Monday, December 23, 2019

Out of the sluggish, clogged-up city

Coming to the end of the year, I find myself thinking about this blog.  Whilst I still enjoy writing here, I think I will keep posts short and less frequent in future.  This is partly because I've noticed (if Blogger 'stats' are to be believed) that readership has declined, which is hardly surprising given how much is now out there on the Internet.  I started Some Landscapes before Twitter and Instagram. People clearly like rapidly flicking through photos and pithy messages, rather than reading whole paragraphs.  This is a pity because I have found it is hard to say anything useful on Twitter without recourse to a whole thread.  Whether or not people read 'Some Landscapes', it remains useful to me as a kind of notebook.  And if I worried about readers, I  would not write anything spontaneous and unresearched. Here for example, I want to say something about Rainer Maria Rilke, aware as I do so that the world is full of German literature experts who know far more about his poetry than me...

The Poetry Foundation website refers to the turn towards realism in Rilke's New Poems (1907).
'The major influence behind this work was Rilke’s association with the famous French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Working as Rodin’s secretary from 1905 to 1906, Rilke gained a greater appreciation of his work ethic. More importantly, however, the poet’s verses became objective, evolving from an impressionistic, personal vision to the representation of this vision with impersonal symbolism. He referred to this type of poetry as Dinggedichte (thing poems).'
There are many 'things' in these poems - in the second part of the book, for example, he writes about a bed, a sundial, a dog, an alchemist, a stylite, a blind man, a prophet and an archaic torso of Apollo (a famous poem that I've referred to here before).  How, though, to write about the 'thingness' of a whole landscape?  His poem 'Landschaft', which Stephen Cohn translates as 'Townscape' consists of three stanzas, each like a painting. In the first, the 'orange flames of sunset' turn the city into a scene of destruction; in the second, there is a healing and quenching as the sky turns blue; and in the third it is night and the buildings are silent and pale, suddenly illuminated by a shaft of moonlight that resembles the sword of an archangel.  The poem that follows 'Townscape' relates to another scene in Italy, but takes a more surprising approach.  When you first read 'Roman Campagna', you expect it to describe the emotions of the poet looking at the view or the feelings of somebody present in the landscape.  Instead, Rilke take the point of view of the road itself that leads from Rome up into the hills.

Here, to avoid the copyright problem of quoting a whole poem, I've cut the poem in three and provided three different translators' words: 

Out of the sluggish, clogged-up city, which
Would rather sleep on, undisturbed, and dream
Of its soaring baths, the road to the fever marsh –
The Appian tomb-road – heads past each last farm
And farmhouse, out under the malign
Gaze of windows that fasten on its back, [...]                           - Seamus Heaney

[...]  as on it goes, wrecking things left and right,
till it is panting, pleading, out of sight,
then quickly lifts its blankness to the vast,
clear sky.  [...]                                                                            - Len Krisack

[...] While it beckons

the aqueducts approaching in the distance,
heaven rewards it with an emptiness
which will outlast it, which will never end.                               - Stephen Cohn

What interests me here is the way this road actually moves over the course of the poem and is therefore able to convey a sense of landscape.  This is obviously quite an extreme form of personification, as the road pants, pleads and glances around itself.  But there are often touches of personification in Rilke's poetry - that archaic torso of Apollo, for example, appears to see you and in doing so radiates its stern warning: 'you must change your life'.  Years later, in the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke wrote a lovely poem about a fountain, which speaks through water brought from the Apennines, into the ear of marble basin.  'Just with herself alone / does she talk this way. And if a jug slips in, / she feels that you are interrupting her.'

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Hanging Gardens of Rock City

A detail from Hanging Gardens of Rock City (1970) by Liliane Lijn

In the British Museum at the moment you can see Hanging Gardens of Rock City, a collage by Liliane Lijn. It was one of four she made in 1970, imagining aerial walkways and parks among the rooftops of Manhattan. Of course these can now be seen as anticipating The High Line.  The museum caption quotes her as saying 'I have always found the rooftops of the buildings in Manhattan exciting and strange as if their architects had allowed their fantasies free at that distance from the ground.'  In her collages, the public has access to these private buildings and can be seen sunbathing and walking around, far above the streets of the city.

