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Review | Charlotte Prodger and Forensic Architecture — The Turner Prize Exhibition at Tate Britain

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Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. Single channel video with sound, 32 minutes. All images courtesy of the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London. Video still.

In The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Allucquére  Roseanne Stone discusses how our consciousness is altered by the way we’re immersed in technology. For Stone, technology recreates representations of time, space and being. She believed that virtual environments allow the terms self and body to mean different things, legitimising multiple forms of identity and subjectivities.

Stone’s idea of disembodied subjectivity lies at the heart of Charlotte Prodger’s film Bridgit, winner of this year’s Turner Prize on show at Tate Britain. For the first time in the Turner Prize exhibition’s history, all the artists have used film and digital imagery to explore social and political issues. Prodger’s voiceover in one of the closing scenes of her 32-minute film says:

“I’m on an Island reading things Sandy Stone wrote in 1994 about virtual systems theory, technology as prosthesis, and how a disembodied subjectivity messes with whereness.”

Technology as prosthesis foregrounds Prodger’s film, which is shot entirely on her smartphone. The footage moves between Prodger’s home in Glasgow to locations in the Scottish Highlands, following events from Prodger’s life as she attempts to free her queer identity from rigid societal rules and gender binaries. By placing together various seemingly disparate narratives from her life and from history, the artist challenges fixed notions of female bodiedness and static notions of identity.

The film pits narratives of her exclusion and misgendering against narratives of various liberating states—a cat in a sun-filled trance, dropping acid, a post-operative world of anaesthetics, and the matriarchal world of nature and Neolithic goddesses. Through the lens of her camera, which becomes an extension of her body, we see a world where identities appear, disappear and extend into the shifting boundaries of technology and nature.

Bridgit takes its title from the Neolithic deity of the same name. In one shot of standing stones on the Scottish Highlands, Prodger’s voice-over references Julian Cope and his odyssey through megalithic Britain in The Modern Antiquarian:

“’Bang in the middle of the Great Mother’s heart,’ he writes. ‘That’s how it feels to stand in the sacred Aberdeenshire landscape.’
I was oblivious. At the time I was working as a care assistant at Inchmarlo House, a residential care home for the elderly near Banchory.”

Cope was fascinated by matriarchal Goddess-orientated cosmology of the Neolithic period, and believed it had been destroyed by the patriarchal warring culture of the Bronze Age. Prodger adopts this matriarchal myth, locating her fluid identity in the shifting boundaries of myth and nature. The film’s voice-over describes the fluid identities and multiple names of Neolithic Goddesses:

“Not only were they known by different names in different places, but they often had at least three different phases: old, middle aged and young, which were all known by different names in one place.”

Queer identity and technology—both of which are labelled unnatural in society’s dominant narrative—are blurred together as the camera becomes an extension of the body against a backdrop of natural landscape. The film is an act of protest in a world that says the artist is unnatural and doesn’t belong.

The artist resurfaces out of her operation, out of a world of nothing, to discover multiple selves. Her narrative voice-over says:

“Margaret, Deborah, Emear, Helen. Each are points in a moving grid. […] The undifferentiated chaos of organs and bodies contained within the infinite time/space rhythm was going on long before I was there. It was going on when I wrote this and when I recorded it and now while you’re listening to it.”

The camera lens blurs the subject’s location in times and places, and the relation between I and you is no longer reducible to a self. The moving grid, which we later see expanding over a shot of standing stones in a field, transforms its objects into evolving sites of identity, which are, like the grid, constantly expanding in their meaning.

The exhibition is an open room with four entrances into the dark. Letting another swallow me up, I find myself watching The Long Duration of a Split Second by Forensic Architecture, an investigative agency based at London’s Goldsmiths University. The film uses footage from a police raid in a Bedouin village last year which demolished the village and killed two of its inhabitants. It was shot by a member of an activist documentary film collective who was at the scene.

Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Installation View. Photo by Mark Blower.

Close to the body, but an eye that is not theirs, the camera records the movement, chaos and violence around them, plunging the viewer into a battle zone of shouting, gunshots and a constantly sounding car horn. Forensic Architecture, like Prodger, use technology to recreate representations of time, space and being. But their objective is far from foregrounding subjectivity. The film uses video and images in a 3D model to discover spatial and temporal locations and build a linear timeline of events.  In The Long Duration of a Split Second the objective is to challenge the police’s story regarding the deaths of the villagers, and uncover a violation of human rights.

Spectacles of violence break out and are interrupted, again and again, while forensic detail establishes the objective factual evidence. By placing Prodger alongside Forensic Architecture, which wasn’t intended as art, the exhibition challenges the viewer to rethink the role and limits of technology in the arts, and asks whether film can foreground subjectivity, objectivity or only something in between.

The Turner Prize exhibition, also including films by Naeem Mohaiemen and Willis Thompson, is on at Tate Britain, London, until 6 January 2019. For more information and tickets, visit Tate Britain.

Words by Molly Moss.


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Review | Krzysztof Gil: Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy has been Hunted at l’étrangère

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Installation view, Krzysztof Gil, Welcome to the Country where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted, 2018. Photo: Andy Keate, Courtesy of l’étrangère

On view at l’étrangère gallery in East London is the first ever UK solo exhibition by the Polish Roma artist Krzysztof Gil. Entitled Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted, the show takes as its point of departure the contested practice of ‘Heidenjachten’, literally – gypsy hunting – the legally sanctioned hunting of Roma people for sport that took place throughout Germany and the Netherlands from the seventeenth until as late as the nineteenth centuries.

 

Both legally and socially marginalised throughout their history, Krzysztof Gil’s family originates from the Burgetka Roma community who settled in the Polish region of Podhale in the fifteenth century – at a time when Roma peoples were dissuaded from following their traditional lifestyles for fear of severe punishment or enslavement. Their persecution was then codified in law, as the sixteenth century was marked by anti-Roma legislation passed by the then Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, which meant that any Roma individual captured anywhere throughout the imperial territory could be subjected to torture and extermination. In 1530, Roma were legally banished from England, and in 1540, from Scotland. An official sport in seventeenth century middle Europe, the ‘Heidenjachten’ were a form of public entertainment – organised by the authorities and often with cash prizes awarded for a hunter’s success.

 

Despite the at once horrific and disturbing nature of this practice, many Roma believe their ongoing state of persecution to be both inevitable and unavoidable. Tellingly, as the artist notes, in Roma culture, there is no reflection on history – it is as ephemeral and transient as their way of life. Whilst the history of gypsy hunting might exist in official records, its specific practice is not explicitly part of Roma self-awareness.

 

A diverse yet stateless population of approximately 9 to 12 million people, Roma people speak many languages, practice different religions and have varied customs. A culture that places great weight on language as a marker of identity, Roma traditions are passed down orally through the generations, through songs, stories and folklore that are contained within their community. When asked why Roma history was only spoken and not recorded in writing, the Romani poet and singer known as Papusza is said to have replied: “There is too much pain and too many tears in this history.”

 

As such, their lives do not exist within the narratives of mainstream European history (at least beyond the stereotype of mystical, exoticised poverty), and, importantly for Gil, nor in western art history. For obvious reasons, Roma are left out of the inherited histories that come from those with wealth and land – and the attendant development of visual culture that documents power and visibility.

 

Yet the experience of centuries of persecution manifests itself vividly, and for Gil, his objective is to document and retell these narratives of violence, and in so doing draw attention to their place within both historical and contemporary consciousness. As a fine arts student at the academy in Kraków in Poland, Gil’s teachers tried to convince him that his heritage belonged in the past, and that is was not an appropriate (read: contemporary) subject for his practice. In his work, then, Gil takes up this challenge: how to represent and reclaim these forgotten and often painful histories of displaced Roma people, in a way that is both relevant to his culture and authentic to his artistic voice.

 

At l’étrangère, the notion of being hunted has been used by the artist with powerful effect. The installation, entitled TAJSA Yesterday and Tomorrow (2018) is a shelter-like construction made from raw canvas, animal furs and fragments of wooden planks and connected with threads, ropes and bone glue – imitating the simple, humble and temporary houses erected by itinerant Roma communities throughout history. Stepping inside the structure is a visceral experience: the dirt floor (with soil transported from Poland) under foot, and pungent, animalistic smell assail the viewer’s senses. Inside the shelter hangs a traditional talismanic object made from human hair and wax, surrounded by a large panoramic tableau that, by the light of a slow-moving spotlight, teases out a procession of hunters, animals and human corpses, drawn with white chalk on a black background. More than a little disquieting, a pervasive sense of fear has been brought into the installation with claustrophobic intensity.

 

Gil’s cast of seventeenth century characters have been inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), in which Dr Tulp presents a public dissection to members of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. The drawings of the hunters’ trophy heap, which includes a deer, hare and bird, perversely resembles the aesthetisised paintings of the Dutch still life tradition.

 

Played inside the installation is a soundtrack that juxtaposes the remote history of hunted Roma people with Gil’s own family history and the contemporary moment. The sound component consists of a recorded conversation between the artist and his grandmother, in which she tells the story of her father, who was murdered in post-WWII Podhale after making remarks that called into question the quality of work of his Polish colleagues. His death was concluded to be an accident by doctors and the authorities, and the perpetrators went unpunished.

 

Gil interviewed his grandmother as part of his PhD project that researched Roma stories, at a time that coincided with his own increased public presence as a kind of poster boy for ‘good’ or productive Roma members of Polish society. The vitriol and vandalism with which his advertising likeness was met inevitably left Gil feeling wholly persecuted, a kind of modern-day gypsy hunt.

