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It was in the afternoon sunshine at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge that I first saw David Jones’s painted inscription Quia per incarnati in the flesh. In this eccentric work of painted calligraphy, with quotations from the Latin Mass crowding for space, each letter has its own life and character. When I had first seen it reproduced in black and white in Jones’s long, late-modernist poem The Anathemata (1952), ‘Quia per incarnati’ had looked like a stone carving recently unearthed from the deep past. Seen in Kettle’s Yard, however, it was clear why Jones considered his painted inscriptions to be his “own form of abstraction”: it looked like nothing I had ever seen before, ancient or modern.

Even though this Anglo-Welsh artist and First World War poet was widely acclaimed by the luminaries of his day, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Kenneth Clark, Jones has slipped into something like obscurity since then. Yet at times, among those who know of him, it can feel like Jones is a password or a secret key that grants access to untold revelations, treasures and insights. Say his name, profess devotion, and before you know it a lost print is being pulled down from a bookshelf, a memory is shared, a book finds its way into your hands, or a promise of some pilgrimage is made. There is always a story to be told about how and where Jones was discovered, because, with all the revelation of a religious conversion, Jones must be discovered.

David Jones, Quia Per Incarnati, 1945, Private Collection © The Estate of David Jonessmall

Quia per Incarnati, 1945

This month I had a review-essay published on Marginalia, for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of the new David Jones book, Vision and Memory. The review gave me the opportunity to read the book with a leisurely eye, to spend time with its detail, but also encouraged me to remember what it was like to encounter the work of David Jones for the first time. It was a nostalgic experience as well as a critical one. The new book is fabulous in so many ways; the reproduction of Jones’s work is like nothing ever published before and does justice to the subtle inflections of his watercolours.

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One of the most interesting things the new book taught me was how to map out my own David Jones tour of the National Gallery – finding unseen connections between the delicate lines and lucid colours of Jones’s watercolours and the work of the masters who I have also admired for many years, including El Greco and Rubens.

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Rubens’s portrait of Helene Fourment, and David Jones’s Aphrodite in Aulis (1940-1)

 

 

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At the end of last month an article written by Fran Allfrey and I was published in a special issue of Textual Practice, which introduced the work of the shortlisted and winning entries for the Creative Responses to Modernism Prize, 2015. It was a really rich opportunity to reflect on the curation of our medieval-modern book, A Gift for the Illuminated Sphere, and how the process of making the book related to our practice as researchers.

‘In her 1938 monograph on Picasso, Gertrude Stein described the experience of seeing the earth from an airplane:

I saw there on earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves, I saw the simple solutions of Braque, I saw the wandering lines of Masson, yes I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary, he understands what is contemporary when the contemporaries do not yet know it.

Just as the de-familiarising effects of Stein’s aerial view gave her new perspective on abstraction,  ‘A Gift for the Illuminated Sphere’ – a book curated and produced in response to The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition ‘Adventures in the Black Square: Abstract Art & Society 1915-2015’ – is designed to push the viewer towards a new mode of seeing. The juxtaposition of images from medieval visual, textual, and material culture and abstract art bring about a realisation that medieval art is as contemporary as the radical forms of abstraction conceived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As Deborah Levy said of the book, it ‘whips the rug from under modernity’s feet and destabilises it all over again.’’

 

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Nathan Coley’s Illuminated Sculpture, ‘You Imagine What you Desire’ in St Nicholas’s, ‘the mother church of Brighton’

A few weeks ago I headed to Brighton to cover the opening of HOUSE and the Brighton Festival for the Learned Pig. You can read the article on the Learned Pig here: http://www.thelearnedpig.org/edge-and-shift-brighton-festival-and-house/2403 And below are some extracts along with a kind of photo-journal.

IMG_20150502_195820Nathan Coley’s ‘Parade Sculptures’ in The Regency Townhouse

“We’re here at the University of Brighton Gallery on a tour of the Brighton Gallery and HOUSE commissions listening as Varda describes the piece as her “hymn to coloured-plastic”. Entitled Beaches, Beaches, it’s a celebration of the life of summer and all of the colours it proposes. A ludic homage to the bright paraphernalia of the “beach spectacle”, Varda’s installation resembles a half-remembered dream of some now-distant trip to the beach, giddily recalled as a hot explosion of colour and Vitamin D.”

