Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Jena before us in the lovely valley

“Jena before us in the lovely valley”

This is the beginning of Gottfried Benn's poem 'Jena' (1926), translated by Michael Hoffmann and reprinted on the Poetry Foundation website. The words were his mother's, written on a postcard. 'It wasn’t a great picture,' he recalls. You can read what he says next as either touching or condescending: 

... the hills weren’t green with vineyards,
but she was from back-country hovels,
so the valleys probably did strike her as lovely,
she didn’t need laid paper or four-color print,
she supposed others would see what she had seen.

He guesses that the landscape had moved her sufficiently to ask a waiter for a postcard. When Benn wrote the poem, she was long gone, and yet that moment in front of the landscape, 'an exaltation', remained fixed in her words. Like his mother, we will all become ancestors, Benn concludes, including those who are looking at the valley today.

Michael Hoffmann, whose translation appears in the book Impromptus: Selected Poems, observes that  'Jena' is a strange but typical mixture: 'almost coldly dispassionate' and yet elegiac at the same time. Another translation can be found at the New Criterion, by Teresa Iverson, who says that it is written in 'a style which, to some, has barely seemed to avoid sentimentalism.' I had a look online to see if I could find a postcard that might resemble the one in the poem. Perhaps something like this one, dated 1903. Benn's mother died in 1912 of untreated cancer (in Impromptus the date is given as 1922, the year his wife passed away). For me, 'Jena' is doubly elegiac because nobody now sends postcards home from their holidays. This one might have been cheap and uninspiring, but it permitted Benn to return to a vanished instant of time inhabited by his mother and 'see what she had seen.'

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Atlantic Flowers

Last year I bought the latest New Arcadian Journal, Atlantic Flowers: The Naval Memorials of Little Sparta. 'The upland garden of Little Sparta is evocative of distant seas. Atlantic Flowers offers fresh insights into the poetic gardening of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) by acknowledging that the warship sculptures are simultaneously naval memorials.' This makes it sound like quite a specialised study but the pleasure of reading the journal (essentially a beautifully illustrated book), is that it conveys a lifetime's engagement with the garden as a whole and Patrick Eyres' long friendship with Finlay. An appendix provides a bibliography of ten previous NAJs and eleven New Arcadian Broadsheets devoted to Little Sparta and IHF. Photographs show how garden features have evolved over time, since Patrick's first visit in 1979. Paintings, drawings and artworks are reproduced on almost every page, based on the work of Finlay and NAJ collaborators and friends like Chris Broughton, Catherine Aldred and former-Mekon Kevin Lycett.

The last artwork discussed in Atlantic Flowers was installed in 2001, not long before Finlay's death: Camouflaged Flowers. This was conceived as a monument to the men of the wartime Flower Class corvettes, ships that had been given incongruously pastoral names like Begonia, Larkspur and Heartsease. Some of them were transferred to the US Navy during the war and renamed; in 'Ovidian Flowers' Finlay highlighted these metamorphoses: Begonia became Impulse, Larkspur Fury and Heartsease Courage. Nicholas Monsarrat wrote about life on board a corvette in The Cruel Sea. In his memoir he described these boats as 'cramped, wet, noisy, crowded, and starkly uncomfortable.' They may have had lovely floral names but they were all the same: 'wallowing cages for eighty-eight men condemned to a world of shock, fatigue, crude violence and grinding anxiety' (It Was Cruel, 1970). Finlay's Camouflaged Flowers was the culmination of his interest in the Flower Class corvettes, following printed works, wall plaques and an obelisk. It consists of seven brick plinths with bronze plaques commemorating five ships: Lavender, Campion, Polyanthus, Montbretia and Bergamot. Three of these survived, two were torpedoed. Polyanthus sunk with total loss of life.

I'll conclude here with Patrick Eyres' description of Camouflaged Flowers, which Finlay located 'high on the hillside at the edge of moorland, where they are exposed to wind and the vagaries of weather.'

