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Interview: Adriaan van Heerden — Unreal City

I Have Walked Among The Lowest Of The Dead, Adriaan van Heerden

Adriaan van Heerden is an artist and photographer whose work has been exhibited in London, Barcelona, Kyoto and Singapore, and who was nominated for the ArtGemini Prize last year. His latest project Unreal City is a photographic exploration of contemporary London through the prism of the poem The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. We spoke to him to find out more about the project, for which he is currently crowdfunding to publish as a book

When did you start photographing London? When did the project start?

My London archive dates back to early 2008. A few of the pictures in “Unreal City” date from that time, although most were taken in the last eighteen months or so.

In July 2016 I started working with a challenging new artistic adviser, because I was aiming to do something different in my photography. Before then I had mainly focused on wildlife, travel and landscape photography. In the course of the next year I experimented with a number of ideas and eventually I came across the “Elmet” book project, which was the result of a collaboration between the poet Ted Hughes and the photographer Fay Godwin. I have always been interested in poetry (and even performed some of my own at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden), so it seemed like a promising avenue to pursue. Add to that my background in philosophy and the fact that I had London on my doorstep, and suddenly doing something with “The Waste Land” became the perfect focus for the new direction I was looking for. I formulated the main concept for the project in the summer of 2017, based on some pictures from my archive, and pitched it to my publicist and my artistic adviser in October last year [2017]. They both liked it, and so I started to develop the ideas in more detail.

Death Had Undone So Many

What was your link with T.S. Eliot and modernism? Has that always informed your work?

I wouldn’t say that modernism was a conscious influence as such, or an ideal framework I was aspiring to. Postmodernism was all the rage when I was studying for my Master’s in philosophy in South Africa, and although I wouldn’t call myself a postmodernist, enough of this exposure has remained for my approach to be more open-ended and playful than a “modernist manifesto” might suggest. However, a lot depends on one’s definition of “modernism”, and there were of course different manifestations of modernism.

If “modernism” is understood as an attempt to break completely with the past and reinvent forms of artistic expression (think of Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new” – although this phrase itself was hardly new, dating as it does from the Shang Dynasty in China, 1766–1753 BC), then it wouldn’t provide an accurate description of what I was trying to achieve. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Eliot’s own modernist manifesto (which he articulated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) entailed a new poetics which consisted of a constant reappropriation of the “tradition”, a renewed conversation with the great cultural achievements of the past, in order to rediscover the timeless values which he believed had a regenerative effect on the human spirit.

In this second sense, my project can be seen to belong to a modernist paradigm along the lines charted by Eliot. My objective was not to redefine the medium of photography as such, but to have a “photographic conversation” with The Waste Land by using existing (even classical) forms and processes to communicate ideas in thought-provoking, playful and surprising new ways. The challenge of engaging with Eliot’s text – which has by now become part of the “tradition” – has not only influenced the pictures themselves, but also the design of the book. Just as there are several different voices in The Waste Land, a variety of styles and subjects are also represented in Unreal City. Cityscapes, architecture, street photography, portraits of people, the juxtaposition of old and new – these have all been mixed into a single creative melting-pot. And the book is being designed to reflect the fact that the pictures interpret words written nearly a century ago. Suggesting contemporaneity as well as archival qualities has been challenging, but immensely rewarding. For example, we chose Munken Pure paper for the images section of the book, as it provides an archival feel which fits well with the period of the poem’s composition.

And so I suppose one might say that the book embodies a strange kind of classical-modernist-postmodernist amalgam.

“Mixing Memory and Desire”, taken in Soho, London.

How do you relate The Waste Land to today’s London? Did you try to express this in the composition of your photos, or did it come afterwards?

