Isca Obscura by Tundra*
The group of artists who go by the name (and asterisk) of Tundra* have created a son et lumiere fantasia for this year’s Animated Exeter festival. It recasts aspects of Exeter’s history as dark myth, a recurrent tale of death, destruction and resurrection written in light upon the stones of the cathedral. These stones themselves are a blend of geological and human time, quarried from the bedrock of Beer, near to the sea, and fashioned into a monumental ark, a temple to both god and nature (there are many green men and foliate carvings insided), by medieval masons. The first projected images bathe them in the scintillant glitterball drift of stars and the girdling orbits of planets. A pyramid shape containing a geometric patchwork of colours hovers below – a prismatic power source refracting light into creation and editing the stories which subsequently unfold. Let there be light, sound and colour! This sets what follows against a backdrop of cosmic scale, lending the violent sweep of human history a fated aspect, shadow play acted out under the influence of higher powers or mechanisms. The music which accompanies the animations is composed by Beth Gibbons, Portishead’s singer, although its restrained, folkish feel has more in common with the album she made with ex-Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb as Rustin Man. It’s loping, minor key piano loop evokes the slow and effortful passage of time, whilst Gibbons’ melancholic croon creates an atmosphere of remote ethereality, as if other eyes are watching the affairs of man from afar.
Woodcut waves (which resemble those designed by Stanley Donwood for the cover of Thom Yorke’s Eraser LP) billow and swell, carrying a monkish figure across the sea (possibly St Boniface sailing off to convert the heathens of Germania at the hard end of his crook). The seas then bear the Danes across to England, the bright red of their sails’ stripes portending bloodshed. Red and green are the two colours which are used in what is otherwise a monochrome projection. At times the arched windows are stained with red or green light which glows from within. It’s as if the cathedral itself pulses with animal or vegetable life, flushed with blood or chlorophyll. Battles rage against the grey walls, black figures outlined against fields of red. Slashing swords transmute into piercing pikestaffs as the Danish invasions morph into the internal conflicts of the Civil War. Above the de-individuated mass of humanity fighting below, two godlike figures loom: a beaked and taloned griffin and a stag-antlered beast of more ancient provenance (the god of the pre-Roman inhabitants, perhaps). They are locked in an endless, archetypal struggle, a Harryhausen clash of the titans which is an emanation of all the human conflicts over which these giants tower. They are reminiscent of the bullish demon rising above the plains across which panicked people flee from the approach of war in Goya’s painting The Colossus. The silhouettes of planes and bombs flock across the face of the cathedral in symmetrical formation, intercut at first with the earlier conflicts, which become one re-emergent eternal conflict. The bombs fall and the cathedral is once more bathed in red, this time the flickering, burnished colour of fire. The planes extend talons from their undercarriage, the griffin taking on a modern, technologised carrion carapace. There are brief flashing interludes between the wars and battles, dazzling bursts of synaptic overload whose content can only be subliminally intuited on a subconscious level. Kaleidoscope time is being seismically shaken by the watchers (and projectors) into new historical configurations. Occasionally, an oblate area of darkness, seemingly possessed of a shadowy, low-level intelligence, spreads its oleaginous, negative form to envelop the projections. An entropic non-entity which threatens the death of light, the end of everything.
From the faceless masses of clashing armies, our focus is narrowed down to a more individual, small scale local legend: that of the subsequently sanctified Sidwella, the good daughter of a Saxon estate owner. Her evil stepmother took violently against her, and promised a group of field labourers a handsome sum if they quietly got rid of her. Sidwella was inveigled into going out into the fields to bring the labourers food, and they murdered her with their scythes, cutting off her head. They tried to bury it amongst the stacked grasses, but it poured forth a stream of pure radiant light, and was soon discovered. In a similar fashion to the denouement of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a clear spring emerged from the place where her severed head had lain for those few nights. A giant Sidwella floats across the exterior of the cathedral’s nave, feet hovering above the ground and head almost reaching the buttressed roof, her hair flowing behind her in Boticcelli waves. The stepmother is a figure who could have emerged from one of the gargoyles gurning from the guttering. Her tongue winds out from her mouth like a long worm, introducing bright red hues once more, this time the colour of hatred, envy and murderous greed. It curls its way into the ears of the squat faced labourers, who grin idiotically at the prospect of the riches to come. Sidwella is posed against the Norman tower whilst the labourers scythe the corn. As the ripe heads are cut, so her head comes off.
It’s a pagan recasting of the Christianised legend, Sidwella becoming the Persephone figure, the queen of the corn who must die in order for the crops to be reborn. The Espers song Dead Queen now comes into my head to soundtrack my memory of this scene. Sidwella’s blood runs down the walls in thick rivulets which echo the waving strands of her hair, and soaks into the soil around the cathedral stones (we can imagine), seeping into the earth which bears its own planting of old bones. A skull now stares blankly out from the base of the Norman tower, its grin fixed and mirthless. Green shoots sprout from its bony pate, and oak leaves spread their spatulate fingers. The last remaining tree on the cathedral has been bathed in spotlit green throughout, providing a spectral counterpoint to the bloody red of human history and legend. Now the green extends across the stones, winding its viny way up the tower until it bursts forth in an efflorescence of life, forming a foliate head. Not a smiling, benevolent green man of jolly mien, but a personification of nature as pure life force, impersonal, irrevocacable and relentless. Sidwella’s sacrifice, her blood shed, brings forth new life, which is the old, old life, never disappearing but cyclically returning in new forms, and with new vigour. The Tundra* show ends, and returns to the beginning to go through the whole cycle again – eternally returning.
It really is an evocative and atmospheric experience, an overlaid collage of history and myth which can affect you on quite a deep level. The music is eerie and hypnotic and is the perfect accompaniment to the visual projections, and the whole thing is well worth 10 minutes of your time if you happen to be in Exeter over the weekend. It plays from 6.30 til 10 on the 19th and 20th of February.
(and you can now see a clip here)