Sunday, 29 June 2014

Devon Folklore Tapes VI: Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor


Devon Folklore Tapes 6 (or DFTVI, to follow the acronymic condensation) is the latest in a series of beautifully presented artefacts which combine visual art, commentary and music, assembling a multi-faceted, harmonious whole. Each release has its own theme and geographical or temporal focus. DFTVI takes as its subject the folkloric explorations of Dartmoor undertaken by Theo Brown, largely in the post-war period from the 40s through to the 80s. This covers the prime hauntological period in which white heat futures and ephemeral pop presents combined with the revival of ancient memory and seasonal ritual. Brown was largely self-taught, a traveller who drew inspiration from her own youthful experience of the moor and its surrounding villages. She furthered her knowledge of its living lore by talking directly with its inhabitants, gathering new funds of story and anecdote. Hers was an idiosyncratic approach to the study of folklore, and one which found little favour with the more by the book elements of academia. The value of her work, which was notable for its combination of accessibility and scholarly breadth and depth, was only belatedly (and in many cases begrudgingly) recognised. Her papers now reside in the Exeter University archives; she was admitted to the halls of academia in the end, where her work is available to the more broadminded scholars of today. There’s currently a small display in the Old Library at Exeter University which includes material relating to Theo Brown alongside the contents of DFTVI and accompanying notes.


Ian Humberstone and David Chatton-Barker, the artists behind Devon Folklore Tapes VI, clearly sense a fellow spirit in Theo. They liken her to Delia Derbyshire, Lotte Reiniger and Vera Chytilova, the late Czech director of Daisies and Fruit of Paradise, who died earlier this year. Like them, she was a passionate individualist who pursued her own determined path in the face of indifference and disdain from a predominantly male establishment. Brown trained as an artist at the Westminster School of Art in the 1930s. Although she never fully pursued her talents in this direction, she produced some beautiful woodcuts, which provided the illustrations for a number of her books on folklore. Reproductions of seven of these are included as postcards in the DFTIV treasure box. David Chatton-Barker invokes Theo’s artistic spirit in a lovely design used in promotional material (which you can see at the head of this post). An imprinted profile taken from a youthful photograph is given a leaf-veined craquelure. It’s a powerfully poetic image, contrasting the freshness of youth with the engraved lines of age and experience – of time. The leaf veins suggest fragility and autumnal withering, but also a connection with the landscape and the cyclical renewal of the seasons. In this case, such renewal can be seen as a metaphor for the revival of Theo’s life work, and thereby of the vital spirit which defined her and gave her such vigorous purpose.


Nested at the heart of the DFTVI box are 7 7” singles, containing the music central to the project. To my knowledge, this is the first time a Devon Folklore Tapes release has been bereft of any actual cassette amongst its contents. But the title has become a recognised signifier of the series’ qualities and character. It’s suggestive of field research archives filed on modular shelving units in 70s brutalist bunkers, or of the forgotten rooms of rural town museums whose exhibits have remained unchanged for decades. Anyway, Devon Folklore Singles just doesn’t sound right – too much like a tweedy dating night down at the village hall. The seven 7”s present soundscapes connected with seven Dartmoor villages. 7x7x7 – there seems to be some occult symmetry at play here. The Dartmoor summoned up by the music is definitely a magical place; one full of sinister resonance, with strange, unearthly presences hovering behind the thin veil separating worlds. It’s a veil as evanescent and nebulously shifting as a moorland mist. At any moment it might enshroud you and transport you from all that was solid and familiar. It’s this uneasy apprehension of the uncanny, which goes hand in hand with the unpredictable moods of Dartmoor weather and its wild landscape, which the music attempts to express.


Given that the music is aligned with particular places, and is designed to evoke their ambience and the sense of the stories which have settled into their contours and seeped into their subsoil, the ideal way of listening to it would seem to be to travel to the locales in question. A map is included in the DFTVI box, presumably with this end in mind. Obviously, a certain amount of recording and transferral of formats would be required. Unless, of course, you happen to have a portable wind-up gramophone to set up beside your wicker hamperful of cold meats, hard-boiled eggs and ginger beer. Headphone absorption will provide an immersive soundtrack, and create the suitable sense of being at a certain remove from the ruthless rationality of the 21st century world.


So what of the music itself? It is loose, low key, and determinedly low-fi and homespun, a reflection perhaps of Theo Brown’s own defiantly amateur status. It is largely what could be described as electronic music, with sounds rooted in the post-war period of modernist experiment and Radiophonic play. But it has the feel of real-time performance rather than work which is primarily constructed in the studio (reel time, if we’re still looking at analogue ways, which is certainly the impression here). MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) and Gruppo Nuova Consonanza, with their use of electronics in an improvisatory context, might be a more apposite point of comparison than, say, Stockhausen and Berio or any of the other composers who sequestered themselves in the airless labyrinths of state-radio funded studios. We’ll get the chance to see how the music plays out live during the upcoming Only Timelessness tour (which arrives in Exeter on 22nd July). Electronic and experimental music has been used to good effect in summoning up states of dislocation, unease and panic in horror film soundtracks. It is put to such use in DFTVI, painting a sound portrait of Dartmoor as an eerie, haunted landscape; a spectral terrain in which temporal laws and the boundaries of the rational lose their hard-edged definition.


In the Postbridge piece The Hairy Hands, electronic oscillations and wavering tonalities are reminiscent of Louis and Bebe Barron’s unearthly whistles and burbles for the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. There is also a series of reverberant metallic scrapes, of the variety referred to as ‘terror zings’ on the Radiophonic Workshop LP of sound effects Out of this World. These reminded me of the unnerving creaks and isolated percussive cracks and splashes of Toru Takemitsu’s film score for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 compendium of Japanese ghost stories Kwaidan. Echo and reverb create the sense of a strange space, with the open expanses of the moor suddenly rendered dense and enclosed. It’s as if a transformation in the natural order of things has taken place, resulting in a disconcerting shift in perception. A similar effect is created in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. The rhythmic clacking of the railway track the three pilgrims are riding into the mysterious Zone is gradually and, initially, almost imperceptibly altered. It grows more reverberant, its overtones flatten and spread out like tendrils of enveloping mist. This transformation of sound marks the crossing of a boundary, a transition to a space and perceptual state in which the laws of nature (including acoustics) are subtly but fundamentally different. A heartbeat pulse growing steadily louder along with the introduction of respiratory rhythms which sound like heavy, bestial breathing herald the manifestation of the hirsute hands of the tale in question. These are said to have appeared on a number of occasions over the centuries to menace travellers taking the road into the village, and hinder their passage. There is a final frenzy of freeform noise on the Hairy Hands track, a chaos which seems to mark the terrified apprehension of the beast by the unfortunate passerby. A fearsome crash brings things to a halt, perhaps signifying the grim end of this encounter with a malevolent spirit. We can perhaps imagine a close-up on the spinning wheel of a motorcycle.

It’s all highly cinematic. The imaginary soundtrack is a modern version of classical programme music such as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 60s and 70s horror film atmospheres are invoked elsewhere on DFTVI. The synth drone and rushing wind at the beginning of the Old Crockern tale from Two Bridges recalls the chill ambience of John Carpenter’s brooding, pulsing synth score for The Fog. In Wistman’s Wood, a heavy bass thudding measures the implacable, inescapable approach of some stomping entity, or of the Wild Hunt whose route legend maps across the skies above the stunted oak treeline. It’s a relentless pounding which recalls the terrifying aural assault in The Haunting, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic of the supernatural. In the tale of ball lightning invading a church service in Widecombe-in-the-Moor with what appears to be a guiding intelligence, swishing sounds panned wildly across the stereo spectrum, together with scraped strings bent into upwardly ascending arcs (the Radiophonic Workshop’s ‘terror glissandos’) summon up fiery elementals. These will-o-wisps swoop and dive like sluggish swifts, their bobbing flight weighted down by dubby basslines. This brings to mind the scenes in the Hoichi the Earless section of Kwaidan in which spirits in the form of glowing balls of flame dart like moths across a ruined temple graveyard. The otherworldly atmosphere is enhanced by Toru Takemitsu’s tenebrous music, all wispy susurration and spectral sound.