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Rachel Kneebone’s sensual porcelain sculptures and texts

“A relict is “a surviving remnant of a natural phenomenon” and in Brighton and Sussex it’s found in abundance on the coastline in the pebble-dash piled up by the tides. As the voices of the workmen in Loomes’s video tell us: “the aggregate that we dredge up is quite often the end of a riverbed from the ice age. The aggregate won’t have seen the light of day for millions of years, one hundred and fifty million years or more.”

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Souvenirs – Brighton Rock

“Coley’s reflections on the “politics, people and place” of Brighton, which is, in his own words, a “nowhere made somewhere through an act of terrorism”, might make us wonder if the Brighton bombing isn’t the most pervasive “relict material” to survive in this seafront community.”

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A few weeks ago I was involved in a creative thought-experiment in which Anglo-Saxonists from King’s College London were invited to respond to the current abstract art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery ‘Adventures in the Black Square.’  In preparation for an event hosted by writer-in-residence, Caroline Bergvall, called ‘Adventures in the Illuminated Sphere – a meeting point between medieval culture and contemporary art’ we made a class trip to the exhibit and played with thinking medieval in a modern space. It required us to do the kind of close, superficial reading which would usually be discouraged: a reading of your own biases and interests into absolute alterity.

I thought about:

*Paper cultures/Textual Cultures

*Abstraction as a form of anarchic marginalia

*Language and script as a foundational pattern for visuals

The result of this thought-experiment was a vibrant and surreal evening for which Fran Allfrey and I produced a book of juxtapositions and uncanny reflections between the abstract and the medieval. Fran was responsible for the design and physical/digital making of the book, and we were both responsible for contributing ideas and concepts. You can enjoy the book on Issuu, it’s our gift to you.

A few weeks ago I went on a press trip to the Liverpool Biennial for the Learned Pig. You can read my article and review of the Biennial events across the city at the Learned Pig here. In this blog post I’ve included my own oral parable which focuses on the discovery of a mural painted by my relative in the beautiful Old Blind School building.

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This year the Liverpool Biennial’s constellation of exhibitions, events and curatorial side-shows are grouped under the title, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack.’ Whether you read the play of words as a joke, a surreal oral parable, or a maxim on the banal and the domestic: it’s easy to feel like the needle walking into the haystack when you begin your hopscotch across Liverpool’s art map or enter the labyrinthine, peeling corridors of the Old Blind School for the central exhibition.

The power to make you feel like the main protagonist in an oral parable, passed by word of mouth, needle-like, between the blackened terraced houses of Liverpool’s sloping streets, is the Biennial’s greatest achievement. It’s a clever trick and it sucks you in. So here’s my needle in a haystack story: read it, repeat it, pass it on to a friend, and then visit the Biennial and find a story of your own.

Every year the Biennial seeks out venues with their own local character and this time the historic Old Blind School has been chosen as the contextual and cultural backdrop. On the outside Liverpool is a city of quarry-red terraced houses and smoked-black brickwork, its tar dock-waters shrouded under grey, but the Old Blind School’s interior is a peeling palette of inexplicable pastel shades: lemon yellows, mint greens, soft pinks, baby blues and shades of beige.

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In 1791 the Liverpool School for the Blind was founded by local hero Edward Rushton and since then the building has transformed and regenerated itself many times. Over the course of a century this building has housed the Merseyside Police, The Trades Union Centre, a recording studio and performance venue for the young and unemployed known as The Picket, and most recently, the Theatre Resource Centre. The building is a fascinating palimpsest of Liverpudlian social history and testament to the city’s reputation as the pioneering home of welfare.

There’s a palpable sense, wandering the corridors of the old school, that if you scratched away at the walls you’d find living history beneath. For locals, the Biennial has brought an old, abandoned building back to life: giving people an opportunity to return to the institutional and radical spaces of the Old Blind School where they once worked, campaigned, plotted, picketed and even performed.

As a life-long southerner and occasional Londoner, I didn’t expect to find I had any place within this architectonic narrative. Yet looking up from amongst Peter Wächtler’s ceramic sea creatures I discovered a mural. A mural which was not a part of the official Biennial programme but a piece of the fabric of the building itself, a fragment of the city’s past. Like the needle who stepped into the haystack to discover a lost connection with the social and political history of Liverpool, I found that I was a part of the crumbling walls and chipped paintwork after all. The mural was painted by a relative of mine in 1986.