Yes, my intention was to view London as it is today through the lens of The Waste Land, although I would have to qualify this by saying that it is my own transmutation of The Waste Land which forms the basis of the juxtaposition, and not an attempt to determine what Eliot’s own visual take might have been. Bernard O’Donoghue, in his essay for the book, and with his usual laser-like perspicacity, describes my process as one of “creative mismatching”. For example, my triptych of pictures which accompanies the first few words of the poem, “April is the cruellest month”, retraces the final moments of Stephen Lawrence’s life (2018 was the 25th anniversary of his murder in April 1993). Eliot himself could of course not have known anything about Stephen Lawrence, but the juxtaposition highlights a poignant fact about the daily lives of many of London’s inhabitants today: the tragic waste of life that takes place on a daily basis as a result of crime, racism, sexism, neglect, abuse, etc.

So the pictures are not a straightforward illustration of the text of the poem (as the photographs in the “Elmet” project perhaps are), but rather a creative transmutation. Having said that, the pictures do reflect many of the themes of the poem: a general feeling of alienation; people’s inability to connect to each other in meaningful ways; the cruel demands of the City; the failure of religion to provide comfort in this broken world; and the apparently unbridgeable divide between rich and poor. But interestingly, in the process of giving expression to these ideas, the pictures started to create a language of their own, and certain visual motifs were created in the pictures which are not in the text of the poem. One example is the “towers of the rich versus towers of the poor” motif, which arguably hinged the book into a more radical political stance than that occupied by Eliot’s poem.

Another fascinating byproduct of this process has been what I call the geology of meaning which appears in some of the pictures. For example, my picture for the line “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept” is of the J.P. Morgan building in Canary Wharf, shot through the frame of an outdoor light installation. Several layers of meaning are simultaneously present in this image. The original reference is to Psalm 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Eliot transposed this verse to an individual experience on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and I in turn transposed Eliot’s line (using some artistic license) to refer to the old Lehman Brothers building (which was taken over by J.P. Morgan after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008). And so the idea that we are exiles in our own city starts to permeate the photograph: an exile which can be said to result from the high levels of income inequality in the city. More specifically, the juxtaposition of text and image suggests a sadness resulting not so much from the demise of a capitalist colossus as from the effects of reckless capitalism on vast numbers of the world’s population.

The Black Clouds Gathered Far Distant

Have you always been taking photos of urban landscapes? What has been the focus of your previous work (photography or otherwise?)

Growing up in South Africa with a zoologist father, a love of nature and wildlife was programmed into my DNA, and one of my greatest joys is still being on safari, a camera with a long lens at the ready, and experiencing the thrill of not knowing what I’m going to encounter next. Before this current project my focus was mainly on wildlife, travel and landscapes, but all the while I was also taking pictures of cityscapes, doing some street photography and taking portraits of people in urban environments, and so cities have always featured in my work to some extent. In 2015 I was artist in residence at a gallery in Kyoto, and my pictures of that city include cityscapes, landscapes, wildlife and street photography, so I suppose my awareness of nature helps me to create a more holistic view of urban environments.

The main difference in terms of what I’m doing now, compared to how I was operating and pitching myself two years ago, is that my work is now more project-oriented, with more of a narrative that binds the different pictures into a coherent whole of some sort. Looking ahead, one of the projects that I currently have in development would entail a juxtaposition of urban and rural scenarios, once again in a poetic context.

“Unreal City”, New Cross, London.

What do you see for the future of cities, and in particular for London?

There are of course a myriad factors that influence how we experience life in London today, and each of these strands could have a different trajectory into the future that would make life more or less bearable for the majority of people living in the city. Meaningful and satisfying employment, access to good quality healthcare, opportunities for self-actualisation, pollution, climate change, gentrification, surveillance, social control, exposure to nature, income inequality and people’s level of empathy across social divides are just some of these factors. The idealist in me would like to see improvements on all these fronts, but the realist acknowledges that this is probably unlikely to happen.

