Category Archives: art

The production designer and the egg

The FT recites the commonplace observation that curvaceous, minimalist 1960s commercial designs look “space-age”, as if inspired by 1960s SF films, principally 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Furniture inside the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey

which might indeed stand comparison with, say, Maurice Calka’s PDG Desk:

Maurice Calka's PDG Desk

The writer, Josh Sims, says there’s a similar “stripped back, wipe-down, germ-free” vision of the future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I think he might want to refresh his memory of this film:

Kris Kelvin in the rocket bay on the Solaris station

Gibarian's video message to Kelvin in Solaris

But more generally I think he’s missing the point I made rather eloquently in my last post. Isn’t it more likely that, rather than furniture designers looking at film designers, they were all looking at the slightly older generation of modernist sculptors?

Where you fall to if you’re not tied down

Underwater footage from The Wild Blue Yonder

Imagine someone pays for you to go to the Antarctic and make a documentary. Dramatic, beautiful vistas, as pure as the mathematics of air flow and crystallization, which your viewers won’t have seen for themselves. Extraordinary cold. Cliffs of ice. Danger. Explorers enduring unimaginable hardship in the name of science. Penguins. What a nightmare. Where could you possibly start? How could you avoid all the above clichés without ignoring everything that is recognizably Antarctic?

By force of character. That, at least, seems to be Werner Herzog‘s method, Continue reading Where you fall to if you’re not tied down

Addicted to images

cover of La goutte d'or by Michel Tournier
Idriss, a teenage goatherd in the Sahara, encounters two French people in a Land Rover. One, a young woman with blond hair and bare legs, takes his picture. She is taken aback to find that Idriss knows enough French to ask for the photo. She promises to send it once she gets back to Paris and has it developed. No photo arrives. But at a wedding party, he has a revelation: Continue reading Addicted to images

Back to Rothko


Mark Rothko‘s paintings – even the most exact, the black-form paintings – are punctuated by things that look like accidents. Parts of an apparently even-coloured area will be more reflective than others, but you can only see this when the light catches them at a certain angle. The boundary between one block of colour and another seems smudged, as if the brushwork was a bit rough – but it isn’t, the smudging has been added on deliberately. What looks like a lower layer of paint showing through layers that were meant to cover it was in fact added on top.

But then nor is it an accident that these things look like accidents. Rothko must have studied mistakes, accidents, then studiously overlaid them on, or underlaid them beneath, the gross scheme, making ghost paintings that inhabit the same space as the ones that first strike us, the ones that we can see in reproductions. The ghosts are often unphotographable – they reveal themselves only with certain angles of lighting, and with an effort of interpretation – and because of that never all at once.

I like the idea that we should pay attention to accidents and mistakes as well as intentions and successes. I like the idea of not being limited by my imagination, by my desires, my choices. Mistakes are doors to the world beyond me.


On Friday, when Channel 4 News was over and there was nothing else to watch before we went to bed, as usual, early and sober, L decided to burn some incense, something she does more for entertainment than for smell or ambience. First she lit a disc of charcoal from the all-faith religious supplies shop opposite the Round Chapel (where she has also sourced Powerful Indian ‘Do As I Say’ Spiritual Bath & Floor Wash). These discs come in a silver-wrapped stack, and when you light one side a line of sparks marches excitingly across the surface; otherwise the charcoal remains as it was, a precisely formed matt black biscuit, but we believe that, within, it has started to burn.

She put a big lump of incense into the hollow on top of the disc, and I thought, as I always do, of M’s Italian grandmother collecting pine resin for the church, and how he found some resiny bark in Snowdonia that we burned.

Soon it was giving off smoke, and soon the smoke formed a thin, opaque, white column rising dead straight and fast from a turbulent shroud on the upper part of the resin. We gazed at it from close up, exclaiming in wonder at the elegance of this convection made visible. I said this showed how easy it would be to convince someone who didn’t know better that if you could make this happen, you could also talk to spirits, to the dead. L thought it was as if we had turned the flat into a club. She looked across the room and saw that its volume was evenly filled with haze. I got up and took the batteries out of the smoke alarm. Looking down the landing, through the backlit haze, I thought about possible associations of this underwater light: fire, clubs, a film set shot this way to create a feeling of danger, of mystery, of an underworld.