 

The period connections to the seventeenth century are obvious, yet it is also Gil’s sensitivity to materials – the fur, fabric and wood of the shelter, the ornate costumes of his figures – and their tactility that creates a link with the Baroque painting tradition, and what it asked of the viewer. In a reaction against the fixity, stability and feigned classical order of the Renaissance, Baroque painting wanted to grip its audience with theatrical extravagance, believing that art should communicate with direct and emotional involvement. In the second room of the gallery are Gil’s series of portraits in the style of the Old Masters, which overlay notions of self-commemoration and the transience of life onto the experience of the Roma.

 

In this exhibition, Gil presents a historical form of temporary accommodation in the gallery space – which has itself been packed down and transported, piece by piece, from Kraków to London, mimicking the peripatetic journeys of Roma people. The wider ramifications of the notion of shelter then links the past with the present, and to the millions of people around the globe who seek shelter in temporary accommodation; the transitory experience of migrants, the marginalised, and anyone made to feel unwelcome in their homes, whatever form they may take.

 

In Romani language, the ‘tajsa’ of the work’s title is a word that means both yesterday and tomorrow, a compressed conception of time that is significant within Roma culture and also provides a guiding structure for Gil’s installation. As he says,

 

“Romani language does not have separate words for ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. Instead ‘tajsa’ is used in different combination with other words to describe the notion of either ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. By taking ‘tajsa’ out of context, I treat it metaphorically, as an expression of the past and the future at the same time. History informs the future, and we still live with the consequences of the laws that were enacted in the seventeenth century.”

 

‘Welcome to the Country Where the Gypsy Has Been Hunted’ by Krzysztof Gil is on view until 5 January 2019 at l’étrangère, 44a Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3 PD. For more details visit l’étrangère. 

Words by Annie Carpenter.


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Review | Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti

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Shitstorm, Fernando Sdrigotti, Open Pen, 2018, £4.99

Among four equally alluring others, Open Pen’s new series of “novelettes” features Fernando Sdrigotti’s latest story Shitstorm, which delves into the unsettling nature of viral news and online scandals. His perceptive insights, coupled with often crude but amusing satire, lead one through a dizzying and chaotic cultural landscape that is disturbingly akin to our own.

Shitstorm follows dentist Walter Turner’s sudden fall from grace after slaying a protected lion on a trophy hunting expedition in the plains of Africa. Caught in the ensuing “shitstorm” facilitated by tabloid newspapers and Twitter, Turner’s actions are condemned by leading animal rights activists, celebrities, and the general public, whose fury seems to know no bounds as death threats quickly arrive at the Turner door. In his dirty ordeal of a narrative, Sdirgotti allows nobody to emerge favourably. The fury felt by outraged members of public may be the noble response; but is it genuine? Many quite rightly find the actions of Turner abhorrent and want justice for his crimes and deviance. Yet such outrage is consistently short-lived, as our attention is guided elsewhere to another “shitstorm” of momentary significance, which will likewise be ousted in days. As he says, ‘No one can focus on too many shitstorms at the same time, and we’re all still getting out of some of the recent ones… a racist cream ad where a black woman turned white after using the product, a body-shamming outdoors as by a protein shake company from Saudi Arabia, a pornstar who might have said something homophobic and was bullied until she committed suicide live on Periscope… there’s only room for one proper shitstorm at a time, because of all this, Dr. Turner starts to be forgotten. Saved by the bell.’

The satire takes on darker significance when the story inevitably considers the President of the United States, who seems to have repeatedly undergone shitstorms of increasing severity, and has repeatedly emerged unscathed. Sdrigotti quite frighteningly speculates on what could irreversibly take the President down in a familiar, but fatal speculation involving a porn-star threatening to release sexual information to the public. Yet even in this horrendous scenario, his loyal supporters remain adamant in their support and talk of something else to distract the opposition – or merely talk over them.

The book is a very crowded and noisy experience in this regard and emphasises the seemingly impenetrable position the President has established with vulgarity and bluster: ‘And then the President of the United States of America says something about this or that journalist. And then he says something about Muslims. And then he says something about gays. And then he says something about women… But something else happens and then something else. And someone says something, someone always says something, and then someone else says something else, and like that it goes on. And it goes on. And on. And on. And then the President of the United States of America gets re-elected for a second term.’

With the noise comes the smell. I mean this in no disparaging way; it is great testament to the book’s quality that it left me revolted by the images and thoughts Sdrigotti conjures: they aren’t pretty, particularly at the close. They left me feeling positively unclean, for I saw myself engaged in some of the practices Sdrigotti was parodying. I too have fervently pledged my support and my signature to petitions that I have since forgotten about. I remember distinctly feeling outraged by the killing of Cecil the lion a few years back (doubtless the same lion Sdrigotti is satirising), but only vaguely remembering the story when revisiting it here.

Another shitstorm must have caught my attention, as they still do today. Sdrigotti’s narrative left me with more awareness of the media manipulation we undergo, and encouraged me not to fall into their traps of clickbait and propaganda. It is thought-provoking and clever, and I would heartily recommend.

Words by Ronan Gerrard.


For more on Shitstorm, visit Open Pen.

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Review | Now, Now, Louison by Jean Frémon

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Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon (translated by Cole Swensen), Les Fugitives, 2018, pp.115, £12.00

Now, Now, Louison, originally published in French as Calme-toi, Louison in 2016, is a strange and very beautiful book. An unusual but very touching tribute, it is a poetic meditation on the life of the artist Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010) written by her friend Jean Frémon (writer and director of the Galerie Lelong & Co), but narrated from the voice of Bourgeois in her early years. It is published in its current form by Les Fugitives, who have done a beautiful job of packaging the book, and translated by Cole Swensen, whose work I will go on to talk about.

When I first read about the book I immediately wanted to read it, intrigued by whether it was possible to convincingly portray any famous artist in this method, let alone whether the voice of Bourgeois, one of the great female artists of the twentieth century, could be convincingly written by a man. But this book, drawn from letters, photographs, and conversations over many years, cannot be considered anything other than a triumph. Now, Now, Louison reads like a tapestry of Bourgeois’ mind, with Frémon’s deep personal relationship with the artist enabling him to effortlessly convey an intimate knowledge of not just her life but the flow of her thoughts and ideas as well.

Now, Now, Louison therefore is more like a portrait painting than the type of biography that we are accustomed to read, written instead like a tangential tapestry of emotion and intricate detail. It is a touching tribute from one friend to another, a much more personal form than biography could ever capture, and a truly innovative piece of work. Instead of having Bourgeois’ early life told to us we experience it through it her eyes and senses, being transported to early and mid-twentieth century Paris and New York, and immersed in her thoughts, internal monologues, and personal life. Due to his closeness to Bourgeois, Frémon as Bourgeois is more than believable, and the unusual nature of the prose creates the kind of alchemy in the imagination that is only provoked by a high level of invention.

Frémon’s writing, excellently translated by Swensen, creates a nuanced and balanced tone that reflects the depth of Bourgeois’ personality, from the firey criticisms of the artists Marcel Duchamp and Brancusi, to a more measured and reflective internal world where Bourgeois contemplates having children, and satirises other members of her family. The theme of spiders, often used as a trope in her sculpture work, is also explored in relation to representations of her mother:

“She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.”

Finally, it would be cruel to overlook Swensen’s role as translator to what must have been a very challenging book to translate — the spontaneous prose weaves between conversation and memory and aptly creates the atmosphere of not just a time and a place but a believable voice of a well known artist. Given the ambitious nature of the project, the collaboration is a great success, an experimental approach to biography and portraiture unlike many others you are ever likely to read.

Words by Robert Greer.

For information on Now, Now, Louison, visit Les Figutives.

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Review | Arkady by Patrick Langley

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Patrick Langley’s Arkady is the story of two brothers, Jackson and Frank, who are drifting.

They explore the city, a not-quite-London of abandoned offices, growing tent camps and guarded compounds. Then they take to the water in a reclaimed boat – the titular Arkady – in search of something else: a community, or a way of life.

This is a strange narrative, enriched by a poetic style of prose which gives as much time to observational detail as it does to characters and events. It is set against a backdrop of upheaval and polarisation: families are being moved out of homes, authorities are cracking down on protests, luxury flats in shiny towers are multiplying on the skyline.

At its core are the two brothers. Jackson, the oldest, is wilful, introspective; goes off alone on unknown quests. At times he can prove a less than convincing figure, especially when he is citing Foucault as a teenager. But he works. He is also a balance to Frank, who is straightforward, creative, and always trusting of his big brother’s strange plans.

The narrative comes in snapshots. We see the boys in adolescence living with Leonard, a relative or guardian, then as young adults contriving ways to survive in the city. We follow them all the way to the Red Citadel, a commune of people holding out against what seems to be the systematic removal of the poor.

Each chapter has the tone of a short story. It is deliberately elliptic, never quite giving us enough information about what is going on in the world of Arkady, nor many clues about what exactly has happened to leave the brothers adrift with no parents.

Some readers will be happy enough with this. Others – myself included – will at times find it frustrating. I confess I was too distracted trying to figure out some of the details that I could not fully enjoy the writing.

Nevertheless, Arkady taps into a contemporary taste for the speculative. It seems there has been an explosion of books set in dystopias and disaster zones. The best of these use catastrophised worlds as a mirror for the problems we are facing in our own politics and culture.