In her Editor’s Introduction to “Tales of Two Londons: Stories From a Fractured City”, which was published in March 2018, Claire Armitstead writes that life in London feels fractured and embattled as rarely before in peacetime. Brexit, the high homicide rate, moped crime and a number of terrorist attacks have all contributed their share of this pain, but perhaps the starkest symbol of the horror is the burnt-out husk of Grenfell Tower.

Although there is no graphic violence in “Unreal City”, the book does, I believe, shine a light on some of the horrors that we encounter in the city at the moment, and which occur in so many other cities around the world: poverty, homelessness, income inequality, racism, sexism, loneliness, the cauterisation of compassion in order to survive in this hostile environment, desperation, gentrification, a search for meaning in sex, crime and consumerism, etc. In that sense the vision of the book is dark, as is “The Waste Land” itself, but there is a glimmer of hope at the end, if only we can confront these horrors and start dealing with them effectively. However, the odds are stacked in favour of the very wealthy (the “ultra high net worth individuals”), who have in effect become free riders on the rest of us, and so I don’t think things will improve until governments around the world start figuring out how to repatriate and tax the estimated 26 trillion US dollars that are stashed away in offshore tax havens, and use a lot of that money to create more and better opportunities for those who don’t currently have them.

In surveying this “waste land” landscape, my book poses a number of questions and challenges. I will refer here to the two epigraphs from the book. One is a quotation from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, in which the narrator quotes Kurtz’s last words: “The horror! The horror!” This quotation is the one that Eliot originally wanted to use for “The Waste Land” before Pound convinced him to use one from Petronius instead. By reinstating Conrad, I suggest that the horrors we see around us in the “unreal city” are not merely caused by random tragic events, but are in many instances the result of our own heart of darkness: our failure to show compassion and to act in decisive ways to avoid or alleviate the suffering of others. Which brings me to my other epigraph, the motto of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council: “Quam bonum in Unum habitare”, which is adapted from the opening words of the Latin version of Psalm 133: “How good it is to dwell in unity.” The irony is palpable.

For more information on Adriaan van Heerden, go here

To pre-order a copy of Unreal City, visit his GoFundMe page.

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Book Launch at Enitharmon: Stephen Romer and Alan Jenkins


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 –

‘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


Faber Reading: An Evening with Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, Richard Scott

Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nargra, Richard Scott

The Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell Close was beautifully lit with fairy lights, and the low chatter of poetry enthusiasts graced the air. A table was filled with books and pamphlets by Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, and Richard Scott, while another table was laid out with glasses of wine. We were here to hear these five Faber poets read from various new or forthcoming collections. Emily Berry and Dalijit Nagra both have books out this year, while Richard Scott and Zaffar Kunial have forthcoming Faber debuts; Emma Jones’s second collection with Faber will also appear soon.

The scene was set, and Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis stepped forwards to introduce the five poets. Each one, he said, was making an ‘exceptional contribution’ to contemporary poetry, all at different points in their careers, but all working towards ‘a long, long fruitful life in publishing’. He praised the distinctive nature of each poet’s work, and encouraged the audience to listen deeply, drink deeply, and to savour the experience.

Richard Scott was the first poet to read. Born in 1981, Richard’s pamphlet Wound was published by Rialto in 2016, with a Faber debut set for 2018. Speaking of Richard’s work, Matthew states confidently that ‘if you haven’t already read Richard, you will’. His urgent and timely poetry, Matthew argues, is propelled by a ‘pounding sense of injustice about inequality’, and his plea for tolerance, while centred on the gay community, extends well beyond. Richard himself notes that his desire to write stemmed partly from his frustration as a gay teenager, unable to access literature that spoke to his own experiences. ‘Public Library, 1998’, the first poem he reads, addresses this frustration directly, and features the speaker writing the word ‘cock’ in a borrowed book to redress the imbalance in Queer literature. Later poems focus on sensual experiences. The most notable of these involves a fishmonger, who visits the speaker in his van, and who ‘fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline’. The poem is erotic, unsettling, and enhanced by Richard’s grave and thoughtful manner of reading.