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My great uncle Mick Jones, son of the Garston-born Trade Union Leader Jack Jones, was a political illustrator and mural painter most famous for his work on the Dalston Peace Mural designed by Ray Walker. The mural in the dome of the Old Blind School commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool: it curls over the mint green balcony of the top floor with the rage and passion of 1980s political activism. The colours are vibrant and in wild, striking contrast to the polite neo-classical detailing of the rest of the building.

Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals, is depicted as the blind hopelessly leading the blind. There are towers of smoke billowing behind him, and the cranes and hooks which swing in and out of the warped mural seem to threaten to demolish the world around them, including the crumbling red brickwork of the Albert Docks. Beneath this post-industrial apocalypse the people march with their bright, rippling protest banners.

Marx lurks somewhere amongst the crowds along with a self-portrait of the artist himself, and recent family debates have also concluded that the fiery red-head leading the protest must be my great aunt. That statuesque red-head raises her arm to unleash a cry, the slogan on her t-shirt screaming out: ‘Give us a Future!’ This cry ripples across the painted surface of the domed mural, and by a kind of magical coincidence I suspect: the sonics of protest, dissent and disenchantment, echo across the city and the Biennial’s many venues.

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Sound carries and it is the sounds of political and social unrest which offer one of the most interesting threads for navigating the haystack. Attune yourself to a sound-map of the Biennial and you’ll have found a satisfying way in.

For me, the best of the acoustic offerings was the exhibition devoted to Liverpool’s oral poet, musician and painter, Adrian Henri, at the Exhibition Research Centre. Here rare video and audio archive footage evoke the sounds of radical Liverpool in the 60s and 70s. Henri’s words come to us slowly across the music, at times coloured with romance and at others, barbed with politics. Listening to Henri’s experimental lyricism, the sounds of Liverpool and the chiming of the Liverpudlian accent, the Mersey Sound, become richly musical and even sensual. Henri was a wordsmith of great skill and craft. It’s when the Biennial taps into the Liverpudlian local and particular, when it picks up the melody of the city’s sounds and passes them back to the visitor: that the events reach rhapsodic peaks of brilliance. It’s then that they have our attention: that we’re all finally leaning to listen in.

I catch the beginning of a final parable as I’m leaving. I overhear two scousers swapping stories about going to Henri’s spoken word events in their own Mersey youth, their voices ricocheting against the looped recordings. There’s another two needles, entering the haystack.

So now the question is (or the moral of the parable): how can we preserve the mural? Rumour has it that the Hope Street Hotel has acquired the Old Blind School and plans to convert it into luxury apartments, but will there be space for the mural in this new development? If anyone has any interest in helping to preserve the mural, or any ideas of how to do so, please leave a comment below.

Liverpool Confidential believed the mural stole the show: http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Arts/The-mural-that-steals-the-Biennial-show You an read more about the unique Liverpudlian history of the Blind Schools on the Biennial website where they have opened up a forum for swapping stories and memories: http://www.biennial.com/blog/2014/06/05/share-your-stories-an-iconic-building-brought-back-to-life Unite the Union has more detail about the historical figure of Edward Rushton and the history painted in the mural: http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

 

‘Most people collect something or other: stamps, butterflies, beetles, moths, dried and pressed wild flowers, old snuff-boxes, china dogs and so forth. A few eccentrics even collect disused bus tickets! But collectors of pebbles are rare.’ The Pebbles on the Beach, Clarence Ellis

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On Saturday I headed out to the Suffolk Coast on my first adventure for the wonderful online journal The Learned Pig. The Pig, with one interest for each of it’s legs, spans poetic subjects across art, thinking, nature and writing. My three trains to the (surely Saxon?!) Saxmundham, a single taxi to the Snape Maltings, a minibus to Orford, and then a ferry ride – all led me to Orford Ness for Anya Gallaccio SNAP commission as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. You can read my piece on Gallaccio’s installations and the enchanting, fragile ecology of surreal Orford Ness here, in the Story of a Single Rock.