Langley achieves this by taking all the ugliness of urban living and cranking them up a notch: homelessness, police brutality, privatisation. You can hear the echoes of real events – the financial crisis, the London riots – haunting the pages.

But Arkady’s politics are not always clear. The brothers at its core are ambiguous, never quite siding with anyone but each other. Their boat sets them apart from the city which no longer welcomes them, but it also allows them to keep their distance from the Citadel. They are frustrated by the commune where everybody has different solutions to the crisis.

This is a bleak assessment of Britain’s ruptured social fabric, yet it is also a controlled, focused look at our closest relationships; the people we would die – or kill – for.

It is worth comparing Arkady to Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel The End We Start From. In both, London is struck by changes which feel cataclysmic without quite reaching full apocalypse. They hover around the edges of disasters we have seen happen in real life, flooding and rioting. But Hunter and Langley both shun the detailed worldbuilding of thriller-style speculative fiction. Instead they adopt a poetic approach which leaves more out than it keeps in.

We also get the sense in these two novels that the protagonists are not fully engaged with what is going on around them. Instead, they revert to a focus on insular relationships. Hunter’s topic is the bond between a mother and child, while Langley paints a careful picture of brotherly companionship. Both also give their characters a sliver of optimism at the end, hinting that life can be rebuilt when we hold on to those who are important to us in the face of disaster.

In a world where the news cycle can make us feel like every day is the end of the world, I think there is plenty of room for hopeful, poetic reckonings with dystopia like these.

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Review | Lee Bul: Crashing at the Hayward Gallery

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Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery, 2018 © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Mark Bower

Lee Bul does not make art that is designed to comfort you.

Her latest collection at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank is a culmination of thirty years work. To step through each room is to follow Bul’s journey as she has explored the pursuit of perfection—and its potential pitfalls—through the last forty years.

Crashing is designed to transport the public into ‘another place, another time’ and succeeds in this instantly. As you step into the first room of the Hayward, soft light is cast from within the corner. Civias Solis II projects reflected and fragmented patterns of light across the pale gallery walls. You are submerged into a dreamlike state wherein Bul has peeled back the shallow surface of our world and revealed what lies beneath, and what could be yet to come.

In this surreal echo of our world, you are immediately brought face to face with Bul’s reflection of the self.

Amorphous shapes hang from the ceiling and sit directly in front of the entrance doors. At first, they are barely recognisable as people, but then you see the arms, and legs, trying to drag themselves free from inside the pieces, which are from the aptly named series: Monster. Despite the grotesque shaping, these soft sculptures are tantric, and their fleshy palette suggests—as Bul intended—that there is a ‘vulnerability’ to being human.

If Monster is Bul’s representation of the natural self, Cyborgs (1998) reflects how people try to build an image of themselves. Reminiscent of ancient Greco-Roman statues and yet also of anime from the early nineties, feminine forms are suspended from the ceiling. Though they are all headless, they watch you and stand guard in their cartoonish, extra-terrestrial armour.

One of Bul’s inspirations is sci-fi, and in this is evident in this room and throughout the exhibition. In the late 20th century and especially after the Cold War, bright utopian ideas of the future captivated the world, which was desperate to forget the horrific past. Despite these glimmering, chrome covered dreams, Bul was sceptical of these notions of the future, and creates art which reflects that.

Though some of Bul’s paintings, sketches and videos of her performance art are displayed on the walls and available to listen and watch, it is through the medium of sculpture that I think Bul creates the biggest impact. Despite the different mediums and subjects, each work is still identifiable as hers. To walk into room three of the Hayward is the greeted by two geode-like structures—they are separate pieces, but both are heavily influenced by the politics of South Korea, during the late 20th century when Bul was growing up.

Black beads spill across the floor, before pooling in a highly reflective puddle. They appear to be flowing out of a block of ‘ice’, which gives the piece it’s quite literal title: Thaw (Takaki Masao). There is a photograph buried beneath the ice from which the beads seep out: it is a portrait of Park Chung-Hee, the former president of South Korea, who was supported by the US but created a very repressive regime. He was eventually assassinated in 1979, and the oozing black from this crystalline sculpture is evocative of blood.

The other piece which welcomes you to room three is Bunker (M. Bahktin).  A cave like structure that is interactive. When inside, visitors to the gallery put on headphones and are encouraged to make a noise—clapping, tapping your foot, clicking— through the headphones we hear the noises we make distorted and amplified. If you were to shut your eyes, it could be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you were in a vast space.

When you are in inside Bunker Bul warps the world around you, and subsequently momentarily alters how we see ourselves. When standing within the bunker, I was very conscious of the noise my clapping and clicking would make, disturbing the other guests. In this sense, the sculpture is aptly named—Mikhail Bahtkin was a literary critic and philosopher who claimed that our identity is directly correlated by our relationship with the world around us.

The exhibition continues upstairs, and as you reach the final two rooms there is a slight change in atmosphere. Downstairs, there are at least five to seven exhibits filling every space. Upstairs, the rooms are sparse.

Stepping into room four, I was immediately anxious— Bul is known for incorporating the gallery space into her exhibitions, and this is one such example. The entire floor was foiled with silver, and while I was stood in the gallery, I felt the strange sensation that I wasn’t supposed to be there.

The gallery attendant smiled at me, and yet, I felt like I was doing something naughty.

At any moment, I was expecting someone to catch me. To tell me to leave.

It is interesting then, that the title of the focal sculpture in the penultimate room is Willing to be Vulnerable.

For this piece, Bul has created a large foil zeppelin. The argent exterior and exposed seams are recognisable as being from Bul’s retro sci-fi field of inspiration. Zeppelins were once a symbol of great scientific progress and were the first ships to be used for commercial flight. The title, Willing to be Vulnerable, references the Hindenburg disaster, where thirty-six people died when an airship caught fire whilst trying to land in New Jersey.  

Willing to be Vulnerable is perhaps the piece which most clearly conveys Lee Bul’s exploration of the dangers of perfection.

Following the foil-covered floor, you are lead towards Via Negativa II. It is through the names of her pieces that you see the influence of philosophy behind her work. The largely introspective pieces—which literally forces the viewer to reflect on themselves and the gallery around them—draws its name from the theory that it is impossible to describe God in finite terminology; the human mind is too limited to say what God is, we can only truly describe what he isn’t.

This is the climax of the exhibition.

After exploring the ideas of utopia, one of Bul’s final piece forces the viewer to look back upon themselves.  A mirror labyrinth which is unsettling to walk through—after all, it constantly feels as though someone is watching you. There is no certainty as you follow the path, as Bul angles the mirrors to feel claustrophobic and bounce their own reflections from each other to give the impression of pathways where there are none.

But when you finally make your way through the maze, a room lies in wait within the centre. The seemingly endless rows of lightbulbs feel as though are a giant standing in between the golden stars of an infinite space—and a comforting warmth radiates through the enclosed space. Unlike the rest of the installations, this is a piece which instils hope.

Lee Bul’s artwork is a reaction to the world around her—especially that of life within South Korea and the experiences she’s faced a woman. As a formal end to the Korean civil war is in sight, and women’s rights are thrown into the spotlight, I am eager to see what Bul creates next.

Lee Bul: Crashing is running at the Hayward Gallery is running 30th May – 19th August 2018.

By Phoebe Hedges.

Review | Rainsongs, by Sue Hubbard

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Sue Hubbard’s Rainsongs has a unique and beautiful emotive quality that shines through its delicately constructed prose in a love-letter to Ireland, memory and parenthood, taking advantage of its mature narrator to speak with resonance and depth. In a contemporary world of instant connections, Rainsongs returns to an age just prior to the boom of social media – 2007 – in an exploration of what it means to be truly alone.

Rainsongs is a book filled with characters who are alone, by circumstance and by choice. Martha Cassidy has lost her husband and only son; twice-divorced Eugene Riordan and farm devotee Paddy O’Connell eschew relationships, finding they are happier living on their own. Accounts of community, large families, childhood friendships, are all recalled, dreamlike, from a distant past. Permanent loneliness haunts the narrative as a threat, but it is from solitude that the most beautifully haunting and thoughtful reflections in the book arise. Whenever Hubbard’s varyingly anthropophobic characters do enter a social setting, such as Eugene’s New Year’s Eve party, Brendan’s funeral, or the various local pubs, bars and restaurants, other people in the crowd are sketched accurately but unflatteringly, reduced to their worst.

However, as the supplies in Martha’s cupboard dwindle at the beginning of each chapter, the unsustainability of hermitage becomes clear. Paddy ends up in hospital by attempting to pull a heifer out of a ditch alone, an impossible task. Martha, despite her disdain for the pity she detects in all her interactions, is forced to ‘stay connected’ by the PhD student who rents her top room, and even out in the country cottage in the middle of nowhere finds herself mobbed by undesired visitors, local families, Eugene. It is impossible to stay alone forever, as the monks who travelled out to the Skelligs found all those centuries ago.

Estranged from and disliking most other people, it is through writing that Hubbard’s narrator first finds community. The intertextuality of Rainsongs is established from its very beginning with opening quotes taken from Woolf, Shakespeare and Irish proverbs, which inspire and in some cases structure and speak through the novel. Martha Cassidy cannot relate to anybody around her but finds a companion in Mrs Ramsay, and notes that despite her childlessness, Virginia Woolf ‘understood’ her loss. Similarly, she finds that Shakespeare ‘understands’ the utopian promise of a desert island in his Tempest. Although this promise of utopia, as of the trip to the Skelligs, is ultimately empty, Martha discovers the possibility of human empathy and companionship through text.

