“A single moment suffices to unlock the secrets of life, and the key to all secrets is History and only History, that eternal repetition and the beautiful name of horror.” Jorge Luis Borges
From How to Live – A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell:
“Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them… It does not matter, he wrote, whether a person one loves has been dead for fifteen hundred years or, like his own father, eighteen years. Both are equally remote; both are equally close.”
“If fictional worlds are so comfortable, why not try to read the actual world as if it were a work of fiction?”
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods
Trees – Woods and Western Civilisation by Richard Hayman
“…the forest provides the setting for chance encounters that take the protagonists away from their everyday lives. Woodland is the gateway to a parallel reality of the underworld, but it is also a refuge where the real world is held in limbo.”
“Woods are poised between reality and imagination…”
Extract from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.
“She [Helen Thomas] recalled afterwards that Gurney, on being shown the map, took it at once from her, and spread it out on his bed, in his hot little white-tiled room in the asylum, with the sunlight falling in patterns upon the floor. Then the two of them kneeled together by the bed and traced out, with their fingers, walks that they and Edward had taken in the past…
Helen returned to visit Gurney several times after this, and on each occasion she brought the map that had been made soft and creased by her husband’s hands, and she and Gurney knelt at the bed and together walked through their imagined country.”
In Tim Ingold’s Being Alive, Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, he writes the following:
“Recall Hägerstrand’s idea that everything there is, launched in the current of time, has a trajectory of becoming. The entwining of these ever-extending trajectories comprises the texture of the world.”
This reminded me of something I wrote some time ago about history and the relationship between history and objects:
“…what we have is not a series of horizontal strata representing stacked moments in time (days, months, years, centuries etc.), but concurrent vertical lines, or what I have called ‘durations’ where each duration is an object, building or landscape feature and where the present is our simultaneous perception of those that are extant (of course, in the case of buildings, individual objects can also contain many separate durations).
It was Bill Viola who said that ‘we have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, and to some extent sleep, that gives the impression of a life of discrete parts, periods or sections, of certain times or highlights’. Similarly we can say that every object, building or landscape feature has existed in one continuous moment and that it is to some extent the passing generations which gives the impression of the past as being a series of ‘discrete parts, periods or sections…”
This is very similar to what Hägerstrand – via Ingold – describes above and in many ways, the second diagram (above), illustrating the idea of vertical durations, is like a loom, where the durations are the warp threads and our perception of simultaneous durations are the weft, leading to an entwining of what Hägerstrand calls ever-extended trajectories making up the texture of the world.
In this analogy we are both the weft and the warp; both a duration and the perceiver of durations. We find something similar to this, again in Ingold’s writing:
“…since the living body is primordially and irrevocably stitched into the fabric of the world, our perception of the world is no more, and no less, than the world’s perception of itself – in and through us. This is just another way of saying that the inhabited world is sentient.”
|Fossilised shell, around 195 millions years old|
“As physicists have pointed out, it is no accident that we see stars in our sky, for stars are a necessary part of any universe capable of generating us. Again, this does not imply that stars exist in order to make us. It is just that without stars there would be no atoms heavier than lithium in the periodic table, and a chemistry of only three elements is too impoverished to support life. Seeing is the kind of activity that can go on only in the kind of universe where what you see is stars.”
|Mediaeval pottery shard|
“Only God knows the reason for those changes linked with the mystery of the future: for men there are truths hidden in the depths of time; they come forth only with the help of the ages, just as there are stars so far removed from the earth that their light has not yet reached us.”
|Photograph of World War I serviceman|
“From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze – light though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”
A second example of wholeness involves the ordinary experience of looking up at the sky at night and seeing the vast number of stars. We see this nighttime world by means of the light ‘carrying’ the stars to us, which means that this vast expanse of sky must all be present in the light which passes through the small hole of the pupil into the eye. Furthermore, other observers in different locations can see the same expanse of night sky.
As physicists have pointed out, it is no accident that we see stars in our sky, for stars are a necessary part of any universe capable of generating us. Again, this does not imply that stars exist in order to make us. It is just that without stars there would be no atoms heavier than lithium in the periodic table, and a chemistry of only three elements is too impoverished to support life. Seeing is the kind of activity that can go on only in the kind of universe where what you see is stars.
The light of the moon covers the earth, yet it can be contained in a single bowl of water.
Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)
Only God knows the reason for those changes linked with the mystery of the future : for men there are truths hidden in the depths of time; they come forth only with the help of the ages, just as there are stars so far removed from the earth that their light has not yet reached us.
From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze – light though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.
“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.”
The following short piece of text was taken from the Atlas exhibition at the Reina Sofia Gallery in Madrid which I visited last week. I’ve always loved Rilke’s work and it’s been of some importance in my research. Reading the following, it’s clear to me that that influence will only become even greater as I continue.
‘The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that the “depth of time” was revealed more in human gestures than in archaeological remains or fossilised organisms. The gesture is a “fossil of movement”; it is, at the same time, the very mark of the fleeting present and of desire in which our future is formed.’
It seems amazing to me that given the way I perceive the world around me – and the way I have since I was a child – and looking the work I’ve made over the course of the last few years, that I haven’t before delved into the world of Psychogeography, for having started to read Merlin Coverley’s book Psychogeography I seem to be a natural psychogeographer. I recall that when I studied for my degree back in the early 90s, I was fascinated by the writings of Andre Breton and Louis Aragon (‘Nadja’ and ‘Paris Peasant’) which today sit on my bookshelves along with the works of J.-K. Husymans, Blake and Peter Ackroyd, writers who are all discussed in Coverley’s book.Why they intrigued me so much I never really understood, until now.
This morning, in Coverley’s book, I read the following quote form a 19 year old member of Lettrist International who went by the name of Chtcheglov (his real name was Gilles Ivain, and he was later incarcerated in an asylum…). Within that quote, a few lines in particular interested me. The full quote however is as follows:
All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us to the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surreralist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caves, casino mirrors.
The following line in particular brought me up short: ‘…Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary…’ for this exactly describes how I think when I walk through a city, or in fact any particular place. The remains comprising our present-day landscapes are overlaid with a weave of unremembered lives, narratives and events, which, Coverely explains, can, in a moment be revealed through even the most mundane objects and surroundings. It’s as if, whilst walking down the street, one can see something which opens up a ‘receding perspective’ just as Chtcheglov writes, allowing us for a second to glimpse those ‘original conceptions of space.’ The vision is fragmentary and lasts just a moment, but everywhere these possibilities exist.
I’ve often used the idea of mundane (or everyday) objects and surroundings in my work as a means of accessing the past – as revealing the past through the lens of the present, and before beginning my MA in 2006, I wrote about what I called ‘memory spaces’; spaces which opened up when looking at old buildings or objects. For me, these spaces, were – or rather are – memories of a particular object or building held by people who lived generations before us. I was trying to find a way of describing how when I look at an old building, it’s as if I gain access, in some fragmentary way, to the memories of those who beheld it years before – as if I could then walk from one of their memories to another.
In another piece of writing (What is History?), I tried to find another way of describing how we access these spaces. Instead of perceiving history as a series of horizontal layers, built up one on top of the other, I suggested that it was more accurate to see the past as comprising a vast number of durations, where every object, every building, every part of a building etc., was a duration, extending vertically down the page. (This idea was inspired by the writings of Bill Viola, who wrote how ‘we have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, he says, ‘and to some extent sleep, that gives the impression of a life of discrete parts, periods or sections, of certain times or highlights’. Similarly we can say that every object, building or landscape feature has existed in one continuous moment and that it is to some extent the passing generations which gives the impression of the past as being a series of ‘discrete parts, periods or sections.)
As I wrote:
Access to the past therefore comes not via a kind of mental gymnastics where we straddle the horizontal strata of different moments in time, accessing a part [an object] via the whole (the entire epoch of that particular layer e.g. 1900), but through the careful observation of a part in which the whole can be observed. As Henri Bortoft writes in The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Seeing; ‘…thus the whole emerges simultaneously with the accumulation of the parts, not because it is the sum of the parts, but because it is immanent within them’. In other words, from an object [for example, one made in 1900] we can extrapolate its wider context (the ‘epoch of 1900’). Instead of drilling down through many periods [of horizontal] time in order to get from one time to another some distance below (or behind), we simply have to observe an object we know that links the two. In this… model , there are no horizontal barriers, just vertical, navigable channels.
