July 27, 2012
The current issue (number three) of the Brooklyn-based independent literary magazine The Coffin Factory features a collaborative piece by writer Justin Taylor and artist Bill Hayward entitled “From Notes on the Inconsolable,” in which Taylor performs an erasure based on W. G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants. The result is a fairly short poem by Taylor into which Hayward inserts three of his own photographs, à la Sebald. On Hayward’s blog, the work featured in The Coffin Factory is described as “an excerpt,” which suggests there is more to come one day. Here’s a bit of commentary by Taylor on his process of erasure:
Erasure is a method of delving into the depths of a text to see what can be found there. But the eraser is liberated—as well as made anxious—by the knowledge that said findings are not discoveries but creations. The erasure-text is not a salvage: it has no reality independent of the search for it, the searching is in fact what made it real. Erasure, therefore, is a way of being read, at least as much as it is a way of reading.
For the most part, the result truly is “liberated.” Other than the use of the highly-recognizable quotation “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead…”, one would be hard pressed to identify Sebald as the source for the Taylor’s enigmatic new poem. Perhaps most noticeably, the narrative voice in Taylor’s piece is utterly different. Here’s an excerpt:
and you already know
how things went from never able
to bring myself to anything I still don’t know
for sure what made us drift apart
between his legs, the muzzle
There is a small universe of erasure-based poetry, but probably the most well-known example is A Humument, in which Tom Phillips made an entirely new, illustrated novel by eliminating parts of the text of an obscure Victorian book. Phillips painted on and decorated the original pages of the book as a way of editing out much of the original text, saying that he “plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems.” Taylor’s strategy is very similar, although he’s only using (and retyping) Sebald’s altered text rather than playing with the physical pages of Sebald’s book.
Taylor explains that he asked Hayward “to punctuate my erasure-text with images that would simultaneously pay homage to Sebald at the level of form while undermining or re-imagining them at the level of content.” Unlike Sebald’s snapshots and found photographs, Hayward’s are described as “intentional artworks.” They also deliberately relocate” The Emigrants to the US, where both Taylor and Hayward live. Based on the three photographs in this excerpt, it’s seems fair to say that Hayward has created a parallel imagery that references Sebald’s photographs in several ways. Reminiscent of the many sources for Sebald’s imagery, the three photographs here are done in three distinct styles: a sharply-focused sepia image of a 1940s car on a road in the American West; a dark, over-exposed black-and-white image of a small boy dressed in Western clothing (almost an ironic twist on the cover photograph from Austerlitz); and a slightly blurred image of a young woman making an enigmatic gesture or movement, as if cleaning something from her blouse.
The Coffin Factory‘s website also contains a number of reviews of recent books, including Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa (a novel about Roger Casement), and The Planets by Sergio Chejfec. All in all, a very impressive line-up.
March 9, 2012
If you are in the San Francisco Bay area, drop by the Berkeley Art Center, where five works by Christel Dillbohner relating to W.G. Sebald’s Nach der Natur are on display until April 1. According to the artist’s website, her artwork entitled Nach der Natur “is a multipaneled ‘wax engraving’ on paper. In seventeen one-hour sessions, Dillbohner engraved W.G. Sebald’s prose poem Nach der Natur into a layer of wax which was applied on blackened mulberry paper (69” x 190”). After completion she then glazed the wax with white oil paint, which makes the fine (filigree) markings of her writing visible.”
Here are further details on the previously announced Festival Robert Walser being held in Newcastle upon Tyne, March 19-23. I think the key information is this: All events FREE. For more information on all events go to the Robert Walser Institute website.
Mon. 19/03 6pm
THE JOB APPLICATION at City Library
Short stories by Robert Walser. Read by Tim Bennett, Gabriele Heller and Claire Webster-Saaremets
City Library, 33 New Bridge Street West, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE18AX, Tel: 0191 277 4100
Tues. 20/03 1– 2.30pm
BIOGRAPHY AND LEGACY on Culture Lab Radio
A radio discussion on the role of madness in art and artistic legacy.
Tune in at http://culturelabradio.ncl.ac.uk/
Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Grand Assembly Rooms, Kingʼs Walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, Tel: 0191 246 4607
Wed. 21/03 6.30-9pm
OPPRESSIVE LIGHT at The Lit and Phil
Selected Poems by Robert Walser. Book launch – New translations by Daniele Pantano
DEEPLY MORBID at The Lit and Phil
An illustrated lecture on romance by Tender Buttons. Written by Stevie Smith and Robert Walser. Performed by Tessa Parr, Directed by Tess Denman-Cleaver
CREATIVE NATURES ARE UNSPECULATIVE at The Lit and Phil
New compositions by John Pope
Literary & Philosophical Society, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE, email@example.com
Free but booking essential: Phone 0191 232 0192 to reserve a ticket
Thur. 22/03 6pm
APROPOS THE KISSING OF A HAND at Vane Gallery
Opening exhibition night with work by Billy Childish, Roman Signer and others
RELAY – ANALOGUE TO DIGITAL at Vane Gallery
Newcastle University students show filmic work in response to Robert Walserʼs Microscripts.