Brendan, perhaps the only extrovert described in the novel and hauntingly absent, is only present through the words of his remaining diaries and letters, which open up a previously closed side of himself to his wife. This allows her to connect with him in a way she never could when he was alive, revealing his secrets, and highlighting her loneliness even when she was with him. Her burgeoning relationship with the young Colm Nolan hinges around the reading of his poetry, again providing an elsewhere non-existent insight into his true feeling. Still grieving, complicatedly, for Bruno, Martha unconsciously seeks out a boy protégé in Colm, much as Brendan did – without her knowledge – in his lifetime. In continuing his mission of getting his poetry published, she is able to complete their foreshortened joint parenthood, relating to Colm as the adult that Bruno never became. Hubbard handles the development of their relationship so sensitively that the questionable circumstances of their intimacy – the age difference, Martha’s recent widowhood and maternal void – do not cast a shadow over their relationship, rather illuminating a pure, emotional connection. It is poetry that acts as the catalyst for this, as the publication of Colm’s work, dedicated to Bruno, effects a change in Martha, allowing her to finally achieve closure. Eventually, she is able to reconsider her future, deciding to build a life teaching English to young refugees, refilling her role as teacher; the element of selfhood that she has been completely without for the first part of the novel, existing only in relation to the deceased men of her life. When she finally returns to the Skelligs, she is not alone but accompanied by her healed memories of Bruno and her newfound human connections, again effected through her language.

The subsequent self-awareness of Hubbard’s own writing as a mode of release lends it an especially powerful emotive quality. Her noted poetic style brings a unique rhythm to her prose, well suited to the romantic descriptions of the Irish countryside, but she is also a gifted storyteller. The combination of endearing details such as Paddy having used the same comb since childhood, together with eye-watering descriptions of the new-money luxury spa that Eugene plans to build and a cutting turn of phrase that sketches a couple as ‘the director of a string of local supermarkets and his heavily Botoxed wife’ bring two very different realities together at once, painting a convincing portrait of pre-recession Ireland. Politics barely surfaces, just existing in the background as Republican flags wave in pubs and children wear orange, white and green T-shirts to watch a football game; Hubbard is more interested in the everyday lives of her characters, and drinking champagne instead of Guinness becomes a motif that is aware of its own ironies. Empathy for refugees past and present targets questions of compassion and connection more than it does government quotas, and the EU is a seemingly independent fluctuating circumstance in the lives of the locals.

Hubbard’s book is about city and country, home and identity, love and loss, but it is in its traversal of the shaky balance between solitude and loneliness that it finds its unique voice, and champions the role of literature in an increasingly disconnected modern world.

Rainsongs is available online and in bookstores now.

Leah Shaya

Extending the Range of Pejoratives: Howard Jacobson’s Pussy

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Written in “a fury of disbelief” during the weeks that followed the unlikely election of Donald Trump, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel Pussy dramatizes the education and rise to power of Prince Fracassus, heir to the Duchy of Origen, until he begins to preside over the Republic of Urbs-Ludus.

The plotline is minimal but engrossing thanks to Jacobson’s spirited, arch tone and the seemingly effortless elegance of his style. Before he becomes the hero-villain-rapscallion of the story, we are given to witness Fracassus as a feisty little brat. It comes as no surprise that his parents have spared the brains and spoiled the child. Fracassus spends his golden childhood guzzling reality TV shows and casting himself in the role of Emperor Nero.

Perceiving finally that their son is growing into a self-centred vulgarian, the Duke and Duchess worry that Fracassus will be unfit for power. To avert this unseemly outcome, they hire Professor Probrius, a former University lecturer who has fallen prey to the rising tide of political correctness in the duchy.

Some of the most delightful satire in Jacobson’s novel is written at the expense of the current trend for PC. During the Great Purge of the Illuminati, Probrius is debarred from teaching at University because he is so eminent in his field that a body of students complains that they are “distressed by the perceived distance between his attainments and their own”. He is found guilty by a Thumb Court of “cognitive condescension” and abruptly fired from tenure. It’s a highly amusing take on the current spread of student revolts against the intellectual challenges of dialectical thinking through debate and disagreement in both America and Britain.

Fracassus’s other appointed tutor is Dr Cobalt, chosen for her icy manners by the Grand Duke himself to rein his son in and prepare him for the dignified and clear-minded exercise of power. The prince’s two mentors attempt to expand his miniscule vocabulary and shepherd him towards more behavioural subtlety, with sometimes baffling results. Fracassus is no easy pupil, having what Probrius calls “Tourette’s, without the Tourette’s”. The syndrome the child Fracassus is afflicted with actually seems closer to coprolalia, the compulsive utterance of inappropriate or obscene words.

Over time, Probrius manages to expand Fracassus’s vocabulary to include words like “classy”, which he begins to use on practically every occasion that pleases him with increasing relish. Jacobson occasionally lets slip some of his own lexical knowledge and rhetoric into Fracassus’s later utterances, almost inadvertently it seems, since he is at pains throughout the novel to underscore Fracassus’s stupidity.

For a writer with so much verbal and intellectual panache, it must have been a strain to depict Fracassus’s impoverished mindscape. Anthony Burgess, another vastly knowledgeable wordsmith, succeeded in limiting his vocabulary to parody the debasement of contemporary culture for the space of an entire novel in One Hand Clapping (1961), a task which Jacobson would no doubt find excruciating, given his unstoppable love of the rhapsodic phrase.

It’s been argued that Trump is so excessive, such a living caricature himself, that he is beyond parody, but Jacobson manages to up the ante with skill and panache. His comic fairy-tale rendering of Trump as a child is hilarious and deeply engaging, providing what Jacobson in interview has called “the comforts of satire”.

Jacobson’s mental and physical caricature of Trump (“His natural movement is a forward projection of a sort I’ve only seen on a bewildered primate”) is entertainingly illustrated by Chris Riddell’s silhouettes of Trump in diapers trailing a Barbie doll or an over-long tie between his legs.

While Jacobson is adept at showing how Trump has managed to appeal to the values of Dumbocracy, it was arguably a little bit of an easy way out to dumb Trump himself down. Dismaying as it is, Trump succeeded in getting to the White House largely through his cynical ability to sense the Zeitgeist and claptrap the ordinary working class man accordingly. The most alarming thing about him is that he is crafty, adaptable and intuitive.

By Erik Martiny


Howard Jacobson, Pussy, Jonathan Cape, £12.38 (208 pages)

 

Bram Bogart at the Saatchi Gallery

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Bram Bogart at the Saatchi Gallery

SALON, Saatchi Gallery’s commercial exhibition space, launched earlier this year with a fascinating show by the post-war Japanese artist, Tsuyoshi Maekawa, and in keeping with its policy of staging museum standard exhibitions by historically important artists, it is now presenting the work of the Dutch-born Belgian artist Bram Bogart (1921 – 2012).

Staged in collaboration with Mayfair’s Vigo Gallery, the show is entitled Witte de Witte,and is made up of nine rare monochrome or near monochrome works executed between 1952 and 2006, which, taken as a group, illustrate the artist’s dramatic and unique contribution to the canon of modernist painting.

Bogart is an artist associated with thickly physical colour – the works for which he is best known are rendered in bright, primary colours, reflecting the enduring influence of both Vincent van Gogh’s painterly idiom and Piet Mondrian’s compositional experimentation on his practice. The nine paintings in Witte de Witte, however, demonstrate a sense of tonal restraint and maturity of practice. Presenting work from the breadth of Bogart’s oeuvre, the exhibition strips back his practice to its elements, and demonstrates Bogart’s technical development and achievement over a more than fifty-year period.

Born in Delft, the Netherlands, Bogart originally trained at a local technical school as a house-painter. After the end of World War Two, he settled in Paris where he became one of the founding members of Art Informel, a group of abstract painters who focused on expression and intuition rather than geometrics. Bogart first worked towards an all-white picture in a series of semi-representational paintings he completed in the South of France in the late 1940s. These works were a response to the light and dust of the Mediterranean, and also the chalkiness of local buildings. Using techniques learnt in his youth, Bogart approximated the walls’ rough matte finish by mixing poster paint to his oils and letting the paint peel off to suggest exposure to the elements.

One of the earliest works in the exhibition, Differentes (1954) demonstrates the ever-increasing weight of material, a tendency toward thicker impasto and a more aggressive facture that would become Bogart’s mature style. Meanwhile, Signes sur Blanc / Witte Tekens (1952), while smaller is scale is no less dramatic.

Bram Bogart, Differentes, 1954, oil on canvas.
Photo Vigo Gallery

This work symbolises the beginning of Bogart’s experiment with monochrome. Made primarily in shades of white and grey, the piece alludes to a hint of muted Parisian blue. Despite the lightness of colour, one can feel the weight of the painting visually, as materials have been layered one on top of the other to create three-dimensional structure. Its surface is dashed and dotted with indentations of knots, crosses and lines, marks that are paradoxically both highly structured and organic in nature.

In 1961, Bogart relocated to Belgium with his wife Leni, coinciding with the development of a new resolution of gesture and material in his painting. Friends with Lucio Fontana – with whom he shared the desire to expand the structural boundaries of modern painting – during this time Bogart also met Willem de Kooning, and his paintings acknowledged the all-over structure and expansive scale associated with American Abstract Expressionism. Like Jackson Pollock, after 1960, Bogart painted on the floor, using a mix of oil, siccative, powdered chalk, varnish, and raw pigment applied to heavy wooden supports to ‘build’ his works. When viewed upright, Bogart’s slab-like pictures hold themselves together in way that actively denies gravity.

