This post is a setting out of ideas at the start. It is largely words, but it’s setting up associations that I hope to be explored in the images.
Cy Twombly explored the area between poetry and visual art, making multiple allusions. His work is multilayered, thick with impasto, textured, showing the process of the paint making its way down the canvas, or scrubbed back, erased. It is a very visceral experience. His multi-part work “The Rose” combines paint and handwritten text on a large scale.
Cy Twombly, The Rose (Part V), 2008, acrylic on four wooden panels, 99 1⁄4″ × 291 3⁄8″. Gagosian Gallery.
In this project, I’ve decided to work on paper and revisit different printing techniques. They will tend to be flat images, as the process of transferring from one surface to another creates something of a disconnect. I don’t expect to achieve that kind of visceral response, but more of a kind of analytical distance.
These ideas are put together at the end of summer, after working on images of my mother, and after rereading certain works of literature that influenced me in the past. There’s a conscious trying to make sense, to make links, to find a suitable narrative for life, even though that is highly unfashionable in post-modern thought, in the “post-truth” era we live in.
Seasons: the cycle of life- a cycle is a satisfying structure to hang work on, but it’s more than that as the connection to seasons, beginnings and endings has been key in my last pieces of work, as well as being fundamental to thinking about the big questions that increasingly nag at me.
Visual and verbal language: symbols, metaphors, analogies – one thing metamorphosing into something else. Thinking synchronically, everything is in a set of relationships, arbitrary, contextual, cultural, in the world of the perpetually present, in which everything is in a state of flux, forming and reforming new relationships all the time. But from a diachronic perspective, what persists? This may not be a grand narrative that pertains to all, but one that nevertheless functions to explain a certain amount on a personal level. What are the recurring motifs of this personal narrative? What, if anything, is constant? Is constancy, something that used to be considered a virtue, now an old-fashioned failing, relegated to an enclave of smug certainty, self-satisfaction, privilege, elitism, or to the narrow-mindedness of ugly ideologies?
The Judeo-Christian tradition is something I have grown up with, and to that extent is inescapable, as much as I have tried to. But as a system of signs, a set of symbols, a myth even it is an important part of our mental heritage – it is not a closed set of ideas- it in fact strongly promotes the ability to transform one thing into something else. Sign and signifier in church rituals, for example, are not in an arbitrary relationship but a strong imaginative (and/or – does it matter?) culturally constructed bond. That relationship changes over time. What was once “true”no longer seems so, what was a fresh discovery now seems stale, and belonging to another era, but the signs can be reinvented and reinterpreted for each new age. T.S. Eliot explored Eastern religions and philosophies and came back to Anglicanism, knowing it ‘for the first time”. I will make reference to this tradition too.
Metaphor versus metonymy: substitution versus contiguity: paradigmatic vs syntagmatic. A rose is a metaphor for many things, traditionally (see below). It can also be a personal symbol, as in my memorialising with a rose, in the sense even of becoming that thing. As a metonymic token, it is a part of something bigger, as a representative of summer, or of growth, fertility, and also hints at the inevitable withering. In its symbolic role it starts to change its form, – the rose window for example, a geometrically perfect construction which links to ideas of heavenly perfection, and the view of man as a classically perfect, based on a heavenly paradigm.
Hyper-rationalism versus Romanticism: hyper-rationalism is the application of structural theory to a dematerialised world, lacking in causes and explanations. A system, based on binary oppositions, and justified entirely by function. Intellectually but not emotionally satisfying. But what’s so bad about Romanticism? It recognises that personal experience, emotion, are refined in the memory and in imagination, and become symbolic, super-real, other-wordly experiences. The Romantic poets in their time, and Eliot more recently, used a language of symbols. Eliot took his from different times, contexts and cultures, to evoke layers of meaning, and resonance, to create epiphanies through their combinations of words, to go beyond words and visual images. There is plenty “outside the text”, if you consider that words themselves have histories, life stories.
SUBJECT MATTER: RE-
This started as a study of a rose bush planted as a memorial, and became linked to the rereading of poetic works after a long time. Revisiting the past. A lot of “re-” words. But revisiting is also “knowing for the first time”, new, not re- discovery. Reinterpreting in the light of experience.
The works being revisited were the following:
TS Eliot: Collected poems, in particular The Four Quartets
William Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience
Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads
Anglo-Saxon poems: The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood
Taken together, they present a world view that acknowledges the transience of human life, that posits the existence of a superior power residing in nature that can act as a corrective to human folly, and that seeks an overarching narrative to link us to the past and future.
How does one live, or how does one make sense of life? At a certain age, thoughts of mortality becoming more pressing. Eliot’s poem, The Four Quartets, written in the poet’s middle age, deals with the concept of immortality, and discusses time, and how we live within it, or beyond it. “Logos” – The Word- an intellectual and religious concept of “Truth”, is the idea that there is a single truth, that we as individuals can gain knowledge. This is considered a Western philosophical concept, seen in Classical thinkers from Plato onwards, and echoed in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is a means of connecting human and divine. It is antithetical to Eastern spiritual ideas of the world as flux, and to more recent Western ideas as expressed in post-structuralist semiotics. However, in The Wasteland, Eliot posed the question, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, Out of this stony rubbish?”, asking whether there could be something which would abide, some grand tradition.
Eliot’s poetry makes use of what he calls “objective correlatives”- concrete details, often highly personal, upon which he builds abstract, metaphorical conceits. This not only raises the everyday to the poetic, and mystical, but also underlines the importance of experience, as a fabric through which the spiritual world can be glimpsed.
THE FOUR QUARTETS
It is written in four parts:
Part 1: Burnt Norton
This features the Rose Garden, and the lotus. It has a visionary feel, and evokes a sense of something airy- fleeting, and unlooked for. Images are associated with the innocence of children, thoughts, philosophy, poetry, and perfection. Its element is Air.
Part 2: East Coker
Seasons, rituals, physicality, aging, words failing: dung and death. Its element is earth.
Part 3: Dry Salvages
It focuses on water, the sea- wrecks, tides, ebb and flow, voyaging.
Part 4: Little Gidding
Ends with fire, consummation, spiritual cleansing.
Eliot was Anglican, but his poem is more eastern in feeling, not dogmatic. Full of paradoxes, upsetting logic and analytical thought. Formed of words but doubting the power of words. Words repeat, seem inadequate, but what comes over is the rhythm, the pattern, the recurring elements, like a chant. It goes beyond the meaning of words to an experience of the words. Words that aim at silence, in the same way as Xu Bing’s elaborately wrought graphical characters do.