Category Archives: Reflections

Imagining the Late Anthropocene

In a previous post, A New Realism about the Anthropocene, I reflected on recent scientific and academic speculation on the inception date of the Anthropocene – the period of our planet’s history which is visibly dominated and effected by human social practices such as
• burning,
• selective breeding and species elimination,
• terraforming,
• trans-oceanic migration,
• mining
• the release of synthetic compounds and man-made (transuranic) elements.

Some might view this characterisation of what might conventionally be called agriculture, manufacturing, travel – civilisation, progress – as unduly critical and damning. We have burgeoned haven’t we? We thrive. We have created complex social structures within which most of us live longer and less stressful lives that our remote ancestors. For the majority of us more of our children live and live longer, reproduce in turn. This is what life does after all. It reproduces itself. It persists.

It could be argued that we have transcended the ‘natural’ barriers to growth – the limitations of terrain, of topographic obstacles, of seasonal patterns. Our ingenuity has enabled us to cover the earth, colonise every advantageous niche, eliminate competitors and biological threats. Why, in the debate around the Anthropocene, should there be a tone of dread and pessimism?

Perhaps it is that the limitations that we now conceive and have the scientific tools to interpret and imagine not biological but physical. Climate. Toxicity. And that the breakdown of temporal and spatial barriers our ingenuity has realised may result in a rate of change in these factors which is likely to be unprecedented in human history.

I have exchanged with sceptics who insist, of course, it’s all a con – it’s all about the sun and nothing we can do…a comforting fatalism diluted with a dash of Micawberism (something will turn up). This wilful irresponsibility, often revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between energy and heat, ignores the fact that, even if it’s not our fault, we are the only species in any position to address the issue…and if we don’t, in either case, it is we who will suffer.

Of course, the biosphere will respond – some species by dying out, others by multiplying. Productive land will become arid. Dry land will be submerged. Storms will intensify. Plants will not be pollinated. Harvests fail. Patterns will be disrupted.

I believe the human species will survive – among others.

The question which I believe is unique to us is – how? In what social form? And in what numbers? We count. It’s is one of our foibles.

Megadeaths?

Dystopias in art are comforting. More comfortable, perhaps, than Utopias to which we don’t feel quite adequate. Better a final reckoning then – apocalyptic and definitive – or the thrill of sordid and heroic ‘post-apocalyptic’ struggle – a new Dark Age of zombies, brigands, tyrants. We came through the Dark Ages didn’t we? So Dark Ages are survivable. That’s known.

Well yes….and a lot of people died.

Survivalism is romantic escapism. Individualistic. Mock-heroic. It ignores kith and kin, that which is precious to us in our social fabric. It ignores our humanity.

In contrast to the comforting wallow of fatalism and machismo, others attempt to imagine a ‘sustainable’ world beyond ‘our’ civilisation. A world in which we have come to terms with the pathological aspects of our behaviour – the uncontained appetite for meat, speed, distance, things – a world which recognises limits – boundaries – and the vital productivity of edges where cultures and ecosystems abut, overlap, intermingle.

Some, like Paul Kingsnorth in his recent book ‘Beast’ and Em Strang in her stunning poem ‘Stone’ seem to exhort us to reconnect with the animal in us – the panther, the horse – creatures which flow with and through ‘the natural world’ channelled by its barriers and limitations – hedgerows, rills, its seasons. These texts portray solitary human protagonists who have, to some extent, stepped free of kith, are finding a new way to be in straightened circumstances and closer to an animal simplicity.

I suspect most of us will find ourselves in ‘straightened circumstances’ in the decades to come and there may be a need for greater self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-discipline. But we are human. Our humanity is as natural as any pantherness or equine nature (horses themselves an artefact of human interventions). Our humanity is social. Communitarian. Linguistic.

What persists over the longue duree is not technology or social organisation but stories, music, dancing, systems of belief, cooking, painting, carvings, trade routes, pathways – things we share. In imagining the Late Anthropocene, I believe we must imagine a social world, perhaps a world defined by the re-instatement of boundaries, a mosaic of social and ecological experiments but a world in which the protagonists are human and animal – not zombies, not orcs – social not solitary – and where the challenges are to eat, to love, to reproduce, to trade, to sing, to celebrate. Life as normal in an abnormal world – for us – the world beyond the bump. I offer up that challenge.

A New Realism about the Anthropocene

Andrew Wyeth : Is this still life?