Bram Bogart, Sunday Mornings, 2007, mixed media. Photo Vigo Gallery

Bram Bogart, Variété, 1961, mixed media. Photo Vigo Gallery

A painting from this period, Variété (1961), is a bold conflation of sculptural relief and painting, of excessive dripping paint and heavily applied concrete. The work maintains, however, the scale of painting and the restrictions of a square or rectangular support.

A much later work, Sunday Morning (2007), appears comparatively more serene. Its soft peaks of white paint applied in Bogart’s characteristic impasto are juxtaposed with smooth, even layers of the same colour. When asked in an interview to recall the motivation for his monochromatic works, Bogart described them in terms of respite from colour. As he replied: ‘At that time, making a painting in one colour, whether white, black or brown gave me a form of restfulness in relation to the other paintings.’ Vacated of chromatic distraction, Bogart’s monochromes are both indulgent – reveling in the matter of paint – and refined. As a whole, Witte de Witte evidences Bogart’s more nuanced approach to postwar painting, and as such is a welcome contribution to his appreciation.

By Amani Noor Iqbal


 Witte de Witte, Saatchi Gallery, closes September 10th, 2017

 

Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins

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The light, bright space of Enitharmon bookshop in Bloomsbury was filled with jostlings and murmurings as more and more people tried to fit into the crowded gallery space. A double book launch was underway. Stephen Romer was here to celebrate his anticipated Set Thy Love In Order: New & Selected Poems, accompanied by Alan Jenkins and his soon-to-be-published White Nights, which will be available in the US.

Alan introduced the evening, calling attention to the ‘beautiful volumes of poetry, and beautiful livres d’artiste’ that surrounded us, his peppering of French a preview into much of the evening’s francophone flavour. He offers thanks to Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s director, for hosting the launch of two books that are not in fact published by the press – although Alan’s earlier Enitharmon collection Marine, written in collaboration with John Kinsella, was on display – and praises the ‘resplendent’ Set Thy Love In Order. Rather than read for a long time, Alan explains, he and Stephen will ‘do two little sets of poems each. I’ll read for a little while, Stephen will read for a little while, I’ll read for an even littler while, so you don’t have the opportunity to start finding either of our voices monotonous’. And afterwards, he promises, there will be ‘more wine!’

White Nights, Alan notes, is a book that has taken ‘more than the usual temerity’ to publish. It centres on translations from French literature, although there are also poems written after Italian and Spanish writers. Some of these are poems that Alan has been ‘working on or thinking about for a great many years’, and when he was invited by the US publisher Stanley Moss to bring out a book, he thought of these translations. ‘I’m not going to start an argument about translation’, Alan declares, before noting simply that the poems he has chosen to work with are not ‘obscure’ and, in many cases, have been much translated in the past. He is, therefore, indebted to these earlier versions. The poems are ‘mostly love poems, or after love poems, or failed love poems, or longing love poems – and they’re all poems that I’ve loved since first reading them’. Some of these first encounters occurred when Alan was a student, aged nineteen, and his translation work often stretches back to this time.

At this point, the reading is interrupted as yet more people attempt to squeeze into the white interior of Enitharmon. There are clatterings of glasses, chatterings, offerings and refusals of chairs, until the room is stilled once more and Alan begins his reading with ‘Christ in the Olive Grove’. The poem is ‘designated after Gérard de Nerval, but it’s actually a much reduced version of his sequence of sonnets – I’ve translated just three of the sonnets’, Alan explains. His reading is slow and deliberate, with an occasional conversational lilt, and he stands with the book resting lightly in his hands, leaning casually against the bookcase behind him. Afterwards, he reads a compact poem based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘La Pipe’, answering requests from the audience for the page number. The mini-reading ends with ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht’, a poem based on a work by Paul Verlaine, but suggestive to Alan of Jules Laforgue. ‘I’m challenged and fascinated by this poem’, he says.

While the audience applauds, Alan deftly changes place with Stephen. Without pause, Stephen launches into a vervy performance of his poem ‘In the Sun’:

In the sun on my bed after swimming
In the sun and in the vast reflection of the sun on the sea
……….Under my window
And in the reflections and the reflection of the reflection
Of the sun and the suns on the sea
………..In the mirrors,
After the swim, the coffee, the ideas,
………..Naked in the sun on my light-flooded bed
………..Naked – alone – mad –
………………….Me!

‘That’s Valéry’, Stephen says with a bashful smile. He moves from images of a ‘light-flooded bed’ to a comment on the ‘flood of warmth I get from seeing all these lovely friends and colleagues here tonight’. Both Stephen and Alan are participating in the T. S. Eliot International Summer School running in Bloomsbury in the same week – many of the school’s students and scholars are in attendance at the reading – and Stephen notes that the title of his book is ‘not innocent’ in regard to Eliot. ‘La relations entre les sexes’, an Eliotic theme, is also of importance to him, he says, echoing Alan’s earlier sprinklings of French language. Stephen then reads ‘Resolve’ from his 1986 collection Idols, calling attention to the poem’s Laforguian references. His reading is dramatic, and it is clear that he enjoys his material. This is followed by ‘Primavera’, a poem that also flirts with French, containing both French and Italian terms as well as a reference to ‘spring in every language’.

After a further chair shuffle, Alan and Stephen once again exchange places. Alan also alludes to the T. S. Eliot School, recalling his opening lecture which addressed Eliot’s debt to Laforgue. The American poet was ‘completely taken over – ravished’ by Laforgue, Alan notes, in what was a ‘tremendous surrendering of his own selfhood’. ‘I felt something akin to that when I first read Laforgue’, he professes, ‘but of course I read Laforgue through Eliot’s eyes, or through Eliot’s sensibility’. Since then, he has worked on translations of Laforgue’s later poems, the Derniers Vers. ‘Winter Coming On’ is a version of the French poet’s ‘L’Hiver qui vient’, and ‘at the more faithful end’ of Alan’s translations:

Feelings under embargo! Freight and Cargo, Middle East!
Oh, the rain falling, and the night falling,
Oh, the wind! Oh, que c’est triste
Hallowe’en, Christmas and New Year –
All my chimneys – factory-chimneys – drizzled on; too drear…

You can’t sit down, all the benches are soaked;
Trust me, it’s over till next year.
The benches are all soaked, the woods mildewed, rust-choked,
And the hunt is calling…

And you, clouds come beetling up from the Channel coast:
You’ve spoiled our last Sunday for us. Toast.

Stephen finishes the evening with further French-inflected poems, including ‘Arbbre de Bhoneur’, written for his son, and ‘Yellow Studio’, which he liltingly interrupts to declare the page number for the keen reader-listeners among the audience. As the reading ends, listeners weave like fish in a crowded sea to the piles of books at the back of the gallery space, energised by their encounter with multiple languages, versions of poems, and ways of performing.

Suzannah V. Evans


Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins
Enitharmon Editions, 10 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, 12 July 2017

 

Quotidian Queerness

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Hannah Gluckstein, Gluck, 1942. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery.

The great strength of this exhibition is its demonstration of the ubiquitous nature of queer art and culture. Timed to remind us that it is only fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality following the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier, Clare Barlow’s curatorship is generously broad in its cultural reach and deep in its historical references. The exhibition in fact distinguishes itself by drawing attention to the multiplicity of meanings embraced by ‘queerness’. ‘Queer’ has in the past been a slang term for homosexual and has also been a term of abuse. More recently ‘queer’ has become an umbrella term for all marginal and marginalised sexual identities while ‘queer theory’ is concerned with all kinds of unstable sites of engagement. Such fluidity presents the curator with a range of difficulties, not just in representing what queer might mean now, but also in selecting art works to embody something as ethereal as a disregard for dominant systems. After all, an exhibition must present something. More than many exhibitions then, the audience is subtly challenged to consider both the prevalence and the disruptions of queer art in British cultural history of this period and beyond. By interpreting queer expression broadly, the exhibition makes the point that queer art is significant to all our histories.

Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Courtesy: Tate.

From the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) to Health and Strength magazine, from Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) to Danny La Rue (1927-2009), and from a prison cell door to a box of buttons, a myriad of artists, movements and symbolic artefacts, represent our queer culture. This diversity is important, as important as the contemporary linguistic grappling for definitive ways to name all manner of relationships: queer, homosexual, lesbian, homophile, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, intersex and asexual, witnessed by the growing list of initials LGBTQIA+ as a growing label which attempts to include and define all non-heterosexuals. However, this exhibition argues back against restrictive terminology, and gives us pause to reflect on these contemporary naming practices, which we also apply retrospectively, sometimes revealing the inadequacies of labels in capturing the range of human experience. Labels are inadequate in describing the painting by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) of Charles Rickets and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints (1920), where the subjects are depicted in cosily matching Dominican monk robes, complete with encoded symbols of peacock feather and bat, or the adoption of ‘Michael Field’ as the joint pseudonym of Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) and Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), or the polite distance between two teams, male and female, playing at opposite ends of the painting in The Bowlers by William Blake Richmond (1842-1921). Behind such images, just as in other radical social movements like the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, lies much playfulness and wit, making points about surface perception and latent meaning, using humour to awaken our senses.

