In Andalusia (The working film script for a forthcoming H+I ADVENTURES production)

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With lines from poems by Federico García Lorca

The field / of olive trees / opens and closes / like a fan. / Above the olive grove / a foundering sky / and a dark rain / of cold stars.
Past the olive groves
The terraces turned rose
Only a single bird / is singing. / The air is cloning it. / We hear through mirrors.
And in a small church, floral decorations made of marzipan
Glowed in sweet clamour
Through the mist on the panes / all the children / watch a yellow tree / change into birds.
It is cold and strange and flattened up here
The mountains gaze / at a distant spot.
The grass is almost white, bleached by drought
(It reminds me of nothing) distant
Villages are cauterised to the earth
Where the sky is waiting
For news of a dream
The air / pregnant with rainbows / shatters its mirrors / over the grove.
As we climb the mountain sweats
Untarnished by time
The labyrinths / that time creates / vanish. / (Only the desert / remains.) / The heart / fountain of desire / vanishes. / (Only the desert / remains.) / The illusion of dawn / and kisses / vanish. / Only the desert / remains. / Undulating / desert.
Almond blossom is the colour of my brain
(White rose with flecks of blood and dream) the heart
Trembles in the penumbra when every muscle works
To understand season on season of toil; a woman sleeps
As my heart is, / so you are, / my mirror. / Garden where my love / is waiting.
Dreaming of her husband and child before it is too late
Fennel, serpent, and rushes. / Aroma, trail, and half-shadow. / Air, earth, and apartness. / (The ladder stretches to the moon)
And she is awakened by the stillness of her wheel.

The film can be viewed here: http://www.mountainbikeworldwide.com/bike-tours/spain

Garden, Window Sill, Mountain

I’ve spent a lot of the last month watching the shadows of whole clouds climb mountains; guiding on Skye, in the Cairngorms, in Feshie and Torridon. By contrast, for a few days, I was also in Belfast. I’ve seen landscapes shimmer on the far side of a glen in a haze of mauve, grey, green, orange vapor; the slopes seemingly on fire as the sun set, and as language set on my ability to describe just what it was that I was seeing. The object, and place as the origin of the object whose purpose appears to be to mark place, landscape and memory, has recently perhaps been where my casual reflections have been exercised; the extent to which we confer greater value on one aspect of lived experience as opposed to another, and the reasons why we confer value on this object, this picture, this action – irrespective of how empty, full, Grand, picturesque, menacing, ambiguous or beautiful their qualities appear to us to be – instead of all the others we could have selected … I began to get closer with these lines from a poem I was writing: ‘I think of you waking to this flat sky, a cup of hot water and a piece of toast / slipping out of your chemise of light, / thinking in pieces of sky made by the branches of a tree.’

pillow playcrescentstarstar.achina doll

From the seashore at the cleared settlement of Boreraig on Skye, an ammonite fossil; from the armchair in the front room a sketch of a big tree made near midnight on the longest day of the year; a glass marble (this fell to the ground from a third story window of a closed convent in Jerusalem as I walked under its eaves); those arrangements of materials and objects – like the pillows and garden chair in the photograph – that play with sculptural purpose, experimentation and misrecognition; a theatre of pillow talk, and domestic theatre (though in this instance the arrangement was wholly utilitarian – the towel was pegged over the pillows to prevent songbirds from landing and excreting on them); the crescent left on a window sill by a winter moon … or the heavy concrete stars seen near the summits of some mountains (stars that have been made, carried and left in place by the artist and climber, Dan Shipsides … near the summits because when I was talking with him in Belfast about the project he was clear that they had to be set down off to the side and away from the summit – as an object to be at first uncertain of, to be seen, over there or out of the corner of ones eye, only then to be approached, out of curiosity? fear? wonder? and explored close up … A different but no less perceptive view of things may be to think about Robert Macfarlane’s observation, made I think in his introduction to Nan Shepherd’s book ‘The Living Mountain’, that getting to the summit of a mountain is on the whole a very masculine aspiration – getting to the top and looking down on the world below – whereas, he argued, Nan was happier in and around the Cairngorm mountains and their lower reaches, off to the side, or, that lovely Scottish word, outwith, the plateau she so clearly loved … she looked up and into, as well as down and upon the mountain and its surrounding landscapes, being more likely to be discovered in the mountain, as opposed to on the top of it … and I think a similar guiding principle is at play in Shipsides project); a facsimile of an early pen, wash and chalk drawing by Paul Nash, Falling Stars (1912) reproduced in The Penguin Modern Painters booklet on Nash’s work published in 1944 with an accompanying essay by Herbert Read; a child’s coloured pencil drawing propped above the fireplace depicting one day at the shows (carousels and dodgems, rollercoaster, queues of parents and children!, candy floss and ice-cream stalls); an old wooden coat hanger of my father’s; a shard of frosted patterned glass that the garden gave up one summer; assorted shells and pebbles; an ornamental hedgehog … a symbolic landscape of objects in place and Time.