What do you write about? Or…sometimes…What do you write?
This followed by a frantic pause (sic).
What do I write? What has been published? What do I write about?
What do I paint? Where can they be viewed? What do I paint about?
The second set of questions seems, to me, more obtuse and that quality throws light, for me, on the precariousness of the first.
What do I write (about)?
I have been ‘writing’ – consciously, compulsively ‘making up stories’ whether as prose or plays or poetry – since I was at least 11 years old – 47 years.
But what was I writing about?

In Andrew Wyeth : A Secret Life, Richard Meryman’s biography of A.N.Wyeth, the American 20th Century realist painter, he asserts that Wyeth’s painting ‘Spring Fed’ has ‘in the back-ground’ – in its emotional and aesthetic hinterland – the death of Robin Hood. The tempera – in Wyeth’s characteristically austere cold tones – depicts a water trough in a byre, fed by a trickle of clear water ‘spring fed’. A bucket hangs on the wall to the right. Through the window above and beyond the trough, cattle graze the middle ground before a gently sloping hill in the distance. Reading more deeply into Wyeth’s biography, the cattle are Swiss-Brown. The byre, trough and hill belonged to Karl Kuerner, a first-generation German immigrant who farmed near Wyeth’s home in Pennsylvania. Wyeth was a 3rd generation immigrant to the US on his father’s side (German-Swiss). Kuerner had been a machine gunner in the German Army during World War One.
These are, of course, the details I select. What resonates for me amidst what resonated for Meryman (and Wyeth). Robin Hood, dying in the hospitable seclusion of a convent gathers his men, shoots a final arrow through the open casement and wills that where that arrow falls will be his final resting place. My heart is in the Highlands, my heart is not here etcetera.
Windows, and people looking out of windows, are a regular feature in Wyeth’s work. Even, paradoxically, in a painting such as Christina’s World there is a sense of the protagonist being on the inside looking out. So too is the device of painting a portrait of an individual, a deep and emotional, biographical representation of a lived life through the depiction of a lived in yet presently vacant interior (as in Groundhog Day for example) or of implements or clothing by which/in which the individual has lived (as in Sea Boots or Willard’s Coat). Like Kuerner’s trough and Kuerner’s bucket. Like the spring water that flows from the hill into the byre and the viewer who gazes back from the byre towards the hill and Wyeth’s childhood romance of the aging hero longing to be again. Cattle apart, this is a still life. Nature morte. And yet, with interpretation, each element orbits mood and meaning.
Once again, I think, we are in the territory of still life as innuendo rather than eye-candy but not, simply, the wistful-moralistic mood of Dutch ondbitjes – ‘all flesh is grass’, ‘there’s always the morning after’ – but rather an entire life-theme, not a whole life but strand of it, a sustained emotional strain.
So what do you write about? And – what do you write?
Life.
Really? Whose life?
Aye, there’s the rub.
For a while now I have been very interested in (auto)biographical writing – Life Writing in the current parlance. How do you earnestly and honestly engage with lived experience and attempt to excavate – the only verb I feel that fits – some sort of narrative ‘explanation’ for ‘what happened’? I’ve been aware for many years that a great part of the motivation to write – to fabulate and to confect fictions – is, in me, to clype – to point out that that’s not really (quite) how it is or was and that some of us (at least) don’t experience life that way and mothering can be an ambiguous experience and the apple pie may well be laced with strychnine.
One’s self-confidence, in this, is, of course, undermined by shame and, in my case at least, the suspicion of a certain psychological ‘volatility’. Is that really what happened? I know you think that happened but…? So one creeps into the undergrowth – the long grass I suppose – and conceals oneself amidst the ‘make it that’. And ‘make it that’ becomes the laboratory in which our personal Mr. & Mrs. Hydes can be conjured, cultured, trained.
The Arvon Book of Life Writing edited by Sally Cline and Carole Angier makes, in this context, salutary reading. It makes it clear, I think, that ‘Life Writing’ is a dodgy pastime, that autobiography is (always) morally reprehensible and biography problematic unless all of the protagonists, their children and their childrens’ children have shuffled off. It might be OK to write a biography of Sappho or Prester John – otherwise the author is on thin-ice frankly. One of the charms and virtues of the book, and there are several, is that the authors and contributors are so upfront about this aspect whilst encouraging wannabe life-writers (like me?) to ‘have a go’. Running a crack-house may result in socially questionable outcomes but think of the upsides why-don’t-you?
But what does a writer write about if not his or her lived experience? Fantasy alter-egos living a life of crime, historical importance, sentimental overload, sexual disinhibition or super-empowerment? I know that is what stories are ‘for’…but what do you write about?
In response to which, I return to a figure (on the viewer’s side of the picture plane) gazing out through a life, through a window – alone and reticent in his telling and remembering – observing a life, his own or another’s, and constructing an evocation in the present of how it is and how it was that everyone can (sort of) live with. An evocation constructed of trompe d’oeil make-it-that’s and a perfect command of tone.
Is that what I write about? Is that what I paint about? Well, it’s something to aim for.

