Monday, June 30, 2008

Brown Studies of Mid-Winter

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, c.1824

J M W Turner, Shade and Darkness: Evening of the Deluge, 1856

Ivan Aivasovsky, Storm, 1886
Turner has just opened at The Met, and the New York summer is simmering with his sublime and stormy vortices. Yet, Turner is more in tune with the dark and brooding mid-winter mood that pervades the south of the southern hemisphere at present. The days struggle by, life is eked out, the small servings of sunshine are so diluted as to be all but pointless. And so the mind counters with its store of memories. Of encounters with Constable in England, and of remembering the trip to the Russian State Museum and the Hermitage, and the revelation of Ivan Aiavasovsky, those tumultuous, turbulent images ... an amplification of winter's depths, and a moment of ascetic, aesthetic pleasure on a morning of pack ice and freezing fog, in a brown study ... winter is a nineteenth century season ...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reading Reveries

Reading The Bird Artist means a simultaenous re-reading of The Shipping News. Not literally re-reading, but re-visiting, re-plotting, re-living. E Annie Proulx's book was a central thread of a design project some years ago, of narrating by knots, and through this process of a re-working of a work it becomes almost pathologically ingested, as part of one's self. At one stage there was a total seamlessness between The Shipping News and my methodology of design, a hybrid had formed. And as part of this an eidetic placefulness developed, even now, at the slightest mention of Newfoundland, it is all suddenly there again, augmented by a past friendship with a native of Halifax, whose accent was richly twisted, rolling and imbricated, marvellous to listen to. The project was fixated on the concept of the monument, and it had become, appropriately, buried in the sands of time.

Exhuming words from the past ...

Knots are thickenings, fastenings, aides-memoire. A knot is a hard part in an otherwise soft material, a concentration, a gnarly bit. A knot can join two things, be a sign of unity: tying the knot. Knots can give strength, hold something in, keep it in place. A knot in a handkerchief is a reminder of something, and has come to symbolise the act of remembering. Knots vary greatly in their symbolism, as anyone who has read Proulx's The Shipping News will testify. Referring to the Ashley Book of Knots, the author uses the knot descriptions to enrich the narrative. Knots are decorative, with entire textiles worked in knots through the art of macramé. Knots are also used in orientation, as in the knotted navigational charts of Pacific Islanders, where knots indicate seamarks and other clues to wayfinding.

Knots are tricky things, they confound and perplex ...

The correct tying of a knot is critical to its efficacy. Any change in direction might mean disaster: "In a knot of eight crossings, which is about the average-size knot, there are 256 different 'over-and-under' arrangements possible.... Make only one change in the 'over and under' sequence and either an entirely different knot is made or no knot at all may result." (The Ashley Book of Knots in Proulx 1993). Orientation is important in monuments too ... the monument to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the first British expedition to the South Pole, contrasts with the other figurative statues in Christchurch, in that it is pointing northwards. This means the light falls directly onto the face of the statue (the sun shines from the north in the Southern Hemisphere), and the play of chiaroscuro is not as great as on those statues which face east or west. However, the orientation of Scott is highly symbolic and critical to the monument's effectiveness. Scott and his companions perished on their homeward journey, heading north. The Scott memorial immortalises this unfinished northward journey, and underscores the significance of the orientation of monuments.

And so on, where the analogy of the knot is central, driving a process of divining and designing ...

"Though analogy is often misleading, it is the least misleading thing we have."
Samuel Butler, Notebooks, 1918

The Shipping News' knots, and The Bird Artist's birds, both evoke that melancholy longing ... the elusive completion of a collection, yet the not wanting to. Proulx's Quoyle and Norman's Fabian Vas stand nearly a century apart, yet both are within a certain timelessness, amongs the threads and snags of what time is, what place is, or to cite Kevin Lynch's now cliched title 'what time is this place?" Resonances ricochet back and forth, in that ambience of place, in the concern with the thingness of things, of knots, of birds, of drawing - ink, paper, paint, of Quoyle writing for the newspaper the Gammy Bird. Time compresses into a mere wisp, and turns upon itself...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Listening and watching

On days like this the gulls come reeling up the valley, as the rain pours down, and sheets of water cover the hills, the river nearly filled to overflowing. The water is brown and swirling, filled with sediment and other impediments like branches and nature's bric-a-brac. The gulls' calls are reporting a storm at sea, and their forlorn and salt-laden cries are carried away on the wind. The looping forms bring The Love Artist back to mind again ...

Sea birds are swooping and shrieking overhead – one, it seems, in particular. He glances up: its wings came close that time, and he does not like the look of its beak. It soars off into the sky, and he shields his eyes and follows. Far now, just a speck, it swings in great looping circles, drawing O’s and O’s against the blue. On and on they go, those circles, graceful and languorous…
Suddenly, with an irrepressible surge of ego, of desire, of wild awful need, Ovid believes the O is for him. Immaculate, principal, ovate letter! Yes, it is – it is a sign – showing that he shall be fixed in the sky as he so awfully longs to be: borne aloft, transfigured, forever.

