The bones of this text were originally written and performed as a lecture at the end of 2018 for 101 Henderson Row, a small contemporary art space in Edinburgh. It blends part of a year’s worth of research with a personal narrative as well as elements of fiction writing to create an alternative reflection on processing ideas and experience that are normally on the outskirts of a sculptural practice. There was a slideshow of images that accompanied the lecture, which are referenced here as side notes or descriptions.
X – 1a (Landseer; the painting of a sleeping lion in Manchester Art Gallery)
And I’m writing some of these sentences backwards, out of an order, and I’m getting to the point where I realise it doesn’t matter that I have a past, that things have happened before you, or them, or this… But by that I mean some of this happened, or will happen, but also might not have happened, or I guess in some form happened elsewhere.
X – 1b (When I arrived at A. Mackeyviciaus g. [a small street up from the Hill of Owls], in the bedroom of Ellen’s flat that I was to stay in, there was a large, white, locked wardrobe)
It is easy, I was told, to see a season’s growth on a branch of holly. Start at the tip of a stem and trace your fingers down, and you’ll find a dark, thin raised band. It’s normally about a hand’s width – a year. Continue on and it becomes an archive of sorts. From this we can approximate that an arm’s length is about four-years’ growth.
X – 1 c (…or I could stay here, continue what I’m doing, and work it all out the difficult way)
Because it’s the hardening and expansion of the cambium just under the bark as the earth heats and cools, as days elongate and subside back into December. Last week I had a piece sat on my desk; this was a season’s growth, and now, fortuitously in some way, I don’t talk to you anymore, and when that apical bud—the one at the very tip, the most important one, the one that is responsible for vertical growth—sits and ponders with me… that this text in a way also traces a year.
X – 2 a (Little Carrot was a small dog)
So, let’s start then with a small town near where I grew up. Some claim St. Osyth (oh-sith) is a desert, and, even though it is the driest place in the UK, technically, on average, it needs 257mm less rainfall a year to be classed, scientifically, as one.
The village is named after Osgyth, an English saint, who is said to have picked up her own head after an act of martyrdom. She walked with it—in her arms—to the door of the local parish, where she knocked three times before collapsing to become a natural spring…
And something sticks with me here … but I can’t remember the spring in St Oysth.
X – 2 b (We stood on the side of a motorway in Lithuania, waving at our own shadows)
It could be that Osgyth was in fact a young girl who drowned in a shallow river. In desperation at the loss of such a young life, her body was kept in the church for the next three days. Lungs torn, starved—prayers said. Pale flesh and cold fingertips. She woke on the forth.
X – 2 c (Neris & Neman are two rivers in Kaunas—they intersect at a point just down from the castle, and you can stand on low bank and watch the two waters merge)
Or we could turn for an aside—chronicle that St. Osyth is also well known for witches, in particular Ursula Kemp, who confessed in private, and was then hung for curing bone diseases down by the river. Her skeleton is now a tourist attraction. Stripped of her familiars—two cats, a lamb, and a toad—she stares blankly into a void. A reminder of an outsider, hands closed with sage, St John’s wart, and a ball of ram’s dung. A heady woody scent burning deep into her flesh. I pay the fee to see her, and my palms sweat and my eyesight prickles in the warmth of the room, and I crush the woolen sage leaves I’ve bought with me tightly in my pocket.
But even here the spring still remains absent.
X – 3 a (so we spent a lot of time trying to work Saturn, and its looming presence on our unstable lives, into the project)
There is something about the heat and the sand and the course grass that thrives in this shifting landscape and near here, I realised, that, as a teenager I watched as you moved towards me; out of the darkness of a layby we pulled into. Somewhere near the coast, somewhere near a creek run dry. Earth cracked. And somehow Essex is living up to being its own desert.
X – 3 b (insert a paragraph about Kit Wood near the end)
On the other hand, in proportion to its lifespan the Arctic Tern sees the most sunlight of any animal. Its migration pattern means it follows summer around the earth. My friend told me back in July that “New York is like living in a dog’s mouth”. Her turn of phrase sticks to me, the world warming to extremes again, a hot fist in the sky. And in summer, it’s true. I don’t think I recognise this city anymore. My own dogs mouth.