To read Emma Jones’s work is ‘to drown in it, to accept inundation’, says Matthew Hollis of the next reader. He compares Emma’s work to the sonic equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting – ‘that sounds complicated, but you’ll understand when you hear the poems’, Matthew assures us. Emma began her quietly intense reading with a poem from her collection The Striped World, published by Faber in 2009. ‘Tiger in the Menagerie’ does indeed conjure images of Rousseau:

At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut

the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars

This is a world of ‘open oceans and closed cages’, a ‘bright, painted place’, Matthew notes. Emma’s next poem ‘Pietà’ is a complex and bluesy meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the deceased Christ. ‘What’s always struck me about these depictions is that Mary is disproportionately big, and Christ disproportionately small’, mirroring the image of Mary holding Christ as a baby, Emma says. This portrayal is linked in Emma’s mind with pop songs, where adults often call each other ‘baby’, and the poem riffs on this endearment. ‘Baby, you sure look sick’, the poem begins.

In contrast to Emma Jones’s song-like delivery, Daljit Nagra commands the stage with a comic’s timing. He uses ‘humour as well as rage to pursue multiculturalism’, Matthew Hollis notes, and he is ‘brilliantly vivid and important in giving voice to those who are not always heard’. Daljit begins by saying that Matthew, his editor, encouraged him to ‘strip away’ some of his famous exclamations in favour of a ‘new voice’, and it is this voice that can be heard in his new collection, British Museum, published in May this year. It is the first time that he has read from his new book, and his reading is clear-voiced and exuberant. ‘Can poetry help me think about the world?’, he asks, and his poems think through both personal and national situations. One poem, at once humorous and touching, centres on his mother’s inability to pronounce his wife’s name; another poem recalls the ‘time-compacted rooms’ of the British Museum. ‘I’ve only got one offensive poem in the collection, but I’m not going to read it now’, he says, motioning the audience instead to purchase copies of his blue hardback book.

After a musical interlude, Zaffar Kunial, a ‘guide for modern times’, as Matthew calls him, steps up to the podium to read. Zaffar ‘vocalises what it means to be a human being, planting your two feet on this earth’, Matthew asserts. The poet begins by showing a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which belonged to his mother and was in his family home as he grew up. He is thrilled to now be ‘on the same team’ as Eliot. The first poem Zaffar reads is called ‘Fielder’, taken from his Faber New Poets pamphlet, published in 2014. It is set ‘somewhere between Birmingham and Yorkshire’, but Zaffar notes that it is equally about where poetry began for him: ‘The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me, / some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave / that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. A world restored’. A later poem speaks of the mixed feelings – ‘In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’ – prompted by hearing his Kashmirian father make a grammatical mistake in English, and his own realisation that he is ‘native here. / In a halfway house’ (‘The Word’). Zaffar’s reading emphasises each word, pausing minutely between each utterance, and his deeper speaking voice lifts when he reads.

Emily Berry is the last poet to read. Hers is ‘surely one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged in poetry in recent times’, Matthew notes, with ‘no wastage, no excess, and total focus’. He compares her to Sylvia Plath, and Emily, dressed in a Sylvia Plath t-shirt, jokes that she is ‘smuggling Sylvia on stage with me’. Her rigid posture when she reads makes it seem like the words rise up from within her, unbidden, and her performance is spell-binding and incantatory. She starts with ‘a newer poem’, before noting that it’s ‘not even that new’, but still more recent than her book. ‘Remains of the Day’ exhibits Emily’s typical concentration: ‘my neck aches from studying / a number of compelling thoughts. I am being / observed, it transpires, from a distance by a / huge coral-coloured bird. I may be paranoid, / but I feel like it’s mimicking my movements’. A further poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, shows Emily’s skill in writing about the sea, and she finished by reading work that engages with Freud. The evening itself ended with raucous applause, more wine, book buying, and musically-infused conversation.

By Suzannah V. Evans

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