On Sunday morning we were in James Turrell’s Deer Shelter in Yorkshire Sculpture Park; S almost comprehensively defying a sign outside that had suggested that this was a place for quiet contemplation and requested, among other things, that people not eat, drink or light fires, and keep their children under control. It’s a square room with a doorless entrance and a concrete bench running around the walls, which are painted white. It’s reverberant. It’s like a faith-independent chapel or mosque. Eight metres up there is a square hole in the ceiling. The surround of the hole is evidently made of plate metal, as you can’t from any angle see the inner surface of the hole; all you can see is the slightly stained ceiling and then the sky. There’s no gap, no boundary zone; just the ceiling with a square of sky in it.

The sky yesterday morning was a luminous blue, which reminded me, as such skies always do, of the strangely luminous blue skies I saw in Greece; which reminded me of backlit frosted perspex, with unnaturally creamy, high-contrast clouds floating in front. The brightness of the sky was nicely balanced with the brightness of the ceiling: you could take them both in at the same time, so this couldn’t play at being Plato’s cave;
nature didn’t blind me, nor did an imagined “beyond”, the artificial world wasn’t gloomy. It made me think of trompe-l’oeil ceilings, of blue-painted domes, of the games you play with yourself to see how far you can go towards believing that they might be real. Could this square of blue be fake? If I had thought so I would have looked for scratches, for uneven lighting, for a surface discoloured by scorching, or dead insects, or dried scum from a leak, the things that tell you how old a streetlight is, or for fluorescent tubes whose colours don’t match or that flicker. But there was none of that to be seen. The sky is a top-class, self-repairing diffuser. Still, I thought that I might simply be looking at a clever illusion rather than gazing into infinity. But I wasn’t gazing into infinity anyway; just into a volume of scattered light a few miles thick.

There’s no escaping perception. Earlier in the week I had written to D, who is an art academic, in the hope that he would help me clarify what I think about art; in the email I debated with myself, as far as my poor understanding of such things allows, if there can be anything outside discourse. I’ve always been very fond of this picture:

What about the night? I’m sure it’s not too hard to get into the sculpture park after hours, the kind of thing a now somewhat exploded group of us used to enjoy doing, and look up through Turrell’s square into the depths of the universe. That made me think of Olbers’ paradox (not that I could remember its name, but put “paradox night sky stars full” into Google and, praise be to Wikipedia, there it is): if there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and hundreds of trillions of galaxies in the universe, why is a clear night sky mostly black? Shouldn’t it be a uniform blaze of starlight, with stars near and far crowding out any darkness? If there’s a convincing answer to this, it’s not one that I understand.

Atmospherics. Chapels. Contemplation. Science. Fakery. But no beyond. No prayer. And art? Is any of this art?

Why don’t I understand poetry?

L found a book in a second-hand-book shop in Johannesburg called Future Exiles: 3 London PoetsAllen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Brian Catling. It was Paladin Re/Active Anthology No. 1, published by Paladin Poetry in 1992 and edited by Iain Sinclair before he was famous: the jacket blurb, I imagine composed by himself, is as overwritten as you might expect, which makes me smile. Earnest, uncompromisingly un-dumbed-down. A nice bit of Stanley Spencer on the cover. L thought these scarcely known artists would be an inspiration to me.

They were. But I got very little of the work. I liked the words; I felt these were real poets, which perhaps means nothing more than, they weren’t guilty of my notions of fake poetry: neither sententious prose broken up into lines nor a formal exercise in metre and rhyme and image and structure (and sentiment). The words were charged, potent, alive, quivering and breathing (you can add some more appreciate adjectives of your own if you like), the rhetoric and rhythm alert and suggestive and provocative, the poets giving you a shove on the shoulder to make his point. They are, as art should be, irreducible to a moral or message, parable or allegory. Notice that these are all negative definitions, rules about what art is not. The trouble was that beautiful resonance alone didn’t give me a reason to read a second page.