Emin to Heda: Bed and Breakfast

In the autumn of 2015, I participated in one of the University of Iowa’s excellent creative writing MOOCs – How Writers Write Fiction. Among the varied and interesting (and occasionally exasperating) advice and insights offered by a variety of authors in the course material, I was particularly struck by a comment by the Salvadorean author Horacio Castellanos Moya that the voice of a character in fiction, whether a protagonist or a narrator, reveals the ‘mentality’ of that character.

In Castellano-Moja’s view, what a character notices and comments upon, the world and experience the author imagines the character deems worthy of remark, paints the picture, for the reader, of what kind of person this imaginary being ‘is’.

For me it was one of those key-stone clicks. ‘Well obviously! Of course!…And I never thought of that!’

I encountered the idea again recently in Norbert Schneider’s commentary on Still Life in the Taschen edition of that title. That the objects selected by the painter reflect the mentality of both the painter and his milieu. The objects are deemed worthy of remark and record. The painter makes some kind of calculation that his target ‘market’ will find a representation of THOSE objects desirable (even if that ‘market’ is only the artist himself or herself).

Schneider’s book, in fact, focusses exclusively on the still lifes of the ‘Early Modern’ period – the Dutch Golden Age, the work of Velasquez and Cotan, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. Chardin is not touched upon. The dislocations of Braque and Picasso are far in the future – though Archimboldo gets to mess with our senses. No Cezanne.

For myself, in this period, I am particularly attracted to the early to mid-17th century breakfast pieces – ondbijtjes – of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda. Almost monochrome in subdued greenish -grey and warm earthy-golds, these pieces do not represent opulent display, conspicuous consumption or fanciful connection as in other still lifes of the period – by Kalf or de Heem for example. Despite the fabulous and sudden wealth of the Dutch Republic, in these subdued ondbijtjes what is represented is ‘the morning after’ – the half eaten pie, the flat, left over beer in the tumbler, the cowped goblet, the broken wine-glass, as for example in Heda’s Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie. What a night we had last night! We set the world to rights and broke that lovely glass that Marten liked so much.

As Norman Bryson comments in the BBC documentary Apples, Pears and Paint, this is ‘consumption as destruction’ – in contrast to other ‘banquet pieces’ which celebrate accumulation with their lobster, nautilus goblets, Chinese porcelain. These are vanitas. Heda even includes a pocket watch, abandoned on the table’s edge to remind us that time is ticking by.

There is a beautiful melancholy about these pieces. They are not (quite) representations of a hang-over – there is a wistful sense a good time was had by all…and yet?

Someone bought this stuff, displayed this stuff, over the centuries cherished and curated these images…for their meaning and their artistry.

On the internet, it seems, there is a thriving interest in and market for pastiches of Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes including a sub-genre of beautifully realised photographs replicating composition, lighting, mood but not involving ‘paint’ (or painting).

In 1999 Tracey Emin installed her piece My Bed in the Tate.

The piece provoked comment, outrage perhaps – stained sheets and underwear, condoms, vodka bottles, ashtray, ‘detritus’ – fewer pundits remarking on the fluffy toy, her slippers.

I admire the reckless autobiographical quality in much of Tracey Emin’s work. I know, and have disagreed, with, others who feel she is ‘taking the piss’ but her response to the accusation that ‘anyone can exhibit an unmade bed’ was, allegedly, ‘Well, they didn’t, did they?’ And the impact of the piece was, unquestionably, greater than a painting of her unmade bed – no less ‘confessional’ – might have been.

The ‘found object’ was fair game in 20th century art from Duchamp onwards. Emin found the left over trace of herself (an inadvertent pun) …staged and unstaged…and presented it – just as Heda found and staged the broken glass, the half-eaten pie…did he eat it? An assistant? The difference is he transposed and encapsulated it in the two-dimensional ‘wrapper’ of a painting. But what do you do with an unmade bed? Saatchi allegedly kept it in a special room in his house. What can the ‘person’ who purchased it for £2,546,500 in 2014 ‘do’ with it…apart from ‘own’ it.

