Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Photographic Memory

Venice, December 1992, J Bowring

It was like trying to lay a negative over a printed photograph so that they coincided, so that there were no gaps -- of white and black -- and she just couldn't manage it. It was like trying to do it in a dream.

Nina Berberova, The Book of Happiness

Returning to places, to people, is always fraught. Anticipation. Expectation. The elusiveness of times past. Nostalgia and melancholy circle the impossibility of return. But places are seductive. Their call rings out over the years. And this particular siren, Serenissima ... the most serene ... Venice. And again the call comes to visit in the time of darkness, dampness, dankness. Memories remain of the last visit, low light, diffusion, imprecision. The water of the lagoon covered the Piazza San Marco and the squares navigated on raised boardwalks, as on a stage, dancing with others making their way through the city. And the water was knee deep in the Basilica, and while the visitors glided in on the board walk, elevated, in a moment of micro-transcendence, the attendants stood about in their waders - thigh-high gumboots. Profane footwear for a sacred site. The return ... the photographic memories still insistent ... but soon to float like negatives over a newly processed scene ...
Venice - The Lido, December 1992
(click images to enlarge)

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Book in the Hand...

Winging its way in today, from the far side of the planet ... the first copy! Now published, A Field Guide to Melancholy, featuring the photographs of Laurence Aberhart, the master of melancholy.

A profound experience. The journey into print, thrilling, daunting. And now, here it is, complete with 'new book' smell, divine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Birds

They'd been there for a long time, haunting the subconscious. Decades. A favourite book from childhood, line drawings of New Zealand native species. Page after page. Seals and shells, fish and flies, wetas and katipos ... and birds. The descriptions as eidetic as the drawings. The Wandering Albatross (top), "is one of nine magnificent species found in New Zealand waters. These birds range the vast turbulent southern ocean, but at least seven of them nest regularly on selected breeding grounds either among the southern islands of New Zealand or at the Chatham Islands." Seeing them again, in daylight as it were, is startling. Remembering them from the dreamed flock in the night, the flock of many species. Realising, in a small epiphany, where they came from. That book. Which sits there in the sediments of memory, settling in the subconscious. To form that flock that fluttered through a dream, the heavy wing beats of the fully palpable chunky birds.
Perhaps one should not 'pluck at the heart of mystery', yet, there is certain delight in discovery, reunion.

"The ibis is splendid. The owl working over the trout with its talons has a proper ferocity, and I'd recommend that you put birds into action more often -- have them doing something." Isaac Sprague to Fabian Vas. Howard Norman, The Bird Artist.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Return

Back to the beach. The subconscious is such a powerful force. However much the conscious self asserts itself, dancing around places, memories, thoughts, avoiding them, we are at the mercy of our dreaming selves. Like Freud's 'inbox' - that the dream works to empty the accumulation of things not dealt with - the dream created a surreal landscape that coalesced the fragments of place and space. Here but not [t]here. On the beach a swarm of mayflies form a perfect sphere. They do this around the beach and along the lake edges - not in spheres, in general - but in huge pulsing dark forms that appear and disappear as they dart from side-on to front-on. But here they were, forming a perfect globe, hovering above the stony shore. Each time I raised my camera, they flew to the four winds. Then, up in the sky, more mirabilia ... a flock of birds swoop low, revealing their strong, muscular forms. Yet each bird in the flock was of a different species ... all large and chunky ... an albatross, a black-backed gull, a paradise duck, a kereru, one of the lake's black swans ...

The haunting continues, as the birds fly with certain menace, meanness, meaning business...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A view into the sublime heart of things, flying today ... (click for large view)...

