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Posts from the ‘Waterlog (exhibition)’ Category

Skimming Waterlog 3 – The Artists


…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.

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.
simon-pope-memorial-walks-2.jpg Simon Pope, from The Memorial Walks

Skimming Waterlog 2 – The Poetry

…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-bittern.jpg Marcus Coates, Britain’s Bitterns c. 1997, 2007

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.

alec-finlay-life-buoy.jpgAlec Finlay Life Buoy (Circle Poem), 2006

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.


Waterlog (London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2007).

Skimming Waterlog 1 – The Essays


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.


Waterlog (London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2007).

Waterlog – the Catalog

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.”


Walking in Sebald’s Footsteps

Tim Adams, writing for the Guardian Unlimited, recently did a profile of Robert Macfarlane, whose new book, The Wild Places, is about to be released in England September 3 by Granta Books. The Wild Places sounds very much like a book in the vein of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and indeed, as Hill reports, Macfarlane’s next book will be about Sebald.

For his next book Macfarlane is retracing the walking tours of the late WG Sebald, the melancholic German genius, who washed up not far from here in East Anglia. He frets a little – an unusual anxiety for a writer – that he is not depressed enough to catch Sebald’s mood. ‘I’m too young and cheery, that’s the trouble,’ he says, laughing.

There is quite a bit of new nature writing in Great Britain that is somewhat akin to Sebald’s writing and which doesn’t get much play in the U.S. In addition to Macfarlane, other names that I run across with increasing frequency include: Roger Deakin (who died last year), Mark Crocker, and Richard Mabey, none of whom I have read yet. (I think Deakin’s book Waterlogged: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain provided the title for the exhibition Waterlog, which I wrote about earlier.)

‘Something very interesting is happening in East Anglia at the moment,’ Macfarlane suggests. ‘This resurgence in nature writing seems to be centred here somehow. And this summer is the sort of mast year for it.’ Mabey, a friend, has suggested to him the reason for this. ‘East Anglia was the most devastated region by agribusiness and it follows that the reaction should begin here.’

Tacita Dean and W.G. Sebald

The British artist Tacita Dean (b. 1965) happens to be one of my favorite contemporary artists.Winner of the 2006 Hugo Boss Prize (and hence a 2007 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum), her work is simultaneously visceral and intelligent and nearly always involves seemingly incompatible opposites.She often uses banal objects such as found photographs or common postcards to explore profound issues of life, death, history, and memory.Much of her art is based on historical or biographical research, yet chance and coincidence are everpresent factors. Since 2001, Dean has referenced Sebald in several of her works.


Tacita Dean: W.G. SEBALD (2003)

Although chronologically not the earliest piece on Sebald, her 2003 Paris catalog provides the perfect entrée to examining the connections between Tacita Dean and W.G. Sebald.In September 1999, while recording ambient sound in a bus stop on the island of Fiji for a commissioned art project, Dean found herself reading the section of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn which deals with Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist who was executed by the British for treason in 1916.Before becoming fatally entangled in the Irish nationalist movement, Casement was best known for his service as a British diplomat in Africa.His Congo Report (1904) exposed Belgian atrocities and was probably influenced by Joseph Conrad’s great 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.When Dean read the pages in which Sebald describes Casement’s trial for treason, she realized that the presiding judge who had condemned Casement to death was her great, great uncle.

Dean reveals this startling anecdote in a slim volume entitled W.G. Sebald, which is part of a boxed set of seven softcover catalogs produced in 2003 for an exhibition of her work at the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.The “story” that she tells in W.G. Sebald, is – appropriately – full of those coincidental moments when genealogy, personal experiences, and world events intersect with oddly illuminating results.Her story not only involves Casement, Sebald, and Dean’s own ancestors, but also the aerial bombing of Germany during World War II, the Marconi Telegraph Company, and a missing family painting by Van Gogh.Like Sebald, she punctuates her story with contemporary snapshots, family photographs, historical images, found postcards, and artless photographs of objects to create a narrative that seems to meander aimlessly toward a conclusion that finally seems inevitable. Intrigued by the Casement connection to her family, the resulting artwork is more or less a document of her subsequent research.But, like Sebald’s fiction, Dean’s art is also a semi-fictional form of documentary.

 The 32-page Paris catalog is bi-lingual – English and French – and delightfully uses different illustrations in each section.Some version of this piece apparently appeared in a piece that Dean published on pages 122-136 of the Fall 2003 issue of October magazine from MIT Press (surprisingly impossible to locate second hand).

Tacita Dean: THE RUSSIAN ENDING (2001)

A second volume in the Paris boxed set of catalogs is called The Russian Ending and reproduces twenty photogravures that Dean had created in 2001.While the Paris catalog makes no mention of Sebald in connection with this work, when this series was first exhibited in the U.S. at the New York gallery of Peter Blum from December 8, 2001 to February 2, 2002, the gallery issued a four-page brochure that included a quotation from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which one assumes Dean herself selected.In the quotation Sebald describes the sensations of being enveloped in a sudden sandstorm.When the whirlwind dissipates into an eerie quietude he muses: “This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.”

