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A Doll for Throwing

Bang Doll

“I learned to use a camera to see what I could be.”

Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing is, among other things, a book about photography, but it is also about photographs stolen and appropriated through, shall we say, the arrogance of gender and fame. But first, about the title. It comes from a soft type of doll designed in the 1920s by the Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. (Examples of the doll can be seen at the Bauhaus website.) The doll (or wurfpuppe in German) has a fiber body and wooden head and was meant to be safely tossed between children, but in Bang’s book it takes on an entirely different meaning.

The poems in A Doll for Throwing adopt the voice of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), the Austrian photographer who met the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin in 1920, during the fraught early years of the Weimar Republic. They married and two years later he became one of the legendary professors at the Bauhaus. To an extent that is not fully known, she taught him about photography and collaborated with him on works for which credit is often given only to him (including the four images reproduced on the book’s cover). They divorced in 1929 and in 1933 Lucia had to hastily flee Germany when her new lover, a prominent Communist, was arrested in their apartment. She did, however, manage to leave her negatives in the care of Moholy-Nagy. When he himself became an emigre, he turned the negatives over for safekeeping to the famous German architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, who proceeded to use some of Lucia’s photographs for decades without crediting her. Once she was established in England, Lucia began a long correspondence to try to regain her negatives from Gropius. In the 1960s, she finally managed to get a limited number of them back, but by then her work had become submerged beneath the reputations of two famous men and she was nearly forgotten to history. Read more

“He that increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow.”

Durer MelancholiaDetail from Albrecht Durer’s “Melancholia I” (1514)

Over at The Quietus, Adam Scovell has written an insightful review of the exhibition “Melancholia – A Sebald Variation” which I reported on recently. The exhibition is at the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House in London until the 10th of December. Scovell’s piece includes a wonderful photograph of a young Sebald riding a bicycle that is worth checking out.

Coming up on November 13, one of the exhibition’s artists Guido van der Werve will talk about his work with John-Paul Stonard and screen a film. Stonard is an art historian and writer who recently reviewed van der Werve’s work for The Guardian. The event is free but registration is required. Here’s the blurb from the web page where you can register:

The Dutch artist Guido Van der Werve makes films based on his personal interests, including extreme sports. For Nummer Vierteen: Home (exhibited in the Melancholia exhibition), he completed an epic 1000-mile triathlon between the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, where Chopin’s heart is preserved, and the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, where the composer’s body was laid to rest. Here Van der Werve will discuss this film and his other more recent work, alongside a screening.

And there is still time to register for the conversation on the exhibition with John Banville, Brian Dillon, and Lara Feigel tomorrow November 8.

Infinite Gradations of Mystery

Anne Michaels Gradation-001

Halfway through Anne Michael’s short, beautiful book, Infinite Gradation, we finally come across the two words that form the book’s title.

You said you wanted to keep your eyes open at the end; to miss nothing.

Four months before you died, during your last summer, you looked at the sea. For weeks, the most conscious act of looking. If you could take in that unending movement, that light, the moment water is displaced by water. You knew there was an answer there. In that infinite gradation.

Michael’s book about writing, art, memory, love, and loss is infused with death and grief on nearly every page. And yet, Infinite Gradation is a surprisingly celebratory and compassionate book. Death motivates Michaels to try to spin a fragile web of words that might help her (and us) understand the relationship between art and death. And the answer lies – as always – hidden, unspeakable, unseeable, but somehow known or felt in that “infinite gradation.” The art that Michaels writes about is not so much a product but a state of being, a way of “belonging,” an ability to participate in life using  “the most conscious act of looking.” Read more

“Unlanguagable reality”: Wolfgang Hilbig’s “Old Rendering Plant”

Hilbig Old Rendering Plant

It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.

Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”

But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.

The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.

Read more

W.G. Sebald, Tacita Dean, Georges Rodenbach, Will Stone & More

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A couple of weeks ago I called attention to an exhibition that had just opened in London called “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.” Poet and translator Will Stone recently paid a visit to the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House and wrote a review of the exhibition for The London Magazine. “This exhibition constitutes a rare gift” to the viewer, he wrote. Unfortunately, the magazine doesn’t provide online access to non-subscribers, so I asked Will if I could reprint small portions of his piece.

According to Will, the exhibition is really “about destruction, or rather W.G. Sebald’s eponymous work On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and the way melancholy alluringly affixes to these tragic scenes, which, once having leaked away the reality of their human suffering, become artistically aligned images whose visual message creates a space for new creativity.” Read more

Ann Quin’s Passages

Quin Passages cover

“A new order of space.”