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Here’s a little extract from the piece to tempt you:

‘Like many stories, this one begins with a rock, in fact one rock amongst many: the shifting shingle which geographically defines and continually redefines the salt marshes of Orford Ness. When contemporary artist Anya Gallaccio made her first trip to the shingle spit of the Ness, it was not the accidental sculptures of wire and curled sheet metal (rusted by salt-winds) which captured her imagination, but the stony beach desert on which they lie, abandoned like military driftwood.

When we arrive for SNAP on the National Trust ferry out to the Ness, our faces glittering with salt water spray, Gallaccio recalls the illicit exchange of a bag of shingle in Fortnum and Mason, miles away from the flat-lining whistle of the Suffolk coast. Back in the Snape Maltings a photograph records the forbidden transaction: a plastic bag of assorted rocks tied up with a paper label: “For Anya Gallaccio”.’

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The day involved the unlocking and discovery of stories from a whole host of interesting characters, both local and alien, so I hope to find a place for some of these moments elsewhere, and at another time. For now enjoy the accidental sculpture of some shingle and pulled up Yellow Horned Poppies:

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This is not quite a short story, more of an episode inspired by research, about sunshine, and life and love. I wrote this when I was writing two dissertations: the first on Virginia Woolf and Jessie Dismorr, and women re-writing London’s cityscape, and the second on the influence of Eric Gill on David Jones’ poem The Anathemata (any obscure, embedded references are mostly related to these).

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I’m finding it difficult to quieten my mind. I struggle to type and my whole body yearns for sleep, but the past few days of intensely working on my dissertation have wound me up to a heightened study fever.  I shut my eyes and feel only guilt that I am not working and then this strange undertone of panic that is larger than all that guilt and runs much deeper.  It comes over me now when the world reaches its most beautiful moments; as I close my eyes and tilt my face up to the bright, white, sharp sunlight filtering through the train window.  It is some deep wrenching pain about a future loss. Or perhaps it is a past loss. Every time I stop to consider life in its moments of most utter perfection, that fear returns.

Today I had lunch with Will. He was tired from his trip to Berlin and the sun and the beer made him quieter and softer.  Then I cycled in the sun to the station, the wind in my hair, white heat pricking the weighted parts of my body.

I listened to the conversation of some Cambridge students on the train, felt oddly involved, but all the while had the luxury of softly looking out of the window. Even Hatfield as we passed looked lovely, and it filled me with an odd joy to know that I recognised it; the strange tower of Tesco rising from the motorway.  With the fields and clouds all in sunlight, every new town looked like a place I would like to visit.  The sun puts everything in a brighter light, makes every detail perfect, memorable: a stunning shard of experience.

I finally made it to the British Museum.  People were littering the grass on Bloomsbury Square and I tried to think of Virginia Woolf, but tired and distractedly. Then I tried to focus upon Jessie Dismorr and her ‘London Notes’ as the columns of the British Museum came in to view.  But there were no orange parallelograms of sand, just students and tourists stumbling about those immense structures of stone.

I failed to get in to the Reading Room.  It has been closed to the public for three years, they tell me.  I didn’t think that I had any hope of wooing the staff with tales of my dissertation and my researching passion, and the airy, expansive white gleam of the foyer offered no access to higher authorities.  I sort of idly tripped about the museum instead; attempting to follow in the footsteps of Eric Gill and the mythus of David Jones.  I saw the Greek and Roman inscriptions, the Nereid temple, the Cycladic figures.  I glanced at some rudimentary bowls without the belief that they would be relevant.

Then Sidney came and saved me from the realisation that I did not have as much to see as I believed. He was reading on a little fold-up chair under the semi-transparency of the glass of the Great Court: he looked like an invigilator and that made me smile. Perhaps I will pass by some exhibitions on my way home, perhaps.  Although I have this suspicious feeling that I won’t be feeling any less tired.

We drank two pints each at The Plough and everyone assumed we were a couple.  I got a little tipsy and we talked about too much as always.  I feel his jealousy and his dismissiveness when we talk about Will.  I feel this thing between us which we did not resolve and here it is still. I feel it now, it may be foolish and have been encouraged by drunken conversations, but I feel it.  It confuses me, and yet I think we will carry on despite it.

When I said goodbye I hugged Sidney a second time and wished him good luck.  What a stupid thing to say.  It gives me away.