June 11, 2012
In 1967, three years before completing Spiral Jetty at the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Robert Smithson boarded a bus in New York City and returned to Passaic, New Jersey, the city of his birth, to take a walking tour of the “monuments.” The monuments that Smithson discovered include such things as a steel bridge with wooden sidewalks, some pontoons, a pumping derrick, some above-ground piping, a parking lot, and a children’s sandbox. This mock epic expedition was documented, appropriately, with a cheap Instamatic 400 camera. I had never thought of Smithson’s art in the same context as W.G. Sebald’s writings before, but the related essay that Smithson wrote, recently reprinted in the anthology Ruins, was a real jolt. Smithson’s interest in industrial detritus and obsolete structures is directly tied to a vision of history that is not unlike Sebald’s.
Smithson used his Instamatic camera the same way that Sebald used the photocopy machine to create purposefully inferior and distinctly ambiguous images. Both seemed to revel in their disdain for modern technological prowess. Here’s Smithson on the bus to Passaic, reading in the New York Times an essay by the art critic John Canaday and experiencing images in much the same way that Sebald used photographs in his texts :
He was writing on “Themes and the Usual Variations.” I looked at a blurry reproduction of Samuel F.B. Morse’s Allegorical Landscape at the top of Canaday’s column; the sky was a subtle newsprint grey, and the clouds resembled sensitive stains of sweat reminiscent of a famous Yugoslav watercolorist whose name I have forgotten. A little statue with right arm held high faced a pond (or was it the sea?). “Gothic” buildings in the allegory had a faded look, while an unnecessary tree (or was it a cloud of smoke?) seemed to puff up on the left side of the landscape.
Standing on banks of the Passaic River, next to the first “monument” – the steel and wooden bridge – Smithson watches a bridge keeper turn the bridge sideways to permit a barge to move past.
I watched the bridge rotate on a central axis in order to allow an inert rectangular shape to pass with its unknown cargo. The Passaic (West) end of the bridge rotated south, while the Rutherford (East) end of the bridge rotated north; such rotations suggested the limited movements of an outmoded world. “North” and “South” hung over the static river in a bipolar manner. One could refer to this bridge as the “Monument of Dislocated Directions.”
Looking across the river toward Rutherford, New Jersey, Smithson sees a landscape that “was no landscape…a kind of self-destroying postcard world of failed immortality and oppressive grandeur.”
That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is – all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scène suggests the discredited idea of time and many other “out of date” things.
And here’s Smithson walking through a large parking lot in the center of downtown Passaic.
Everything about the site remained wrapped in blandness and littered with shiny cars – one after another they extended into sunny nebulosity. The indifferent backs of the cars flashed and reflected the stale afternoon sun. I took a few listless, entropic snapshots of that lustrous monument. If the future is “out of date” and “old-fashioned,” then I had been in the future. I had been on a planet that had a map of Passaic drawn over it, and a rather imperfect map at that. A sidereal map marked up with “lines” the size of streets, and “squares” and “blocks” the size of buildings. At any moment my feet were apt to fall through the cardboard. I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past…
Finally, here is Smithson being most Sebald-like as he writes about the monument of the sandbox.
The last monument was a sand box or a model desert. Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. This monument of minute particles blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans – no longer were there green forests and high mountains – all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust. Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equaled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity. The sand box somehow doubled as an open grave – a grave that children cheerfully play in.
Smithson’s journey to his hometown resulted in an artwork consisting of six photographs and a photostat map, now in the collection of the Museet for Samtiskunst in Oslo, Norway. Smithson also published an essay in Artforum that same year, using the same images as illustrations.
Ruins (2011), edited by Brian Dillon, is part of the Documents of Contemporary Art series published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press. Not unsurprisingly, Sebald crops up in a number of the essays. The MIT Press website kindly lists the Table of Contents.
October 29, 2007
…no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began…
Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition contains essays, artwork, and poetry inspired by W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Some of the poems originated in the Waterlog exhibition, components of larger artworks, while several poems appear only in this accompanying monograph.
Marcus Coates is a performance artist whose work often deals with the animal world. His piece in Waterlog includes a poem of eleven stanzas called Britain’s Bitterns Circa 1997 Population 11 Breeding Males. Hollis had his original poem translated into a Norfolk dialect before turning it into a song (both versions are included in the book.). As Brian Dillon’s introductory essay Airlocked indicates, visitors to the exhibition heard a recording of Coates singing “a song that seemed to have been carried on the air from the past, with a warning for the future.” A vitrine in the exhibition hall displayed eleven bittern specimens from the natural history collection of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.
We were born a’fore tha wind
We taught tha reed ter sway
In all tha fen Oi need no friend
Oi ‘ll hev moi loves ter lay
Sebald spends most of pages 154-160 in The Rings of Saturn describing how Dunwich, an important port during the Middle Ages, now lies “below the sea, beneath alluvial sand and gravel.”
One cannot say how great was the sense of security which the people of Dunwich derived from the building of [their] fortifications. All we know for certain is that they ultimately proved inadequate. On New Years Eve 1285, a storm tide devastated the lower town and the portside so terribly that for months afterward no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began.
The Sunken Bell, a project by poet and artist Alec Finlay, metaphorically offers up life buoys to the sunken residents of Dunwich in the form of circular poems painted on directly on the buoys. Waterlog also includes what is – for Finlay, at least – a considerably longer poem of four stanzas – or sixteen lines. Also called The Sunken Bell, it imagines the churches of Dunwich:
St Bartholomew’s, St John’s, St Martin’s, St Michael’s,
all sunk; they say you can hear their bells toll
in the tide. Let’s cast a new bell from molten flame,
sink it deep, before the sea covers the land.