Negotiating queer history has long raised the question of private and public personas and the issue of celebrity and anonymity. The exhibition certainly nods towards those artists and writers, sometimes already known, and now canonised in queer histories too, such as Oscar Wilde, represented by both his wedding portrait by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854-1920), and Wilde’s now well-travelled prison door from his time in Reading prison. Important movements, such as the Bloomsbury Group are represented through the paintings of Duncan Grant, and the sexologists and campaigners through portraits of Havelock Elis, Edward Carpenter and others. Contemporary celebrity artists, already ‘out’ are here too, with work by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and David Hockey (b.1937) (who also had a major exhibition of his work at Tate Britain earlier this year). And the notion of celebrity queerness is reframed through the theatrical presence too, an already–important site of gender exploration and alternative sexualities, both on and off the stage, since Shakespeare and before. A whole room is devoted to the transgressive and camp performativity of stage, its trappings, expectations and knowing double-gendered performances, featuring a pink wig and diamante tiara worn by Jimmy Slater, and Noel Coward’s pink dressing gown.

There are difficult histories too, with uncomfortable questions raised about sexual tourism. For whilst Soho may have been viewed as the epicentre of British homosexuality, so places less open to scrutiny attracted others. Wilhelm von Gloeden’s (1856-1931) photography of Sicilian boys, and the men who travelled there, indicate more troubled aspects of potentially predatory behaviour as young boys posed for money. Relatedly, John Minton’s (1917-57) painting in a naïve, vernacular style of a ‘Cornish Boy at a Window’ also raises questions about Londo-centric sexual scenes.

Henry Scott Tuke, The Critics, 1927. Courtesy: Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK).

Yet the treasures of this exhibition lie in the unexpected and the moving. Clare Atwood’s (1866-1962) painting of John Gielgud’s Room, 1933, is an uninhabited domestic pageant to chintz-swathed femininity, and in Robert Medley’s (1905-94) Summer Eclogue No 1: Cyclists, 1950, can be discerned a distance of unarticulated desire, obscured by class removal. The cultural reach extends to print media too, this being so very important to sensitive individuals seeking reassurance and role models. Reading lists and literary sections of magazines such as Arena Three, the first British lesbian magazine (although not mentioned in this exhibition) had an important social function from early on, offering readers and members comfort, hope and reassurance. Magazines such as Man’s World and MAN-ifique! are represented here with posed images of bodybuilders.

Little about ‘Queer British Art’ is sensational or sexually explicit (apart perhaps from Aubrey Beardsley’s famous and amusing erect penises of course), and overall the exhibition is sensitively human and interestingly varied, with frequent focus on the domestic, intimate and private sensitivities. And what could be more human (and British) than the prank of stealing library books, recrafting the pictures on the covers, replacing the books and then waiting to see other borrowers’ reactions! This vitrine of re-collaged books by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton is laugh-out-loud funny. And yet, tragically, their imprisonment for this ‘crime’ led to their deaths. This evidence of such human spirit combined with such sadness, epitomises the tragicomic history of much queer cultural production. This celebration of showmanship and sensitivity, of creative potential and mournful loss comes in from the margins to become the shared history of all our lives, everyday.

By Laurel Forster


Queer British Art 1861-1967, Tate Britain, 5 April – 1 October 2017

You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachael Corbett

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You Must Change Your Life is an enthralling exploration of the complex relationship between two creative giants of art and literature, drawn together in Paris at the birth of a new century. Rachel Corbett has successfully melded the natural flair and élan of her own writing with exemplary research into her subject. There is always a danger the ardent biographical explorer may fatally slip into a crevasse of overkill or verbosity, not so Corbett, who sustains the reader’s interest through intellectual rigour, elegance, and above all empathy. Corbett’s work also introduces neglected names such as the important sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel and Theodore Lipps, whose pioneering work on empathy or einfühling, (‘thinking into’) fed into Rilke’s creation of a new form of poetry, articulating that essence which lies beneath the surface, as in a Rodin sculpture.

Although the story concerns the trajectory of the companionable and inspiritive yet sometimes nimbus clouded relations between Rilke and Rodin, the interweaving travails of their wives and friends decisively enrich the book, casting a less gilded light on the pair. But it is Rodin’s deleterious behaviour which proves most unsettling. Corbett focuses on the women in their orbit, in Rilke’s case the gifted painter Paula-Modersohn Becker and sculptor Clara Westhoff, (as friend and wife respectively), their fraught passage to independence alongside Rilke’s painstaking ascendency. Corbett is empathic towards these free spirits labouring to extricate themselves from the thicket of male dominated culture, yet thankfully she does not romanticise.

Corbett sketches Rodin’s advance over the desiccated terrain of reactionary criticism. We see the bullish sculptor organically immersed in his materials and more often his models, the authentic outsider, face pressed against the glass of the salons awaiting admittance. We pass through the Gates of Hell, into the Balzac and Zola intrigues, are borne on the Camille Claudel storm wave and on to his encounter with the melancholy young poet who arrives in Paris bearing the uncomfortable embryo of an impulsively initiated family life. Desperate for creative re-alignment, Rilke loiters at Meudon enduring the sculptor’s domestic maelstrom in order to access the atelier and its secrets. Mesmerised by Rodin’s physicality, ‘Rilke noted the way the sculptor would lunge at his sculptures, the floor creaking and moaning under his heavy feet. He would fix his eyes on a detail and zero in so close that his nose pressed up against the clay…’ Rodin’s proffered panacea to his disciple of ‘travailler, toujours travailler’ becomes mantra to the poet until Rilke gradually awakens to the danger of humanistic petrification if taken verbatim.

Rilke gains most, evolving through the governing prism of Rodin’s presence and Paris. Rodin, immortalised in his undisputed greatness, remains fossilised in human terms, a man who counselled ‘sedating one’s own children, should they prove distracting from the pursuit.’ Rodin’s brutal unjust sacking of Rilke as personal secretary is a watershed moment. Yet ultimately the master and one-time disciple are reconciled, and set to repolishing the now dulled treasure of their friendship when both men share a residence in the intriguing ‘lost domain’ of the legendary Hotel Biron. Rodin withdraws, snubs modernity and clinging defiantly to classicism is brashly rejected by minimalist parvenus like Brancusi. Rilke must now master fame himself, or ‘that collection of misunderstandings that gather around a name.’ Proof of his unswerving attachment to Rodin is laid bare in the acclamatory dedication he chooses, tellingly penned in French not German, for the Neue Gedichte Anderer Teil (1908) ‘À mon grand ami Auguste Rodin’.

By Will Stone


You Must Change Your Life – The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (Norton New York/London, 2016), $26.95- £20.00

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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What do we think of when we think of myths? For children, myths are something unquestionable and magical. They present a world removed from our own, a sacred place where Gods and Goddesses control the events of ordinary people’s lives, and heroes and villains fight the dramatic battles of good versus evil. For this reason, the word ‘myth’ usually conjures up a sense of fiction, a grandiose narrative about individuals far superior to us performing incredible feats. What we fail to remember that those same myths were a religion to the societies they originated from. With hindsight, the stories of Zeus and Mount Olympus may seem fantastic, yet they were regarded in the same way that the holy texts of contemporary religions are. Indeed, we have our own myths which form part of our everyday reality; inherited fictions which underpin our identity, and have grown out of arbitrary social structures. Our religions, political affiliations, views about gender and ideas about ourselves are all based on myth, narratives which we have grown up being told are ‘the truth’.

Hot Milk is a glimpse into the lives of Sofia Papastergadis and her mother, Rose, as their family drama is played out against the backdrop of Almeria in Spain, once one of the largest Muslim fortresses in the Mediterranean and now a popular tourist destination. They come to Spain so Rose can be treated by an eccentric specialist called Dr Gomez as she has a mysterious illness which affects her ability to walk. Sofia has terminated her PhD in anthropology (in which she was studying cultural memory) to look after her mother in their Hackney home, thus winding up working in an artisan coffee shop and feeling like she is in limbo. To add to this, the sudden trip to visit Dr Gomez throws Sofia’s identity into a permanent crisis.

As a scholar evidently influenced by post-structuralist thought, Sofia is continuously probing accepted truths around her and therefore destabilising her life and her environment; What is a myth? What is a sign? What is a sigh? She strives to deconstruct social myths and does not take anything as a given. This is indeed what Levy encourages us to do through the character of Sofia – to suspend our systematic beliefs and prejudices, to question the world around us as Sofia does. In particular, Levy makes us examine female sexuality and the nature of being a functioning woman in a modern society.

Sofia’s body is deeply imprinted with both personal and cultural memories which she cannot erase. Towards the end of the novel, after a heated disagreement with her mother, Sofia escapes the clinical confines of Almeria. Defiantly, she travels to Greece, where her father is living with his young wife and new-born baby, having abandoned Sofia’s mother in London when Sofia was a child.  When she arrives in Greece, the birthplace of her estranged father, and therefore the origin of her own lost heritage, she reflects: ‘’Here I am in the birthplace of the Medusa, who left the scars of her venom and rage on my body’’. Indeed, Sofia’s body is literally covered in jellyfish stings (the word ‘Medusa’ being the Greek word for jellyfish( – the result of ignoring the red flags warning of jellyfish in the sea whilst swimming in Spain. Her body has also been metaphorically lacerated by the traumatic events in her life, especially the callous departure of her father, and his unwillingness to look after her and her mother.