For The Russian Ending, Dean used flea market postcards to create large prints via photogravure, which serve as treatments (complete with etched-on stage directions) for an imaginary film about failure and disaster.Jordan Kantor, reviewing the exhibition in Artforum (March 2002), called the imagery of explosions, shipwrecks, and funerals a “melancholic iconography,” which would succinctly define the writings of Sebald as well.“The Russian Ending” apparently refers to a practice in which movies were once made with different endings for different markets – the Russian audience requiring the more tragic ending.



Die Regimentstochter is a 64-page signed and numbered book designed by Dean and published by Steidl in Göttingen, Germany in an edition of 2,000 copies.The book’s title, of course, refers to the Donizetti opera known in English as The Daughter of the Regiment.The book itself reproduces a series of Nazi-era opera programs that Dean found in a Berlin flea market, all of which had sections of pages mysteriously cut out, creating a sequence of oddly evocative “found” collages.As the publisher’s website says: “Each programme gives a tantalising glimpse of a title or a face through a small window cut into the embossed cover; we recognise Beethoven, Rossini, the face of a singer perhaps.When and by whom this incision in the cover was made, very neatly one might add, even more why these disfigured programmes were kept remains a mystery. A swift search in an archive would easily show what has been removed; most likely an embossed swastika, for these performances all happened during the Third Reich. Why they were removed is left to our imaginations; perhaps an avid theatre-goer livid at the co-option of culture by the regime, perhaps someone afraid they might be misinterpreted as fascist memorabilia, while wishing to retain the memories these performances triggered.”

I have no direct evidence that Dean knowingly linked the subject of Die Regimentstochter with Sebald.Nevertheless there is a marvelous connection between Dean’s book and a short section in the “Air War and Literature” chapter in Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction.From pages 42 – 45, Sebald briefly ponders the role of culture – specifically music – “in the evolution and collapse of the German Reich.” Sebald quotes a number of sources who wrote about the presence of opera and classical music – both live and on radio – in the very midst of the Allied bombing of Germany and the total devastation immediately after the end of the war.Sebald includes a photograph of war-time German audience intently, if not raptly, listening to music in a concert hall, perhaps to one of the very programs included in Tacita Dean’s book.

Tacita Dean Phaidon Monograph

Jean-Christophe Royoux, Marina Warner, and Germaine Greer: TACITA DEAN (2006)

In 2006, Phaidon published a very useful introductory monograph on the work of Tacita Dean in their Contemporary Artists series.Tacita Dean discusses and illustrates many of her projects including all of the ones relating to Sebald mentioned above.In a section called “Artist’s Choice,” which recurs throughout the series, the artist under discussion is asked to make a selection from another artist or two.For her volume, Dean chose William Butler Yeats, whose 1939 poem “One-Legged Fly” is reproduced, and W.G. Sebald.Dean chose one of the most remarkable and telling paragraphs from The Rings of Saturn which begins: “As I sat there that evening in the Southwold overlooking the German ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark.”What follows is a beautiful, dark meditation on landscape, dream, memory, and the power of transformation.The extract concludes: “What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”, which seems a near perfect description of Dean’s art.

Dean continues to produce art work that relates to Sebald.As one of seven British artists commissioned to respond to Sebald’s writing and to the landscape that inspired him for an exhibition in Norwich called Waterlog, Dean has created a film on his close friend and translator, the poet Michael Hamburger.

Click here to go to my earlier post on Waterlog.

Waterlog & Searching for Sebald

The Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery has just announced the opening of a new exhibition that reflects the ongoing relevance of W.G. Sebald to contemporary visual artists, who find common cause and inspiration in his writings.Waterlog includes specially commissioned works created by seven artists who were asked to respond to the landscape of East Anglia, which Sebald explored in The Rings of Saturn: Tacita Dean, Marcus Coates, Alec Finlay and Guy Moreton (working collaboratively), Alexander and Susan Maris (also working as a team), and Simon Pope.

Waterlog has an extensive website (with its own blog) at Click here to go to the Waterlog website.

Although there does not appear to be a catalog for Waterlog, there is another ambitious project to look forward to and this one will have a publication. Searching for Sebald is being edited by Lise Platt for the Institute of Cultural Inquiry in Los Angeles and will also be available through Distributed Art Press and Amazon. The book is due out later this spring and will include an extensive number of essays and artist’s projects. According to the ICI’s website, the monograph “will be the first to explore Sebald’s fictive world through the idiosyncratic and anti-heroic photographs that propel and interrupt his labyrinthine narratives. The book will also feature an English translation of an interview Sebald gave in 1997 in which he talks exclusively about his use of photographs. It contains some of Sebald’s most illuminating and poetic remarks about the topic yet.”

Of perhaps even more interest is the fact that ICI is also creating a special edition of 100 “traveling suitcases” that will sell for $500. Each suitcase will include artwork by twenty invited artists. I have mine reserved!For more information visit Click here to go to the Sebald page at the ICI.