Yet for me they sit ‘together’ – Heda’s ondbijt and Emin’s bed – as representations of the aftermath of experience and consumption…consumption as destruction. And, in some sense, in Emin’s case the object of consumption was her self even as it made her reputation as an artist.

It is a common-place that we are said to live in a ‘consumer society’. The economics of late-capitalism (what a hopeful touch that word ‘late’ is!) demand continuous consumption and exorbitant waste. Durability is anathema. The evanescent is paradigmatic. The dematerialised – streaming video and audio and one-click digital downloads – replace the painted, the sculpted, the printed, performed and the real – recording, replication and dissemination are privileged over creation and performance – unique creations become asset-categories or events – bankably particular. This blog, of course, exploits the same evanescent facility…if you want to see Heda’s painting, it’s in Dresden.

But if consumption is destruction doesn’t that make a consumer society a destructive society? And if this is so, isn’t there more need for the vanitas as a genre in our art…to remind us, gently, of the cost of that ‘good night in’? Shouldn’t we value that reminder?

Capital:On Growth and its Discontents

In Capital, Thomas Piketty argues, based on analysis of available historical records, that global growth rates prior to the 18th Century CE were probably in the order of 0%-0.2% GDP per annum. Between 1700 and 2012, he calculates, global growth rates were, on average, 0.8% GDP with significantly higher rates (up to 3.5%) in the middle of the 20th Century.

Picketty argues that a growth rate in the order of 1% ‘implies major social change’ since material circumstances – and therewith power and property relations – shift dramatically from generation to generation at these rates of growth.

He, moreover, argues that the spectacularly high growth rates of the 20th century are associated with two phenomena – the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed in the two world wars and the technological catch-up of formerly colonised areas previously asset stripped for resources (agricultural products, minerals, slave labour). He questions, with I think good reason,that such growth can be sustained outwith periods of regeneration and with a level technological playing field.

Given his focus on income and wealth, he is less engaged, I think, with the enormous injection of ‘low cost’ energy which fossil fuel exploitation enabled this growth, the ultimate ecological costs of which have never been incorporated into the ‘pricing model’. We have grown ‘wealthy’ by accumulating debts, not to banks or sovereign funds, but to future generations and vulnerable populations – debts which, given our mortality, cannot be foreclosed on and on which we will probably default.

Piketty fractionates growth into two components – population growth and productivity growth. The material and technological benefits of the latter enable the former. For a while, in the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more of us produced faster and faster. As a consequence, each generation lived in a different world, with different expectations, from that of their parents. Coal, oil and gas drove massive social change and the dominant market mechanism, capitalism, required constant innovation and repackaging to attract the interest and appetite of each succeeding generation. Instability and change is the essence of modernity and was fuelled almost exclusively by burning fossil hydrocarbons which cannot be renewed in ‘human’ timescales.

I was interested, reading John Berger’s essays on Durer, Caravaggio and others in Portraits, to reflect the shifts in emphasis in European art in the early modern period just preceding the take-off in growth rates. Artists like Durer and Michelangelo looked backwards to the world of their fathers or to classical ideals – were mannerist and idealist – modelling the present on the past whilst incorporating technological and craft development (including a burgeoning self-awareness) into their practice.

Later or more Northern (proto-capitalist?) artists focus on the real person and his or her material possessions – Caravaggio’s Madonna del Palafreniere really is/ is really Maddalena di Paolo Antognetti in contemporary (17th century) clothes, Mrs. Arnolfini’s green woollen dress is state-of-the-art and Willem Claesz. Heda’s ondbijtjes are straight from the kitchen the night before – it’s now stuff, it’s new stuff – and from there it picks up the pace.

Art and ideas about individual autonomy and material prosperity (and their associated political institutions) in Europe precede the invention of the steam engine, maybe inform the desire to build such a device which decouples the proprietor from the vagaries of climate, location, weather – but it is not until we start burning coal on an industrial scale that the inter-generational upheaval which we call ‘growth’ takes off.

Still – we are here today. We know what we know. We have created what we have created, discovered what we have discovered, dug up (and burned or smelted) what we have dug up. Murdered, maimed, exploited and enslaved. We are where we are. It is what it is. Unjust. Unfair. Unwise.