There is an element of soundscaping to some of the music, with field recordings, processed to a greater or lesser degree, incorporated to summon up the spirit of place. Wild weather is also an important aspect of the moor’s changeable moods, its barometer needle likely to swing with a suddenness which has caught many an unwary wanderer out. Fairies, spectres and elementals arise from the sounds and atmospheric conditions of particular sites. Dartmoor is a primal landscape which encourages a return to an animist view of the natural world, a sense that its elements are imbued with a variety of inherent spirits. DFTIV begins with the rushing of wind, from which cries emerge. The battering white noise of a gale or the rushing white noise of a river are highly suggestive. Just as any sound can be filtered out from a white noise base on a synthesiser, so the mind can parse any number of sounds through the filter of the imagination. The track based around the Old Crockern tale from the Two Bridges area draws forth a spectral horse from the scouring wind. Dessicated Casio rhythms provide the bones of sound which evoke a skeletal canter, a bounding, rattling ghost ride. Horror sounds pile up again towards the end, with splintering freeform piano and grating stridulation leading to much wailing and howling. Finally, it all falls apart, and we can imagine a pile of bleached bones scattered across the moorland scrub.


The Wistman’s Wood track begins with a whooshing space wind, with the amplified cracking of twigs and circumambient pinging reverberations suggesting the eerie suspension of time and sound in this moss-muffled, dwarf-oak canopied expanse. The pounding approach of the Wild Hunt is all the more alarming for intruding upon the quietude of this ferny, lichenous sub-world. The Piskies Holt in Hexworthy, a natural underground passageway by the Dart, is depicted with wavering, watery sounds. Glass bowls are struck and lowered into water so that the note glides downwards. Bell-like droplets drip with cold resonance, as if they were splashing on the surface of a granite chamber. The occasional slippage of sound charts uneven surfaces, wet slides and muddy skids. There are linked levels of liquid language here. The continuous flow of the river acts as a ground for the plinking pizzicato of the drips. Swirls, currents and eddies are the over and underlying overtones of this rushing drone. Sighing exclamations arise from these sounds, the gurgling oohs and aahs of the piskies. They are sweet and filled with childlike wonder, but feel as if they could easily and instantly morph into sharp-fanged hiss and screech.

In addition to the sounds of wind and water, we also hear the sounds of fire in the Widecombe tale of Jan and the Devil. This is a variant of the many sorry accounts of inadvisable deals with horned and cloven-hoofed strangers in which the soul is the disposable currency of exchange. Jan’s reckoning with his Satanic creditor is heralded by a tolling bell and low rumbling John Carpenter synth. Tarry, sticky sounds like glutinously flowing and banking lava queasily conveys a hellish presence. Wild, untethered theremin suggests supernatural flight on eerie currents, whilst electronic hissing blows out billowing clouds of sulphurous vapour, as if from some unholy censer. A wailing siren, the subconscious trigger signal for panic and fear, is succeeded by a series of thuds – the firm and sure knocks of fate at the door. A sickly buzzing accumulates, a swarming aural halo for the Lord of Flies. Jan is carried away, accompanied on his escorted passage to hell by the intensifying sounds of torment and strange chthonic storms leaking up from the underworld.


The two Dartmeet tracks make effective use of field recordings, the riverine flow a white noise bed from which other sounds burble up. For the Hungry Dart, throbbing low frequency oscillations hint at dangerous currents beneath the surface. It’s a pulsing, mesmeric drone, hypnotic and inviting. The simple, fatalistic rhyme, which voices an almost sacrificial acceptance of periodic drownings, offerings to the river spirits, gradually becomes distinct from the chaotic flow. It is intoned with dull lack of inflection, as if by the dead souls buried in their silted and pebbly graves, their hair wavering like waterweeds. More of the drowned join in as a call and response chorus builds up. This river’s sub-drone seems to shadow the repetitive, eddying melody, drawing enchanted listeners in to swell the siren choir.


Jan Coo and the Piskies begins with a chilling howl and startling piano pounding, the discordant disruptions of a winter storm. The background presence of the uncanny is heard in the murmurous voices breathing ‘Jan Coo’ at the threshold of audibility, and by the unevenly ascending melodic steps of rubbed wine-glass sine waves. Pure and ringingly sustained and with little initial attack, it is difficult to place their point of origin. They just appear, manifesting out of the blustering backdrop. Rushing water and birdsong locate the moment at which the boy in the story is drawn by the voices and disappears for ever. A metallic horror creak (a ‘terror twang’) perhaps denotes the opening of a heavy door. It is followed by silence, apart from the steady, constant rush of the river. It continues its progress, oblivious and uncaring as to the fate of the boy who has been unceremoniously plucked from the continuum of existence. It’s as if he simply never was.

Some of the pieces on DFTVI depict the more human aspects of Dartmoor life. Pub atmospheres are evoked for the Forest Inn at Hexworthy and the famously isolated and invariably winter snowbound Warren House Inn near Merripit. The Hexworthy track is a sound collage of voices and noises (coin rattle, glass clink and accordion wheeze) which recalls the studio goofing of Jefferson Airplane’s A Small Package of Value Will Come to you Shortly. The slight air of artificiality lent by exaggerated echo creates a sense of distance, suggesting that what we are hearing is a ghostly impression from a time long past. After the ‘time please’ bell has been rung, and a final wave of lusty laughter has passed around, the voices fade. We are left with small, wavering pings and glinting harmonics, the hubbub of human conversation reduced to tiny particulate sounds half heard in the suggestive crackle and hiss of the fireplace. A harmonium drone articulates the hum of silence in the early hours emptiness of the bar; a silence which contains echoes of antiquity and the accumulated imprints of convivial chatter and merry carousal. Flexible bass notes bent downwards emphasise the emptiness of the space, the quiet after the spectral gathering has been dispersed. They remind me of the springy bass lines in Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Roman Polanski’s 1967 Hammer Spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers.


The Warren House Inn track summons up the interior atmosphere in the heart of winter, with doors and windows battened down against the besieging ice and snow. The mordantly matter of fact tale told is of an innkeeper’s sudden death, and the practical preservation of his body by his wife and daughter in the salt pit with the freshly slaughtered pig. There he lies until the snows melt and civilisation can be reached once more. Free improv creak and scrape, along with tiptoeing pizzicato, conjures an atmosphere of tense suspension; the itchy, fidgety feel of being shut in for prolonged periods, until the small sounds of the building become amplified to overly sensitised perceptions. A sudden grunt of pain marks the landlord’s last gasp. Or perhaps it is the shocked reaction of the vicar upon seeing the body in its salted mortuary. The tone throughout is comically sinister, the Addams Family via Royston Vasey. The scrunch and pop of the fire with which we are left, with its clustered layers of short-lived sounds, is reminiscent of Concret PH, the dense piece of musique concrete which Iannis Xenakis built up from tiny edits of recordings of burning charcoal.

There is a flavour of low-key psych-folk to the track The Sow of Merripit Lake. A dour ditty is chanted against a simple repeated acoustic guitar figure. This is the mournful mantra of the pig and her litter who are said to wander the foggy night at certain times of year in search of whatever measly scraps of food might assuage their hunger. Hollow ocarina whistling in the background suggests the wind playing through the cracks of doors and windows. A contrast between domestic interior and wild exterior is established, which makes the synth mewls of the piglets in the outer cold all the more pitiful. The lament of the pigs is really the human cry of starving peasants down the ages, a symbolic litany for hard times in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

More lonely and mournful sounds are heard in the tales of Dolly Copplestone and the Snaily House, both of which centre on isolated cottages. Dolly Copplestone, with its deliquescent shower of crystalline notes and hymnal minor key organ, veers in tone between new age and holy minimalism. The falling windchime synth lines are like poor Dolly’s tears as she sits alone in her cottage, cut off from the world by the jealousy of her hard husband. The Snaily House conjures up the interior of a cottage in the woods inhabited by two women. Their solitude and lack of visible means of subsistence led to rumours of witchcraft. The more sad and prosaic truth, however, was that they had been living off a limited foraged diet of snails and slugs. We hear a melancholic tune, a fluting moogy melody played over clanking piano chords. It’s as if the women were entertaining themselves during the long, lonely days. Creaking doors mark their forays out into the woods to gather their food. The ceramic clatter of snail shells in pots and jars provides the signature sound of the house.

The final track of DFTVI is The Last Wolf, which refers to the belief that the last wolves in Britain were killed in the woods around Drewsteignton and Brimpts in the 1780s. Metallic clanks and sonic booms expressionistically represent the killing shots and the fall of discarded shells. Low key music in the background sounds like an electronic pibroch lament, a solemn epitaph for the eradication of a native species, and for the steady erosion of the idea of wilderness.


