November 5, 2007
…the museum and the gallery are those spaces where obscurity may become the condition for enlightenment. [Brian Dillon, writing in Waterlog]
I have never been much good at skipping stones across a pond. Nevertheless that is the image I had in mind when I thought of writing about the monograph Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition over the course of three posts – here, here, and now here.This final post deals with the visual artists in the monograph, although several, due to the hybrid nature of their works, have already been mentioned in the post on the poetry of Waterlog. (There are also additional illustrations in that same post.) Keep in mind that I am not reporting on the exhibition itself (which I have not seen), only its manifestation in the form of this monograph.
In the books of W.G. Sebald, the twin powers of nature and history overwhelm whatever pretensions and inadequate defenses mankind can muster, inevitably bringing insignificance, loss, and death.The only lasting power that mankind itself wields is destruction – a destructive attempt to dominate nature and a endless knack for self-destruction in the form of war. For the most part, the artists in Waterlog choose to meditate on our dialectical relationship with nature rather than with history. Marcus Coates is the only artist to address, even if obliquely, mankind as an agent of destruction. As I have mentioned earlier, his project Britain’s Bitterns circa 1997 Population – 11 Breeding Males is an elegy to England’s bittern population – and by extension the animal kingdom – brought to the level of near extinction by human encroachment.
In a gesture that is both playful and quixotic, Alec Finlay throws poetic life buoys to the city of Dunwich, an important port during the middle ages that became completely lost to storms and erosion over the course of centuries and now lies underwater. His project The Sunken Bell also included a number of color photographs by Guy Moreton of ruins, flooded marshes and other reminders of the power of nature. Simon Pope’s project The Memorial Walks, which was part installation and part performance, involved the selection of landscape paintings from area museums which were displayed draped in black and only occasionally unveiled.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that any publication can do to adequately translate video art onto the printed page. The film stills and short descriptions included in Waterlog give only the most skeletal sense of intriguing works by collaborators Alexander and Susan Maris and by Tacita Dean. In Alexander and Susan Maris’ video piece Silentium, Arvo Part’s composition Tabula Rasa provides the background music for their exploration of two key places in the life of composer Benjamin Britten: his long-time residence at Aldeburgh and the later residence in Horham, which he took up in order to find respite from the noise of air force planes flying overhead. Coincidentally, Linden at Selfdivider has recently written an evocative post about the landscape that Britten and Sebald shared:
The desolate melancholy of Aldeburgh’s landscape is the backdrop against which Peter Grimes, a fisherman, loses his mind; the same gray landscape of Suffolk’s sea coast also causes the narrator of The Rings of Saturn to lose all his bearings, slipping into a catatonic state of total immobility.
Tacita Dean is represented in Waterlog by two works, only one which was included in the exhibition. For Waterlog, Dean created a video on Sebald’s close friend the writer and translator Michael Hamburger, who died earlier this year.
Unwilling, perhaps unable, to talk of his past and his migrations, most especially fleeing Nazism in 1933, [Hamburger] talks poignantly, instead, of the apple trees in his garden…
Sebald had written his own lengthy profile of Hamburger on pages 175-190 of The Rings of Saturn, including two grainy photographs of the interior of Hamburger’s house. Stills from Dean’s video show scenes which clearly reference Sebald’s photographs.
Tacita Dean, still from Michael Hamburger
From The Rings of Saturn
Dean’s second work in Waterlog is a welcome reprint of a photo and text piece on Sebald which I have written about earlier. As far as I know, until now this work could only be found in a slim volume entitled W.G. Sebald as part of a boxed set of seven softcover catalogs produced in 2003 for an exhibition of Dean’s work at the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The version in Waterlog is not only a complete reprint of Dean’s fascinating piece on Sebald, but it also contains a brief Postscript that she added after the French publication.
Consisting largely of newly commissioned works from artists, the exhibition Waterlog is a clear indication of how Sebald’s writing can be inspirational material for artists in many media. As the exhibition’s successor in print form, Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition does a fine job converting the exhibition into a book that is can stand on its own. I only wish that Waterlog included a full exhibition checklist, which would have documented the contents of the show. Waterlog (London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2007) can be purchased from the London-based contemporary art book distributor Artdata via Abebooks.
Simon Pope, from The Memorial Walks
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.
October 1, 2007
For those of us unable (or too many oceans away) to attend The Printed Path: Landscape, Walking and Recollection,” Plinius,” who writes the always interesting blog Some Landscapes, has posted some thoughts on last weekend’s Tate Britain symposium related to Waterlog. Waterlog, just to remind everyone, is an exhibition I have written about several times and which is inspired by the writing of W.G. Sebald and his walking tours of East Anglia. Plinius provides a summary of the participants and their contributions. He also offers the tantalizing news (to me, at least) that the symposium dealt with contemporary musical landscapes:
The Sebaldian sense of a landscape haunted gave an opportunity for the ‘Printed Path’ organisers to include Mark Fisher talking about hauntological music, with extracts from Brian Eno and the Belbury Poly…
O, for unlimited frequent flier miles…
There is, however, a grain of hope being held out for all of us who could not attend. Tate Online suggests that the symposium will eventually be archived as an online video. There is nothing up yet, but I’ll keep looking for it.
Look for the September 30, 2007 post at Some Landscapes – and perhaps other posts that might be added in the near future.
September 24, 2007
Previously I mentioned a publication relating to the exhibition Waterlog in Norwich, for which seven artists were asked to create works inspired by W.G. Sebald’s walks through East Anglia. Here is the latest news, courtesy of the people at Film and Video Umbrella:
Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition will be launched at Tate Britain on Saturday 29 September, following The Printed Path conference. (ISBN 978-1-904270-24-9) £12.0. Softback, 128 pages.
“To mark the midway point of Waterlog, an accompanying publication coincides with the Lincoln staging of the project. Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition charts the course of the project so far and strikes out to pursue parallel paths and open up further lines of enquiry. A visual record of the various artists’ works, documented through installation photographs of its previous incarnation in Norwich, this limited edition book features a number of specially commissioned texts, including typically inventive contributions from ‘Waterlog’ artist Alec Finlay, a new poem, ‘East’, by Matthew Hollis, and essays by writers Robert Macfarlane and Brian Dillon. In acknowledgement of W.G. Sebald, whose writings were a source of inspiration for the project, the book reprints two texts dedicated to his memory: Backwaters: Norfolk Fields a poem by George Szirtes, and Tacita Dean’s eponymous visual essay on the author.”