Sometimes we have thought it magnificent (sometimes I have) – though perhaps that is no more than youthful boastfulness after an outrageous party. “Man, I was SO drunk last night! We trashed the place!”

There are issues, for me, of climate justice, of inter-generational justice, of personal responsibility – all of which, understandably, I’d like to avoid if I could. Who wouldn’t…faced with the scale of the problem, faced with the magnitude of the debts and the ease with which some can evade our creditors?

Art and economics. Sustainability.

I make marks. I have a sense that I should be doing more to sustain us. I desperately want to type ‘we’ rather than ‘I’…’we should be doing more’…but I have no right to. And more to the point I am not sure who/what ‘us’ is in the sentence – mark-making creatures, the conversation, the human race, life on earth? The cockroaches will outlive us here no matter what. I have no desire to live on Mars (or for my grandchildren to)…so it must be something to do with the conversation here on earth, which includes, in the marks, in the notation: all of us, cockroaches, unicorns, the duck-billed platypus, the great auk. As science elucidates the probable physical but not the cultural or ecological effects of the fossil-fuel bubble, I have ceased to believe the conversation can be sustained with growth rates in excess of 1%. The ecological damage is too great, the inter-generational churn too excessive. We need to slow down, stop changing so fast, growing so fast. Just be. And the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.

Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK Labour Party, penned an article for a recent London Review of Books (Vol. 38, No.3). He too quoted Piketty, and a number of other sources, to argue that increasing inequality – the economic dynamic, ongoing since 1980, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get progressively poorer – is not only ‘unfair’ (which he correctly says is a bad thing) but that it is also ‘bad for growth’ This is a short-sighted political argument pandering, still, to what is believed to be acceptable to the ‘electorate’. It is a junkie’s argument.

In the individualistic culture which has cascaded (rather than evolved) through the inter-generational chaos of the last 300 years, it is hard to say unfair is ‘unfair’. ‘Life isn’t fair’ – etcetera, etcetera. But, unless community, cohesion, fairness, collective and inter-generational responsibility dominates the discourse, the mechanics of growth will tear us apart, atomise us, first socially and then, perhaps, physically.

The question is – therefore – what marks will best sustain ‘us’?

Three Degrees of Separation

When I was a child I knew a woman named Jenny Urquhart. Her family had a holiday house on Arran, next door to the cottage my parents rented for 2 weeks each summer. She seemed a good, gentle woman though her sons were brash, competitive…boyish I suppose. She was married to a man name William who, inexplicably to a working-class Scottish boy like me, was keen on cricket.

And then there was the other Mrs. William Urquhart I encountered at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Galleries as a boy.
Ann Patton, Mrs. William Urquhart – in a painting by Henry Raeburn.
I thought her quite exquisitely beautiful. My type I suppose. Painted 200 years ago, I suppose she must have been dead for most of that interval. And by this sleight of hand, (the word magic I then felt existed between my Mrs. William Urquharts) do I then have three-degrees of separation from Henry Raeburn?

It’s all in the eyes with Raeburn, the paint is magnificently vague except around the face and then – the eyes.

Raeburn was born in 1756 – 11 years after the defeat of the last Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden and the subsequent suppression of the Gaidhealtachd by Sassenach interests (Scots and English) and almost 50 years after the Scottish magnates had sold out and foisted the Act of Union on a generally unenthusiastic population in 1707.

According to the literature, Edinburgh society was liberated and transformed by the decamping of the Scottish magnates to London. The day to day political business of managing Scotland fell to ‘the middling ranks’ of Scottish society – the lairds, lawyers, professors – and the political vacuum and flight of the aristocracy left these middle-classes with the question of how to comport themselves in the absence of cultural ‘models’. It could be argued that this sudden liberation enabled ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’.

And one of the hallmarks of that enlightened society was a propriety characterised by stoic self-command, serenity and moderation. Moreover, in a mercantile society sucking in income from estates, slave plantations and imperial racketeering, it didn’t do to offend…complaisance was the order of the day at home, in the town, no matter what methods might be used in the country and abroad to fund an enlightened manner.

Raeburn was the son of a ‘shady character’ with interests in textiles and quarrying. He was first apprenticed to a silversmith before branching out into portrait painting. To sharpen his craft he visited Rome in 1784, funded by the income from an advantageous marriage to a widow, Ann Edgar.