Only Timelessness, the film which the artists have made for the DFTVI set, transforms their field trips into filtered eyeflash rushes of abstract colour and pattern from which significant forms and locales emerge – trees, ferns, rivers, wild ponies, churches, inns and bridges. The curved back of the moorland horizon, with its granite tor vertebrae, is a recurrent presence, an outlined theatrical backdrop which instantly conveys the sense of place, even when reduced to semi-abstraction. The artists rightly draw a comparison in their notes with the visionary work of the American experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage. They are themselves occasionally glimpsed wandering about in that hazy, dreamlike drift which 8mm film can convey so well. It’s a mood which Derek Jarman evoked in his super 8 films; his Journey to Avebury might be seen as a point of comparison here. Some of the film stock was buried in soil and other organic matter from the moor and left for some time. The acids from the earth worked on the celluloid and produced the rich colours of chemical decay; purples, aquamarines and rusty reds of the sort which might film the surface of an acidic Dartmoor pool or mire.

Only Timelessness - the artists are present
The idea of incorporating the processes of decay into a work is a particularly resonant one, and has been used by a number of artists in recent years. This is partly due to the rapid progression of recording technologies, the resultant redundancy of old media, and the reflection on change and passing time which this occasions. Richard Skelton has buried instruments in Lancashire soil, the resultant imperfections once unearthed providing a record of natural transformation. William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops series uses the oxide erosion of magnetic tape as an integral part of the music, which becomes an almost philosophical meditation on time and its depredations. Tacita Dean’s film Kodak uses the last 16mm black and white stock ever produced at the firm’s factory in Chalon-sur-Saone. It thus stands, in the very substance of its medium, as a record of redundancy and ruin.


There appears to be a good deal of double projection in the film as digitally preserved on DVD. The corroded footage is layered over more concrete scenes shot on Dartmoor to create a kind of dual vision. Present time is juxtaposed with geological time (or maybe a heightened visionary time), the flickering patterns of long-term erosion and decay patterned over water, rock, moorland scrub and the structures of human habitation and cultivation. There is an elemental quality to the unearthed film, something of the air, earth and fire to the scratches, burns, folds and cracks. They make the texture of the film material evident, and make us aware of the act of seeing. Strands of bracken and nettle are pushed onto the lens to form plantform silhouettes. They remain for a fraction of a second, imprinting their complex outlines on the retina; part of the protean shifts of colour and pattern, of the ever-changing transformation of matter. The finger of the artist is sometimes seen poking them into place, again making us aware of the processes involved, of the retinal film of vision through which we perceive the world. The film of corroded film is like a veil between worlds, a glimpse of otherworldly vision. It hints at another dimension existing parallel to our own. The tales cited in DFTVI record the moments when it breaks through.

There are serendipitous conjunctions between image and music (a special condensed mix of the album accompanies the 30 minute film). Or perhaps that directing finger is at work again, creating hidden patterns of divine order. For the Copplestone track, vertical scratches visualise poor Dolly’s falling tears, etching them onto sky and landscape. The footage of Widecombe church is licked with chemical flame, a magical fire which blazes but doesn’t burn.

DFTVI is an artefact to be treasured. A map to the treasure, guidebook to the terrain of legend, catalyst for the inner eye of the imagination, visionary prompt and scholarly primer. But most of all, it is a thing of beauty, put together with great care, artistry and love. It’s a worthy memorial to the life, legacy and spirit of Theo Brown. And sufficient tribute to placate the piskies for a while.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Ignite Festival of Theatre 2014


The Ignite Festival
in Exeter is an explosion of theatre and performance which takes place across the centre of the city. Exeter’s main theatre has long since been pushed to the borderlands, stranded on the slopes of the university campus. The festival makes a virtue of using of a wide range of venues in the city proper (most, indeed, within the old Roman walls), from smaller theatres (the Bike Shed and The Cygnet) to basements and backrooms in pubs (The Hour Glass, The Rusty Bike and the City Gate). All are within easy reach of each other. The timings included within the programme encourage you to pack in as much as you can, dashing from one place to another.


The festival began on Monday with Coffee With Vera, which was served in the kitchen above the synagogue. Ruth Mitchell took on the persona of Vera, a composite of the women she’d talked to at the Plymouth synagogue, often at the coffee mornings they organised to raise funds. A jacket and hat, kept on a dresser’s dummy, were put on along with the Vera character, affecting an instant transformation from Ruth, who also explored her own history. She had discovered her Jewish roots, which had been unknown to her when she started out as an actress. She talked about her first major role having left acting school, playing a part in the 1987 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Miriam Margolyes, taking in her name and her proudly prominent schnozz, had asked her if she were Jewish. She shyly responded that she was not. From then on, Margolyes cheerfully referred to her as Ruth Who Should Be Jewish. Both as Ruth and Vera, she unpacked an old suitcase and laid mementoes out on the table, building up an array which told the stories of her ancestors and of the Jews in Plymouth and Devon as a whole. The personal and the historical, as ever, intertwined, each aspect illuminating the other. It was a funny and touching performance, the cramped setting and the coffee meeting context lending it a real sense of intimacy. You really felt you were being addressed personally, and felt the sense of belonging which such small, isolated communities must offer. The cakes, some from recipes in a cook book written by Mandy Patinkin’s mother, were excellent, too. Afterwards, we were invited to look around the synagogue. Built in 1763, it is one of the hidden treasures of Exeter, only the unobtrusive road sign of the back alley it where it is tucked away hinting at its presence – Synagogue Place. We were given a wonderfully warm welcome and privileged to be shown the Torah Scrolls in the Ark, with their beautiful velvet wrappings and Georgian silverwork.

Rooted in the word - the tree of learning
A group of student actors from the University of St Mark and St John in Plymouth, The Actor’s Wheel, put on a bold version of Shakespeare’s magical play The Tempest at the Cygnet Theatre. It was staged with immense energy and imagination. The island set, with its tree growing from a strata of books, its promontories for commanding speeches and caves to crawl out from, was simple yet effective, and bathed in a suitably aquamarine light. The actors were coiled in sleep around the rocky outcrops as we filed in. They woke up as the play commenced, or as their cues came in, and retreated to their recumbent places when they withdrew. With smears of mud on their faces (Caliban’s whole face being covered with dirt), the impression was given that these were creatures which were extensions of the island itself, or (in the case of the shipwrecked sailors) intruders who were drawn into its enchanted topography. There was one isolated boulder towards the front of the stage space. When the lights dimmed down and the ambient music faded up, the boulder moved, stretched and stood up, and Prospero began his speech. Or rather her speech. This was a Tempest with a female Prospero, or Prospera, a commanding and convincing reinterpretation of the character. This was particularly so as regarded her relationship with Miranda, who became her daughter in this version. Other innovative touches included a triple Caliban, three people roped together, sharing the moaning dialogue of the pitiful beast, constantly circling, crawling and leaping atop one another; and a six-aspected Ariel, speech hocketed between the spaced out actors as if the spirit were flickering from place to place with inhuman instantaneity. The comic actors playing the drunken sailors intoxicated with dreams of regal power were very funny, and worked off each other well. This was a production which took a familiar work and really tried to produce something original from it. I was reminded of Derek Jarman’s film version, which was similarly respected the spirit of the play whilst setting out to make of it something rich and strange. The Actor’s Wheel affected a similar sea-change. This was their first performance as a company, and promises much for the future.


Dashing off to the Bike Shed, I then saw Threnody For the Sky Children, written and performed by Jack Dean. The title made it sound like a long lost prog rock concept album (not necessarily a bad thing), and the opening seemed to affirm this impression. A beak-masked figure advanced through dazzling light with bird-like movements, for all the world like Peter Gabriel in his Genesis pomp. But this initial guise was swiftly discarded, the lights dimmed to a less blinding radiance, and the mask cast aside with a shrug. A professed love of hip-hop soon put paid to any lingering prog notions. Dean apologised for his initial indulgence, bringing this dramatic entrance to a bathetic conclusion. He (or rather his character) turned to wistful personal reminiscence from the headspace of his parents’ attic – the storeroom of his childhood past, both literally (this is where he finds his action man) and metaphorically in terms of memories nesting beneath its shadowed eaves.

