Writing this after a great, but tiring, holiday weekend. My sleeping pattern is disrupted by the mental effort of writing up for the MA submission. I do sometimes wonder whether all this is a good idea. Does the emphasis on the intellectual stuff take away my pleasure (and time) of doing and making? Anyway, for now, I am having a rest and letting the process happen without too much conscious effort.
I made the little piece above after reading an essay by Alec Finlay about his exhibition called 5 poem-objects. I wrote a review of the essay (see below), as an exercise in academic writing, for the MA. All of which I enjoyed. So the piece is a black and white 35mm photographic print developed using liquid light onto a square of waste paper from SCRAP at Sunny Bank Mills, mounted on watercolour paper with text handwritten by me. I will take it to the next Situated Practice reading group on Monday and see what we make of it. First time of including (my) text in the work. Wish I had nicer handwriting.
Academic writing exercise, March 2015
Review of Alec Finlay essay ‘poetry is still beautiful’
Alec Finlay is a multi-media artist working across a variety of disciplines, graphic art, installation, interventions in the built environment which invite ‘audience’ participation and co-creation. He also works with text and poetry, and response to place is an important element in his practice. For many of these reasons, I find resonance between his work and my evolving practice.
The essay which this piece reviews was written by Finlay to accompany an exhibition, ‘Five poem-objects’, shown at the Ingelby Gallery in Edinburgh in 2012.
The poem-objects are 5 simply framed, plain linen handkerchiefs which have been embroidered in threads of different colours, by Jean Malone, with the following 5 phrases, sewn so as to look handwritten:
father is the war of all things
mother’s word is ward
family is a shipwreck
children are the revolution
our lives are a carrying stream
It is interesting to compare my reaction to these phrases before and after reading Finlay’s essay. The phrases are themselves highly evocative and engaging, but the essay is an important accompaniment, augmenting the emotional and intellectual impact of the work. The essay considers each element separately, as well as the complex threads which connect the narrative. They are threads of family, circularity, the perpetual resonance and pull between poles of meaning, poetic expression and the flow of life. The piece is lovely to me- in particular for its use of domestic objects and the layering of gentle but powerful meaning through use of text.
The piece has minimal content, so meaning is conveyed conceptually through the text. The juxtaposition of father, mother, family, children brought together in the metaphor of a carrying stream are suggestive of timelessness and cycle of life (like Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game). The carrying stream references Heraclitus’ aphorism, that you can’t step in the same stream twice. He mentions another saying by Heraclitus- that the way up is the same as the way down, introducing another key theme, reversals of meaning and ambiguity which echo within concepts and words. The first text: father is the war of all things, is an example, transposed from Heraclitus’ ‘war is the father of all things. Finlay is the son of a famous father, Ian Hamilton Finlay, who is a recurrent presence in the essay- a dominant influence in whose illustrious footsteps Finlay walks, never an easy path. Finlay alludes to this autobiographical aspect but stays with the subtlety of “diametric symmetry”, rather than any more direct expression. This poetic ‘licence’ is beautifully realised throughout the essay.
The next quote refers to Paul Celan’s poem, ‘The Travelling Companion’, about his mother who died in the Holocaust (as did his father). Celan anagramised his birth name, perhaps as a way of erasing some of his tragic life story, another word play. The quote- mother’s word is ward’- plays with the linked meanings and forms of word and ward. It describes his mother providing reassurance through her words, which exist forever in her son, conceptualised in the poem as her soul- the eponymous Travelling Companion.
The next phrase- family is shipwreck- was inspired by a Brazilian poet, Haroldo Campos, who compared shipwrecks to poems. He also compares the fitting of words into a matrix, constellations of meaning, with the complex patterns of human connection which we know most intimately in our families. This echoes Bracha Ettinger’s proposal that the trauma of birth, for both mother and baby, is a founding human experience- of vulnerability, separation, new life snatched from the jaws of death. Our psyches formed in the shipwreck of mother and child.
And children are the subject of the next poem-object- children are the revolution. Interesting to consider this in light of Finlay’s identity as his father’s son. He says relatively little about this phrase, as he describes it as ‘writing itself’. Children bringing change, turning everything upside down and symbolising a transformed future.
The final phrase completes the cycle. Our lives are a carrying stream, is a quote from Hamish Henderson, one of Finlay’s heroes. Henderson was a maverick Scot, poet, folk-singer, Communist. The phrase is from his self-penned eulogy, which was read at his funeral. The whole poem optimistically likens the carrying stream to the eternal renewal of life, with new voices re-telling the old stories. Henderson, like Finlay, was committed to the oral tradition, and the power of creativity to remake the world, to bring joy, and to nurture wisdom. There is an echo of the dark side of the cycle in the death of Paul Celan who ended his life by drowning in the river Seine in Paris.
The final section of the essay, sub-titled ground, river and sea, reinforces the theme of the cycle of life and returns to memories of the ‘burns’ of his youth (burn is the Scottish word for a stream), The title of the essay, poetry is still beautiful, is from the writing of Tom Lubbock, near the end of his life, dying from a brain tumour which is leading to the fading away of language (he was a writer by trade). This refers back to the ideas of Henderson (and Finlay) about the core function of art and creative process to human life. As his consciousness declines, Lubbock still sees the beauty in poetry, becoming as he says “simply the world”.
A final paragraph brings the writing back to earth by excavating some of the history of some of the burns of his childhood. He discovers an association with the first goddess of Scotland, Annait, and identifies other echoes of this ancient story written on the landscape- remains of a 2,300-year old lute, prehistoric temples and wells. The last line of the essay is worth quoting in full:
“Annait, travelling companion, Earth Mother, Bride… whose new name is Gaia; there are no sacred texts describing her mythology and yet, in little burns and springs, She is the source from which the carrying stream flows.”
I find Finlay a very personally generous, open and humanistic artist, and love this essay.