This image of the Medusa recurs at Sofia’s most vulnerable moments throughout the novel. According to myth, the Medusa represents an antagonistic force; a mere gaze from her hideous physiognomy will turn a person to stone. Yet, as a trained anthropologist, Sofia is not deterred by the figure of Medusa (literal or mythic), but is interested in her full story, asking ‘I wonder what would be the Medusa’s case history?’ Medusa is, for Sofia, not to be dismissed as a monster, but a creature who we can try to understand. The accepted myth is just one interpretation of the Medusa’s true nature.

Hot Milk is haunted by the figure of Medusa; the spectre of a woman who has been punished for her femininity (turned into a monster by Athena who is jealous of her beauty) and is forced the bear the scars of her punishment. This idea resonates throughout the novel – the cruel sense of injustice and the problematic presence and effect of ‘woman’. It is the collective bodies of the women in the novel who suffer the most at the hands of men. This, however, hints at the broader problems which grow out of the mythologising of social structures.

Regardless of these entrenched structures, the female characters develop a language of their own between one another. Each is a powerful figure; an independent and forceful character, carrying their own story concerning their sexuality. With the epigraph taken from Heléne Cixous’ seminal essay The Laugh of the Medusa, Levy reminds us that Medusa is redeemed by Cixous from her persecuted identity. Calling for an emancipation of woman’s bodies, Cixous embraces a radical feminine language; a liberated, fluid form of expression. Levy’s language itself demonstrates this with a richly inter-textual style that oscillates between voices and memories, the subjective and the objective.

Reflecting this, Sofia cannot be defined by the structures around her. Her Occupation becomes ‘Monster’ when she is forced to state it in a perfunctory form for a lifeguard who takes care of her on the beach after she is stung by jellyfish. Her options are vast: is she a former PhD student turned nurse to her mother? Is she a waitress? She cannot write her whole story in one line and the easiest categorisation is to reduce herself to a ‘Monster’. Similarly with her mother, her illness cannot be rationally identified. Its abstract nature seems incomprehensible to the world but the true cause of her illness is perhaps psychosomatic. She has become paralysed by the tragedy which has overcome her life. Her bones are living tissue which carry the weight of her punishment: her husband who has left her, the daughter she was forced to raise alone who will ultimately also abandon her.

A sense of displacement lingers in this novel and Almeria itself becomes a strange refuge for damaged people, a vacation zone where ordinary rules do not exist, like Chekov’s Yalta. Common situations, assumptions and objectives take on a surreal quality – or perhaps even hyperreal – beneath the scorching Spanish sunlight. The foreign backdrop of Almeria is significant in this context. Sofia’s last name may refer to the anthropologist Nico Papastergadis who recently published a book entitled ‘The Turbulence of Migration’ which looks at the impact of migration on contemporary societies. Hot Milk reflects our globalised world – Sofia’s last name itself demonstrating the yoking of two distinct cultures which have produced a being who is removed from her paternal past. The result of globalisation is that language and myths blend in new ways to create new meanings, removed from their origins. There is no home in Hot Milk, no stable identity. Sofia and Rose experience irreversible change through their journey to Spain and the palimpsest of their identity expands further, warping and shifting beyond their original, recognisable forms.

‘If Anthropology is the study of humankind from its beginnings millions of years ago to today, I am not very good at studying myself’ muses Sofia late in the novel, after a sensuous encounter with Ingrid, her German lover. Indeed Hot Milk explores this endless mystery of human individuality and the female body; its drives and impulses, its incomprehensibility, and one of its most mysterious natural functions: motherhood.

Nevertheless, Levy’s novel is more than a metaphor for the persistent nature of myth. It can also be read as a strongly personal story about human relationships and the discomfort of being a young woman in the 21st century. The stinging Medusas are not only symbolic; they are part of the dangerous, foreign landscape, which Sofia suddenly finds herself in where jellyfish are not the only threat. Perhaps the biggest hazard is Ingrid, who captures Sofia’s heart. Or perhaps the danger is closer to home: is it the ‘hot milk’ of motherhood, a natural, nourishing occurrence that through the time begins to scald as a child discovers independence from the unconditional love of their mother.

We live in a world full of myths constructed in the past; sexuality, success, education, the economic crisis and our families are all subject to these narratives. A myth has the power to convince people that signs (our names, genders, religious preferences) have inherent value: that a woman must be inherently feminine due to her sex. In Hot Milk, Sofia muses how ‘we are all getting in each other’s signs’ – woman become men, daughters becomes mothers, fathers become sons. She idolises her lover Ingrid, not for the reasons men are drawn to her objective womanliness: her tall body, blonde hair, large breasts. Sofia loves her for the way she fractures the myth of womanhood: Ingrid is strong, rebellious. The duality of her sexuality are expressed in Sofia’s observation that ‘the curves of her body are female but sometimes she sounds like Matthew’. Nothing is stable or solid in this strange land that Sofia is passing through. Myths do not exist – everything exists only in the moment, beautiful exactly for what it is. The Medusa is no longer a hideous creature – she is the protective symbol on Athena’s war shield. We are returned to the epigraph: it’s up to you to break the old circuits.

by Diana Kurakina


Hcover.jpg.rendition.460.707ot Milk by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99

Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo

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Vahni Capildeo said in a 2012 interview with Zannab Sheikh that ‘poetry is a form of concentration’. Her latest collection, Measures of Expatriation, puts this principle to work. Comprised primarily of prose-poems, the book’s non-linear, associative narratives require the attention of poetry, yet float across the watery expanse of prose. This technique suffuses both the form and content of Capildeo’s work, an aesthetic approach the poet calls ‘room-with-exposed-brickwork’, lacking a sense of polish, intentionally shirking (traditional) narrative, and rejecting what is studied and exact, coherent and whole. The epigraph of the poem ‘All Your Horses’ captures this book’s overall method: ‘As if no thought beyond immediate transferral: mind to paper’.

Formerly an OED lexicographer, Capildeo’s Oxford DPhil in Old Norse and Old English inform her poetry, which tends toward alliterative and consonantal sound patterning. Fiercely intellectual, her writing plays with the alignment and disjunction of ‘meaning’ as it pushes against the backdrop of lived experience. The core prose-poems, ‘Fire & Darkness: And Also / No Join / Like’, ‘The Book of Dreams/Livre de Cauchemars’, ‘Seven Nights in Transit’, ‘All Your Houses’ and the ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, each present a new avenue into the concepts of identity, nation, (dis)connection, and isolation. To borrow the poet’s words, Capildeo takes ‘trodden paths but also many turnings’ (‘Too Solid Flesh’).

The book itself is divided into seven sections, or ‘measures’, which primarily grapple with the way the language of identity ‘places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage’, specifically in terms of the discourse surrounding expatriates, refugees, migrants, and exiles (‘Five Measures of Expatriation’). She rightfully problematizes this discourse by drawing from her experience as a British Trinidadian, sometimes humorously:

That was when I began finding out how widespread pigeon phobia is in the south of England; as inconvenient in its way as the well-diagnosed lizard phobia in the Caribbean.

and sometimes very pointedly:

How was it that till questioned, till displaced in the attempt to answer, I had scarcely thought of myself as having a country, or indeed as having left a country.

What is most admirable about this work is that Capildeo does not shy away from the true statement;

…some third-generation immigrant families briefly fought according to the lines of what had not been a division. In lands far away, current events were indirectly regenerating or inventing this part of Trinidad’s past also… (‘Fire and Darkness: And Also/No Join/Like’).

She confronts the ever-pervasive and reverberating powers of colonialism. A natural correlative of this hegemony, the twenty-first century’s chilling numbness to the atrocities of war, is addressed in the poem ‘Fire & Darkness: And Also/No Join/Like’:

televised missile fireworks were going off, white and purple. What had so upset him?…Brownskinned people with strong features and children of adorable gravity were being killed from the air…People who looked like they could be family.

Capildeo sights this as the beginning of ‘the world’s play of representations of the living’, wherein ‘we’ (the ‘brownskinned’ people) are depicted in the media as ‘the killed’. Herein lies the reason, Capildeo suggests, that ‘people on the street in the south of England have told [her] that they have no money, or have offered [her] money, when [she has] said nothing…’

This representation of “otherness”, as circulated by the twenty-first century’s countless social media and communication channels, inculcates society’s depiction of and discourse surrounding “other” cultures, often creating wide divisions between representation and reality:

that territory where a dream of the village East washes through into somewhere western, momentarily eroding the reality of both, sometimes leaving permanent alterations in its wake; somewhere like Trinidad, so Indian even if not considered so, so Western even if not called so, thumbnail of the Americas, immigrant blood opal at its base (‘Too Solid Flesh’).

Among the many themes explored in this book, Capildeo returns to the concepts of displacement, home, identity, and nation. These themes unite in the prose poem ‘Too Solid Flesh’ in which the speaker’s need to ‘acquire weight’ is directly related to the capacity for others to perceive her:

People who talked to me were unable to keep their countenance. I was not as dense as the object would need to be for them to focus on it. Their question, ‘where is she from?’ in my very presence became, ‘where is she?’

In the same sequence, Capildeo wryly examines how gender shapes identity as well as the perception of identity:

Armed Forces man…had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect. Abruptly he took on the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten. His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.

However, not all forms of expatriation explored in this book are strictly cultural or political. Capildeo develops what it means to be released, or to leave, an arduous relationship, which often feels as though it could have been lifted from a diary:

‘I love you,’ he wouldn’t say: it was against his philosophy; I-love-you didn’t mean what it meant, plus the verray construction of the phrase caused bad-old-concrete-lawman-vandal-verbal-mildew-upon-the-grape-harvest-and-war-for-rare-minerals-required-to-manufacture-communication-devices damage; saying I love you damaged love, subject and object (‘I Love You’).              