The abrupt shift in tone and performance style, from the stylised and fantastic to the naturalistic and confessional, was indicative of the fragmentary nature of Threnody. We were presented with a kaleidoscopic progression of tangentially connected scenes between which we had to weave the associative thread. The tenor swung from the personal to the mythic, with allusions to the animalistic shape-shifting of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Icarus’ dreams of flight and hubristic fall to earth predominant. Ovid’s collection also includes the tale of Narcissus, who ends up turning into a flower – Peter Gabriel era Genesis again! Dean told his poetic tale of yearning, loss and violent transformation across differing levels of scale and via constantly changing modes of performance, morphing through his own parade of personae. There were projected animations and a Pollock’s toy theatre, behind whose cardboard proscenium a plastic figure’s balletic Icarus-flight ended in a rain of tiny feathers. A lecturer with a pronounced tendency towards bursts of radio-static sibilance stood in front of screen slides delivering post-modern, post-structuralist, post-WTF screeds on the psycho-mythological meanings of pop-cultural icons. He began his own bird transformation during his second lecture. The soft Hispanic ‘chs’ and ‘shs’ turned into spasmic sounds which presaged the breakdown of language and analytical thought. A hawklike warning cry built up like the animalistic hissing sound made by the bride of Frankenstein at the end James Whales’ 1933 film. It reminded me of Robert Altman’s 1970 film Brewster McCloud, which is also similar to Threnody in that it concerns a young man’s Icarus dreams of flight. The narrative of the film is punctuated by the commentaries of a lecturer (played by Rene Auberjonois) who grows more birdlike and less human every time we see him, feathers sprouting through holes in his jumper.

A model town like a miniature film set was used to enact a localised drama within a national crisis, the country having been overrun by the ‘transformed’ – people changed into hungry, mindlessly destructive beasts. It was like a Michael Bentine’s Potty Time monster movie. Unfortunately, I wasn’t best-placed to see it; you really needed to be in the front two rows to get a good view. Urgent reports were delivered in the form of breathless breaking news bulletins, charting the progressive descent of the country into chaos and social breakdown in the face of the spreading wave of metamorphoses. These bulletins were pegged out on the descending slope of a clothesline, along with relics of the attic dreamer’s youth. The personal blended with the political and the universal in a steady record of decline.

More SF futures were imagined in the form of a Britain absorbed into a greater USA, with only West Yorkshire stubbornly seceding, now classified as a demilitarised zone. We had a fireside chat with our new president, the fire one of those comforting log blazes found on Youtube. He was Big Brother with a gleaming smile and first-name terms, ‘I’m your pal’ manner. Finally, the childhood action man, who had once engaged in daring dogfights in the enemy skies of the imagination, drifted gracefully off, feather-winged arms silhouetted against last sunset backlighting. Threnody for the Sky Children was a poetic and ambitious piece of writing and performance, elegiac, angry, touching and often funny (the latter not a quality oft-associated with prog epics). Dean compacted a huge amount into its concise 45 minutes. Intense and daring, it danced on the edge of pretentiousness, but remained always sufficiently nimble and self-aware to avoid losing its step and tumbling over.

Franz and Felicia
Küsse (German for kisses) was a two person play from Red Room Productions drawing on the epistolary love affair between Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer. It was a relationship which lasted five years, only occasionally disrupted by awkward meetings. For Franz, the distance between his home in Prague and Felice’s in Berlin provided a convenient protective barrier. It was easy to make up excuses about missed or cancelled trains. Felice was a blank wall upon which he could write, articulating his ideas about his self, his creative urges, the nature of love and the ills of society and the world at large. His correspondence at times resembles suicide notes more than love letters, with detailed analyses of his crippling mental anxieties and physical shortcomings. He seemed to do his utmost to hold her at arms length, giving her plentiful reasons to reject him. The title Küsse, as the program note informs us, refers to Kafka’s remark that ‘written kisses never reach their destination’. This statement is given more nuanced meaning by the context in which it was made. Kafka wrote that ‘letter writing is an intercourse with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the receiver, but with one’s own, which emerges between the lines of the letter being written’. The written kisses ‘are drunk en route by these ghosts’. Küsse makes those ghosts manifest.


The unbalanced nature of the dialogue is symbolically magnified by the absence of Felice’s letters. We only hear her voice through Kafka’s writing, given form through his distinctive language. Küsse attempted in part to redress that balance. The small windowless space of the Black Box in The Phoenix, named with oppressive honesty, was filled with a provisionally constructed wooden frame, walled on three sides with a skin of semi-transparent waxed paper. It was a windowless room within a windowless room. As we filed in, an immaculately dressed and made-up woman sat stock still in a chair by the back wall. This was Felice as the idealised china-doll woman Franz created in his mind. As the play began, Felice began to move, stretching sensuously across the chair, which was used throughout as an essential prop. Kafka, meanwhile, fidgeted nervously in the narrow aisle left beyond the wooden frame of the room. His first entrance was surrealist slapstick. His leg kicked a rift through the paper wall. It then froze for a few moments, as if trying to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had happened (pay no attention to that leg sticking out of the wall!) Kafka would self-deprecatingly recall in one of his early letters that during their first meeting he had trod on her foot as they pushed their way through a revolving door.

Kafka made tearing entrances into Felice’s room at regular intervals throughout the play, bursting in upon her with nervy intensity. These irruptions were ever-more disruptive and always awkward and blundering. He stuttered out statements about himself and his dedication to his writing, quoted from his letters. Blankly informing her that his literary calling took precedence over her and all else, he told her (as he wrote) ‘my life consists, and basically always has consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful’. Such declarations were a means of maintaining distance. This was a dance of avoidance, two unsuited partners essaying entirely different steps. Felice drew on the walls, a pictorial language of love, connection and the desire for domestic contentment and stability. If Franz viewed her as a blank wall upon which he could pin his letters, then she gets her chance here to make her own mark. But her symbolic language goes unremarked. For Franz, this postal romance was an opportunity to formulate his own ideas and to elucidate his worldview. The letters are sketches and notes for the stories. He used her as a sounding board to construct a sense of self and of artistic purpose. Her replies served to assure him that she was listening, or reading. The dolls house furniture which she laid out was swept away by Franz’s packing case. Even when he did eventually turn up, he never intended to stay.

Dialogue was sparse, surprisingly so given the voluminous nature of the correspondence on Kafka’s side. His words were used as agonized aphorisms and stilted attempts at expressing love and desire. These were ghosts brushing lightly against each other. The play was really more of a dance piece, constantly in motion. The movements were full of tension and angsty energy, occasional contact leading to reflexive repulsion. At times, Franz’s whole body shook as if he were overcome by a nervous fit. His was a jittery St Vitus dance as opposed to Felice’s slower, more measured moves. The room was steadily torn apart as the dance progressed and the couple circled closer towards each other. The barriers came down and the spindly frame was shaken until it seemed that it too would splinter apart. When it became clear that Franz was going to leave, Felice tore all the paper down, drawings and all, and wrapped herself in it on the floor, as if it were a comfort blanket. It was a cathartic outburst, leaving her completely exposed, her inner sanctum open to the world.


In its ruinous aftermath, Felice was finally able to speak. Her first utterance was actually a paraphrase of the words of Milena Jesenska, a passionate friend from Franz’s later life: ‘I knew his fear before I knew him’. Milena was a strong and self-assured woman, and an accomplished writer. She was able to share and respond to Franz’s literary ideas and enthusiasms in a way that Felice had not. Felice draws on some of her strength in order to define her own feelings and her own sense of herself. We discover a little of what lay behind that blank wall, which Franz filled up so completely with his ceaseless words. The actress playing Felice spoke with a lilting westcountry accent, which lent the impression of a straightforward soul wishing for simple clarity and direct communication from her relationship; something which she was never going to receive from a complex, restless and self-interrogating soul like Franz. It was a quietly moving end to an absorbing and emotionally involving dance duet – Franz and Felice as an expressionist Fred and Ginger, never quite coming together and matching steps to create that magic connection. The music for the dance was interesting and varied in tone. From the delicately suspended mystery of one of Satie’s Gnossiennes to a Schubert song (I think); a minimalist instrumental from Sufjan Stevens’ BQE soundtrack and his explosive hymn Vesuvio from the recent Age of Adz LP to the sad resignation of Arvo Pärt’s slowly drifting and spiralling peace piece for violin and piano Spiegel im Spiegel. A perfect choice.