Vane Gallery, 1st Floor, Commercial Union House, 39 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6QE, Tel: 0191 261 8281, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fri. 23/03 4.30-7pm
FERNE NÄHE / DISTANT CLOSENESS at Cuture Lab
A talk by Reto Sorg about Robert Frankʼs exhibition Ferne Nähe /Distant Closeness at the Robert Walser Zentrum, Bern March 2012.
Followed by a panel discussion with Jo Catling, Lars Iyer, Daniel Medin, Daniele Pantano, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams about Walserʼs unique
7.30pm MORE ON THIS LATER at Culture Lab
A theatre performance by Gabriele Heller (theatre-between) and Claire Webster-Saaremets (Skimstone Arts).
Followed by a musical piece by Phil Begg and a musical performance by Joe Murray.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Grand Assembly Rooms, Kingʼs Walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, 0191 246 4607
Finally, on another note entirely, Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) will be shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19-May 3. A few more details here.
April 9, 2011
In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, during the first extended meeting between the narrator and Jacques Austerlitz, the two men stop for coffee at Antwerp’s Glove Market and discuss, among other things, the long architectural history of fortifications. “It is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity,” Austerlitz remarks. He then proceeds to talk about how the star-shaped dodecagon came to be seen as an ideal defensive shape in spite of the fact that, in real warfare, these fortresses turned out to have many disadvantages. Furthermore, their complexity led to the fact that they were often obsolete by the time their construction was completed. The day after this conversation, the narrator takes a short train ride to visit Breendonk, one of numerous fortresses constructed at the beginning of the 20th century for the defense of Antwerp. Breendonk, along with Antwerp’s entire fortress system, had proved utterly useless against Germany’s offense during both World Wars and it was subsequently converted into a museum of the Belgian resistance. During the Second World War, Breendonk, built for the defense of Belgium, was instead used by the invading Germans as an infamous prison where many Belgians and others were tortured.
At this point in Austerlitz, as his narrator wanders through the fortress, he recalls two related stories of torture: Jean Améry’s account of being tortured at Breendonk (I presume this account is from Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities), and Claude Simon’s novel Le Jardin des Plantes, where Simon tells the story of Gastone Novelli, who had been similarly tortured (albeit at Dachau). Upon his liberation, Novelli fled “civilization” for remote parts of the Brazilian jungle, where he lived with a small tribe whose language consisted “almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis” (to quote from Austerlitz). When Novelli returned to Europe, one of the recurring themes of his paintings became the letter A, often “rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream,” as Sebald put it.
It is curious to see how the two books typographically depict this string of As. In Sebald’s Austerlitz, on the left, the run of vowels is elongated into what could be a multi-row scream. On the right we see how Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (as it is called in English) turns the As into a tidy, block-like structure that strikes me as more visual than verbal.
The Italian painter Gastone Novelli (1925-1968) is little known in the US. His work is likely to make many viewers immediately think of Cy Twombly, who moved to Italy in 1957, but the resemblances turn out to be fairly superficial. I had never given Sebald’s reference to Novelli much thought until I ran across this excellent short essay by Rafael Rubinstein over at The Silo, a site that he describes as “a personal, revisionist ‘dictionary’ of contemporary art…to challenge existing exclusionary accounts of art since 1960 and to offer a fresh look at some canonical artists.” The whole site is well worth exploring.
Claude Simon, The Jardin des Plantes. Northwestern University Press, 2001. Translated by Jordan Stump.
March 20, 2011
Tess Jaray and W.G. Sebald, How Strange… and I Suppose it is…, two works from the series From the Rings of Saturn and Vertigo
The images as I worked on them seemed to me to strongly correspond to the images evoked by Sebald’s prose, by his distortion of and evocation of space, and strange ability apparently to focus both on distance and nearness simultaneously: to make space and memory appear to be the same thing, giving a sense of spinning between past and future.
In 2001, the artist Tess Jaray published a series of monochromatic, geometric screenprints that she paired with quotations from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. These books had appeared in English at a time when Jaray said her life was full of profound changes, and Sebald’s writing “not only expressed in mood the emotional impact of these events, it also shaped them….” Jaray had met Sebald and had received his approval to use his words in connection with her images.
A clear and absorbing process followed of selecting the various texts both for their relevance to the image and as poetry that stands on its own, and of developing text and image together in such a way as to suggest links between the two, and which would change the way the text is seen. Taking it out of context constitutes a literal and metaphorical kind of framing. [Quotations from: From The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, Tess Jaray W.G. Sebald, a gallery brochure produced by Purdy Hicks Gallery, London, 2001.]