X – 3 c (painter as critic—Patrick Heron writing about painters – man on man opinions. I sat with a copy of it on my lap as an old Labrador looks at me in the park)
And Kit Wood, the British painter, writes to someone whilst he was in Liverpool about the heat of the summer preventing him from working, his output haults so he heads to the sea…or was that me writing? But now, anyway, I walk up a multitude of stairwells and residential streets. I see living rooms, canals, and bars I didn’t know existed. The map shifts. So I’m out in the park watching lightning spread silent, forked, over black clouds. I’m sat talking about a mother I’ve not met, about her failings and her anxieties for a son I don’t even really know myself. Where the jaw has loosened—and our tongues have as well—it lets a little light in for now at least.
X – 4 a (he made me feel like a horse)
And through this I keep returning to a passage in artist David Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives, this passage in particular references his time spent in the semi-arid climates of a nameless part of America. Wojnarowicz was a prominent artist and AIDs activist in New York in the 80s. But outside of the city, and in these barren unruly climates, is the place where Wojnarowicz truly loses himself surrounded by an abyss of heat and winding roads. I was sat on a train the other day, immersed in a time where someone longed to propel themselves into the sky just to disappear forever between the land and horizon line, lost in a void of nothingness. He finds time seemingly nauseating. And yet he seeks these places out, places where time gets stuck, the sun forever placed above you, the weather never changes, seasons don’t actually exist here, so I’m told.
X – 4 b (I didn’t say a word or move as your smoked moustache traces my neck)
And is St. Osyth an oasis therefore? Where we’d gather after long journeys down windswept dunes, with our heads in each other’s arms, brows thick with heat, and shoes torn from ulex shrubs, popping yellow in the summer glow?And here she would wait for us. And I’d arrive home with shoes full of sand, and a questioning of where I’d been. And she’d collapse to become a natural spring.
X – 4 c (That month I dated a Russian spy?)
When people are trying to annihilate you, isn’t it easier just to disappear.
Within this world, Wojnarowicz is hyper-aware, obsessed with his existence in this expanse of time. He teases the knives edge for the world to consume him, his desire burns as much as his rage does. He’s watching as his friends and lovers die around him, and the AIDS crisis creates its own desert of abandoned cruising grounds, ephemeral shifting sediments of riots and protest. He exists in a world of denial, of people ignoring the very truth of a situation, which means death ends up surrounding these places.
X – 4 d (gross misrepresentation)
His introspection has no evidence of the future: it’s now and it’s then. There is no sense of an ending, no hint at a conclusion. And when Wojnarowicz is driving through this world and the sky merges into the land, and in between is a haze of nothingness, he slips inside. Out of their sight, out of their time…just for a moment.
X – 5a (insert paragraph on ‘Dog’s Mouth’)
Not that it is really the same thing… but Prairie Madness was never recognised as a clinical condition, however it was documented through fiction and non-fiction writing in late 19th century. It was caused by the tough and isolating living conditions European settlers experienced in the Western United States. This new hostile landscape, because of its harsh contrast with city life within parts of Europe, drove people to acts of extreme violence. It’s a case of ‘too much nature’.
People mostly documented the wind, and in these treeless environments the blizzards and gales howled with an inescapable noise. This relentless force was both alien and consuming. A woman kills her husband in Dorothy Scarborough’s novel The Wind. Its relentless taunts don’t stop there, however, as it uncovers the corpse buried in this ever-shifting landscape. The woman then wanders off into the windstorm to die
X – 5 b (it was so hot—I walked down the Water of Leith to escape the midday sun; I twisted my ankle on ice; I told him the story of twisting my foot on the ice as we climbed over the fence)
And this makes me think of Bas Jan Ader, who fits somewhere around here, maybe. A Dutch conceptual artist, he was last seen in 1975, when he sailed off into the ocean for what would end up being his final piece, titled ‘In Search of the Miraculous’. It was an artwork that was supposed to trace the Atlantic sea from America to Falmouth, in Cornwall.
It all ended as a mysterious disappearance with a strange dose of irony. This final work now has to sit next to videos of him deliberately crying ‘I’m too sad to tell you’, and others of him falling over, falling off houses and into canals. A clown presenting emotional and physical failure. Disobedience near death. Many think he is still alive.
X – 5 c (Ravelston Park)
The sunset in the south west of England is the softest of all the sunsets I’ve ever seen. A complacent end, just always ready to go. We used to sit amongst the sand looking out over Falmouth Bay. And here the sea rolls in all the time, day and night, so you never know when the sun will rise. You just have to wait and hope it does.