'Here this monumental artwork is an epic composition that embraces the 'disparate elements' of garden and landscape, planting and sculpture, weather and seasons, and which is animated by leaf, blossom and berries. Now that it has matured, we can appreciate that the moorland swell and undulating horizon are evocative of Atlantic seascapes. The plantings can be imagined as the waves, through which the corvettes plough their way. Sea states are intimated by the foreground grasses, whether windblown or swaying in the breeze.'

Wednesday, May 03, 2023


I have been reading Rob St John's Örö (available via Bandcamp), a book based on fieldwork and experiments undertaken during two periods as an artist in residence on the Finnish island of Örö, in January 2016 and June 2017. You can also see on Rob's website a film he made using footage and sounds from the island. Örö is an abandoned military base (before that it provided pasture for mainland farmers) and since 2014 it has hosted many artists, as can be seen on the ÖROS 21 exhibition page. It's easy to see the appeal of a location like this for contemporary land artists, field recordists and experimental film makers. One makes art that explores 'memory, ecology and destruction', another operates 'site-sensitively collaborating with weathers, insects, soil and scrap materials', another works with future fossils, 'relics of consumerism, the traces that humankind leaves in the environment'. Amy Cutler, who I've mentioned here before, was there in the winter of 2019-20 (see her Vigil for Örö). The island is a node in an international network of environmental art residences, often located in sparse, elemental landscapes. One of the Örö artists, Jessica MacMillan, has also worked on Svalbard, a location I discussed in my post High Arctic, and also at Seyðisfjörður in Iceland, where Richard Skelton did two artist residences a few years ago.

It must be somewhat daunting now to rock up at Örö and be aware of all the documentation, photography, sound recording and artistic interventions that have preceded you. What's particularly interesting about Rob's book is the way he covered so many possibilities in his time there: sampling the island through different recording methods and strategies to collect indexical signs, then processing the collected materials to create film, sound and visual art. He recorded the winter and summer soundscape using hydrophones and binaural mics, collected archive recordings and sourced data to use in sonifications. He used cameraless photography for cyanotypes, durational pinhole solargraphs and polargrams, lumen prints and panchromatic plates. He used film and digital cameras, keeping the viewpoint still to allow water to ripple, specks of snow to fall and bark to flutter in the wind. He exposed polaroids for eighteen months on the forest floor to see what would happen. He walked the island according to transects drawn on a map, stopping every hundred steps to make notes. In other methods reminiscent of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, he designed text pieces and photographed the crack in a split rock which he filled with different kinds of material washed in by the tide. He also made inks by steeping Örö's bilberries, rowan berries, birch leaves and rusted iron, painting simple diamonds of colour which I think are particularly beautiful.


Screenshot from the installation film Örö, 2021

The book provides fascinating detail on all these approaches. I love the way it uses an impersonal scientific style and reports on experiments in the passive voice ('metal fence wires marking island enclosures were bowed with a violin bow, as were coat peg nails in an empty disused barracks'). It is full of paragraphs I'd like to quote but I'll just choose one here, concerning photograms he made of organic winter island materials - lichens, dried seed pods, bird feathers, reeds, sands and sediments.

'In the dark of the cabin bathroom, film canisters were cracked and unfurled - like the unrolling of the ecologist's transect line or the archivist's microfilm reel - and weighted at each end with stones. Relying only on touch in the pitch black, the island materials were laid out on the film strip and exposed in a brief flash of headtorch light; a visual patterning akin to the experience of being in the forest at night. Later experiments encased the island materials in ice lenses frozen inside the used metal containers of burnt-out tea lights. In both cases, when subsequently developed, the island objects became traced onto the film strips as abstracted forms: an archipelago archive. Lichen forms echo the shape of the island itself, micro-ice formations mimic patterned ground. Seed pods become dormant expressions of microbial life: pre-echoes of the ecological unfurling of the midsummer island.'