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Posts from the ‘Iain Sinclair’ Category

Three Archivists of the Marginal: Keiller, Sebald, Sinclair

David Anderson’s recent book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the Work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair (Oxford, 2020), begins by quoting from Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit has made it clear to us how closely related walking and creativity are. “To write,” she says in that important book, “is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination.” Since the age of Wordsworth, walking and literature, along with the other arts, have become increasingly entwined. Anderson has chosen three of my favorite artists—two writers and one filmmaker—for whom walking plays an essential role. Although, I must say that walking somehow seems to me like the exact wrong word for what these three did within the context of their art. Anderson uses the word “peregrination” once or twice and I think this is where we should start.

Film still from Patrick Keiller’s London, 1992.

A peregrination usually implies a long, often meandering walk, perhaps somewhat geographically aimless and often directed by goals other than a physical destination. Anderson first examines Patrick Keiller’s trilogy of pseudo-documentary films, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which an enigmatic and melancholy flaneur named Robinson takes meandering journeys around parts of England, while a narrator recites an often ironic text that is somewhat, but not always, related to whatever we are watching on screen. Keiller uses “melancholia and estrangement” to achieve his goal to create a “compelling reimagination of [the UK] landscape.” Keiller (like the other two artists in this study) often focuses in on the human impact on the landscape, especially the ways in which technology and bad public policy have changed, damaged, and restricted the use of the land. If you haven’t seen these films—especially London—I encourage you to seek them out.

In 1992, the year in which Keiller was filming London, W.G. Sebald set off to make the first of the walks that would result in The Rings of Saturn, which would be published in Germany in 1995. Anderson sees “a strong family resemblance” in these two works. “Merging the mannerisms and form of documentary with a distinctly melancholic, reflective subjectivity, [The Rings of Saturn] offers a rich and nuanced account of space and place as a densely woven texture of loss, suffering, and ruination.” He identifies the fact that Sebald’s fictional texts are so loaded with “documentary data” that they often produce a “vertiginous, uncanny sensation” in the reader. Anderson then proceeds to give an attentive and sensitive reading to most of Sebald’s books and he manages to very briefly discuss the conclusions of a number of writers who have previously weighed in on Sebald, including Geoff Dyer, Susan Sontag, Dora Osborne, J.J. Long, Diane Blacker, and Jon Cook, just to name some.

“Walking,” Anderson writes about the writer Iain Sinclair, “from Lights Out for the Territory [1997] onwards, becomes not simply a theme for Sinclair, but the key to his creative-critical practice.” Sinclair, whose writing has tended to shift over time from poetry and fiction to “a highly idiosyncratic brand of non-fiction” in the 1990s, has claimed as his turf East London and the Thames Estuary, about which he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge. Like Keiller, Sinclair is more of an urban walker, and his walks are sometimes more theoretical than possible, such as his plan to circumambulate the M25 motorway loop encircling London, which Sinclair “walked” and wrote about in his 2003 book London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25. Because, as Anderson notes, the road has become “emblematic of madness,” Sinclair’s logical response is often to make “a self-defeating, ritualistic journey to nowhere.”

After considering several of Sinclair’s works (including his strange little 2013 piece on Sebald, whom he never met, Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald), Anderson sums up his section on Sinclair by saying that it is a kind of “‘attention’—one that is often obsessive, neurotic, producing a disorienting and provocative ‘psychotic geography’—that motivates and energizes Sinclair’s practice, fueling a body of work that bristles with vital energy and in which, finally, ‘place is burnished and confirmed.'” (Anderson is quoting Sinclair’s The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City.)

In Anderson’s eyes, the work of Keiller, Sebald, and Sinclair “celebrates, criticizes, and condemns often in the same breath, while always insisting on the reading of space as a thickly determined and open-ended texture or archive.” By this I think he means that, each of these three artists, in his own way, is deeply critical of the effects of modernization and industrialization on the land, is suspicious of traditional notions of landscape beauty and the “heritage” agenda, and often have a “melancholic attachment to objects, people, and places” that are overlooked and marginalized. But Anderson is also aware that other commonalities between the three can be more problematic. These are three more or less privileged white men for whom “the trope of the male ‘explorer’ figure” is not misplaced, and yet their explorations show little or no interest in ethnic or cultural diversity.