George Szirtes’ 1999 poem Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald) is reprinted from his book An English Apocalypse (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2001).Its twelve rhymed stanzas describe natural scenes of melancholy beauty and a city that is both a “gerontopolis” of the elderly and, now, somewhat inexplicably, a haven for immigrants (“Surely you/ don’t think this is America …?”)
Think back of the back of beyond “beyond. End
of a line.The sheer ravishing beauty
of it as it runs into the cold swell
of the North Sea, impossible to comprehend.
The harsh home truisms of geometry
that flatten to a simple parallel.
Like all of Szirtes’ poetry, Backwaters is densely imagistic and rich with themes that weave in and out. It’s a complex, multi-voiced piece that I have enjoyed re-reading many times.
Matthew Hollis’ poem East is (like Szirte’s poem, it was only included in the monograph) echoes Sebald’s themes of the impermanence of the world. Like Sebald, Hollis uses a vocabulary that can verge on the extinct, as can be seen in this extract:
In time, we may refound,
and tell ourselves
we build to build it better. But to walk the strandline,
littered with cuttlebone and uprooted wrack,
is to recognize how little lies within our gift;
how everything else
is in struggle:
the sand sedge clutching for footholds and threads,
the sanderling robbing the tide,
the gabions and groynes shouldering a surge
that cannot begin to be held.
October 28, 2007
The rich bounty of historical, literary, geographic, scientific, and other motifs and allusions in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn makes it a particularly fecund source for artists. My copy of Waterlog – Journeys Around an Exhibition has just arrived from London. This is the monograph that has emerged out of Waterlog, the recent British exhibition inspired by The Rings of Saturn. In the Foreword, co-curator Steven Bode writes:
What the ‘Waterlog’ artists share with Sebald is a unifying sensibility: elegiac, enquiring; understated, almost hesitant, for all its seriousness of purpose.
Waterlog is a nicely produced stand-alone monograph that seamlessly blends works from the exhibition with newly commissioned writings. It also reprises Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald), a lengthy poem by George Szirtes first published in 1999, and British artist Tacita Dean’s photo and text piece from 2003 simply called W.G. Sebald.
In addition to a Foreword and an Afterword by, respectively, Steven Bode and Jeremy Millar the co-curators, the volume contains two essays: Brian Dillon’s Airlocked and Robert Macfarlane’s Afterglow, or Sebald the Walker.
Dillon’s short but suggestive essay Airlocked reflects on air and atmosphere as literary and artistic metaphors in Sebald’s writings and as a key element in much of the art in the Waterlog exhibition, drawing on a wide range of other writers and artists from John Donne to Pierre Huyghe. Air, he suggests, “is a kind of allegorical adhesive for Sebald,” whose constant use of weather as an outward manifestation of the “downcast vision” of his narrators made him “the ultimate exponent of the pathetic fallacy.”
It is as if [Sebald's] books were rather weather systems than agglomerations of words, such is their reliance on meteorological imagery.
Robert Macfarlane’s essay offers a glimpse into his own ongoing project of walking in Sebald’s footsteps, somewhat in the spirit of biographer Richard Holmes, who turned biography into a literal pursuit of the past that included retracing the wanderings of his subjects, including, most famously, the poet Shelly.
I am turning Sebald’s own methods back onto him; walking where he walked, seeing what emerges, what ‘phantom traces’ or afterglow Sebald himself left.
Sebald may have been a “traverser of ground,” Macfarlane writes, but in his mind Sebald does not seem to fit any of the current taxonomy of walking. Macfarlane recalls an entry from Kafka’s diary that seems more appropriate:
Walked in the streets for two hours, weightless, boneless, bodiless.
Macfarlane sees Sebald operating as a kind of biographer, suggesting that he ‘walked his subjects back into life,” using walks to find traces of the past. Ultimately, Macfarlane settles on the word nachglanz to represent the haunting, ephemeral nature of the traces Sebald sought and exalted in, using the word – which means afterglow – to suggest “a vision of absence”. (Curiously, Macfarlane credits Sebald with coining the neologism nachglanz, which can’t be true; a simple Google search turns up usages well before Sebald had written a word.)
What has Macfarlane learned so far by mimicking selected walks from Sebald’s four main books? First: that Sebald’s prose works are not literal accounts of his walks; he distorted places, events, and time continually. This we knew, but it will surely help the record to know more about where and how Sebald toyed with facts. Second: that “following Sebald, strange things occur.” The examples Macfarlane offers of this phenomena simply suggested to me that any hyper-alert person pursuing Sebald’s trail would undoubtedly encounter strange – even Sebaldian – images and occurrences.
Both authors hopscotch through broad swaths of Sebald’s work and much more in the course of a handful of pages, making both essays seem tentative, unfinished. Macfarlane, to be fair, is working on a book about Sebald and this is little more than a sneak preview. Still, Dillon and Macfarlane arrive at similar conclusions, both suggesting that walking, for Sebald, was not an earthbound activity but one that led him – and his prose – to feel weightless and bodiless. Macfarlane cites a passage from Austerlitz in which Austerlitz encounters a barrage of moths attracted to a light and realizes that he cannot see the moths themselves, “only the light flares they incite.”Like many other readers, I, too, feel that Sebald the writer constantly disappears behind the endless flares he incites.
In future posts of Skimming Waterlog, I’ll talk about the artists and the poets included in the book.