- Lucy Biddle ~
1. Dowsing for objects
The beginning of this project, for me, was an invitation from Bethan to write in response to an object from the V&A ceramics collection.
I spent an afternoon walking through the collection, waiting for one object out of the many to speak to me. The one that did is not the one that I expected to: a 60-tile panel depicting an arctic whaling scene, by Dutch painter Cornelis Boumeister, dating from between 1680 and 1720.
I was intrigued by the panel’s combination of looseness and regularity, by the way that the scene’s narrative played out across the tiles, and by the way that the sea – that vast great expanse – was divided into such neat, scalloped sections.
I was drawn too, to the fact that this was a kind of non-object object, part-painting, part-domestic decoration. It made me think about time I’d spent in Holland and – across the North Sea – in Suffolk, about literary and visual techniques for storytelling, and about flatness and two- dimensionality.
I started thinking about how it might be possible to write like this or any object, to take on or borrow from some of its characteristics. The text that I eventually wrote in response to the tiled panel – a short text of seven stanzas or sections, each one just 60 words long – was an attempt to achieve, in prose, some of its beguiling combination of fluidity and regularity. I hope that it feels, like the panel does, like a whole made out of discreet sections, the lines between them just visible.
2. Writing for exhibitions
For the last four years I have written interpretative texts that accompany exhibitions. The objects that I write about are often – though not always – works of art (for one exhibition I wrote a text on a bag of herbs from Waitrose, and a surface-to-air Missile). Because of the fact that the organisation I work for typically stages large-scale, temporary exhibitions with loans coming from all around the world, it’s possible that when artworks arrive onsite to be installed, it’s the first time that I’ve encountered them in the flesh, or face to face, rather than through a screen, on a page or in a text. One of the reasons that this project was such a pleasure to take part in was because of the opportunity it provided for looking so directly at a single object, and for writing in a different mode.
3. Sharing texts
I’d like to share now two texts that both respond – in different ways – to visual subjects.
The first is by Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whose work I love in part because of the extraordinary attention she pays to objects, and to the act of looking more broadly … whether at familiar cities, foreign cities, objects, hornet’s nests, or works of art.
The two stanzas that I’m about to read are taken from a short poem called Florida Revisited, unpublished during her lifetime. To me, these stanzas are remarkable for the way that they manage to enact the process of looking at and learning about an object.
I didn’t realise until yesterday that this is also a text about the edges of the sea (which, as Bethan pointed out to me last week is something of a theme for me):
At first I took it for a bird
lying at the water’s edge,
wreathed in a little tan-coloured foam
by the tide
– a dead black bird. No. The breast of one?
No. Then it must be a single wing,
coal-black, glistening blue-and-black
like coal, with each wet feather distinct:
scapulars, secondaries and primaries,
soaked and separate, catching light.
I picked it up. It wasn’t a bird.
A bird or its heart or a wing
would have been light; this was much lighter.
(That sensation – like stepping down
when there is no step.)
It was only a fragment of charred wood,
feather-light, feather-marked, almost dry,
– not a bird at all.
The second very different text is by Sophie Collins, a poet and translator, and editor of the online journal Tender, who has written a lot about ekphrasis (roughly speaking a verbal response to a visual work of art).
Sophie was recently commissioned to write a text in response to the current exhibition at Hayward Gallery. I enjoyed this poem so much partly because of the fact that it managed to offer a whole new way of looking at and appreciating a body of work that I’d become very familiar with (it also made me think about what a new work by the artist in response to Sophie’s poem would look like…).
The poem is called About the Body and Likeness.
It all begins in the gut where shards (indigestible)
tear open the walls. When blood spills
there is no mess. There is no bodily mess save in tumefactive sludge
I would like to doze off inside a gleaming basophil
regular vibrations relaxing proprioception
as we glide
past a fragment of bone sunk in plasma
the spectacle of lymphocytes deeply staining, eccentric
a bunker, an event, dust, some neighbours…
By now fish are deadly land animals
quadrupeds with colour-coded mating rituals
The tarry landscape is hostile to ungulates
who develop subterranean features
Erection of countless town models. The dogged work of preservation
supersedes embodiment. Men’s corpses are embalmed
made up for display while women who wish to live
must gain the written endorsement of their male companions
(Medical records, like mutating cells, are subject to damage may be lost or copied twice)
A lauded teacher of letters once made a drawing of a cephalopod
for his students. Women, jabbing
he said, are more like this. More like this
than men are by which he meant to say
nothing happens to me
Octopuses eat their own limbs when chronically understimulated
What is frightening about this body
is its judicial disregard
For me, the process and practice of reading, writing and looking are all enjoyably and inextricably wrapped up together.
I know that the writing that I like best, that I am consistently drawn to, is writing that is – in its own particular way – engaged with writing about looking closely: whether this is Annie Dillard looking at insects, animals and water creatures eating one another in her astonishing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or Maggie Nelson writing about the bruises that cover the feet of her injured friend in Bluets.