Four of Swords Theatre’s Gawain and the Green Knight was first performed last Christmas in the Black Box, scrubby backyard and auditorium of The Phoenix. For Ignite, it had graduated to the altogether more imposing and majestic setting of Exeter Cathedral. With its overarching forest of columns stretching down the nave, its copious green man bosses, and its general atmosphere of absorbed and encompassed ages, it was a dream backdrop for this ancient and most arcane of English tales. Four of Swords make a habit of seeking out atmospheric and unusual locations for their productions. They staged an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde in the dilapidated shell of Poltimore House, and retreated to the shadowed recesses of Beer Quarry Caves for their recent Macbeth. They make maximum use of these unorthodox spaces, leading the audience from one spot to another, where different scenes take place.

For Gawain, we gathered in the Chapter House before being led into the main mass of the cathedral, ushered along tea-lighted aisles and invited to take our places in the Lady Chapel. Here, King Arthur’s court was gathered, dressed in black and puffed out with leather armour-padding. With distorted electric guitar riffing reverberating round the vaulted stone spaces, it appeared we might be in for a Spinal Tap interpretation of the legend. Arthur’s long blonde locks (it was he who was crunching the power chords) and the slurred Keith Richard stumbling of one of the musician knights furthered the impression of metal medievalism, the troubadours turning it up to 11 and getting heavy. The tone of the opening scene was indeed light and frivolous, with the bathetic approach of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, undermining any pretensions to high romance. The king was a sullen, overgrown child, his knights dim-witted buffoons not conspicuously blessed with bravery or chivalric fire, but evidently filled to bloating with beef and wine.

An opening amalgam of chant and rap barked out by a cloaked and face-painted wild-woman made rhythmic if incomprehensible use of the old dialect in which Gawain was written. This turned out to be Morgana. She affected disdain at our lack of comprehension, seeing it as sign of modern decline and lack of learning. She remained our commenting chorus, narrator and haranguing guide throughout. Her character stood apart from the rest, out of time and far from home; a creature of the old ways, the pagan past. She was both distanced observer and active, sorcerous agent, a merry and somewhat deranged trickster. At the end of the court scene, before ushering out into the aisles, she pointed to the stained glass figure of Mary and noted, with calculated blasphemy, that of course, she was really just another incarnation of the eternal Goddess.

Leafy thrones
The appearance of the green knight was achieved with great, portentous dramatic effect. Entering slowly from the rear of the chapel, it was a towering giant, its sackcloth head wound about by ivy. Blazing red eyes glowed fiercely within a blackened bone-mask of a face, draped around with white flowing white down like traveller’s joy or old man’s beard. This was a fearsome, Gilliamesque creation, a fusion of oversized puppet and the recognisably human. The actor within made the most of the effect it created, looking from side to side as it made its way to the stunned knights and catching members of the audience in its hellish gaze. The challenge was issued, the blow given, and the inhuman knight’s severed head picked up and held up to issue its demands. Gawain, who had answered to the challenge where others had shrunk away, was now obliged to receive a reciprocal blow in a year and a day at the mysterious green chapel. We followed him around the north aisle and into the nave on his quest to find this enchanted place. Here, we were waylaid at a court which was the mirror of Arthur’s. Two thrones were set up by the organ screen at the front of the nave, bowered with branches which echoed the stone-carved greenery on the columns to either side. Flickering shadow branches were thrown from the light of candles burning on iron stands to the side. The king and queen of this court invited Gawain to stay whilst he awaited his appointed hour.

Enter if you dare - the way through
Good use was made of filmed interludes, which are a feature of Four of Swords productions. They were projected onto a curtain hung beneath the organ, the soundtrack provided by our strolling minstrels, standing discretely in the aisle next to the northern Norman tower. Acrobatic hunt scenes were shot on the ramparts of Woodbury hill fort, whilst Gawain’s seduction by the queen (the ‘other Guinnevere’) took place in cobbled courtyards and bare attic rooms of appropriate antiquity. Finally, three days and nights having passed, we were invited by Morgana, still on hand to guide us (and offer us Christmas cake!), to follow Gawain through the gateway revealed by the raised screen beneath the organ to the green chapel beyond. ‘Look after each other’, she whispered, suddenly solicitous. We parted the ivy which hung down, tangling our path, and proceeded solemnly onward.

Green pulpit - playing us out
The choir, screened off from the main body of the cathedral, and with its wooden stalls, tree stump pulpit and towering bole of an archbishop’s throne, was the perfect choice for a sacred woodland glade. All was bathed in emerald light, and when the green knight made his entrance, his eyes shone even more balefully blood redthrough the pervasive leaf-refracted haze. A wonderfully magical atmosphere was conjured, the Cathedral transformed into an otherworldly realm. The sorcery underpinning the whole allegorical quest was revealed. I won’t tell you that revelation, however, since there are further performances scheduled for Poltimore House this summer. It will be interesting to see how Four of Swords adapt their story to that environment. The gardens certainly offer plenty of scope for dramatic scene setting, as does the house itself, of course. It is surely the cathedral, however, which offered the perfect stage for their Gawain, and they made superb use of it.


The Hall at the bottom of Stepcote Hill is a new venue, still in the process of being cleared and renovated. Its slightly rough and ready state at this point in time proved entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Don Quijote show performed there over three nights by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper in association with Ultimo Comboio. It could scarcely be called an adaptation; rather it was an exploration of the spirit of the novel, and an attempt to discover how that spirit might be made manifest in our heavily mediated and controlled world. The book plays with ideas of illusion and fakery, qualities embedded into its very form and history. As we were informed in a brief, breathless lecture, delivered in full bullfighter drag, Don Quixote was in fact a book of two parts. The bipartite nature of the book was made gleefully literal by two of the actors taking a power saw to a paperback copy clamped to a work frame. The effortful shearing off of the spine also demonstrated what a thick volume the two halves created. It was like a variation on the old strong man act of tearing the phone book in two.

The first section was published in 1605. Its success prompted another writer to produce a forged sequel. Cervantes responded to this hijacking of his creation by writing an ‘authentic’ continuation of his novel, published in 1615. Needless to say, numerous imitations ensued, the copies which trail in the wake of all popular works of art. In 1939, Jorge Luis Borges published Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, a short story in the form of an imaginary literary critique of an imaginary writer’s ‘translation’ of Don Quixote. Although every line is exactly the same as the original, he considers it to be a completely new version, given a completely new context by the contemporary age in which it is rewritten. Quixote has become an ur-text which resonates down the ages.

The novel’s play with illusion was reflected from the beginning of this ‘Quijote’. The variant spelling itself suggested another version, a further generation of the original. We began with shadowplays projected onto the bricks of the wall. Knights, palaces, windmills, inns and cities on the hill drifted across like dream phantoms just on the periphery of perception. Slides of the book’s descriptive chapter headings suggested scenarios which these restless shapes might form the setting for or play their part in, if only they could settle. The shadows were created by the actors panning lights behind a tabletop landscape. An inspection of this miniature La Mancha afterwards revealed trees, buildings and cities made form scraps of cardboard, plastic tubes, blu-tac boulders and food packaging towers. Any old crap which was roughly the right shape served. And yet the shadows they produced were highly evocative, firing the imagination. We were seeing through the transformative vision of Don Quixote from the outset.

Following on from the prefatory shadow-show, our attention was redirected to another part of the hall. This required us to shuffle around on the cushions we had been handed as we came in. The evening’s diverse happenings would take place at all ends and in all corners, and sometimes in our midst. Now we saw a young woman happily absorbed in reading a book. An illuminated showbiz sign above her comfortably, familiarly shabby armchair announced her as Rosie Biggin, Tonight’s Guest Don Quijote. As the show travels around the country, new Quijotes are discovered and invited to take the starring role. Rosie read Quijote silently for a good few moments, challenging us to enjoy the passive spectacle of someone else enjoying reading. Just as this was on the verge of provoking uncomfortable shifting of bums, she put the book down and started to poke at a fan with a stick, her playful version of tilting at windmills. The power of the story had taken hold of her, and she’d begun to carry its ideas, actions and ideals out into the world.

This was one of the themes of the show (and it was more variety show than play). The translation of the battered chivalric code found in the pages of Don Quixote into deeds carried out in the world. Deeds which are invariably foolhardy, amateurishly enacted and doomed to failure, but also noble in intent, brave and full of passion, and generous of spirit. We heard a story told by a man purportedly from Barcelona who had recently been helping out in a primary school. When he left, he had wanted to present a parting gift, as is the Spanish custom. He hit upon the idea of gathering petals and throwing them outwards from the school roof onto the pupils in the playground below. Each petal, he said, represented one of the children. This act was reproduced in a small way as he threw petals torn from a bunch of flowers in the grill of a revolving fan (an essential prop this evening) which blew them out over the heads of the first few rows. A shredded stick of broccoli proved less aerodynamic, and somehow lacked the same poetic resonance.