In the sixties Lijn moved from New York to London, where she was married to Takis, who was the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern earlier this year.  In the course of her long career she has worked in all media, from performance to prose-poems and made plastic sculptures, poem machines, 'vibrographs', cone-shaped koans, kinetic clothing, light columns, biomorphic goddesses and solar installations in the landscape. The last of these is of particular interest here.  They are collaborations with astronomer John Vallerga in which powerful prisms reflect sunlight of different colours, depending on their angle.  Getting permission to install these has not been easy and ensuring they are protected from damage is also a challenge.  The video below shows a couple of these artifical suns on the hills behind the Golden Gate Bridge.  Another, Sunstar, has been shining from the summit of Mount Wilson - the Los Angeles Magazine reported on it last year.  Here is some information from the Mount Wilson Observatory website.
'An array of six prisms, Sunstar takes incoming sunlight and refracts it, bending the light and spreading it into a spectrum–all the colors of the rainbow. It is mounted near the top of the Observatory’s 150-foot Solar Telescope Tower. With motion controls, it can be remotely directed to project the spectrum to a specific point in the Los Angeles basin. An observer below will see an intense point of light in a single wavelength, shining like a brilliant jewel from the ridgeline of Mount Wilson, 5800 feet above in the San Gabriel Mountains. [...] 
The prism will be beaming daily to various sites around the Los Angeles basin — Griffith Observatory, the Rose Bowl, Pasadena City Hall, Memorial Park by the Armory, Elysian Park, the Music Center, wherever there is a view of Mount Wilson.  If you see it, please let us know what you think. Requests to have it beam your way can often be accommodated. Email: Include the time you’d like to see the beam and your location’s address, or geographic coordinates if you prefer.'

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

This earth is cursed

I was at the White Cube on Sunday to see the latest batch of Anselm Kiefer paintings, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot.  I am a huge admirer, but I know he does not appeal to everyone.  For me, the beauty of these artworks as physical objects is evident regardless of their possible meanings and interpretations.  The composition above, for example, is in a room devoted to the theme of the Gordian Knot, but I didn't immediately start puzzling out its meaning or worrying over whether it is profound or pretentious; instead, what struck me was the feeling that I'd never before seen a field painted with such dramatic intensity.  What you can't appreciate from a photograph is the sense of scale, the texture of paint or the subtleties of its wintry colours (that sunset glow and the purples and greys of the sky).  Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones described these waves of wheat as being 'arrayed like a flowing frieze of abundance. Real branches daubed with gold have been used to create their colossal stalks. But two axes hang in the gleaming fullness, waiting to devastate this cornucopian field. This earth is cursed.'

The second landscape I want to highlight here is called Väinämoinen sucht die drei fehlende Buchstaben ('Väinämoinen Searches for the Three Missing Letters' - a reference to the Kalevala, Runo XVI).  Those black posts standing in rows in the snow (or is it ash?) are shaped like runes.  In the foreground some of them are made from actual pieces of charred wood.  This painting is a kind of text (like the Landscripts of Xu Bing) and because runes were used for divination there seems to be some kind of hidden prophecy in this bleak landscape.  The Norns, which Kiefer refers to in the title of his exhibition, were the spinners of fate in Norse mythology.  In an installation stretching the length of the gallery, their names - Urd, Verdandi and Skuld - are written alongside the equations of string theory, suggesting a continuity between ancient and modern means of unlocking the world's secrets.

I'll conclude this post with one of three paintings called Superstrings, each of which measures nearly three metres high and eight metres wide.  All of them appear to be desolate landscapes of earth, snow, muddy water, stubble, straw and leafless trees.  Approaching the one I have photographed here, I felt I could still make an art historical connection to Van Gogh's ploughed fields.  Right up close, the paint surface resembles a rain soaked field or a muddy path.  But from further away, those furrows start to seem more abstract - lines of force, converging at speed towards a grey sunless horizon.  We are used to thinking of the universe in terms of pure and beautiful structures like celestial spheres or Platonic solids, but Kiefer is clearly drawn to a messier, more chaotic theory of the cosmos.