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Monday 28 May 2007

Myths and Antony Gormley

I have been taken gently to task by a correspondent who accuses me of two sins, one of omission and the other of commission - though I am not sure which is which. One concerns my post on Antony Gormley (13 May) and the other, my article on "Myth: Public and Personal" (21 May), though both relate to the work of Antony Gormley.

Did I not realise, John (of Chesterfield) asks, that many of Antony Gormley's figures are cast, not from his own body, but from the bodies of others - mostly friends and volunteers? Well, yes I did and I apologise for the slip, though in truth I had not realised the extent to which he uses others, had I done so I would have noted it in my post, so I suppose that is a slip both of commission and omission. For some installations friends and volunteers have been numbered in the hundreds, I now realise.

The other point is more fundamental, and the reason for this reply. Furthermore, by a remarkable coincidence the same point was made - in a somewhat different form - in an article on Gormley published in last Saturday's Guardian: that the artists of genius who changed art for ever early in the last century and who, in doing so, "gave us" primitive art, took no interest in the cultures from which that art came - and therefore took no interest in the "meaning" of the artifacts from which they lifted what merely took their fancy. In other words, they took no interest in the myths behind the art works that they plundered.

John's contention is that Gormley is pre-eminent among the few who have taken such an interest, who have explored the cultural "meaning" of the artifacts and have found inspiration (and more than inspiration - a driving force) in the belief systems underlying the art. His art is not about "isolation in isolation" (Did I suggest it was?), but about how we live alone and with one another, about society, in other words, and the myths that sustain or threaten it and us. And about the artifacts that carry those myths.

There are points here worthy of further thought and research, I feel.

Saturday 26 May 2007

Have You Done?

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a fairly insignificant institution, smaller than France or Germany, is in dispute with one of its intended exhibitors, Christoph Büchel, a Swiss artist whose installation is the bone of contention. Büchel began assembling his work last year for a show, The Training Ground of Democracy, that was due to open in December. To date he has assembled in its football pitch-sized hall, an oil tanker, a smashed police car, and a two-story house that was cut into four and reassembled indoors. Obviously, Büchel has no intention of stopping there, and does not wish the visitors to view it in its present unfinished state. The Mass Mus, on the other hand, maintain that a lot of people have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the show, and the people are entitled to walk past and view the growing pile of materials being assembled.

My interest in all this lies in the fact that it has resurrected another of those conundrums that once exercised the best brains of my art school (see blog 18 Jan : It's How He Sees It): When exactly, is a work of art finished?

With some works the answer is clear enough. A statue, once the final casting has been made, would not normally cry out for more to be done to it - although even here there might be some room for disagreement. A fresco, on the other hand, is finished (I guess) when the last bit of plaster has dried. All things are a matter of degree, of course, for the problem becomes critical in the case of some art forms. A watercolour, treated to one brush stroke too many, can go from a sparkling clarity that is the joy of the medium, to a muddy patch, fit only for the growing of vegetables.

In the case of poetry, the situation changes again. Here you may change and develop to your heart's content, knowing that you will always have the original, or the previous, version to fall back on if you overdo things. It is well said (for many poets, at least) that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.

The case of poetry raises another question: at what point does a new version become a new poem? It sounds like a false conundrum, does it not? Analogous to: at what point is a twisted belt, twisted. But it highlights a deeper dilemma: should we always accept the creator's view of these matters? Is there an alternative? Maybe there is no way in which the poser could be answered in terms both absolute and aesthetic, but what about in moral terms? And if there is a moral answer, could it be important, or is it only the aesthetic that matters where art is concerned? Again, if there is a moral aspect, will that always be on the side of the artist? Let me put a hypothetical question: I have entered a poem for a major competition and it has been placed first by the judges. However, the rules of the competition state that it must not have been previously published. Unfortunately, in the opinion of the sponsors, it has. Or has it? They point to an earlier version that was published in a magazine, but I claim (and genuinely believe) that to have been a different poem: some lines were the same (How many does it take?), but it is shorter, has a different title, the structure has changed, the lineation is different, etc, etc - How much does it take? Whose judgment should prevail, and on what basis? The art world in America is finding it very difficult to adjudicate between Büchel and the MMoCA - which is why the latter is taking Büchel to court for a judicial ruling. Shame it should go that far.

Monday 21 May 2007

Myths : Personal and Public

The May edition of "Acumen", a quarterly periodical of New Poetry and Reviews, carried the response to a call the editor had sent out for the views of poets on the question of whether we (poets, presumably) still need myths. Seventeen, mainly short, replies which occasioned a change of title from "Myths: do we still need them?" to "Myths: why we still need them".