After the Quixote paperback had been de-spined, the remains were handed around the audience, and we were invited to take a page and hand it on. These were our petals. In the climactic act of the evening, the remaining pages were pushed through the teeth of a shredder by Rosie Quijote. She then tossed handfuls of Quixote confetti into the airstream of the fan. Paper flakes fluttered down like soft snow or cherry blossom, settling in drifts on the floor. The spirit of Quixote had been disseminated out into the world. The physical artefacts which had contained and conveyed that spirit, the pages and words which activated it, were no longer necessary.

The show sought to discover the spirit of Cervantes’ ragged hero in the modern world, to find the new Quixotes and define the qualities which went into making them. Spanish stereotypes (the flamenco dancer, the bullfighter) were indulged, only to be ridiculed and dismissed. Don Quixote was declared a universal figure, not one limited to a particular time, place or culture. Cervantes was painted as a victim of oppressive and controlling forces, having spent five years in an Algerian prison after he was captured by pirates; This in an age when piracy was a politically sanctioned activity (just think of Raleigh and Drake). Deriving inspiration from his incarceration, he wrote his story for the unjustly downtrodden, for the thwarted dreamers and those who remain true to their noble vision even as it leads to their inevitable fall – the persecuted outsiders and misfits. He created a plausibly human character who could represent them and offer a model of resistance – absurd and foolhardy, hopeless and glorious.

A parade of modern Quixotes, ranging from the ridiculous to the tragic (and often a mixture of both) was presented to us, their faces flickering across an old black and white TV screen which had, until this moment, been filled with illuminated static. Backyard dreamers, stubborn naysayers, the defiantly different and the eccentrically creative, all inventing themselves in a ramshackle and instinctively amateur fashion which defies externally imposed rules and dictates (and thereby tends to get them in trouble). All ultimately destined to fail, but persisting anyway, even when they are fully aware of the doomed nature of their ventures (and ultimately of all human endeavour). To borrow (steal) Samuel Beckett’s phrase, they have determined to ‘live better fail better’. Terry Gilliam might have been added to this gallery, although he is probably too well known for the company’s purposes. Don Quixote is a novel close to his heart, and his fated attempts to film it have become legendary. The documentary which records his serial mishaps and misfortunes, and his determination to carry on in spite of escalating setbacks and the seeming antagonism of the gods themselves, casts him wholly in the mould of Cervantes’ hero. Perhaps he will never make a better version of the novel than this record of his epic failure to make it.

The spirit of heroic amateurism, of noble and sincere absurdity pervaded the show. Chaos and chance (with its potential correlative, disaster) were positively courted. Rosie’s Quijote walked out into the audience as she donned the first pieces of her cardboard armour, and some of the audience were handed tape further junk appurtenances and encouraged to help her complete her knightly ensemble. When she emerged from the resultant industrious scrum, which had been noisy with the sounds of tearing cardboard, and the pulling out, ripping off and adhering of tape, she was resplendent in a carapace of cardboard and appended utensils. Another audience member was chosen as her Sancho Panze, and the retired to the nearest pub (presumably the Fat Pig) to plot their adventures, their grand Quixote gestures. These were revealed to us near the end, when they made a grandly heralded return.


Various glitches occurred, including a power failure. Again, the question of illusion and fakery arose. Were these genuine, or were they calculated to give the impression of amateurism, of busking it, thus lending the resultant extemporisations the air of instinctive spontaneity. You’d have to go to more than one performance to find out. Certainly, as our attention was drawn from one end of the hall to the other, and from one escapade to the next, we never knew quite what to expect. There was a deliberate air of the jerrybuilt and cobbled together to the whole affair, of sets and props hastily concocted from raids on charity shops and rubbish dumps, held together by string, blu-tac and dreams. But for all that, it was a remarkably coherent show, thought through and written with a great amount of care. In the end, all its disparate parts came together beautifully. It was a heady assemblage, leaving the head spinning but the spirit uplifted and exhilarated. And I haven’t even mentioned banana castration, drum frenzies or the soothsaying monkey. With indoor fireworks fizzing above the tabletop La Mancha towards the end, this was an appropriately incendiary and celebratory way to the bring the Ignite Festival to a close.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ruin Lust at the Tate Britain


The first room in the Ruin Lust exhibition at the Tate Britain was sparsely populated with paintings. But each provided a key to themes which would be explored in subsequent rooms. They also gave some idea as to the range of subject matter, style and historical span which we could expect. John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum confronted us with the process of ruination in full epic widescreen. As in any disaster film, the pleasurable terrors of natural cataclysm visited upon the grand edifices of human civilisation in its fullest flowering are gleefully exploited. Figures fleeing in the foreground are overwhelmed by the rivers of bubbling magma and furious rain of burning rock plummeting from the sky. Even tinier figures in the middle distance have probably had it, no-name extras hired to scream and be anonymously buried or swallowed up by the roiling and rifting landscape.

This aestheticisation of disaster, offered up as thrilling spectacle, is later reflected upon in the dark photographic prints of Tacita Dean. The title of the series included here, The Russian Ending, directly invokes the cinematic quality of such images. It refers to the alternate cuts of films which distributors produced for Finnish and Russian markets. The latter emphasised more fatalistic, doom-laden conclusions, which they evidently thought would suit the Russian mindset. Dean’s beautifully reproduced images of shipwrecks, polluted cityscapes, battlefields strewn with the shells of bombed out vehicles and, indeed, erupting volcanoes are shaded in a sooty chiaroscuro, as if they were ingrained with smoke and ashes. Scrawled descriptions over various elements of the scene add to the impression that these are directed disasters, carefully staged and photographed for the pleasure of the viewer.

Rachel Whiteread also capture the moment of destruction, of ruination, in her series of photographs of high-rise estates being detonated. The titles include lengthy addresses, including postcodes. There are shots of the buildings in an intact state at the time at which they were condemned. They are like pre-ruins, the undocumented time inbetween a steady decline towards final dramatic collapse in dynamite clap and brick dust cloud.

Back in the introductory atrium, Jane and Louise Wilson’s Azeville (2006) and The Aftermath are large black photographs in which massive concrete bunkers, remnants of wars and occupations, fill the frame with brooding, ominous intensity. They are linear cliffs and outcrops, geometrically sheared formations which seem to form new landscape features. The incursions of nature into these man-made structures, in the guise of weathering, the drifting of sand, the mottling of moss and lichen, and the fringing of grass and weeds, begins to blur the boundaries between the natural and the artificial. They are like blocks of frozen time, deposits left by a particular historical moment. Despite their apparent indestructible solidity, they are themselves subject, as is everything, to the processes of time.

Paul Nash - Equivalents for Megaliths
Other artists also explore the congruence of the natural landscape with monumental human constructions. The works in the section titled On Land (presumably a reference to Brian Eno’s ambient evocation of fogbound landscapes) conjure up the spirit of place, the absorption of the marks of human history and presence into the contours of the land. Such marks respond to the landscape even as they shape it. Nature always triumphs in the end, steadily growing over and covering human endeavours to hold the cyclical processes of growth and decay at bay. Ruin and disaster create a borderland in which civilisation and the wild reconnect with each other amongst the rubble. The ancient landscapes of the south are invoked in Paul Nash’s Equivalents for Megaliths and Pillar and Moon. The surreal transformation of the harvest fields in the former suggests and affinity between the human imagination and certain landscapes, a profound sense of connection and attachment. Megalithic stone is here replaced with less substantial grids and rolls, suggestive of geometrical harvest stacks. They look like ideal forms, plans waiting to be given substance with the appropriate material. They are templates for the shapes and objects appropriate for a particular place and time, whether that be harvest stacks or sarsen stones. The harvested shapes will decay much more quickly, or be summarily dismantled. Time for these equivalents is considerably more constricted. The stone globe topping the wall pillar in the latter painting echoes the moon’s sphere in the sky above. The built landscape and the natural cycles are linked, the ruinous processes of time once more invoked. Time is inherent in both paintings: seasonal time, historical time and geological time. Megalithic sites have become so much a part of the British landscape, permanently inscribed onto the contours of OS maps, that they appear as an expression of it; Ruins which have come to seem like expressive natural outcroppings of the land.