“Chestnut Tree Farm,” the home of “Thomas Abrams” from W.G. Sebald, Die Ringe des Saturn, 1995

In Sebald’s case, Anderson also worries about the “quasi-religiosity” of the Sebald cult and the early “canonization” of the writer, which, he feels, leaves some “blind spots” in Sebald criticism. He suggests that Sebald gave a relatively “untainted” picture of contemporary Britain and had a “preoccupation with ‘eccentric’ English people, the bizarre traditions of private schools, and the picturesque decay of stately homes” that betrays a blindness to the British class system. In his chapter “An English Pilgrim: Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,” he considers various accusations that Sebald misrepresented England in his writings, most notably in The Rings of Saturn, where Sebald has been accused of various sins including offering up an outdated, antiquarian vision of England to being utterly blind to the country’s raging economic problems. Anderson reminds us that, despite the length of his time in England (approximately three and a half decades), Sebald nevertheless seemed to remain a German tourist in the country, someone who always sought the “strange, desolate, and undeveloped” when he traveled in England, subjects which he then invested with his own extended cultural meanings. (Think of the visit to to see Thomas Abrams’ miniature Temple of Jerusalem in The Rings of Saturn, as one example.)

In spite of the word “landscape in its title, Anderson’s book ranges over an enormous variety of topics that will of a great interest to any reader of contemporary literature or anyone interested in the implications of contemporary art. As with any original, deeply researched academic title that I write about here, my few paragraphs can never do justice to the 275 pages of David Anderson’s remarkable book. I urge you to read it yourself.

NOTE: Anderson credits the phrase “archivist of the marginal” to the writer Michael Moorcock, who used it in reference to Iain Sinclair.

For the full story behind the photograph of Chestnut Tree Farm, check out my earlier post on The Missing Picture from The Rings of Saturn.

Farrago at Test Centre

American Smoke launch

Iain Sinclair with the jacket for his new book American Smoke.

London’s Test Centre has just announced a month of activities that I’d dearly love to see if only I were in London.  Test Centre, just to remind everybody, is a publisher and art event organization that recently published Iain Sinclair’s excellent little book Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, which I wrote about in April.  Now, it seems that they’ve snagged the first month of the new art space simply known as F (located in a former Sea Cadets building in Stoke Newington) to house a series of events and a pop-up shop curated by Sinclair, Chris Petit, Stewart Home, and others.  There’s no point in my even attempting to summarize the farrago of activities, so I’ll just steal a bit of the text from Test Centre’s website:

The first residency at this exciting new arts venue will consist of a shop and exhibition space curated in turn by Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit, Test Centre, Purge + Ecstatic Peace Library, and Stewart Home, and will be accompanied by a series of evening events. The developing display of film, art, and sound will accompany a new and secondhand book and record shop, also containing specially-produced editions and ephemera. The pop-up shop will stock a range of books, pamphlets, records, CDs and tapes, including some collectible and rarely available publications. Works by all of the curators and performers will be on sale, and each week new stock will be added.

The exhibition and shop will combine archival displays and discoveries with newly created works, exploiting the unusual architecture and hidden spaces of the building. Works published specially for sale in the shop will be sold alongside adapted, rediscovered and collectible works.

WEEK 1, curated by Iain Sinclair, will include a shop and exhibition of items recently excavated, with posters, framed photographs, new editions of old and recent books, limited edition cassette tapes, a collection of books from Sinclair’s own library, and an accompanying catalogue. The curation recalls Sinclair’s many years as a bookdealer.

WEEK 2, curated by Chris Petit, will be the first physical manifestation of his Museum of Loneliness project. The shop and exhibition will include an underground gallery of audio detritus, a 1960s stereogram playing MoL audio, a specially refurbished dolls’ house of memory, a collection of 100 numbered books from the MoL’s ‘fragments of the lost library’, executed books, stone faces, MoL pamphlets, rare DVDs, a collection of text experiments, signed first editions of Petit’s novel Robinson, and paintings by Emma Matthews.

