Saturday, January 27, 2024

Radical Landscapes

Back in 2022 Tate Liverpool held an exhibition of 'Radical Landscapes'. I didn't make the effort to go because it sounded like I would be familiar with a lot of the work as well as the underlying theme. I have written here before about exhibitions questioning 'traditional' ideas of landscape and land use in Britain - see for example my post in 2012 on Patrick Keiller's Tate Britain installation The Robinson Institute. I was also rather put off by Jonathan Jones's review (even though my views often diverge from his). He took the curators to task for their naive view of Constable and illogical politics. By defining Constable’s 'love of the British countryside as something retrograde, oppressive and literally Tory, it makes nonsense of its own thesis that the land belongs to us all, as well as its warnings of the urgency of climate crisis. If loving green fields is wicked, why go there? If nature is exclusive, why save it?' Laura Cumming also noted that 'Constable gets the usual pasting for showing a rural England where the poor are free to farm and roam the land as if the Enclosure Acts had never happened,' but was overall much more positive. Anyway, I didn't get to go, so I can't really comment on all this.

The reason I mention this exhibition now is that a cut down version of it has been on display in Walthamstow's William Morris Gallery. This is just a short tube journey away for me, so I popped along last week. It was certainly full of familiar work - Derek Jarman's garden, Peter Kennard's Constable missiles, Homer Sykes' Burry Man - and went through some predictable radical history landmarks: Kinder Scout, Greenham Common, Newbury. I've seen footage of the Spiral Tribe in various music documentaries and exhibitions and it never makes those nineties outdoor raves look remotely appealing! The Neo-Naturists were on show again here - they are unavoidable at the moment, getting naked at the Barbican in RE/SISTERS and (apparently - I haven't been yet) in Tate Britain's 'Women in Revolt!' But I was expecting to see a lot of this and in such a small show there were also inevitably obvious omissions - no Ingrid Pollard or Fay Godwin for example, both of whom are in RE/SISTERS.


Anwar Jalal Shemza, Apple Tree, 1962

If you want to read about this Walthamstow exhibition, there is a comprehensive review of it in Studio International by someone a bit less jaded than me! I suspect I might have found more eye-opening art among works from the original Liverpool exhibition that had to be left out here. But it was definitely worth a trip (and free!) and I will end here by mentioning a Klee-like painting by Anwar Jalal Shemza that I particularly liked. I don't recall seeing this one before. Shemza was born in India and published Urdu novels in the fifties before permanently relocating to Stafford, his wife Mary's hometown, in 1962. The Hales Gallery website notes that 'throughout his career, Shemza’s visual vocabulary drew on an array of deeply studied and lived experience, from carpet patterns and calligraphic forms to the environments around him: Mughal architecture from Lahore and the rural landscapes of Stafford, England.' 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Renamed City

Talking this weekend with my teenage son about holiday ideas, we agreed that the place we would both most like to visit is St. Petersburg. I wonder when that might be possible again... I have never been, but I've always assumed I would go one day. I’m not sure I associated Leningrad with anything much when I was a child - it was when I started to read Russian literature that St. Petersburg came into focus, accompanied by a shock of recognition. In Gogol, men ‘scuttle between their offices in vast ministerial buildings and the equally soulless tenement apartments in which they live.’ When I first read his stories, I too was a lowly, alienated civil servant living in shabby accommodation. And then there was Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, ‘full of dreamers, a fact which he explained by the city’s cramped conditions, by the frequent mists and fog which came in from the sea, by the icy rain and drizzle that made people sick’ (Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance).


 Vasily Sadovnikov, Panorama of Nevsky Prospect, 1830s

In his 1979 essay 'A Guide to a Renamed City' Joseph Brodsky talks about how the city has been reflected in Russian literature. The presence of the Neva means that St. Petersburg's 'architectural landscapes' are already reflected in water, 'as if the city were constantly being filmed by its river, which discharges its footage into the Gulf of Finland, which, on a sunny day, looks like a depository of these blinding images.' But behind these surfaces, it was the interior of the city that became the subject of Russian poetry and novels. And as this was happening, St. Petersburg itself grew and changed at extraordinary speed, until the Revolution came and it entered a long period of stasis and decline - 'quiet, immobilized, the city stood watching the passage of the seasons.' Brodsky concludes his essay with Russia's literary city preserved in the memories of Soviet school children, as they learn verse and re-read nineteenth century prose. He ends with a memorable final paragraph, that describes the cityscape in June...

A white night is a night when the sun leaves the sky for barely a couple of hours - a phenomenon quite familiar in the northern latitudes. It's the most magic time in the city when you can write or read without a lamp at two o'clock in the morning, and when the buildings, deprived of shadows and their roofs rimmed with gold, look like a set of fragile china. It's so quiet around that you can almost hear the clink of a spoon falling in Finland. The transparent pink tint of the sky is so light that the pale-blue watercolor of the river almost fails to reflect it. And the bridges are drawn up as though the islands of the delta have unclasped their hands and slowly begun to drift, turning in the mainstream, toward the Baltic. On such nights, it's hard to fall asleep, because it is too light and because any dream will be inferior to reality. Where a man doesn't cast a shadow, like water.

Tuesday, January 09, 2024


Derangements of My Contemporaries is Chloe Garcia Roberts's 2014 translation of Li Shangyin's Za Zuan ('Miscellaneous Notes'). This work is a delightful oddity in literary history - the most obvious comparison is The Pillow Book that Sei Sh┼Źnagon compiled at the Heian court in Japan around a hundred and fifty years later. They both feature whimsical Borgesian lists and many of Li Shongyin's concern people's potential failings, ranging from 'Judgment Lapses' and 'Brief Odiums' to 'Raging Stupidity'. His notes refer to things you can still easily agree with, but also aspects of ninth century Chinese life that now seem remote or bizarre. 'Aggressive Posturing' for example starts with 'Seeing another's writings, aggressively rifling through them', which would sound relevant if it wasn't for our recent move from writing on paper to laptops. Next comes 'Seeing another's saddled horse, audaciously riding it', which is maybe less relevant unless you live in Texas or go in for show jumping. 'Seeing another's bow and arrow, aggressively drawing and shooting it' also sounds rude, and even less prevalent in the twenty-first century. Then we are back to something many people will have experienced, 'Reading another person's essay, aggressively drawing out its contradictions.' And so on.

I have referred here before to the poetry of Li Shangyin (c. 813–858). The reason I'm now mentioning this book (published as New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #14) is because one of his lists pertains to landscape: 'Scenery-Killers'. Here are the thirteen things Li complained about, which I've re-ordered and accompanied with a modern interpretation.

Damaged landscape: 'A weeping willow, felled'

Inappropriate architecture: 'Raising a tower on the ridge of a mountain'

Land use confusion: 'Vegetables planted in a fruit orchard'

Incongruous nature: 'Under a flowered arbor, rearing poultry' 

Incongruous underwear: 'Undergarments drying below blossoms'

Poor parking: 'A horse tethered to a stone pillar'

Disrespecting the beauty of the night: 'Carrying a flame in moonlight'

Obscuring nature with something artificial: 'A mat spread over moss'

Encumbered landscape appreciation: 'Carrying something heavy on a spring outing'

Hierarchy disrespected: 'A high-ranking officer on foot'

Nature appreciation thwarted: 'Among pines, ordered to make way'

Unexpected sadness: 'Looking at flowers, falling tears'

And not rising to the occasion: 'Speaking of mundane affairs at a banquet of courtesans'