Once somewhere somewhen

Near the end of last year I received a set of questions to consider in relation to my paintings, the subject of ‘abstraction’ and the exhibition, Drawn Away Together: 11 Scottish Artists on Abstraction soon to open at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh: “What is it that you think you do when you’re making your art?” and, “Is abstraction part of the process of making the work or something in the form of the work itself? How do you understand the term?”

keroflorentine wedgewood.1bird table

This is how I replied: I listen, or perhaps more accurately, eavesdrop on my psychic traffic, on my fragmentary and absentminded seeing; on the light, the half-light and on the darkness; on memory; on my subject matter: views through windows; landscapes; farmland; weather; remembered conversations and emotions of all kinds … Painting (the abstraction – drawn away) from these things – of things seen, events, memory – involves transience. I was once somewhere, somewhen, and I have made an image from it – not of it – from life. A motif moves into memory when the eye leaves it – the shadow-play of a sheet drying over a lawn; snow on a bird table; stacked hay bales; pools of floodwater drawing blue sky into a field … and painted marks (and words, sentences) move into memory as the eye returns to the motif. But this drawing away – in time – is what must happen, and is only part of what I do. Each painting is also a return, expressed through fragments and instances, an imagining towards the motif, drawing closer to memory, less a retreat from it. (One simply cannot remember. One must remember something, otherwise the picture would be facile). Memory comes with the making of the painting – the abstract painting – not with its viewing. And if during this making I am imagining towards the viewer, viewers are after the event – with the now and the elsewhere of their viewing.

room windowpiece of light on snow

The exhibition runs from Saturday 16th March until the 4th of May at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh and includes works by Rachel Barron, Miranda Blennerhasset, Paul Keir, Lorna McIntyre, Andrew Mackenzie, Jo Milne, Neil Nodzak, Malcolm O’Connell, Eric Schumacher and Alan Shipway (www.trg@ed.ac.uk / www.facebook.com/talbotricegallery) A catalogue – documenting the work in the show, and with an essay by James Clegg – will be launched on the 17th April and available from the gallery thereafter.

On a related matter, Gutter, issue 8 (due for release … there’s a link to this journal for new Scottish writing in the ‘blogroll’) will publish my poem, The Light Is Soft This Morning As I Write You This.

Bento’s Sketchbook

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them are proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration. (Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, Proposition XXIII)

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination. (Berger)

I am floating on my back in the swimming pool with the painting I’m working on above me, thinking also of Mr. Berger’s practice of floating with whatever story he is thinking about, “above him” as he, we, float, looking at the ceiling. The painting is small, in oils, and is of a view of a hay bale in a field, one of the oblong-shaped ones familiar at this time of year. This one had been left where it had broken apart in the field, sagging into its own weight as gravity tries to suck its bulk back into the ground – as gravity tries to pull me to the floor of the pool. Berger’s stories have the quality of this particular kind of silence. For me they are touchstones for distinguishing between – in Spinoza’s terms – the inadequate and adequate; the false and the genuine. Berger’s writing continues to be, above else, an ethical, as well as intellectual example, as he explores the practice of drawing – the human body, flowers, bicycles – and how art guides our seeing and understanding of the world: how it may protest, may establish forms of resistance to ‘the pitilessness of the new world order’. One protests, he writes, by demonstrating, by striking, by hunger strike, by taking up arms, by occupying, by shouting, by writing, by drawing. One protests because to not to would be humiliating, and would result in an enforced and degrading silence. To draw – rose hip, a cherry leaf, a pebble beach – is to indelibly save the present moment from predatory global capitalism – a fusion of democracy and the free market – and its weak, constricted imagination which is focused almost entirely on maximizing profit. History may be indifferent, but Berger cares, he still has hope, and believes and writes of that sense of belonging to the what-has-been and the yet-to-come. Nowhere perhaps is this more explicit than in the story of his visit to a public library to get a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not on the shelf, and after a discussion with the librarian, he is led to understand that they have two copies, but “they’re both out”. So he starts to think: ‘I wonder who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it? Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognising it, recognise one another? … What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we will become and will continue to become … Somebody in this Paris suburb, perhaps sitting tonight in a chair and reading The Brothers Karamazov, may already, in this sense, be a distant, distant cousin”. And on the next page, the right-hand page of the book – ‘A recollection from childhood, a question of hope?’ – is a sketch of an empty chair done in pencil and watercolour.

‘… of ghosts among fern and dogwood before they turn their backs / and drift down the garden path, as if the dead / really had somewhere to get to, as if the life-long burden / of things unsaid might be dumped in such a place’ (Harsent, Night)

I start on an ink drawing of sweet William in a vase. I prefer ink that is of the non-waterproof kind; it is softer, more responsive to water, and less blood-like than “permanent” ink. I make marks, I make corrections and the drawing gets darker, moves closer and closer to the edge (of what?) where I hope it will teeter (from the Old Norse, titra, ‘shake, shiver‘) in perpetuity.

John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook (Verso, 2011) The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) – generally known as Benedict or Bento – earned his living as a lens-grinder and spent his short life writing On the Improvement of the Understanding and the Ethics, both of which were only published posthumously. He was also a sporadic draughtsmen and according to friends carried a sketchbook around with him. De Hooch, Vermeer, Jan Steen were his contemporaries and biographers have suggested that it is likely he met Rembrandt. Following his sudden death his friends found his letters, manuscripts and notes but no sketchbook and for years, Berger has imagined a sketchbook with his drawings in it being found. “I wasn’t expecting great drawings in the sketchbook, were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes”. Then a friend gave Berger a virgin sketchbook, covered with suede leather the colour of skin and he heard himself saying: “This is Bento’s!” The result is this book – containing Berger’s stories and drawings and extracts of Spinoza’s propositions and notes – an exploration of drawing inspired by the philosopher’s vision.

David Harsent, Night (Faber and Faber, 2011) Harsent’s latest book of poetry begins with a remarkable sequence of poems about a garden in which he explores how, when the lights go out, we variously rage against, weep, regret and rejoice our day-lit selves: our hopes, weaknesses, those that we set out to love and our darker instincts; the night-dreams, the insomnia and shape-shifting desire that accompanies our journey in the shadow-lands as we move inexorably towards the spectre of death. Hallucinatory.