Ann Quin’s Passages (1969) is a brilliant blur of a novel. When you are done with its 112 pages, you will know you have been on breathtaking roller coaster of a journey, but you won’t know where you’ve been or remember much of what you witnessed on the way.  A man and a woman (both nameless) are traveling through some vaguely Mediterranean country. Part of the time the couple appear to be searching for the woman’s missing brother, who might already be dead. There are fleeting rumors of torture, a firing squad, detention camps, a sinister right-wing government, suggesting that they are most likely in Greece, which came under the rule of a military junta in 1967. The two suspect they are being followed. At one border crossing they are told their papers aren’t in order; a bribe is paid and suddenly they are told it’s “a case of mistaken identity, let’s say.” Read more

Banville & Dillon To Speak about “Melancholia”

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Albrecht Durer, “Melencholia I” [Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here is more about the exhibition “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation,” which I posted about last week. From the Eventbrite invitation:

John Banville and Brian Dillon in conversation with Lara Feigel

Free discussion followed by a drinks reception

Is melancholy, as Freud thought, an indulgent, unproductive form of mourning? Or can it be a form of sadness that is ultimately uplifting for the consciousness it brings of life and its more startling possibilities?

The exhibition “Melancholia. A Sebald Variation” (Inigo Rooms, Sept 21-Dec 10) traces a melancholic path from Albrecht Dürer to W.G. Sebald to Anselm Kiefer to Tacita Dean. Here John Banville and Brian Dillon, both melancholic writers with an interest in Sebald, will use the exhibition as a springboard to reflect on the theme of melancholia.

Wed 8 November 2017 18:30 – 20:00 GMT.

Great Hall, King’s College London, Strand Campus
Strand
London
WC2R 2LS

The tickets are free but you must register.

 

 

Melancholia

Sebald Melancholia Image

Guido van de Werve, Nummer Veertien: Home (video still), 2012*

At Inigo Rooms, King’s College London, Somerset House East Wing, the exhibition “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation” has just opened and can be seen until December 10, 2017. To quote from the exhibition’s website

“Melancholia: A Sebald Variation” takes the viewer on a Sebaldian journey from the ruins of 1945 to the present day. It begins at that ‘zero hour’ after the war when melancholy found its physical form in the rubble scattered throughout its cities after the Second World War and its human form in the refugees who wandered around them.

Tracing its way from the ruins of Britain and Germany to the suburbs of contemporary Holland, the exhibition aims to provoke reflection about the European condition and about the nature of melancholy itself. Is it, as in Freud’s formulation, an indulgent, unproductive form of mourning? Or can it be, as for Sebald, a form of sadness that is ultimately uplifting because it enables loss to bring with it a consciousness of life and its more startling possibilities?

Alongside Dürer’s Melencolia this exhibition will display works from a wide range of international artists, including Dexter Dalwood, Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller, Tess Jaray, Anselm Kiefer, George Shaw, Guido van der Werve, and Jeremy Wood, as well as archival materials and a film of Sebald in discussion with Susan Sontag.

This exhibition has been done in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB) which presented some of these works in their 2015 exhibition “Sebald Variations” curated by Jorge Carrión and Pablo Helguera, which I wrote about at the time.

*For more on van der Werve’s 54 minute video, click here or watch a brief clip of it here. A CD of the requiem he composed for the work can be purchased here.

“Behind Every Name Is a Story”: Trieste

Behind every name is a story.

In the middle of Croatian writer Daša Drndić’s documentary novel Trieste (MacLehose Press, 2012) there is a forty-four page, double-columned list naming the 9,000 or so Jews “who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” starting with Clemente Abeasis and ending with Jerachmil Zynger. This memorial to the murdered is followed by another, much shorter listing—complete with mini-biographies—of the more senior S.S. members of the Aktion T4 group who worked in Trieste at the notorious prison known as San Sabba, which served as a transit center to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and housed its own gas chamber.

In this novel so dedicated to documenting victims and perpetrators alike, Drndić gives us a central character who is neither and both. Haya Tedeschi was born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Gorizia, an Italian town near Trieste. Now in her eighties (it’s 2006), Haya spends her day sifting through a basket of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and magazines, the only remaining documents of her life. When the Nazis took over Gorizia in 1943 she was barely twenty and she—like the rest of her family—used her Catholic upbringing and membership in a fascist organization to be shielded from the persecution brought upon many of its Jewish residents. (Drndić’s list of murdered Jews includes more than forty people named Tedeschi, which, ironically, means German in Italian.) Haya even entered into a wartime romance with a German who already happened to have a family back in Germany, S.S. Untersturmführer Kurt Franz. This liaison led to the birth of a baby boy. But when Franz was ordered to a new post the baby boy mysteriously disappeared. Haya has spent the sixty years since then trying to find out what happened to her son. Read more

Sebald Talk in Berlin September 12, 2017

As part of the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin this year, Markus Joch and Uwe Schütte will talk about W.G. Sebald on Tuesday, September 12 at 19:00 at the Institut Français. Tickets here.

The full program (in German or in English) can be found here. The long list of invited guests is impressive and includes people such as Edward Snowden (via Skype), artist Christian Boltanski, László Krasznahorkai, Yoko Tawada, Yasmina Reza, mystery writer Donna Leon (one of my favorites), Salman Rushdie, and Hari Kunzru. Several other programs caught my attention:

Thursday September 7 at 22:30 is a screening of a new film about James Baldwin and race called I Am Not Your Negro, which I have seen and highly recommend.

Saturday September 9 at 15:00 is a meeting for people wishing to join book clubs; two of the books under consideration are Sebald’s Austerlitz and Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance.

Sunday September 10 is devoted to graphic novels.