Joe Tilson - Wessex Portfolio (Avebury
Joe Tilson also uses the ancient landscape of southern Britain as the basis of his Wessex Portfolio series. With their stacked arrays of photographs and graphic images, associatively linking into boldly iconographic representations of Stonehenge, Cerne Abbas, Silbury Hill, the White Horse of Uffington, Avebury and Glastonbury, these attempt to codify the power of these sites. Details such as spiral patterns (the inwardly coiling pathways of the brain), sketches of archaeological finds, starry backdrops and drawings of moths and bees give a particularity which contrasts with the specific view, focussing inward or beyond and bringing individual vision or universal perspective to bear. As a whole, they offer some kind of diagrammatic distillation of the affective spell of these places. They have gone beyond the notion of the ruin and have become part of a collective inner landscape, one where the distinction between the natural and the artificial has been almost wholly dispelled.

Paul Nash - The Fertile Image (with Monster Field on the cover)
Paul Nash further explores the surreal quality of the southern English landscape, and the presence of man within it, in a series of his photographs included here (some of which were also published in his 1951 book Fertile Image). Human artefacts and tools become strange and purposelessly abstract when stranded and abandoned within natural surrounds, or within wilds which have grown up around them. They become markers of boundary zones between the wild and the domestic, exterior and interior worlds. Iron Post, Bedhead and Stone Wall in particular points to the borders of unconscious dreamworlds with its particular assemblage. A garden roller is a potent symbol in its ruinous, rusted state. A tool intended to control and tame wild nature, it is now subject to its erosive forces. Nash’s fallen tree monsters indicate the ways in which ruinous natural forms arouse the active and alert imagination.

John Sell Cotman - Llanthony Abbey
Paintings of picturesque ruin often fixed upon the shattered shells of monasteries as their objects of fascination. Llanthony Abbey in Wales, set with a lush river valley, was a particular favourite, and views by Turner, John Sell Cottman and Joseph Clarendon Smith were included here. Leafy branch and vine cover patches of crumbling masonry, both furthering its eventual disintegration and helping in the short term to bind sections of wall together. The passage of time and history is made manifest and the irrevocable triumph of nature over civilisation is evoked. Abbeys were subject to deliberate ruination during the Reformation, and stand as symbols of the fragility of human ideas, beliefs and social and political structures. No matter how fixed and unassailable they might appear at any given moment, they will eventually fall.

Elswhere, the idea of the picturesque and the mystical sense of identity attached to the British landscape, along with the dreamy and uncritical veneration which it can arouse, are satirised. Keith Arnatt uses the acronym AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) with maximal irony in his series of photographs from 1982-4. He studiously avoids picturesque scenes, seeking out what lies behind or just beyond such carefully framed compositions. The workings behind the stage sets, so to speak. His countryside is grubbily mundane and poverty-worn. Human incursions into the natural world are not depicted as harmonious or romantic. They are despoliations, falling into a ruinous and rubbish strewn state which no one is likely to linger and admire.

John Latham’s Five Sisters Bing (1976) is a highly artificial landscape whose pyramidally peaked mountain range is formed of leather-bound books whose covers are redolent of classic literature, and whose bedrock is a bound edition of a year’s copies of The Times. An establishment landscape to be imposed on the spoil mountains left by departed industry. The very idea of a monument, for which this was a proposal, is mocked, the motives for its construction viewed with the greatest suspicion. David Shrigley, meanwhile, erects an instant prefab mini-leisure centre on the site of demolished Victorian housing, an amusing satire on reflexive 'redevelopment'. There is a serious point beneath the surface titters. Organised leisure will be the new currency in this street where people once organised their own communal activities.

Graham Sutherland - Devastation 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse
War is a time of rupture and upheaval, and creates its own instant overnight ruins. The shock of familiar buildings and cityscapes transformed with such sudden violence provokes an effect of surreal dislocation. British artists of a surrealist bent adapted their eye for strange and psychologically resonant transformations and realignments of the normal world and trained it on scenes in which that safe normality had been savagely blown apart. Surrealism during wartime becomes closer to realism, the surrealist’s attraction towards destruction guiltily fulfilled. Graham Sutherland, in his Devastation 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse, finds his characteristic fusion of natural and mechanical forms in the exposed rolls of paper. Stacked on top of one another and exposed to the elements, they look like the stripped trunks of felled trees mournfully laid out amongst broken machinery. In Muirhead Bone’s Torpedoed Oil Tanker (1940), the gargantuan vessel resembles a beached leviathan, the efflorescent rent in the side a killing wound. Metal has been bent and flayed, peeled back like hard, leathery skin. In John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex (1940), bomb damage to the tower has revealed a structural cross-section, as if we were looking at an architectural illustration. The damage here is very neat and precise. It could almost be a part of an act of reconstruction rather than destruction. John Piper’s St Mary le Port, Bristol records the jagged masonry bones of one of the city’s churches in much the same way as he painted the ruins of country mansions. Another Paul Nash photograph, taken at the Cowley Dump in Oxfordshire in 1940, gazes upon a cresting slope of wrecked airplane husks and dismembered parts. It form the basis for what is probably his best-known Second World War painting, which found him in full-blown surrealist mode: Totes Meer (Dead Sea) of 1941. The jumbled assemblage of aircraft parts displays an angular modernist fragmentation, here recorded as observed reality rather than formal abstraction, however. It looks like the result of a monstrous collision. The twisted metal precariously piled up in grinding disarray is darkly radiant with the violent spirit of death and destruction; that of the planes, their crews and of the destruction which they in turn had wrought. It is an instant, discomforting and unheroic monument.

John Constable - Sketch for Hadleigh Castle
The last of the introductory pictures in the exhibition’s atrium was John Constable’s Sketch for Hadleigh Castle. The ruin here is stridently Romantic, a lonely tower under rainswept skies by a storm-troubled sea. The unfinished nature of the picture gives it a rough form which proves entirely apposite for the mood of the scene. Though never intended to be viewed as a work in itself, it is nevertheless unconsciously modern in approach. It anticipates the way in which other works in the exhibition convey a ruinous aspect through rough, unrefined form; compositions left deliberately ragged around the edges, dissolving or thickening into semi-abstraction. JMW Turner also anticipates modern styles in his watercolour study Holy Island Cathedral. The ruined arch emerges from hazy and watery blue surrounds like some sunken Ys rising from the depths. We can imagine the picture accompanied by the tolling of Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie. Turner’s Temple of Poseidon is another Romantic clifftop ruin of the imagination. Its tempestuous roughness and noisy drama, with violent clouds gathering, stabbed through by a gash of lightning, has none of the classical equanimity its title might suggest. The gathering storm suggests that the process of ruination is ongoing, and the dogs howling out across the building waves mourn for their lost master.

JMW Turner - Holy Island
John Piper’s paintings of dilapidated country houses often have the look of collages, or broadly outlined stage sets. Flat masses of masonry facades are set off against highly contrasted backgrounds, the muted or darkly burnished colours suggesting burnt surfaces or age-accumulated patinas of lichen or moss. They are evocative backdrops in front of which stylised and fancifully costumed masques seem designed to unfold. The Forum (1961) sees him adopting the subject matter of the classical Roman ruin. He pushes the composition towards abstraction with splashes, dabs, dashed strokes and tangles of scraped swirl. Shapes suggestive of classical architectural form rise from or are imposed upon this chaos, remains of the old city amongst rubble and scrubby growth.

Leon Kossoff - Demolition of the Old House Dalston Road 1974
Leon Kossoff’s Demolition of the Old House Dalston Road 1974 is almost topographical in its roughness of form. Paint is built up in thick layers like dried ridges of mud. The picture could almost have been created from the mixed dust and debris of the site it depicts. Scores in the paint further the sense of geological formations, resembling weather cracking beginning to shear and fragment the surface. It’s a cousin to Frank Auerbach’s Maples Demolition Euston Road, painted in 1960, and which employs a similarly thick layering of paint to create a gnarled and glutinous dimensionality. Laura Oldfield Ford’s meticulously drafted depictions of post-war housing estates and their boundaries are smeared with blurred washes of pink in what at first appears a deliberate act of vandalism. These translucent surface blemishes resemble marks of attempted erasure, the traces left on walls after graffiti has been washed off. But scrawled screeds stubbornly remain written across areas of the paintings, commentaries, observations and clouds of drifting thought and emotion made manifest. The writing on the paintings is not defacement, rather it is an attempt at giving the local spirit expression.