Ten years previously, Rome was visited by another artisan painter seeking to improve his professional skills – Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – born in Zaragoza, the son of a gilder. Goya, on his return to Spain, worked his way up through ‘the creative industries’ toiling in the royal tapestry works (as a designer) before becoming a court portrait painter. Goya painted the Spanish aristocracy of his day, not only Bourbon royalty (with some of whom he was on good terms) but many illustrado and, after the revolution, franscesado magnates. But that is not, I suspect, why or for what we have heard of Goya. Goya, today (though not in his lifetime), is known as the creator of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War and the Black Paintings.

When I was a child, at about the time I encountered Mrs. William Urquhart, one of the few books in our home was an old, hardbound copy of Classical Myth and Legend, illustrated with colour plates of 19th century genre paintings. Perhaps, as a boy in early adolescence, I was ‘interested’ at first in the nearly-naked nymphs, but the images that stuck, that stay with me till this day, are of Clytemnestra, emerging from the bathroom with a blood-smeared labrys and Saturn eating his son – one of Goya’s Black Paintings. If Jenny Urquhart is my link to Henry Raeburn, is poor parenting my link to Goya then?

And what of them both – Raeburn and Goya?

Contemporaries – ten years apart at birth, Goya outlived Raeburn by five-years, dying in Bordeaux in 1828. Both were portrait painters, visited Rome, lived through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and their immediate aftermath.

In 1790, Raeburn painted a double portrait of the Fergusson Brothers, Robert and Ronald – two young boys, Robert drawing a bow, Ronald gazing towards the viewer.

In 1812, Goya painted the portrait of Arthur Wellesley, subsequently Duke of Wellington, hero of the Spanish ‘Wars of Independence’ (or the Peninsular War as the British termed it).

Ronald Fergusson was highly praised by Wellesley for his services during the Wars of Independence. They knew each other. Three degrees of separation.

And indeed many of the martial figures, in tartan trews and scarlet swagger, Raeburn painted later in his career had served on the Iberian Peninsula during those wars. Yet Raeburn did not produce Caprichos or the Disasters of War. Goya did.

Well he wasn’t there…it can be argued. He was safe in the New Town in Edinburgh experimenting with interesting contre jour effects, painting lairds and professors, nabobs and blushing brides – like the future Mrs. William Urquhart. Spain, struggling to free itself from a French occupying army (and settle back into the comfortable certainties of the monarchy and the inquisition) was far away from Scotland and enlightened Edinburgh – except…despite Yo Lo Vi, Robert Hughes (at least) has argued Goya wasn’t ‘there’ either. Not at the moment the body was impaled, the women were raped, the children were starving, the cannon was fired, the heretic garrotted. He wasn’t there when Saturn tore his children limb from limb. But he imagined it, piecing together the truth from the available facts. And commenting.

Henry Raeburn’s life spans the period from the suppression of the gaelic speaking regions after 1746 through into the clearances of the 1820s. Deprivation, violence and despair were just over the hill, on the estates of some of Raeburn’s sitters, through-out his working life. Yet no-one in the Scottish Enlightenment depicts, condemns…even reports in such vivid, timeless terms as Goya did.

The Highland Clearances are a complex issue and/but they were not exceptional. I am always amazed at the way all cultural memory of the enclosure of land and dispossession of the population has been supressed (or repressed) in the South of Scotland and in England.

Everywhere tenants and peasants were evicted, dispossessed, their commons enclosed and privatised in the cause of ‘improvement’ by ‘enlightened landlords, lairds and lawyers. For the Scots Gaels it came a little later and they were, relatively, farther from the growing industrial centres which sucked in and mangled the indigent poor. They were closer to the ships and the sea lochs so many of them left. But it happened and it was happening in Raeburn’s lifetime…and Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy McGregor instead and dressed King George in tights.

Goya sold few of the Caprichos in his lifetime. The Disasters were not published till 40 years after his death and the Black Paintings remained on the walls of the Quinta de Sordo…this wasn’t about the market for art…it was about ‘noticing’.

This is not to blame or condemn Raeburn…why would he care…dead these 195 years…but to reflect on my noticing that they shared a world, had only three degrees of separation, that some of Raeburn’s sitters were and had been’ there’ – there where the bodies were impaled, the dead lay unburied, the destitute sought refuge where they could. Not much changes in the world.

Two epithets

Two epithets inform my practice at this time and, I hope, are reflected in the content of this site and my wider work.