Language in the landscape, Rudyard Kilping, Just So. Imagining the W ... “a little bit of the winding Wagai River for the nice windy-windy wa-sound”...

And then the smell of firewood, newly cut, sappy, and the smoke from the chainsaw hanging for a moment in the rain-soaked air. Helen Keller, “The other day I went to walk toward a familiar wood. Suddenly a disturbing odour made me pause in dismay. Then followed a peculiar measured jar, followed by dull, heavy thunder. I understood the odor and the jar only too well. The trees were being cut down.”

A grey day, but one inhabited by presences, words woven into world ...

Words for Mid-Winter, June 2008, JB

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Spawning Season

It is one of those times when books begin arriving ... they make their way with a stoic deliberateness to my door, and are there mewling on the step when I arrive home. Unpacking them, placing them together, the words of Norman O. Brown come to mind, from his book Closing Time, (about an unlikely juxtaposition of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake with Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova) that "two books get on top of one another and spawn." Presently spawning are Umberto Eco's On Ugliness (a lusciously revolting companion to his History of Beauty) and E M Cioran's Tears and Saints. The sparks flying between the two are intriguing, as they strangely cohabit the same sublime marshes, way beyond the pale. Both invite mid-winter dips, plunging suddenly and shockingly into the water, then emerging, with a splutter and an alarmingly heightened sense of one's self. Navigating the two with a randomness borne of surrealistic strategies (vague and senseless instructions to look at particular pages, certain paragraphs, exquisitely corpsing the two together) a call and response ensues ...
Cioran: Life is not, and death is a dream. Suffering has invented them both as self-justification. man alone is torn between an unreality and an illusion.
Eco's echo: Take this, and that for you again! -- But hold now I am seized by a tremor. What a torment! What a delight! Like kisses. My bones are melting. I am dying [...] (from an extract of Flaubert's The Temptation of St Anthony)

Cioran: In fact, there is only God and me. His silence invalidates us both.

Another Eco extract, this one from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (describing the devil...): He is a rather scrawny man, not very tall and even shorter than I am, wearing a casual beret pulled down over on ear, while on the other side reddish hair sprouts from his temple. He has reddish eyelashes, flushed eyes, and an ashen face, and the tip of his nose curves downwards a little. Over a stitched shirt with diagonal stripes he wears a check jacket, with sleeves that are too short, from which stubby-fingered hands emerge. His trousers are too tight and his shoes so beaten up that they can no longer be cleaned. A pimp, a parasite, with the voice of a theatre actor.
Cosson Smeeton

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Palimpsests and tapestries

And so, if 'reality is a shell game' ... as Michael Taussig observes below, where's the pea? Is there one? Where is the art of history, and the contingency of fact, not to mention the science of fiction? After all, as Artemis Cooper writes, in a deftly wrought piece on Matrin Edmond's Luca Antara, "history is more than a series of facts laid out in the right order."

Patrick Wright strolls across my vision, bearing his A Journey Through Ruins, where he 'accumulates' history as a montage. In an interview, for the Strangely Familiar group's book The Unknown City, Wright conveyed his task of tacking between the real and the not so real, "It is quite true that I combined objective description with occasional disappearances into rhetoric and even fiction. I never faked the archive, but I did sometimes allow my perceptions to override reality or to twist it a bit. I would justify this on several grounds. To begin with, it is a way of saying that this street, in this incarnation, doesn't exist except as I put it there. ... Obviously, you can't fix a street. The minute you've finished it it's gone, although actually it's you that's gone, not it."

It is a cliché to call history a palimpsest, yet it remains an apposite term, evoking the obscuring and revealing that filters the reality of the past. The flatbed, as in the work of Robert Rauschenberg (who died last month), is a palimpsest of sorts, an accumulative surface, where things collect. The flatbed enlisted the idea of the printing press of that name, where the plate was wound through the press, squashing and compressing the gathered fragments together, changing their form, and their relationship to the other collected pieces. And the filmic sense of montage, of cross cutting, jump cutting, and the like, plays the shell game too, of undoing certainty, of leaving lingering doubt, of just where that pea is now.