It seems to me that if we are to talk about myths and their place in the creation of art works, then there are three distinct classifications of myth that we might consider: there are the living myths that are the basis of our world's faiths and cultures, vibrant influences in the lives of those who hold them; there are what many would call the dead myths of past faiths and cultures, those of ancient Rome, Greece, China, Egypt or wherever: and there are those that for me at any rate are responsible for the most profoundly resonating works of contemporary art, the private and personal myths that the artist has hammered out for his or herself. I am thinking. for example, of the poems of William Blake and his myth of Albion (and would The Women's Institute sing his Jerusalem as lustily - I use the word advisedly - if they knew what the words meant? ), of Stanley Spencer's myth of Christ coming to Cookham (a myth of the future), of Antony Gormley's sculpture (see previous post), of the "Crow" myths of Ted Hughes and of the myths of absence in the poems of John Burnside, but I could go on indefinitely. You, no doubt could add as many more.

It was not always so. Once the most profoundly resonating myths would have been those that were shared by the vast majority, the myths that had to do with a shared faith. Why the change? There are many reasons. Some no doubt have to do with the cult of individuality and personality, but perhaps also it is that, whereas once the artist would have been a man (usually a man) of faith who just happened to be an artist by trade, working in an artistic tradition which incorporated the shared faith of his people, today he (or she) is more likely to be an artist who just happens to hold a particular faith. One other possibility I have already mentioned: that of the artist who has forged for her or himself a personal and private myth. Where that is the case I often think I hear the hammer blows of that forging resounding in the resulting works.

One of the great myths has to do with descent and rising again. We find it in the Orpheus narrative and, of course, in the Gospels of Jesus Christ. When our western cultures first signed up to the latter, the stage was set for a rich development of a powerful myth that could have taken the new learning which was to come effortlessly in its stride. Science and technology (which it helped to midwife and nuture by insisting that the world was planned, that there was order, logic and explanations to be found) would have fallen into place alongside the ancient elements. There were perhaps three reasons why this did not happen: the obsession of academia with Greco-Roman culture and its myths, the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that only the inner cabal of Pope and cardinals could interpret the myth to an ignorant populace (which they did without ever allowing the slightest breath of change), and the insistence of the Protestant churches that the Holy texts were immutable. In the face of these three stone walls what should have been a poetic drama featuring the representative of both God and man, the folk hero, achieving for the race the potential of the race, became instead an unimaginative stasis, a drying-up of what Coleridge referred to as "the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment".

The personal myth (think of the myths surfacing in the poems of Edwin Muir) and the "borrowed" myth (as in the use made by Seamus Heaney of Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, the bog people and the Sweeney myth) often have much in common with dream - as do all myths in their vibrant days. It is the dream that provides the wind in their sails. Neither scientific analysis by itself, devoid now of any link with faith or myth, nor philosophical discourse, can do full justice to either the great verities of life or the eternal clash of goood and evil. People's fears and hopes, real or imagined, are often irrational to the extent that the hopes cannot be channelled nor the fears assuaged by the wholly rational. But myths are not the product (as that last statement may appear to suggest) of primitive or deranged minds (not even of irrational minds), but rather the prism in which the rays of the natural world and those of the the transcendent show themselves in their true colours. As is well known, cultures from man's first post-tribal times to the present day, and from all round the world, have independently found for themselves myths which in some cases are identical in their essentials and if not identical, bear strong family resemblances both to each other and to dream. But the dream may die, for though myths embody timeless truths, they are not themselves timeless. They are continually being created (think only of the Faust myth and The Lord of the Rings) and like all created, living things must be enabled to change and adapt in order to hold on to life. If that is denied them, they will cease to be that which a myth must be: the essence of a profound truth concerning the human psyche or condition, embedded in a story that makes it usable and memorable.

Sunday 13 May 2007

Antony Gormley

If you watched the Channel 4 documentary on Antony Gormley, "Making Space" (Saturday 12 may) you could hardly have failed to enjoy it as much as I did - unless, that is, you do not appreciate Antony Gormley's work. In which case why would you be watching it?

It wasn't that there was anything much that was new to take away, but simply that I found it fascinating to see and to hear from him what I allready knew, to see him being mummified, wrapped in swaddling bands soaked in plaster. Yes, I did know that his figures were casts from his own body, and that this was the way it was done, but to see the process gave an extra insight and an extra dimension to the knowledge.