By “framing” sentences from Sebald’s texts, Jaray removes the context and turns the fragments into something new, almost like freestanding prose poems. The result are different from pull quotes, excerpts intended to represent the original text. This is a personal, transformative response by Jaray. For Sebald, it must have represented some risk and, presumably an element of trust.
How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.
In the same year, Jaray and Sebald collaborated on a book called For Years Now, which appeared in print just after Sebald’s death on December 14, 2001, the only book by Sebald to have appeared first in English. Here, twenty-three short poems by Sebald alternate with images of Jaray’s work. When I wrote about For Years Now in May 2007, the book felt a bit as if it had been orphaned upon Sebald’s death – and it still seems that way today. It has never been translated and is seems to have never been reviewed.
The British publisher Lenz Books has just released Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, a wonderful book of short writings by Jaray. She writes about her own artwork and on other artists, both contemporary and historical, including Giotto, Ingres, Gustav Klimt, Zoran Music, Malevich, Martin Creed, and others. I will write about that part of the book in a future post. But significantly, the piece on which the book’s title is based is about Sebald. A Mystery and a Confession tells part of the story of the evolution of their collaborative work in For Years Now. Jaray explains that, encouraged by his cooperation with her screenprints, she dared to mention to him the idea of doing an artist’s book “in relation to his verse, if he had any he would consider letting me have.” Surprisingly, Sebald reached into a drawer and handed Jaray a long poem written in German.
On the train home the next day I read it. Several times. Although I speak German only very badly and would be neither qualified nor able to describe it with justice, I could see that it had the same wonderful voice that his books have – and I was again bewitched by the language. It had twenty-three stanzas, and told how he, Sebald/the poet, had been in Marienbad: and had there so clearly imagined the Famous Poet who had been there before him.
Sebald obviously gave Jaray the poem Marienbader Elegie, which had been published in 1999 in an issue of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and which can now be found in the posthumously issued collection of his poems Über das Land und das Wasser. Jaray writes that she quickly found a student to make a straight translation into English. As she discovered, Sebald had modeled his poem of twenty-three six-line stanzas after Goethe’s Trilogie der Leidenschaft (Trilogy of Passion). Jaray never tells us how this poem came to be rejected in favor of the twenty-three short poems by Sebald, but it is hard not to notice that the number of poems is the same as the number of stanzas in the long poem Sebald originally suggested. Perhaps Jaray was paying quiet numerological homage to Sebald’s original idea.
W.G. Sebald in front of Tess Jaray’s work, photograph by Tess Jaray
[All images copyright Tess Jaray.]
March 5, 2011
It’s time to convert some frequent flier miles into plane tickets. On Artslant China, there is an announcement for a talk in Hong Kong on March 26 called Memory Destroys – Photographs in the Work of W.G. Sebald. Here’s a portion of the event’s description:
2P Contemporary Art Gallery and Diorama Projects have invited writer and editor Doretta Lau to present Memory Destroys – Photographs in the Work of W.G. Sebald, a discussion on the writings of W.G. Sebald.
In her 2000 essay on W.G. Sebald A Mind in Mourning Susan Sontag asked ‘Is literary greatness still possible? Since his untimely death, his novels The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz, published in translation, and other works have continued to be the subject of seminars and conferences and tributes such as artist Jeremy Millar’s A Firework for W.G. Sebald, and Grant Gee’s recently premiered film essay Patience (After Sebald). Memory Destroys – Photographs in the Work of W.G. Sebald will be led by Doretta Lau and considers the author’s sublime use of photographs in his works, described by Susan Sontag as ‘an exquisite index of the pastness of the past’.
Doretta Lau is a writer and editor living in Hong Kong. She contributes to Artforum, LEAP, The Wall Street Journal, SCMP, Sing Tao and Crave, and is a former Arts & Culture Editor for HK Magazine and a former Arts Writer for Time Out Hong Kong. In 2007, she received her MFA from the Writing Division, School of the Arts at Columbia University. She has a BA in English Literature and BFA in Creative Writing from The University of British Columbia. Prior to moving to Hong Kong, she was an editorial assistant for the literary annual NOON. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific in Los Angeles, highly respected LACE Gallery has just opened a new exhibition called On the Line, guest curated by Cody Trepte. Sarah Seager, one of the artists included, has created a series of works on paper that use quotations from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Here’s a bit of description from LACE’s website:
On The Line looks to four artists — Meg Cranston, Larry Johnson, Sarah Seager, and Mitchell Syrop — whose use of language can be seen as an evolution of Conceptualism. They parsed the discipline, and introduced a content that was more emotive while still maintaining the rigorous investment in ideas that artists like Sol Lewitt and Joseph Kosuth set forth.
With a casual commitment to systems, a heavy injection of reclaimed subjectivity, and the reintroduction of formal concerns, the artists in this exhibition continue to morph the use of text-in-art from its early rigid applications to a more humorous and pathos filled practice. The result is a simultaneous questioning and affirmation of Conceptualism which allows the discourse to continually reinvent itself.
[Thanks to Vertigo readers for the tips.]