One of the great pleasures of this project is the fact that it hasn’t been a one way interaction. Instead, objects have spawned texts which have spawned further objects, in a fruitful and hopefully ongoing chain of call and response.
It’s left me wanting to do more of this; to think more about the relationship between writing, reading and looking; to continue to think about how writing might influence making, and making influence writing.
As evidenced by the different kinds of writing in this project – which includes memoir, fiction, poetry – I don’t think the result fits neatly into any one category. Certainly not into anything as simple as art writing, and it feels like there’s an appetite, at the moment, for this interaction between text and visual subjects.
I’d love to hear more about your own experiences of texts that deal with close looking, and writing that has been influenced or shaped by its visual subject. Who are the writers you return to? Who are the artists or designers that you think are working with or responding to text? Have you made writing responding to objects? How has your writing been influenced by them?
- Bethan ~
THE STORY OF THE SIREN
Few things have been more beautiful than my
note book on the Deist Controversy as it fell down-
ward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived,
like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing
leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it
had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india rubber
stretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, but
bigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more
fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand
welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappear-
ed, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently
open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among
Lucy’s text was served on seven identical rectangular trays of chilled seawater.
I said “Several shapes and colours and notions have snagged me already.” and I said “Yours is the first text I’ve received, so it’s a special moment.”
Lucy had first mentioned moss, maybe she would do something about moss. But I guess when the Dutch tile panel chose her, it was apparent that there weren’t many spaces in that marine scene for moss to grow. At first, when I knew about the tile panel, but before her text was written, I think I fixated on technique. I’d been using tin glaze and so I could see that I might paint cobalt on that, and that I might enjoy doing it. It might be a ragged object rather than a flat surface; a minor and a lazy progression.
But when Lucy’s text arrived, it was something else entirely. Seven crisp paragraphs. The edges of things.
I made a fast drawing in blue ink with a calligraphy nib of a square screen, which I knew was about as tall as me and made of wood. It was complicated. It had all curly bits on it and the division down the middle was a space between two uprights, rather than a single piece of timber, which I disliked immediately. For what felt like ages, I had this drawing in my studio. It had two ceramic shells that I’d made bluetacked to it, plus a scrap of fawn coloured velvet. Like that I knew what the work was to be, whenever the money showed up to make it.
I’m not sure when this piece took up so many divisions. Right at the start I enjoyed Lucy’s mirroring, alternating gaze. Suffolk and Zeeland; Britain and mainland Europe. And something there becomes intractable. There are two sides resisting each other, whichever way the room divider is viewed. It was a little like a stick chart, the two shells each representing somewhere. But the swell felt unavigable. It had a sandbag, in case of flooding.
It seems logical now that the watery blue of this work has been bleached, sucked dry by the long-predicted, un-prevented 2018 heatwave.
Lucy wrote, “Archaeologists, building out from these fragments, reconstruct first the object, then the society that used it.”
I’ve said that reading Amy’s work felt like a choreography of perception. And, on the whole, it’s best not to say things like that too often. What I mean, I think, is just that it presented itself to me partly as shapes moving in space. Something like the animated film Fantasia.
The object I chose for Amy was, sweet. Known. Restrained. It had a pulse, a beat. If you were a particularly enraging person you might point out that it’s decoration would look like art, if it were flat. I said to her “It pleased me to make a hill of it, upturned in the saucer.”
I knew that this response would be drawing, it was on the same register. Potential that is precise in the way that frost is. I knew that the drawings would happen with immediacy. To help with this I recorded myself reading Amy’s text. I listened to it on a loop while I was working. Sometimes I had to turn it off.
A fact presented itself. There would be twelve drawings. “hour marks on the face of a clock”. They would be in a circle.
Because it was a set, I narrowed down my palette –
- A line drawn with a dip pen in Indian red. Other colours (black, green) were tried and rejected.
- White pastel, like chalky earth.
- Pink pastel, only to be used breathily, with white.
- Flame peach, again, light dimmed with white.
- Greens, getting darker.
The text was in a room, but also out in hills. It was diagrammatic, one thing fitting another. Wrapping, slotting, caging, tesselating. Connected down heredity and round a table. I made concentric stencils like turfed amphitheatres. I made amniotic rosebuds. I made quite a complicated plan for the framer.
For balance, I realise the work needs another heavy hill shape at the bottom and I’m enjoying the darkest dreen pastel. Sweeping it back and forth in curves to indicate a cone shape, another hill. But then I’m sensing it’s really the dark light of an ultrasound. I find an image of a neolithic burial pot, small bones visible through a hole in its side. I incorporate these, obscure them. And I wonder, briefly, if this is wise, if I might be cursing my own insides.
That winter I’d been to Avebury. I’d made a smudge of green that was topiary in a circle. I’d drawn a museum model of the construction of Silbury Hill, exposing all it’s layers. I checked with myself to see if it would be cheating to include these two recent drawings in the new dozen.
It wasn’t cheating, Amy wrote that “We are forever looping back on ourselves – in rivulets and rounds”.
- Followed by Katherine Pogson reading from Ali Smith, Autumn. p.218-220