventures series which by the end of the fifties had included films on the Everglades, Arctic and South American jungle.

In 1967, a lovely short film I have written about here before, Paddle to the Sea, was nominated for the award.  I am not sure what all the films in the shortlists since the 1970s were about but I get the impression they were mainly the film equivalent of short stories and rarely about landscape or nature.  The Solar Film (1979) sounds interesting though: commissioned by Robert Redford, made by Elaine and Saul Bass (the graphic designer who worked with Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese etc.) and featuring 'Tubular Bells' on the soundtrack, it was a film about solar energy.  Since 1977 the BAFTAs also given out a short film award and the last winner was 73 Cows, a film about a couple who take up vegan organic farming.  Perhaps the climate crisis and boom in nature writing will lead to more short films that deal with aspects of landscape. 

I will conclude here by embedding from YouTube a trailer for one of Walt Disney's True Life Adventure Series, The Vanishing Prairie (1954).  This was another James Algar directed Oscar Winner, but in the longer 'Best Documentary Feature' category.  Disney had won the previous year too with The Living Desert, and the year before that the winner was a documentary based on Rachel Carson's classic study, The Sea Around Us (this film was made by Irwin Allen who would later produce The Poseidon Adventure).  In 1956, the Oscar went to The Silent World, Jacques Cousteau's pioneering film, co-directed with the young Louis Malle.  As with the short film award, landscape became less prominent as a theme from the late 1960s, but more recently winners have included March of the Penguins, The Cove and this year's Free Solo, about an attempt to climb El Capitan without any ropes or harnesses.