WEEK 3, curated by Test Centre, will bring together the work of a number of Test Centre associates. With sound and image the week will expand upon the history and releases of the label / publishing house so far, using spoken word records and other recordings alongside artwork from our magazine.

WEEK 4 will be a joint curation by Purge + Ecstatic Peace Library. Purge will set up shop as the ‘Liberated Film Store’, selling a collection of lost and forgotten DVDs and an accompanying publication. Liberated as free from industry… Made in impossible circumstances. Mutant. Banned. Too much. At the same time, Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz’s Ecstatic Peace Library will display a collection of publications and ephemera related to the notorious Stoke Newington Eight, as an engagement with the exhibit’s locale and an imaginative response to the month’s programme of literature.

WEEK 5, curated by Stewart Home, will bring together the varied guises of Home’s work as artist, novelist, pamphleteer, filmmaker, activist and performer.. The most out there writer on the planet, Home is the only person on earth who is visible to the naked eye from outer space! He really does burn that brightly.

Some of the events are free, some are not. By the way, on November 8, when Sinclair’s new book American Smoke is launched, one of the films being shown is Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which contrasts the rise of Chilean astronomy with the fate of those imprisoned in the country’s Chacabuco Mine prisons, a powerful and poetic film I have written about.

Several Clouds Colliding

Several Clouds

Following the pair of posts called Railroad Conversations, I thought I might follow on with yet one more book that originated as a public performance, though this book moves away from the subject of railways and deals instead with the life and archive of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Published in 2012 by the Swedenborg Archive and Book Works as part of a series, Several Clouds Colliding by Brian Catling and Iain Sinclair is a handsome book that constitutes “part research document, part lecture transcript and part archive intervention” for an exhibition and performance by Catling and Sinclair in 2010.

For decades, archives and museums have been inviting artists and writers to poke around in their collections and respond.  It’s a genre that always seems to result in the unexpected, and this is certainly true for Several Clouds Colliding (the title comes from a description of a vision by Swedenborg).  In homage to Swedenborg’s visionary writing, Sinclair’s texts are free-form jazz solos, often melancholy and grim.  Sinclair, who refers to himself as “the researcher,” realizes the self-reflexive nature of his task.  “The researcher, reaching into the tin trunk, reaches into his own portrait, collapses time.”  Studying a group portrait of the Swedenborgian Congress of 1910, the researcher tries to forget all the facts he has been told by the archivist.  “Invented stories,” he writes, “open fresh neural pathways,” whereas “recitations of confirmed facts, dates, newspaper obituaries, acts of conspicuous clarity, close down the potential for fruitful speculation: new continents, new meanings.  If we cannot rewrite the past, we have no future.”  For him, “all of these characters with their exotic, shifting names and rigid, mask-like faces played their part in the formulation of the infinite novel.”   Sinclair, not surprisingly, finds a history of London as he probes the Swedenborg Archive, “a journey across London curated by angels.”  “Researcher as coroner,” he remarks.

Here’s a portion of Sinclair’s text about a typewriter found in the archives that was probably used by the Swedenborg Society.

A scaphocephalic X-ray: top-heavy.  The bloodshot eyes are tin reels.  Pince-nez of ribbon, legion of dishonour.  Rictal mouth in a mash of metallic teeth, German dentistry.  Or: standing the thing on its head and the keys become strokes of electrified hair.  Shock therapy.  One scarlet lip, bitten and bloody.  And the other?  Black as human ignorance.  Bridled, the scold who has swallowed her own children.

typewriterPhotograph by Anonymous Bosch.

Some of the specially commissioned photographs (like the one above) were made by a pinhole photographer called Anonymous Bosch.

Catling takes a more archival, object-based approach, focusing in on the photograph of the 1910 Swedenborgian Congress and a selection of lantern slides from the Society’s teaching collection.  In the first instance we see a series of images in which the heads of individuals from the group photograph have been isolated, forming a ghostly cemetery.  In the lantern slide collection, Catling became particularly interested in those that are “transforming in that glorious condition normally described as decay.”