In the case of Tacita Dean’s film Kodak, the medium is in itself the substance of ruin, or of the abandonment which presages ruin. It documents an ending, a moment of historical and cultural transition. These are the final days of the Kodak film manufacturing plant, and part of Dean’s film is printed on the last black and white 16mm stock to be produced there. It thus becomes a record of its own obsolescence and disappearance, a last spectral testament. The beauty of the images make this a melancholy farewell, an elegy to the passing of a particular form of vision from the world.

Piranesi - Pyramid of Gaius Cestius
The first pictures greeting the visitor as they entered the main body of the exhibition weren’t by British artists, and therefore seemed set a little apart. They were essentially more introductory works, prefatory images which primed us further for what was to come. They were two of Piranesi’s prints of Rome. They were placed by the entrance to the first room because of their formative influence on the development of an aesthetic appreciation of ruins. The 18th century Views of Rome depict the classical buildings in a detailed and clearly delineated fashion, outlines boldly etched and impressed on the paper with black ink. They bring a sense of solidity to the cracked, crumbling and vine-blotched masses of the Colosseum (1760-78) and the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius (1755). A degree of classical order and proportion is maintained, but tempered with the disorder of ruination and the reintroduction of a nature formerly held firmly at bay. There is a state of balance in place, but it is temporary. The Piranesi etchings set the templates for visions of cities and civilisations decaying and passing away, leaving evocatively empty shells to spark the curiosity of future travellers who look upon them.

Gustave Doré - The New Zealander
There was a subset of pictures here which imagined the abandoned ruins of futurity. These are the cityscapes of post-catastrophe science fiction which have fascinated writers, artists and, latterly, film-makers from the Romantic period onwards. In 1872, Gustave Doré provided dark and richly atmospheric engravings for London: A Pilgrimage, a travel book written by Blanchard Jerrold. The final plate is called The New Zealander. It depicts the future wanderer seated on a chunk of masonry from the collapsed London Bridge on the south side of the river, looking across at the ruins of the city. The dome of St Paul’s has collapsed inward; the cracked or fallen dome is a commonplace in depictions of future ruin. As an overarching symbol of ordered and classical civilisation and achievement, it is the perfect subject for significant destruction and continued disrepair. Jerrold locates the source of the imaginary scene in ‘Macaulay’s dream of the far future, with the tourist New Zealander upon the broken parapets, contemplating something matching “the glory that was Greece – the grandeur that was Rome”’. Thomas ‘Lord’ Macaulay’s quote about the New Zealander was instantly familiar to many at the time. At the conclusion to a book review in an 1840 edition of the Edinburgh Review, he had contemplated the continuation of Roman civilisation (the book in question was a History of the Popes) and the fall of the post-Reformation English protestant society. It was in such a context that he dreamed of a time when ‘some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's'. It was an image which caught the imagination of the reading public, long after the substance of the review was forgotten, and was widely, even profligately cited. The New Zealander became a byword for a future observer of fallen London. Doré’s print looked forward to look back to Piranesi’s etchings of Rome.

Joseph Michael Gandy - An Imagined View of the Bank of England in Ruins
Future ruination or abandonment became a part of a number of works of fiction in the 19th century as the industrialised city exploded outward and swallowed people up wholesale with a smoky belch. There was an element of wish-fulfilment in Richard Jeffries’ After London, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, William Morris’ News from Nowhere, H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine (with its emblematic scene set in a crumbling future museum), and M.P.Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud. The destruction of the new polluted, overpopulated cities offered the possibility of new beginnings, the envisaging of a wholesale change of direction. When the architect John Soane designed his classically solid and rational Bank of England buildings, he commissioned the artist Joseph Gandy to depict them as future ruins, his domes and ceilings cracked and holed, letting in the elements to complete the levelling. It was an act of humility in a profession which can easily breed megalomaniac vision and vaulted hubris. But it also acknowledged the impermanence of the civilisation for which this symbolically massive and imposing structure served as a modern temple. This too shall pass, he seems to be saying, as the same time recognising the transience of his existence and the eventual disappearance of all the ideas and endeavours which made up and gave purpose to his lifetime. Perhaps it was this melancholy awareness that led him to collect, hoard and catalogue so many pieces of ruined masonry and statuary. He filled every nook and purpose-built shelf of his London house with them until he was effectively living in a crowded museum of his own curation. The house really is a museum now, and an utterly bewitching one at that, particularly as dusk draws in.

James Boswell - The Fall of London: The Horseguard
James Boswell’s The Fall of London (1933) is a series of smokily smudged black and white lithographs depicting the fight for the city during a fascist invasion. It gives alarming substance to the fears (or for some, the hopes) arising from the spread of fascism across the continent. They are a contemporary variant on the tales of German invasion which were widespread during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the best known of which is George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking. A collection of these stories was gathered together by Michael Moorcock in the 1977 anthology England Invaded, which includes Blyde Mudersnook’s 1911 Strand tale When the New Zealander Comes – a fulfilment of Macaulay’s prophetic imagining. Boswell’s stark, graphically striking images are startling bleak. Human beings are reduced to ragdoll figures cast broken-limbed onto piles of rubble or hung crook-necked from lampposts, scuttling, crablike creatures in armoured carapaces, pointed guns like gesticulating claws, or fearful shadow runners, hunched, tensed and showing a flash of a face alert with blank paranoia. They are vaguely reminiscent of David Lloyd’s artwork for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta (the monochrome version as originally published in Warrior comic), for which these lithographs could be viewed as a prelude in 8 snapshots.


Visions of the future themselves become outmoded and redundant, and looking back on them is like contemplating the ruins of futures past. This is what Gerard Byrne does in his video piece 1984 and Beyond, which restages a 1963 discussion between 12 science fiction writers, the results of which were published in Playboy. They attempted between them to envisage possible futures. The writers involved were among the cream of the 50s generation who prided themselves on their awareness of the social and political currents of the time. They were pulp philosophers possessed of varying degrees of insight. Some of their ideas are interesting, some are definitely of their time. The writers in question were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, A.E.Van Vogt, Algis Budrys, Theodore Sturgeon (one of the more liberal members of this group), Frederik Pohl, Rod Serling (the Twilight Zone writer and producer), James Blish (who had a rare intellectual rigour) and Poul Anderson. There is a faded nostalgia inherent in such a resurrection of old dreams. A yearning ache for a time when the future was an exciting prospect, full of rapidly expanding and seemingly limitless utopian potential; a future which could be born from the minds of a convocation of pipe smoking science fiction writers.

The works in the final room, Cities in Dust, drive the nails into the coffin of any such post-war utopian dreams of shining ziggurats and coiling skyways. John Riddy’s London (Weston Street) from 2008 focuses on an expanse of brickwork under a railway bridge. It seems to contain a chronicle of London’s steady decay from the mid-Victorian era onwards, written in the gradations of grime, weathering and mould, as accurately decipherable as the rings in a tree or the strata on an exposed rockface. The agit-prop art group Inventory find the decline of post-war social ideals symbolised by the worn, peeling surface of a South London housing estate map sign. They wrote their own response onto it, an angry palimpsest decrying the neglect which the ruinous map charts. Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London photos, taken between 1977-2008, view the city as a depopulated zone, abandoned by its populace, or perhaps evacuated by official mandate. It is devoid of apparent life. If there are people here, they have retreated behind their walls and are peering anxiously between the gaps in the curtains, like the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor. It’s a post-punk vision of future catastrophe now, with the city as imagined by Derek Jarman in Jubilee or by Michael Moorcock in various Jerry Cornelius stories.

Keith Coventry - Heygate Estate
Keith Coventry’s Heygate Estate (1995) redesigns the estate map as a piece of Russian constructivism, echoing the suprematist extremes of cold abstraction to which Kazimir Malevich pushed his paintings. It plots the birth and death of modernist ideals and approaches. There is an implicit criticism of the way in which human social and individual needs were abstracted and compacted to fit the mass housing projects of the post-war period. Just as the idealism of the Russian revolution descended into totalitarian control, so the ideals of modernist housing plans and their attendant social programs tended to devolve into failing systems of control. Coventry’s work serves as a fitting end point for the exhibition. The representations of ruins we have seen have largely been palpably physical. But ruins can equally be the rubble and wreckage of ideals, philosophies and once firmly held worldviews. The salutary lesson of the ruin is that nothing lasts, all is transient. It’s a knowledge which is melancholic, but which can also offer great comfort. Everything changes, everything is renewed. In this realisation lies the curious pleasure, lustful or not, of the ruin.