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Sun is Singing

Then, on the higher ground, up in the mountains, the beach finally fades, and the stars come forwards, not only are they palpably clear ... but you can hear them ... the singing of the sun, its electromagnetic humming, is an arcane acoustic event. One must be attuned to the drumming, which, it is said (by the scientists) to be doing the opposite of a drum skin. It's becoming higher in pitch over time, the sun's tune is morphing slowly from its early bass days, and now moving up the scale, a solar baritone. And perhaps, if that's the sun one can hear, our closest star, then what of the vast cosmic chorus, and the song of the spheres ... and even our very own moon, the words of the Spanish poet with the perfectly lunar name come to mind, "The moon is silently singing - / one should hear it with one's eyes; / a white and lulling song, / a song of secret love." (Miguel de Unamuno)

Thomas Cole, Expulsion: Moon and Firelight, c. 1828

Friday, October 3, 2008

High Ground

Looking back out to sea, from the plains, brings a shiver ... just yesterday there was tsunami warning. The fishermen out at the river mouth saw it coming, they're adamant, it was there in the water, a huge wave coming towards them. A big dark shape, they said, a line, getting wider and wider, coming in from the horizon. Everyone tried to leave - and the police issued a reassuring broadcast. The authorities decided it couldn't have been a hoax since there were reports from all over. So what was it? Where did it go...?
And still the smoke is rising ... while moving further inland, away from the plains, and upwards, to the mountains, fleeing the sinister scene below ... and here the landscape closes in, claustrophobic. The shingle slides on the mountainsides are unnerving, it seems that the whole place is always on the move, it grinds away like the gravelly beach far off in the distance. The orogeny grumbles like an ogre ... and there is suddenly an intense loneliness, here in the high mountain pass ... like Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, from around 1818 ... but then in the shadow of the high cliff, another figure, suddenly coming forwards, looks like Jacques Derrida, that shock of hair, and I'm remembering the description of him by Hélène Cixous ...

The first time I saw Jacques Derrida (it must have been in 1962) he was walking fast and sure along a mountain's crest, from left to right, I was at Arachon, I was reading (it must have been Force et signification), from where I was i could see him clearly advancing black on the clear sky, feet on a tightrope, the crest was terribly sharp, he was walking along the peak, from far away I saw it, his hike along the line between mountain and sky which were melting into each other, he had to travel a path no wider than a pencil stroke.

He wasn't running, fast, he was making his way all the way along the crests. Going from left to right, according to the (incarnate) pace of writing. Landscape without any border other than, at each instant, displacing him from his pace. Before him, nothing but the great standing air. I had never seen someone from our century write like this, on the world's cutting edge, the air had the air of a transparent door, so entirely open one had to search for the stiles [...]

And further, Mark Tansey's painting appeared, the image, Derrida Queries de Man from 1990, of him seemingly wrestling with Paul de Man on a high mountain pass, or am I seeing things ...

To the In-land

Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal

And then, inland from the lake, are the vast plains. Built from gravel, they're like a stony sponge. The water held within in them, artesian. Overlaid with an enormous grid, Cartesian. Ordered. Plain, indeed. Visitors, from Overseasia, marvel at the plains. They are like a garden! they exclaim. Look at the hedges.

But the hedges are sinister. Dark, macrocarpa. A peculiar plant, blessed with a toxic halo effect, such that everything around it always seems to die, or at least to never grow. Driving across the plains, the macrocarpa hedges ebb and flow, dancing in parallax, creating spaces, rooms. Theatrical. Absurd. And on, still fleeing the haunted beach, the smoke still ascending from the pyre, an arabesque into the air, the curlicue as question mark, hanging above the distant sea.

Michael Kenna, Avenue of the Three Fountains, Versailles, France 1996

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Beyond

The long stretch of haunted beach is, in fact, a spit - an attenuated gravel bar which contains a large lake. The lake is fairly shallow, but it's still possible to row across it, although it isn't advised. Over the years the lake has become a very dark place, filled with dead fish, decaying eels, the carcasses of cattle, a place to dispose of things ... the edges are marshy, ill-defined, it's easy to sink down into them, down, down ... the miasma that lingers creates unease, dis-ease, hovering above the mire. The vaporous atmosphere plays games, a liquid sky which refracts the light, creating all manner of effects ... reminding one of the difference between the Venetians and the Florentines, and how the misty atmosphere of Venice ripples through the art of that luscious lacustrine city, a place of optical illusion, atmospheric legerdemain ... And then here, in the light, on the lake, there are apparitions. Boats, figures, presences, then melting into that strange nothingness that hovers over the lake. Another image in mind, Bocklin's Isle of the Dead, from 1880, the first of his five incarnations of this same scene, itself an evocation of another place ... and now hanging here, in the air, fantastic, phantasmatic ...