How the various parts of the book relate to the exhibition that Catling and Sinclair organized at Swedenborg House is not clear, although the book stands on its own very well.  But the book does document the performance they enacted on February 17, 2010 there.  As the photographs of the faces attending the Swedenborgian Congress of 1910 were projected, Iain Sinclair took photographs of them with a disposable film camera, which Brian Catling then smashed with a crystal ball so that he could eat the film.  Whether the ingestion was consummated or metaphoric is not noted.

It’s possible to get a look at a number of pages from Several Clouds Colliding at the website of the book’s designer James Brook.

If Streets Are Sentences

In one of my favorite stories by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd,” the narrator impulsively singles out an elderly gentleman and determines to follow him wherever he goes (sounds like the premise for an art piece by Sophie Calle, doesn’t it?). For most of the next two days and two nights, the old man leads the narrator on an erratic, exhausting excursion through the city of London, taking a meandering path through the high and low neighborhoods of London with no  apparent pattern or goal. The way in which Poe’s narrator allows an arbitrary character to determine his path through the city can probably be seen as a precursor of the Situationists and their determination to impose similarly arbitrary ways of negotiating urban spaces in what has come to be called psychogeography. For me, Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (2004) is something I think of as a classic in this genre. Sinclair follows the highway that encircles London regardless of where it takes him, creating a travelogue of forgotten urban corners and what Rem Koolhaas calls “junkspace.” 

I’ve just finished two brief, quirky books that take this tradition into slightly new directions. Both of these books parse modern urban spaces through elliptical narratives that are an unlikely combination of keen observation, untethered imagination, insider’s knowledge, esoteric erudition, and photographs.


Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12 (London: CB Editions, 2011) employs an encyclopedia of micro-entries to convey the range of urban life found in the W12 postal code, an arbitrary zone laid over an historic area of London that includes Shepherd’s Bush and Wormwood Scrubs. Using a comical system of alphabetically-ordered hyper-brief entries beginning with “ABC,” “A&E,” “Allotment” and ending with “Yawn,” “Yoga Advertisement,” and “Z,” Robinson gives an insider’a view of his neighborhood. Each entry is accompanied by a tiny, well-composed photograph, reinforcing a kind of modesty on the whole project. In both the texts and the dead-pan images (presumably by the author) Robinson remains a calm and bemused observer, unruffled by the urban dilemmas that plague him and his neighbors, casting a forgiving eye on all the flaws and shortcomings of his neighborhood and his fellow residents. He’s also prone to dropping references to literary figures like Coleridge, Dickens, Dinesen, Durrell, Eliot, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others (check out the handy index to see all of the heady “topics” addressed in Days and Nights in W12). But lest we take all of this too seriously, Robinson warns us at the outset that he can’t vouch for all the tales that that are included. “Do you need evidence before you decide” what to believe or not believe, he asks? One day, when the taxi in which he is riding blows a tire on the way to Heathrow airport, he and his Somali driver “sit for a while in silence, smoking [while] gazelle and hartebeest come down the road the water to drink.”

W12 1
W12 2

It’s an open secret in Great Britain that Jack Robinson is a pseudonym for Charles Boyle, the publisher of CB editions.  Days and Nights in W12 is an expanded version of  an earlier 2009 book by “Robinson” called Recessional, part of which may be seen here. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a copy of the earlier title for sale anywhere on this planet.



Erik Anderson takes a different approach to the urban environment by literally inscribing letters on the map of Denver as he takes eight carefully orchestrated walks that spell out the letters P A S T O R A L in his recent book The Poetics of Trespass (Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). As Anderson moves methodically through Denver, following paths that will trace the shape of each letter on the streets and open spaces of the city, the temporal part of the walk is dedicated to meditating, questioning, and stirring together dissimilar disciplines – like poetics and urban planning – in a kind of mental trespass. “The city, like the poem, consists of a tension: how we move in it and how it moves in us.” Anderson is interested in the problem of words and the interplay between words and sound and meaning.

I carved a large “P” into a medium-sized American city today. It was an attempt to inscribe language into a non-linguistic space, one in which, due to the billboards, liquor stores, gas stations and theater, temples, churches and restaurants, strip clubs, bus stops, and the Planned Parenthood office, any possibility of tracing a curve with one’s steps has been rigorous and systematically thwarted.