X 6a (contact lab about gametophytes slides)
A film of water now seals spores to sterilised earth. /// Ferns have a lesser-known stage to reproduction, which I learnt a few weeks back. Without fruit and therefore seed, spores create tiny lichen-like scales—humid green breath seeps into the air. These so-called gametophytes— thick-skinned individuals no bigger than the eye of a needle—create a carpet, a gang, a club, ;;; before the collective decides to somehow reproduce, ;;; creating matter, crusts, cells across a party film—sweat, words and glances. ;;;
X – 6b (I have never seen this ruin in St. Osyth)
Larry Levan spent a decade as DJ in residence at New York’s infamous club, Paradise Garage. A night with Larry Levan was one akin to a religious experience: he just knew what you wanted to hear, he knew that you wanted to dance. Everyone says that you lost your mind—that people would be dancing, unsure of why there were tears in their eyes, crying to an unknown beat. His sets often wandered into the obscure, queasy emotion amongst deep dark base.
X – 6c (it’s a room—full of people. Do weneed a space like Paradise Garage, he asks? How can we create this?)
It was said to be such a collective experience that one night, Levan just knew that what everyone wanted was to listen, and dance too: Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’—not really the song, but just the part that goes ‘toot toot, yeah, beep beep’. It’s said he looped this for over half an hour, and the place erupted to the point where, come 10am and the club spilled onto the street, the phrase could be heard being sung all over the city.
X – 6D (this queue)
And then from the earth a frond appears. A sporophyte. A point of recognition. Six months to a year in. “Finally,” he breaths, something that resembles a fern–some delicate green just about wakes—envelopes the soil to curl over my north facing windowsill—and we’ll sit and look at the sea and wait for the right atmosphere.
X – 7A (And now it’s November, and the architects have installed this bulbous light with a cord so long it drapes on the floor in the upstairs staff room)
It’s an odd vibration that I’ve never felt before, and I wondered what these people want from me. I was stood in the lounge of a stranger’s house—it was 6pm on a July afternoon—and there were about six of us under a high ceiling dancing, a stack of speakers stood rumbling in the corner. I felt a wave of nostalgia that was never there, Peech Boys, Man FFridays, Frankie Knuckles, a collective. A group. A home.
X – 7b (an image of a man with a horse—his head rests longing on his upturned hand, it was about stopping your face from slipping into the void [Paulina], but the painter I don’t know—a Google image search tells me it’s François-Xavier Fabre, actually)
Larry levan had a heart condition, and through a life of substance abuse, excess emotions, and bad behaviour, ended up dead before he was 40.
X – 7c (and it’s still December and up on Calton Hill surrounded by a mass of old astronomical equipment and amongst a graveyard of monuments I look out at an endless display of rainbows. I take a photo of one that is just a stub as the cloud hangs so heavy over the water.)
But it’s really about a room full of people—be it 6 or 1000—connected by a collective understanding. And you could be unsure, or completely sure, or just sad, but there it is again in the distance.
X – 8a (it’s that image of Bas Jan Ader crying again)
So ferns were thought to make you invisible. It’s that science that half makes sense, I think. Spores, moonlight, tying bands of fronds around your waist. Hiding away. And it was all because no one could really work them out. Not until the middle of the 18th century anyway. Until Fern Mania, pioneered by a Glaswegian botanist with a sealed miniature glasshouse. And not with all that smog on the air (title?). You needed a sealed environment. That’s what was important. And he was just about to give up, when suddenly—through all this lichen, set apart from all these strange liverworts—comes this fern.
X – 8b (an image of Larry Levan)
And Cameron finds everything sad even if he doesn’t know why yet, all those tiny dark vibrations. And I sit watching him talk and weave around a room full of people that are only just about listening to him.
X 8c (An image of David Wojnarowicz)
And then a year passes, and last month, quite recently, I was headed back south for a while. This time with an unknown desire to listen to the Eurythmics next to an ombré sky that vibrated with a naïve glare. Disgusting.
X 9a – b – (Ursula Kemp / Kit Wood (Liverpool) / a photo I took on my iPhone out of a bus window of an ombré sky on the way to the airport)
An image made up of shadows from a sour soul—it’s that room full of people and there is just something still here—again—that I just can’t put my finger on.