Sunday, 20 August 2006

Illustrating Dylan (My souvenir of Biggar)

A photographer called Mark Edwards has published a book of photographs, each illustrating a line from Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. I opened it at ‘I met a young child beside a dead pony’, with a picture of exactly that (a scene of drought in Namibia) and picked up a general objective of concern about climate change and concern for ‘sustainable development’, in essays by Edwards and Lloyd Timberlake. Mostly I was transfixed by the story of Edwards, lost in the Sahara in 1969 (at the very moment of the moon landing), rescued by a Tuareg tribesman who made him a cup of tea and played him a cassette of Bob singing that song. Well, it would change anyone’s life, wouldn’t it? I shelled out the extravagant £15, some of which hopefully goes to some related good cause, but few of the images have that wow factor as illustrations to the lyric, and they are variably related to the socio-economic theme (e.g. the ‘white man who walked a black dog’ is in a grainy picture captured anonymously at Abu Ghraib, and the ‘girl [who] gave me a rainbow’ is Edwards's little blonde god-daughter on a trampoline in her green, (presumably English) garden, shaking out irridescent bubbles from a pot. I don’t really care for the enterprise artistically: it doesn’t add up to much for anyone other than the person who has made a hobby of collecting of images that resonate with the lyric, and it’s clunky to insist on finding some literal correlative to every one in this series of dreams. As for the association with a Cause, that is against Dylan’s spirit, as we understand it, no?
Coincidentally, Len had reminded me when we visited him & Judith a couple of days before, of the Getty Museum book (that I also own) which juxtaposes details of James Ensor’s painting, ‘Christ’s Entry Into Brussels’, 1888, with the lyric of ‘Desolation Row’. It’s also naff in some ways, especially the Word Art-style text design, but at least has a certain speculative aesthetic coherence, in that (of course) neither element can be thought of as illustrating the other.
Still, the pictures in Edwards’s book are mostly good and interesting, the project’s fervent good intentions are infectious; the texts are informative about the current state of international progress (lack of) and policies on development and the environment and there’s a useful bibliography. Then, this book overtly invites the reader actually to take action as a result of reading it, and includes suggestions about what and how: inform yourself, change your own lifestyle, campaign.
Mark Edwards, Lloyd Timberlake. Hard Rain: Our Headlong Collision With Nature. London: Still Pictures Moving Words, 2005. ISBN: 1-905588-00-3
In Biggar (where they have moved the Ian Hamilton Finlay sundial again) the independent, nice bookshop is called Atkinson-Pryce.

Explicating Joyce in Edinburgh

In a hot room above a pub, fitted out with church pews, a typical Fringe venue, an American called Adam Harvey performs Finnegans Wake Chapter 7, 'Shem the Penman', all the way from, ‘Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob’, to, ‘Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoi­quoi­quoiq’.
The style of rendition was to my mind rather ‘RSC’, lots of enunciation and mime, squeezing out every drop of sense. The set is two chairs of contrasting design, the actor wears (and eventually removed most of) a black suit and underwear; there is much business (all of it to the interpretative point) with a bowler hat and some white handkerchiefs. But the text is after all picturesque and theatrical, and Harvey’s programme note cautions sagely, ‘any attempt to confine this extraordinary language to a single interpretation threatens to violate its author’s intentions. So please enjoy this performance as the abstraction it is intended to be. Think less about what you’re not understanding than what you’re experiencing’. A tour de force certainly, to me it seemed more an educational / reading aid than a true piece of theatre, but thoroughly meritorious on those terms, and very enjoyable. Harvey has studied and memorised no less than 5 chapters of the book, ‘working on one phrase, one word, sometimes one syllable at a time’, and apparently presents them often at Joyce conferences. It would be great to have them on DVD.

Thursday, 17 August 2006

Linda Stillwagon at Pittenweem

“Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would / write, as are light bulbs in daylight”
Projected on a white wall in white light, somebody’s name appears, then slowly fades, followed by another, and then another, and over the next few hours, had you the leisure, hundreds. Some are famous in European and American art / literary modernism, others rang a bell; many went unrecognised and may be practically unknown, giving rise to associations based more on the shapes and sounds and (where applicable) meanings of the words in their names, and not on anecdotes and images we already have in mind. It was everybody Gertrude Stein (or, in other versions, Frank O’Hara or Peggy Guggenheim) ever met, in chronological order; a piece of text art, blank and teeming, but synchronic not simultaneous -- by contrast with the blankness of teeming, and, too, with the fantasy that biography (as a literary form) evokes: that a life is a party where everyone is always present. Possibly even with the idea of society: a proper name erases a real face, if only momentarily. Did we meet? if at all, it was in the space quietly left behind each name, unhurried, but too briefly to become attached. For half an hour or so this was rather satisfying; I wish we could have stayed to see whether the long durĂ©e would eventuate in some sort of transcendence, or a restless insatiability (Derain, Matisse, Picasso, who else is there?), or something else again, perhaps some usefully recovered memories.
This work is accompanied solely by two posters (a third is in the other room), with texts derived from (as it happens) Hans Christian Andersen’s fear of being buried alive. He kept a note on his pillow, that read (if I recall) “I only appear to be dead”. This is printed in black letters on one large sheet of paper that bears crease marks of having been neatly folded up small; its pair reads, “I only appear to be alive”. Resonant in themselves, these lend a further depth of field to the projected names, the majority of whose owners (do you ‘own’ your name?) are by now technically dead. But pace Lynne Truss, add a comma half way through each sentence: no sooner (in the grand scheme) do we appear in the world, than we are dead; but then again, the sight alone of our name can in some sense bring us back to life. Further readings again would be possible.
The artist’s name is Ian Whittlesea. The show at the Cairn Gallery, Pittenweem, Fife, ends this week (20 August), but there are some great installation shots on his website:

Friday, 4 August 2006

First books: A

Alyson Torns launched her first book a month ago, with a couple of readings, one of which was at Crossing the Line, the series (now at the Plough, Museum Street, first Fridays) where we probably first met, a few years ago. From the Lost Property Office contains work by a 'quartet' of personae: Stella Stein has an eating disorder, Alice Band a painful empathy with children hurt or destroyed; Eunice Pessoa exists through emotional relations but is insightful and reflective; Maria Pimenta engages (or at least 'watches') a wider world outside, and is alive to language as the material of perception and construction. Maria's poems are built on the page in rectangular chunks, while those of the other three are for the most part
intermittently stanzaic free verse. As a whole, the book reads like a growth and development, and that impression was reinforced at the reading, where Alyson presented some newer work again, which was more fractured and abstracted. It'll certainly be interesting to follow her trajectory; but this book is meanwhile a serious, consolidated achievement. The piece that touched me most in fact is one of Alice's, a little one:

Legs dangling
in the air
from energy
of my father's feet

exhilaration of
leaving my seat
flying away
for a moment.

The dangling is typical: these poems start and end in medias res -- they don't purport to resolve anything. The book ends with a piece by 'Alyson Torns', an account of a weekend in Lisbon 'In search of Pessoa'. The poet's experience and love of Portugal suggests itself as theme for wider work, and her prose style is engaging in quite a subtle way. I thought, She should do more of this! (and I rarely enjoy prose).
Alyson is a lovely, open-hearted, vivid being; she's been holding her breath for this book, and it's brilliant to see it out, and see it good. (Visually too: she was allowed to do the design, and it's attractive & readable.)
Alyson Torns, From the Lost Property Office: a Quartet for Pessoa (London: Hearing Eye, 2006) 1-905082-08-8