The places where memories inhere vibrate with potential, whether fictional or factual, or somewhere in between. Pierre Nora's magisterial study of the landscape of France, the lieux de mémoire, maps the palimpsestuous terrain, of remembered and misremembered sites. Nora moved from the idea of milieux to lieux to mark the shift from a shared, collectivity of memory sites, to the more particular, place-centred sites. He began his seven volume Les Lieux de Mémoire in 1984, and the project took eight years to complete. A year before this, in 1983, Benedict Anderson had written Imagined Communities (a new edition of which has recently been produced with an intriguing retrospective essay by Anderson in which he carries out an acrobatic self-critique ... a fascinating reflection on the effect an author can have on the trajectory of thinking), and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger published their The Invention of Tradition, another insightful work, which charges straight to the wavering line between fact and fiction. While all of the above works have, in turn, been subjected to extensive critique, their important contribution lies in their agitation of the taken-for-granted associations between history and story telling, and the untying of the neat knots of the past...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Memories of the Future

Squint Opera's recent project, Flooded London, is showing as part of the London Festival of Architecture. Amongst the images sent to me was one which sent shivers down my spine, a wormhole between the centuries, echoing Gustave Doré's engraving of The New Zealander, from 1872. Squint Opera's figure is about to dive off the ledge of St Paul's Whispering Gallery, into an interior flooded by rising sea levels. While Doré's New Zealander is outside, in both time and space, sketching the ruins of St Paul's. The images destabilise conceptions of permanence, and offer instead the frisson of history rubbing up against the imagination, a fantastic frottage.

Squint Opera, St Paul's

Gustave Doré, 1872, The New Zealander

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rainy Days

Scaup on the River Avon, Rainy Sunday, jb

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Art of History

Marian Maguire, 2005, Shrewd Odysseus finds his bearings
while Tawhirimatea, half brother of Poseidon, looks on

The mnemon epitomised the Greek's memory powers, as someone practised in the art of memory, remembering without need to resort to recording in any way. Mnemons worked in the courts, as recollectors of proceedings, writing nothing down, versed in the skills of total recall. Beyond the courts, they were the attendants of mythical figures, acting as their supplementary memory banks.

Marian Maguire, 2002, Achilles carries Penthesilea through Doubtful Sound (Auckland City Art Gallery)

Following along behind Achilles was, therefore, a mnemon, who had intricate knowledge of the complex tapestry of the hero's life. As a mnemic prosthesis, the attendant issued reminders of the potential consequences of certain actions. For example, a mnemon was appointed to remind Achilles not to kill a son of Apollo, as if he did so he would in turn be killed. This particular mnemonic act was flawed, with the reminder not taking place as required, and the mnemon's life taken instead as a consequence.

Marian Maguire, 2007, Kupe and Herakles dispute the whereabouts of the Pass while Julius Haast affects Disinterest

Epic works such as the Iliad were recited by the mnemons, whose memory training prepared them for their role as cultural repositories, as archives of myth and lore. And in Maori waiata the connections to a mythical past, as well as the navigational routes to areas of harvest, places of pounamu, the loci of the metaphysical moments, were recalled and activated in song, in incantation. Like the phenomenon of the mnemon, the remembering was alive in the ether, not frozen on the page or in a vitrine.

Marian Maguire, 2005, A New Zealander by Parkinson and Ajax by Exekias play draughts (Auckland City Art Gallery)

The role of rememberer, whether attending to the broad sweep of history or the particular history of one's assigned mythical hero, is at a point of creative fusion. Insistently pushing upon memory is forgetting, and the mnemon may draw a veil over a forgotten moment by means of a crafted apparent truth. And at this point, history and story telling coalesce, myth and truth ebb and flow, and the mnemon moves elusively through the labyrinth of memory ...

"...reality is a shell game. Our writing should be too..."

Michael Taussig (2006) Walter Benjamin's Grave

(For more of Marian Maguire's work, see

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Two in the Bush

There's something about the thrill of the hunt that makes events like book sales magnetic. The annual library sale is an event of epic proportions, 800 people already waiting in line before it opened. Carefully avoiding this particular spectacle, the search began somewhat later, by which time the neatly classified tables (Science, Medicine and Health, Home and Garden, Fiction and Literature (an intriguing distinction), Art and Craft, etcetera) were completely hybridised. A defiant sea of uncategorised books awaiting - an entire gymnasium full of trestle tables, with books arrayed spine-up. The adrenalin pulses. Across the table from me two mature gentlemen with strong accents are planning their search strategy. One of them had recently been into the library to get a particular book, and was told it had been taken to the book sale: he was determined to find it. He described it to his companion, in terms so universal it was enough to bring a sigh, an expression of the magnitude of their task. I looked up and they smiled across the table, a communal moment of needle-in-haystack dauntingness. The furtive searching at all the tables all around was tinged with urgency, as though driven by some insatiable need to read, people were stockpiling, taking their hauls from the tables to the side of the gym, where towers of books wavered about. My own harvest was small, precise. After several tables of picking up and putting back, and while I was on Medicine and Health, I spied The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, a title which had gone straight into my mind when I recently read someone writing about it, the title had resonated with a favourite book of my own, Jane Alison's The Love Artist (a re-sampling of the past, one of those works which re-situates all of history within the fiction category, telling of a few lost days in Ovid's life, where he encounters his muse ...). On this same table, about 10 books along, a spine leapt forward, Peter Ackroyd's English Music, which I had been meaning to read, and fate had tweaked the necessary threads. A perfect harvest on a winter's day. The two gentlemen were nowhere to be seen ... had they found the book, given up ... or simply been swallowed up by the vast ocean of tomes, agitated by the furtive dashing, hither and yon, of the book feeders, filling their pantries for the long winter ahead ...