The first is a quote from The Third Sonnet to Orpheus by the 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Marie Rilke.

‘Gesang ist Dasein’. Song is becoming.

The second is attributed to the Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar, Wei T’ai.

‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. ‘

(This translation is after A.C. Graham’s Poets of the Late Tang and quoted in Eliot Weinberger’s essay on Charles Reznikoff in London Review of Books, Volume 37.)

I am aware from elsewhere on the internet that there has been some somewhat huffy debate and indignation around the translation of Dasein into various English versions of Rilke’s poem.

Song is being? Song is existence? Song is becoming? And come to that what is ‘Song’?

One commentator, furthermore, objects that Rilke does not propose Dasein ist Gesang. Give the poet a break! Come on!

As one might expect, I am ‘into’ the slipperiness of signifiers. They just are…and especially when more than one language is involved. Slippery as a guddled trout. Perhaps that is why I cling to the German (I don’t speak German). Gesang can mean what I want it to mean (in the general bailiwick of ‘song’) and Dasein…well, is Dasein.

As conscious beings (not just stuff) we sing…make marks…canto ergo sum perhaps. The song arises from the self but, being heard, you know I am alive. And when you live in a thicket…

I would like to generalise Wei T’ai’s use of the terms ‘poetry’ and ‘feeling’ to ‘marks’ and ‘experience’ respectively.

The purpose of mark making is not to reproduce the thing. A photograph, recording or a mould does that. The thing is represented to express meaning or communicate experience, as indicated in Wei T’ai’s first sentence.

In Wei T’ai (and his translator’s) second sentence, however, we stumble over ‘reticence’.

The denizens of the long grass are reticent. It is a form, again, of withholding, of reserve…but it intends to communicate the experience none the less. It wants its cake and to eat it. To retain a certain plausible deniability.

‘I didn’t say, exactly that. I didn’t mean exactly that. It’s just not that simple.’

It is a beautiful innuendo. A gracefully pitched hint. A nudge in the direction of understanding.

“Why don’t you just say what you mean?” Why indeed?!

I was shocked to read T.J. Clark write of the virtues of incomprehensibility in a recent article on Frank Auerbach in London Review of Books Vol. 37 No.17.

Incomprehensibility, Clark proposed, forces the viewer to engage with the paintings, to experience the raw facts of intensity and value, hue and texture without immediately imposing a cryptographic frame onto the marks to decode them.

Incomprehensibility? What an immense risk to take with a mark – to render it barely legible.

Clark’s shocking thrust meets Wei T’ai counter-thrust. Incomprehensibilty versus reticence. Illegibility versus precision. Both strategies, I realised, draw the viewer into the mark, seduce him to step off the asphalt and into the long grass, brings her within reach.

“I painted a vanitas. I never said that you were going to die.”

Back in the day, when I was involved in theatre, productions I was party to were often under-lit. It added intimacy and atmosphere we felt, broke down the fourth wall, demanded more attention. And how is that entertainment? Well, quite… The birds do not sing for our entertainment. They sing because they are becoming.

The Long Grass

Perhaps it is not slang. The expression is not referenced in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. Perhaps it is just idiomatic. To ‘kick into the long grass’ – which I understand to mean to take an issue or a problem out of play, ignoring it.
The problem is displaced in space – in the discursive space, the problem space – banished into the wilderness, the rough. It is not simply a matter of deferral, not like the term so often used around recent financial crises – ‘to kick the can down the road’ – we’ll deal with it, eventually, it’s still in play…but not just yet.
The long grass lies to either side of the road, the playing field – the game. Or all around it.
The long grass is also, of course, a place to hide. A locale of concealment – and sometimes ambush. Its creatures lurk, stalk or observe – calculate.
I have always felt safest in the long grass. Camouflaged. It is not like the jungle or the forest. It is liminal. Like the edge of the firelight, the feral boundary. You can see the long grass from the road. You can see the road from the long grass.
Camouflaged yet glimpsed. Willing to be visible but not too much. Withheld. Reserved. Unbelonging.
It is a place of refuge. It is not the underworld. It is not occult. It is the long grass where those who do not belong, but are not wholly wild, move cautiously, wait motionless, watch, review, reflect. Sometimes prepare to pounce. It is the long grass where discarded themes and challenges – all of those issues in the ‘too-difficult box’ – lie.

Viewed from the long grass
the road runs from left to right
taking us nowhere

So here we are in the long grass.