Fascinating, too, to hear him on the subject of his own body as his art form, on the spiritual nature of his inspiration and to hear him justifying sculpture as as a still point in a moving world. Certainly, many of his sculptures have an eeriness about them that is both spiritual and in some way to do with stillness. Think for example of his sculptures on the beach, the "Thinking" sculptures, and "Event Horizon" (see below), all have that same indefinable quality.

Enthralling to hear his testimony to the importance of Egyptian sculpture in his own artistic development. He spoke tellingly of the way in which they did not try to make it look as though it could move, were quite happy with its resolute immovability, the way it just WAS. I think I began to see Egyptian sculptures with different eyes: its roundness, the way in which, to quote Matisse on Michelangelo's sculptures "you could roll them down hill until most of the surface elements had been knocked off and the form would still remain". (strange coincidence: I couldn't recall the actual quote or who said it of whom, but there it was in Saturday's Guardian - read on Sunday - in an article on the sculptures of Matisse. Thank you God!)

Insightful to hear at first hand, with visual illustration, how his visit to the subcontinent of India kick-started ("seeded" was the word he used) all that has come from him since. It was primarily, I heard (and this was new to me), the sight of people sleeping in public, in the open air that gave him his first forms - shapes fashioned from sheets soaked in plaster draped over the "sleeping" forms of friends.

I was less impressed by his "Blind Light" exhibition being installed at The Hayward, but then he might legitimately argue that as Blind Light is intended as an experience rather than an artifact, it can hardly be expected to make its point on the small screen. Blind Light is a cabin he has constructed to contain clouds in which the viewers lose sight of each other, though the light levels remain high. Outside the Hayward is what I suppose he might call a separate extension of the exhibition inside: calling it "Event Horizon", he has dotted figures around the London Skyline on the tops of buildings. This seems typical Gormley.

And finally back to fascinating. Fascinating to see the use he makes of modern technology (computers) to produce "equivalent" forms of figures he has cast. Figures were reduced - if that is an appropriate word - to a construction of boxes, which reminded me of Lego. These were then reproduced in steel, looking nothing like Lego, with rectangular holes like windows cut in their sides, and assembled in the gallery to form what I would have called an approximation to the original figure.


Gormley at Channel4

About Gormley

Friday 11 May 2007

A Turner Prize for poetry?

This week the press has been it's usual ecstatic self about the prospect of another Turner Prize Exhibition. The first foamings at the mouth and muted eulogies coincided with, among the usual junk mail on my mat, a number of pamphlets and information sheets on various poetry competitions, mostly from magazines to which I subscribe or once subscribed. The coincidence led me to wonder what it would be like if poetry had something akin to The Turner Prize.
I read that this year's Turner Prize exhibits are in fact about stuff. And not just about stuff, but about stuff that is relevant to real life. Wow! The bookies' favourite is Mark Wallinger, kind of well-knowm for his "State Britain", a forty feet (or thereabouts) display replicating more than 600 of Brian Haw's anti-war, anti-Blair protest posters and press cuttings etc. You may remember that Brian maintained a determined vigil with them outside the Houses of Parliament until he was forcibly removed by the representatives of law and order. Mark Wallinger might also be remembered for his less dramatic moment of fame at The Venice Biennale, occasioned by his video of himself, outside a London Tube Station, pretending to be a blind man reciting the words of St John's Gospel - backwards.
A poetry equivalent of the Turner Prize could go further than that, it seems to me. I can envisage a poem offering up a London Tube (or maybe New York subway) Station pretending to be a blind man reciting words of mind-bending philosophical thought or deep spirituality, but, just for the hell of it, speaking the words in a left to right orientation, though not necessarily intelligibly.
Even so, poetry would have three almost insurmountable obstacles to any attempt to equal, let alone surpass, The Turner Prize at its own game:
1. Finding a sponsor to come up with that much prize money.
2. I cannot visualise a poem I could walk into.
3. I do not quite see how to get the media fired-up - especially if the money was not forthcoming. Obviously the exhibits would have to be controversial. They could be sexually or politically so, or they could simply be in unacceptably bad taste. Ungrammatical would help, but by itself would be insufficient. Incomprehensible, ditto. They would need to be of such a standard that the press could say of them: "My five year old could have done better", etc, etc. And if there could be something about them that would allow certain TV newscasters to grin, snigger or make snide comments, so much the better.
Have you detected yet that I am fired-up about the prospect? So much so that I promise here and now to produce such a poem (mutatis mutandis) to coincide with the opening of this year's Turner Prize Exhibition - though actually I am not sure when that is! I can already see an image I might use: it is an image of myself with my tongue coming through my cheek. Nevertheless, there it is: a solemn promise!