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Garden of Disquiet

An invitation arrived. To design a house for Fernando Pessoa. Yet ... should it be a house? Should it not be a garden, a place of mercurial mysteries, secrets, veils? A landscape where one might assume any one of a number of guises, like Pessoa's personas? A place of harvest, of memory, of dark sounds ... Pessoa's poetry set on fire with the fado ... of hauntings and doppelgangers, (dis)appearances ... shouldn't it, then, be a garden?

Fernando Pessoa's Sopra demais o Vento as fado / tango

Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on. There are necessary poisons, and some are extremely subtle, composed of ingredients from the soul, herbs collected among the ruins of dreams, black poppies found next to the graves of our intentions, the long leaves of obscene trees whose branches sway on the echoing banks of the soul’s infernal rivers
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Italian Fountains, Hyde Park, one year ago today, jb

The static motion of the trees; the troubled quiet of the fountains; the indefinable breathing of the sap's deep pulsing; the slow arrival of dusk, which seems not to fall over things but to come from inside them and to reach its spiritually kindred hand up to that distant sorrow (so close to our soul) of the heavens' lofty silence; the steady and futile falling of leaves, drops of estrangement in which the landscape comes to exist only in our hearing, and it becomes sad in us like a remembered homeland - all of this girded us uncertainly, like a belt coming undone.
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Alvaro Siza is part of Pessoa's constellation. An architect of grace and strength, designer of one of the very best and most subtle landscapes: the swimming pool at Leça da Palmeira in Portugal, and fantastic fusions of architecture and gardens. It should, most definitely, be a garden ...

Friday, June 6, 2008

Publication date: October 2008, Oldcastle Books, UK
(available for pre-order now on Amazon)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Laying out a Ley Line

Ley lines vibrate with invisible forces. Skewering through cities, suturing landscapes. These lines have seduced me in designing, as means of revelation, so now it's time to live it, to walk the line. An exercise in plotting, both mischievously and cartographically, is now underway. There are many lines of force running across Europe, and I'm adding a new one, joining the dots between architectures and landscapes of poetry, places of huge magnetism. My line is the black one, although the red one is also curiously mesmerising ...

The line begins at Santiago de Compostela - appropriately a pilgrimage site. More recently this is the site of the vastly unfurling edifice by Peter Eisenman, the City of Culture.

Then, another place of rippling surfaces, the Bilbao Guggenheim, Gehry's silvery sculpture. I used to think the Bilbao Effect was like Stendhal Syndrome, which could be a motif for this linear tour ...
Along the coast further is Portbou, site of Walter Benjamin's suicide, and the memorial designed by Dani Karavan, called Passages - and thus a necessary Port of call for many reasons ...
A few more things along the line ... such as the homage site for the Nebra Sky Disk, as in the post prior to this one, the Nebra Ark ...
And ultimately ending with Peter Eisenman, an echo of the line's beginning, a site which features large on my field of internal vision, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, a fitting point of punctuation, a sense of an eternal ending ....
And, so, this is the plan for next year, or something like this ... all donations gratefully received ...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Heavenly Piece

Tools of divination. Enigmatic devices. At the intersection of science and art, physics and metaphysics, theory and mythology, lie objects of intense intrigue. The Claude Glass and Camera Obscura are two moments of fascination that lie at this nexus. Another is the Nebra Sky Disk. A portable planetarium, and a work of extreme beauty, the Nebra Sky Disk is a Bronze Age relic, the size of a large dinner plate. Crafted in 1600 BC, the Sky Disk inhabited the earthly realm until 1999 when it was unearthed at Nebra in Germany, over three millennia later. It was such a remarkable object that it was initially considered to be a fake find, a fabricated artefact. The disk acts as a celestial clock or calendar, where it could be held up to the heavens, and aligned with features of the night sky. Notches around the edges as well as the constellations and planetary bodies depicted provided the coordinates for connecting with the vastness of lunar and solar time.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Up the Hawdon Valley, Arthur's Pass, June 2008

"I like water, especially brooks. The sea is too vast. I don't fear it; it is just monotonous. In nature I like smaller things. Microcosm, not macrocosm; limited surfaces. I love the Japanese attitude to nature. They concentrate on a confined space reflecting the infinite. Water is a mysterious element ... because of its structure. And it is very cinegenic; it transmits movement, depth, changes. Nothing is more beautiful than water." Andrei Tarkovsky