This creates an alluring air of intimacy, however, ocasionally the prose weighs down the beauty of the image—‘a heart splintered into a rose of frost’—and, on occasion, the lyrical brilliance of Capildeo’s work is overshadowed by her blocks of prose.

Yet, as demonstrated, Capildeo’s prose inhabits a world of interiors, which, through the medium of prose-poetry, she so freely and artfully renders for the reader, imbuing the movement of the language—the long, sinuous syntax—with the feeling that it expresses:

…the unique transformation of love lays out a courtyard for friendship that perhaps wanted a lesser space, perhaps wanted only a bench in the shade, perhaps has become an exile beyond welcome who turns away bewildered by plenitude.

Her more ‘conceptual’ work (see ‘Inhuman Triumphs’ and ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’) experiments with the use of rejected words or phrases—the things that get crossed out, rephrased or reinterpreted—harnessing their capacity to unhinge or reconstrue sense and the process of sense-making:

Turned over a new leaf to indict science silence/siloed whiteness witness; was a portal, no paper;/near as Narnia, fell in…’ (‘Sycrax Whoops’).

She also achieves this effect through the juxtaposition of languages, such as:

Expatriate. Non depaysee, sin saber por que nip or que se yo, unhoused free condition. I arrive at the theme, which surely is a citation.

In this way, the theme and content achieve renewable acts of noticing. Here Capildeo exercises the belief that ‘the morality of pure disconnectedness makes the easy poetry of analogy impossible’, and throughout the whole book, to again borrow the author’s words, she attempts to prosaically render ‘a pointilliste vision given an order of dismissal’ (‘Too Solid Felsh’).

This approach, however, can be extremely alienating for a reader. The line ‘I tried to maintain a sense of direction…I could/not see with whom, but we had to keep up’ adequately summarises the effect of a first read (‘The Book of Dreams/Livre de Cauchemars’).

To assess this book properly, one must either have an authoritative grasp on the nature and aesthetic of prose-poetry, or a predilection for post-modern verse. Finding myself sympathetic to neither of these conditions, there is still much I can admire in Capildeo’s work. In fact, the first poem, ‘Handfast’ showcases Capildeo’s rather underrepresented lyricism: her extraordinary gift for capturing both a visual and emotional complex:

Come here, here, here:
if it’s a tree you’d sulk in, I am pine;
if earth, I’m risen terracotta;
if it’s all to air you’d turn, turn to me.
You are flying inside me.

There are also vivid moments of wisdom in her writing:

 …being here is returning to being here and returning surely is about leaving, so this above all is the place that makes me feel alive-and-dead, it is a birthplace (‘Seven Nights in Transit’).

Throughout the book I admire Capildeo’s attention to detail, the simplicity of her observations, and her quirky and unique ways of thinking:

Because I am superstitious, I am stringing a series of lights between this and anything else that happens’ (‘Too Solid Flesh’).

However, more often than not, context and deixis run about the page like watercolour. Interpreting these streams of thought can be, for a reader, a labour-intensive and disorienting procedure. For instance, in the poem ‘Cities in Step’, Capildeo’s writing slips through time, tone, and topic fluidly, yet gives very little of itself away:

…we were playing on the beach
and found oil
and looking at
the map’s edge
we’d often drawn
in schoolroom pencil
where. grown-up, we’d
come to play
suddenly the air
filled with technologized
wings…

The fractured nature of Capildeo’s writing has been aptly described by Rod Menghan as being ‘brought up hard against an unmoveable rock’. However, I must admit that I do not share the same enthusiasm for such a sensation. Poetry should move us but not batter us. The pleasure I get from (prose-)poetry stems from the act of following, one pond-stone behind, the path of the writer, trusting in their leap. When the reader miscalculates, however, or when the solid stone is suddenly transformed into a post-modern mirage, the result is sometimes refreshing, but more often than not, disorienting.

However, I am grateful to Capildeo for brining such a timely issue to literature’s often austere and highfalutin form, particularly in light of recent changes to the UK’s visa and immigration policies. Issues of place, identity, and nation need to be addressed, both in poetry and in society, as more people, whether immigrant, expatriate, exile, or migrant, become at once displaced by the expansion of a ‘global society’ and marginalised by it.

Overall, Measures of Expatriation successfully captures the sensation of being not only at the boundary of nations and privilege, but also the permeable border between genre, sense and syntax, interiority and exteriority. Capildeo’s work is a ‘creation [of art], but not always of a kind to be named’, which encourages the reader to interrogate and redefine the way he or she conceives of so-called clear divisions (‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’). As Capildeo remarks at the close of the book’s penultimate section, ‘there is true emotion in the full engagement of the mind’s powers’: an apt description of the intelligence and acumen that illuminate every page of this accomplished collection.

by Amanda Merritt


Meadownloadsures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet, £8.99

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson

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Paterson is at his best when writing about heartbreak. “The Six,” this reviewer’s favourite piece in 40 Sonnets, speaks of a guitar picked up and played ‘like a novice / or like Orpheus,’ through which the player,

reasons out the things he’d say to her
and the song he plays is sad, because it’s now too late,
and joyous, as somewhere the heart has yet been won.

The sincerity and vulnerability of these few lines, particularly in the context of Paterson’s other more belligerent pieces, strikes a note of tenderness. 40 Sonnets is his eighth poetry collection, which illustrates his ease and ingenuity with the sonnet form. Presumably, it comes as a natural consequence of editing Faber’s 101 Sonnets (1999), and penning a new commentary on the complete sonnets of Shakespeare in 2010.

Overall, the collection indicates a sustained preoccupation with his established motifs: juxtaposition of heartfelt love poems and explicit diatribes, political comment next to personal loss, drinking and hangovers, and bitter retorts against frustrating reading audiences, as evident in “Requests”:

O tell us more about your dad,
or why your second wife went mad,
or how it was you had no choice
but to give those men a voice

go on with your brilliant proem!
Anything but read your poem.

The tone of sharp satire continues in “Apsinthion”; the title, the Greek word for ‘wormwood,’ refers to the apocalyptic star that appears in the Book of Revelation, which emerges first at the volta:

But when we heard the star would fall,
Did we choose to die like sheep?
Hell no – we were men, and blessed
To know the hour and place … I jest.
One by one we fell asleep
And that is how they found us all.

Contrasting bravado and cowardice in an American idiom is peculiar amidst the rest of Paterson’s mostly Scottish pieces, but its animosity sits comfortably alongside his poem “To Dundee City Council,” in which he makes his feelings about his hometown vividly known:

that fine baronial stair
you found cheaper to fence off than to repair,
thus adding twenty minutes to my trip
via ringroad, bombsite, rape tunnel and skip
to the library where poor folks go to die
or download porno on the free wifi.

The crude poetic tone in these poems treads the line between startling and bellicose, but is still darkly humorous, and consistently shrewd. By taking the sonnet form – which has such strong associations with canonical British literature and traditional, highbrow, poetic subjects – and repurposing it to a distinctly modern idiom, he demonstrates an astute and resourceful poetic gift.

Across this slim volume of poetry, Paterson enacts a consistent deconstruction of the sonnet form, beginning with “Here,” a sonnet composed entirely of rhyming couplets, through “At the Perty,” written in Scots and containing fourteen lines of one word each, to “The Version,” a three-page prose piece concerning poetic translation, that ends with a fantastical (and, one hopes, fictional) story about the poet being dropped by his agent, sued for plagiarism, and hunted down in his own house. The striking diversity of Paterson’s work, in just forty-four pages, is a pleasure to read.

In “The Eye,” he speaks candidly about ‘the self you slaughtered in the bliss / of her astonishing astonished kiss,’ immediately conflated with ‘the loch in starlight or the late quartet,’ the sum of which is an image of acute, heartfelt, nostalgia. Similarly, in “Radka Toneff,” a poem addressed to the Norwegian jazz singer, the speaker admits,

Radka, skylark,
you rose too far; though as it died away
I heard right through the song to what sung you.

The doubling of singer and song mirrors Paterson’s play with poet and poem. This is more formally demonstrated in “A Calling,” a poem inspired by the Actaeon myth of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the speaker looks at himself in ‘The black glass,’ which increases his uneasiness; his reflection, in both senses of the word, drives him to think of his writing as ‘ghost-dogs,’ that ‘thrash along the shore, / the dark sea at their back like the police.’ Following the Actaeon myth, then, the poems will tear the speaker apart, ‘right through the song to what sung you.’

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Don Paterson, 40 Sonnets Faber, £14.99

The epigraph to “A Calling,” taken from the Metamorphoses, reads, vellet abesse quidem, sed adest – ‘he would be absent, but present’ – a sentiment anticipated by the Antonio Porchia quotation that opens the collection: ‘Soy un habitante, pero ¿de dónde?’, ‘I am a resident, but where?’ These brief references to a greater sense of distance, or seclusion, underpins 40 Sonnets. The consistent emphasis throughout the collection on separation emerges with disarming openness in “Mercies,” the penultimate sonnet, which concerns the speaker’s dog being put down: ‘love was surely what her eyes conceded / as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial / quit making its report back to the centre.’

40 Sonnets needs no fanfare to commend it – it stands as a powerful indication of Paterson’s strengths and ongoing poetic experimentation. Honest, unyielding, vigorous: this collection elicits and encapsulates the drunkenness of things being various.

By Éadaoín Lynch

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