Friday 4 May 2007

Things on the Dark Side

Heard in a waiting room: "This? Kazuo Ishiguro.'Never Let Me Go'. Can't put it down. Very Dark. All his books are dark. Love him to bits!"
"You're into 'dark' then, are you?"
"To me, a story with no dark bits is like dinner with no garlic!"
"What does that say about you, I wonder?"

Not too much, I hope, for I, too, am a fan of Ishiguro and enjoyed "Never Let Me go" very much. "Enjoy" may not be the right word, but this is not the right place to debate it. The point of quoting that little exchange is to say that it started me thinking about the dark side as it has been explored in art and poetry - and to wonder about its prevalence.

Darkness comes in various forms and guises, though. There is the darkness of, say, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, which is perhaps an all-pervading pessimism of outlook. There is the fatalism of Yeats's "Two Songs of a Fool", and there is the darkness beneath the beauty of Blake's "Sick Rose" from "Songs of Innocence and Experience", in which the rose is sick because of its dark secret, its repressed sexual urges. They are illicit and hidden that should be open and shared with others.

I find my self most moved by stories of the everyday in which the dar elements are hidden and come upon you in ways which are unexpected and/or inexplicable. As Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" puts it:
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sylvia Plath has surely suffered from an over-concentration on what I might call the "not waving, but drowning" perception which the public has of her in general, and of the whole dynamics of her marriage, together with the overshadowing of her work by that of Ted Hughes. (Almost, she could have written the Stevie Smith poem herself.) Some of her poems may appear at first glance to be childishly simple, but such terrain can hide life's dark things as effectively as mountains can hide brigands or terrorists.

"Mary's Song" is an excellent example of the shadow in the everyday:

"The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat.
The fat
Sacrifices its opacity....

A window, holy gold.
The fire makes it precious,
The same fire

Melting the tallow heretics,
Ousting the jews."

"The Birthday Present" begins with a child's simplicity, though the vocabulary is not childish:

"What is this behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?"

but in no time at all the world we are in becomes first of all eerie and then violent:

"When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking"


"The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,"

In The Beekeepers Daughter the bees provide a world in which the threat and menace go hand-in-hand with all that is erotic, even amatory, not to say lustful. The event powering the poem is the death of her father

"The great corollas dilate, peeling back their silks,"

"A well of scents almost too dense to breathe in,"

But then:
"My heart under your foot, sister of a stone."
She uses the image of a stone frequently in her poems. Here, of course, it speaks of subjugation. more generally - and here - it speaks of being reduced to a state of inertia, almost comatose, a minimalist core perhaps. One more quote to convey the feeling of the poem:
"In these little boudoirs streaked with orange and red
The anthers nod their heads, potent as kings
To father dynasties. The air is rich.
Here is a queenship no mother can contest -"

For my painter, I have chosen Odilon Redon
Actually, there are two Redons: there is the Redon who was an admirer of artists like Corot, the Redon who created light, airy landscapes, vases of flowers and suchlike, almost an impressionist at times, and there is the Redon whose art was an exploration of dark dreams and visions, who gave us plants with animal heads, and whose picture frames were filled with dark and gloomy images executed in large part in black chalk, charcoal, pastel and gouache. For this Redon black was his "Prince of colours", and his subjects ranged from isolated figures in rocky landscapes to Biblical themes. Typical titles were "Angel in Chains", "Faust and Mephistopheles", "Apparition" and "Cactus Man".

Imagination always took precedence over observation, and there would always be a dark, velvety blackness at the heart of an image.

One important influence was his friend, the botanist, Armand Clavaud, who was pursuing theories of his concerned with the animal characteristics of plants, so we find a dwarf embedded in a tree, fused with it might be a better description ("Spirit of the Forest") or the figures of Death and Lust similarly fused in works inspired by the writings of Flaubert.

Here is what Redon himself had to say about his monsters:My monsters. I believe that it is there I have given my most personal note. I worked and studied a great deal on anatomy to arrive at the conclusion that everything is man- in every living being one finds under individual forms the lines of the human skeleton. It is with this principle in mind that I deformed, made larger or simplified an aspect of my embryonic beings. If any part of my work should last I believe that it should be my monsters.