Therefore, when looking at an object in a museum, or glimpsing something whilst walking in the street, angles are shifted as Chtcheglov explains, and receding perspectives revealed, precisely because of the way the present comprises these continuous durations. Of course it doesn’t happen all the time, but depends on any number of things, not least the way we perceive that object at the moment of our encounter. History in this sense is kinaesthetic.
“…to write history without the play of imagination is to dig in an intellectual graveyard…”
Preface to Citizens
“Taking nothing seriously and recognising our sensations as the only reality we have for certain, we take refuge there, exploring them like large unknown countries.”
Schopenhauer: ‘The task of art is to turn tears into knowledge’.
From an essay in a Richard Long monograph (The Intricacy of the Skein, the Complexity of the Web: Richard Long’s Art by Paul Moorhouse):
To a large extent however, these works are not seen by anyone apart from the artist and others who happen to come upon them. Not only are they temporary sculptures which behind the process of their assimilation into nature as soon as the artist leaves them, they are also frequently in remote locations.
From Christopher Woodward’s ‘In Ruins’:
As Gustave Flaubert remarked in a letter to a friend in 1846, when he was twenty-five years old:
Yesterday … I saw some ruins, beloved ruins of my youth which I knew already … I thought again about them, and about the dead whom I had never known and on whom my feet trampled. I love above all the sight of vegetation resting upon old ruins; this embrace of nature, coming swiftly to bury the work of man the moment his hand is no longer there to defend it, fills me with deep and ample joy.
Working on the tree last night I discovered, through the Ancestry website, a lady who is descended from a common ancestor. The ancestor in question is my great-grandmother, on my father’s side, Ellen E Lafford whose brother Albert is the direct descendent of the lady I mentioned. Looking at her family tree (I couldn’t help but feel I was somehow intruding, especially as she’s put up quite a few photographs) and looking at the faces of all these strangers, it was odd to think of how we share this common link, albeit one which goes back to the late nineteenth century, and to consider the different paths our families have taken. It’s strange too, to consider the thought that my descendants will, one day down the line, be complete strangers… and then of course the mind begins to wander – or rather run with it all – and positively boggles when considering all those others living today with whom I share so many ancestors; people to whom, however distantly, I am related.
This of course brings me back round to the point of much of my artwork, the idea of all those anonymous people swallowed up by history; the faces on the photographs of Oxford which I’ve started to collect, names on memorials, names lost altogether, and I’m reminded again of the words of Rilke in his novel, ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’ when he says (always worth quoting in full):
“Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false, because one has always spoken of its masses just as though one were telling of a coming together of many human beings, instead of speaking of the individual around whom they stood because he was a stranger and was dying?
Yes it is possible.
Is it possible that one believed it necessary to retrieve what happened before one was born? Is it possible that one would have to remind every individual that he is indeed sprung from all who have gone before, has known this therefore and should not let himself be persuaded by others who knew otherwise?
Yes it is possible.
Is it possible that all these people know with perfect accuracy a past that has never existed? Is it possible that all realities are nothing to them; that their life is running down, unconnected with anything, like a clock in an empty room?
Yes it is possible.”
Researching my family tree is a desire perhaps to be anything but a clock in an empty room. Rather, to quote Roland Barthes, I would prefer to be what he describes as cameras being; a clock for seeing.
I was recently reading a book of work by Georges Perec, and in particular a transcription of a conversation he had with someone called Frank Venaille. In it he describes himself as a unanimist:
“a literary movement that didn’t produce much but whose name I very much like. A movement that starts with yourself and goes towards others. It’s what I call sympathy, a sort of projection, and at the same time an appeal!”
Again, this describes what my research is all about, something which starts with myself and goes towards others, a sort of sympathy with history, or at least, with those who have been lost to history. It is a projection of oneself onto the face of the past and as Perec states (although this might not be his meaning) an appeal to be remembered.
During my degree in the early 1990s, I did a lot of work on the Tower of London, and in particular on the inscriptions made by prisoners incarcerated in the Beauchamp Tower. I worked with video at the time, mixing text taken from Dante’s journey through Hell with images of my own walk through the Tower. This weekend, while visiting the Tower, I relished the chance, in light of the work I’ve been doing on both my MA and this residency, of seeing them again, and, just as they did almost 15 years ago, these inscriptions once again captured my imagination.