Like Robinson, Anderson also places small, self-made photographs throughout his text. His images feel less like documents than questions. The most interesting ones deal with the spatial puzzlement that arises in unplanned urban spaces and the odd juxtaposition of urban architectures. I’m not doing Anderson’s richly allusive and elusive book justice with this brief post, but there is an excerpt online, which includes several of the photographs (although the photographs in the book are reproduced in black-and-white). Tacked on after the end of the essay “The Poetics of Trespass” is another shorter essay called “The Neighbor,” on Wong Kar-Wai’s visually stunning film In the Mood for Love (2001). Here, Anderson plays with themes such as displacement, loss, and the nature of film.

trespass image

Waiting for the Trapdoor of Memory: Iain Sinclair on Sebald


“This material,” the back page explains, “in an earlier form, was part of the first draft of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, a book due to be published in November 2013.  It was decided, as the text moved through later stages in the editing process, that a London detour might be confusing.  Now it stands alone.”  That excerpt, Iain Sinclair’s Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, has just been released as a chapbook that packs a real punch for its mere 28-pages.

This being Iain Sinclair, the reader should not be surprised to find that the Sebald pages are framed by a narrative of murder and dismemberment.  During a morning walk in Hackney, Sinclair happened upon the crime scene where parts of the body of soap opera actress Gemma McCluskie had surfaced in the brown sludge of Regent’s Canal.  The crime scene becomes a site of tribute and remembrance, “making murder into a soap-opera tragedy.”

Wreaths, flowers, bears, cards appear, overnight, woven into the fence, above the lock where the torso was found.  Yellows and purples.  Deep reds and pinks.  Carnations, tulips, lilies.  In funnels of cellophane and twists of green paper.

This tawdry story (she was murdered by her brother) helps displace Sebald from the East Anglian landscape where he lived and with which he has become inextricably identified, for Sinclair’s elegiac, almost tender, narrative is largely a tale of Sebald in urban London.  It also serves as a contrast for the way in which Sinclair wants to memorialize Sebald.  As Sinclair tracks Sebald through the neighborhoods of London, sometimes accompanied by the poet Stephen Watts, he writes about places that Sebald researched and wrote about in Austerlitz.  Sinclair and Watts visit places like Liverpool Station and the Jewish burial ground in Brady Street that Sebald would have seen as his Norwich train approached Liverpool Street.  Watts recalls stories of Sebald’s rucksack (which became Austerlitz’s rucksack) and of Sebald trawling through shoeboxes of old postcards in Spitalfields Market.  Sinclair wants to unravel the “quiet cult of managed melancholy” that has been building up around Sebald’s legend, and so he gives us a Sebald who is flawed, worried, curious, determined, ill.

I wondered if Sebald ever wrote about driving.  The published books present a man most comfortable with a scenario of waiting: station hotels, Swiss lakes, distant views of snow-capped mountains, flights into northern cities, walks through marches on sandy paths.  Waiting for that single justifying encounter: the trapdoor of memory, the skewed quotation.  the echo of a translated text.

Perhaps it takes someone as eclectic as Sinclair (whose website describes him as “a british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist”) to give us a glimpse of a Sebald who seems, momentarily, at least, whole.

[Note added April 20, 2013: In a most curious coincidence, the day after I originally posted this, The Guardian published an essay in which Sinclair says: “I only set eyes on Max Sebald one time. We shared a descending lift in Broadcasting House, pressed back into our safe corners, silent. He impersonated what I took him to be – writer, walker, culturally burdened European – so beautifully that I wondered if this was an actor, a hireling.”  This is not the impression Sinclair leaves in Austerlitz & After, where he is more coy about his actual relationship with Sebald.  Sinclair rather seamlessly blends Watts recollections into his own narrative, leaving it less than clear who actually spent time with Sebald.]

Austerlitz & After is a publication of Test Centre in London.  It was beautifully produced in a limited edition of 300 copies.  Twenty-six copies (all now sold) were specially bound in buckram covers.  Here is a view of the “extra holographic material” added to the copy which I managed to purchase.