Page 1 (the book begins with Allen Fisher):

1 Business

The sky is not our limit

A perfect fluid where
energy-density equals
pressure and sound-
velocity equals light-
velocity transforms
on the collision of
plane impulsive gravity
into null dust

X-Ray film to X-Ray

Shovel and cloth
or a muffled steel
hits the paving
signals another day
cleaning the summer

Wonderful. Page 2:

‘I’ve Left My Umbrella In A Taxi’

Fuel cracks
horizons over
gun a sound
in deep concrete a
high pitched blue
wheel ticks
weights through
bodies of food beget
hot displeasure fit
anger to uncultivated
din and this defends me

(After Wyatt’s Description of a Gun)

The gambler’s moll at No. 10

He walks up the alley
catches sunshine information
and heat beneath a hanging
honeysuckle where he scrubs
his body with the leaves
flowers resin and scent
extracts a population
of fleas and walks on

I’m starting to lose traction. Staying in low gear, I make it through to Bill Griffiths:

After Stroke

his jacket, boots kept outside the holding cell
I exhale: my breath tastes
as cut and raw veg
ceiling and great flanged tree
roundabouted, grudge
and wedge
the cuss-crush, bits of
death by fire, death by pneumonia, brain-jolting
with major wings
floods, catching.
slow angry I move
like with the heart of a hedgehog –
shocked with drink
Pete starts off to smash
the cell open, forgets it –
volcanoes=volcano will push the trees aside,
tilt and melt, like lightbulbs, till too
superheaven admits no light but a lemon blaze.
but it never comes / chains together,
the similes leap
nothing of it happens
it wldn’t happen, I suppose – morning,
I try to get my legs to move
Alf wakes with his hand in his belt
Pauline doesn’t stir yet – thinking:
it wld be better to burn the money
than be caught w/ it in yr pockets.

the cold roll of the river
the judged spark of cold stony flesh
the solemn sprinkle of bells toward a sun
vast dimensions
pinewoods & pure roadways choose on,
don’t check you

I start skimming, then skipping. And yet it’s a pleasure to type this stuff.

Last comes Brian Catling, a sculptor, installation artist, performer as well as poet. His section opens with prose, a series of pieces called Written Rooms and Pencilled Crimes, each half a page to a page and a half long. Now these, for me, don’t bear exemplification. Most of them describe rooms, and usually there is something going on in the room; often, they might be descriptions of a performance installation. They are, on the whole, simply and beautifully written. Often something painful, cruel or menacing is happening, or there is a horrifying risk of it happening. Often there is magic being worked, or at least, someone having a serious go at it, in a way that those lucky enough to have read The Course of the Heart and other work by M John Harrison might recognise. Lighting and textures are cheap, accidental, dilapidated and intensely considered, just the way I like them.

Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these fragments can’t be explained as extracts from an unwritten story: their before and after loom over them, sure, but we are bound to the present moment or moments under description as if we were present. There is a place: unlike Calvino’s cities, or Borges’ fantasies, which I would also put on this shelf, it is usually physically plausible, somewhere you could build and not just conjure up in words. There are people. Often there is a narrative: one thing follows another, is caused by it; you could write a script.

So after ten written rooms and pencilled crimes, I was excited to reach Catling’s poems. I understand this guy’s language, I thought. First:

Moon surgeon

Moon surgeon
dazzles in transparent air,
entwining the
cosmic dragon
onto the rubber hand.

And travellers stumble into
night’s artillery
crazed in subterranean swamp-
Mineral clock unwinds a sprung
water tongue

A ghost is being built from the more
solid things

Great. Don’t get it. Next:

To journey longer and blister

To journey longer and blister
around the vegetable eruption,
its thermal violence-
eating tantrum.

Or mid-europe among smoke and trees.
Treatment varies painfully
but squeezes out mephitic pleasures
under weighted pinball moons.

But being earthed & unmasked
adrift on the pesthouse clinker;
to journey is a cancerous deceit
for the monkish leather android.

You can’t fail to approve of a poem that gives you a monkish leather android. But what else?

After some pages of poetry, we get more Written Rooms, then more poems, and so on. Each prose section astonishes me: no duds, no disappointing understanding of a mechanism at work. One lends itself to allegory; other, later pieces cross over into the incantation of the poems, unintelligible to me:

From these relentless fictions I have netted a storm. I have bred hands. Incubated them in gloves of sulphur. Coaxed harsh nubile bone to invert itself. Carved them from occulted stones of lost intentions. Bathed them in milk under the swollen names of angels. And on that distant night unleashed them; a sending, a maelstrom of many where only one was needed. Tinder nails bite sparks from the walls in their passing, their velocity echoes stars in rain water cobble stones, a scatter over darkness, a flutter into dust: right hand, left hand, the prey being sensed, a warmth inbetween. Closing.

Each poetry section baffles me. So it should! is the easy response, followed by a quote from Keats:

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…

In Brian Catling’s poems and prose I seem to have found the exact spot where my own Negative Capability as a reader runs out. This is rather disappointing. I wish someone could help me.