Having visited Auschwitz and Ypres, I became aware, in this small room, of the nature of memorials. In Ypres, the main memorials are the graves and the names on the Menin Gate. At Auschwitz it is the possessions left by the victims. In this small room, prisoners who knew they would die, or at least feared for their lives, made their own memorials, sometimes carving very elaborate testaments to their own existence in the most difficult of conditions. Some would memorialise the long hours they endured and the torment which they suffered, such as that by William Tyrell. Carved in 1541 it is particularly poignant:
“Since Fortune has chosen that my hope should go to the wind to complain,
I wish the time were destroyed; my planet being ever sad and ungracious.”
In wishing ‘the time were destroyed,’ William Tyrell through carving the fact into the wall, has made not only time, but that particular moment, endure for as long as the walls remain standing, a moment which we can share some 465 years later. It’s strange how the moment remains yet his suffering has for centuries been at an end. He speaks to us directly and by hearing him in our own voices we can share more directly in his pain. Would the carving be so powerful if it was a fragment in a museum? No, I don’t think it would. The fact we are seeing it in situ, standing in the exact place he stood helps us to fill in the gaps more easily. We get a sense of his confinement, his life and the impossible sense of freedom as glimpsed through the window – the freedom which for us is not only possible, but certain. It is this same sensation which I felt in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the knowledge that I could at any time just walk out the gate. Here, I could simply turn and walk out the door. It is this rather uncomfortable contrast which makes the plight of William Tyrell, among many others all the more tragic.
The objects in Auschwitz, in particular the suitcases, were in many respects, memorials in their own time, unwitting memorials perhaps to a place (a home, a normal life) from which the victims had been driven. The names inscribed on the walls of the Beauchamp Tower however memorialise the place of confinement, the period of incarceration.
“We have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, and to some extent sleep, that gives the impression of a life of discrete parts, periods or sections, of certain times or ‘highlights’.”
This quote from Bill Viola is particularly pertinent when one imagines what it was like to be incarcerated in a space such as was William Tyrell. No doubt during his captivity, Tyrell spent time remembering, casting his mind back over periods in his life, over ‘discrete parts’ and ‘highlights’. And if ever a person is aware of living the same moment, then it must be the prisoner confined in his cell.
There is something else about this quote which is also pertinent to the room in the Beauchamp Tower. The myriad number of inscriptions covering the walls were carved over a period of almost two centuries and give us impressions of not only a single life as consisting of discrete parts, but of lives as being discrete parts of a greater whole or single moment of existence, an existence (the room) in which we are playing as much a part as the men once held prisoner within.
“If things are perceived as discrete parts or elements they can be rearranged. Gaps become more interesting as places of shadow.”
Using the example of the Beauchamp Tower, one can see how this rearrangement of which Bill Viola speaks takes place in the mind of the visitor. Time is collapsed into a moment, a period of almost two centuries is visible to us in one look around the room. Years and decades separate many of these carvings, yet we are aware of only the blur of the past. We are in effect rearranging these discreet periods, creating gaps – interesting (and ambiguous) places of shadow – which we fill with our own experience.
A beautiful but heart-rending quote from a prisoner, William Tyrell, carved into the walls of the Beauchamp Tower in 1541.
“Since Fortune has chosen that my hope should go to the wind to complain,
I wish the time were destroyed; my planet being ever sad and ungracious.”
“The light of the moon covers the earth, yet it can be contained in a single bowl of water.”
Dogen Zenji (1200 – 1253)
“Headlights illuminated a large area with a deep oval-shaped pit in the middle. At its bottom a pool of water had formed in which the moon was mirrored.”
Filip Muller – Eyewitness Auschwitz
“The Moon shines with so blue a light
Over the City,
Where a decaying generation
Lives cold and evil –
A dark future prepared
For the pale grandchild.”
From ‘The Street of Crocodiles’
“But where the ground extended into a low-lying isthmus and dropped into the shadow of the back wall of a deserted soda factory, it became grimmer, overgrown and wild with neglect, untidy, fierce with thistles, bristling with nettles, covered with a rash of weeds, until, at the very end of the walls, in an open rectangular bay, it lost all moderation and became insane… It was there that I saw him first and for the only time in my life, at a noon hour crazy with heat. It was at a moment when time, demented and wild breaks away from the treadmill of events and like an escaping vagabond, runs shouting across the fields. Then the summer grows out of control, spreads at all points over space with a wild impetus, doubling and trebling itself into an unknown, lunatic dimension.”