Category Archives: Visual art

Reading the dark wood: An analysis of “The Dark Would” art exhibition (2013)

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“The Eaten Heart” (2013) by Carolyn Thompson.

Reading the dark wood: An analysis of “The Dark Would” art exhibition (2013)

Essay by Ad Howells (2013).

The exhibition “The Dark Would”at Edinburgh’s Summerhall is an immersive installation focused on text based art; from poetry to painting with letters and typography, the exhibition examines and explores the “maze of living and dying”. Curated works from world-leading poets, including Jenny Holzer, Richard Long, Susan Hiller, Tom Phillips, Simon Patterson, Mike Chavez-Dawson, Tony Lopez, Richard Wentworth, Caroline Bergvall, Lawrence Weiner, Fiona Banner and many others, are included in the exhibition. “The Dark Would”, taking its inspired title from Dante’s Inferno, straddles the line between the immersion of the reading and theoretical engagement with text as a read medium, and an engagement with text from an aesthetic standpoint. Throughout the viewing of the exhibition, these twofold impressions are constantly shifted in a mobile audience engagement with the works, fluctuating between the text as a read device, and the typography and aesthetic reading of that text.

Curator Philip Davenport states : “This is an extraordinary gathering that asks what it is to have a body and to lose it. Perhaps this is best done by people for whom language is itself a state of in-between-ness… artists who use language and poets who are artists. Here, the material of language is a metaphor for human material, our own bodies. Whether poets, homeless people, outsiders, or art stars – we all have to find our way through the dark.'”

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Figure 1. Dante’s Inferno.

The first exhibit you encounter in the exhibition is a old tome, the livery of its pages worn with time and its size larger than any average book you might come across in your daily activities, it is “Dante’s Inferno” and the pages lie open with the quote “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods / where the straight way was lost.” On the page beside it an accompanying illustration picture, showing the figure of the central character stranded in a dark forest. As “The Dark Would” curator indicates, it is “Dante’s Inferno”  that provides a theological nexus for the exhibition to rest. In Davenport’s introduction to the exhibition, there is a theologisation of language and the word, as a place, a locale to find oneself within. In the exhibition synopsis, Davenport states that “here, the material of language is a metaphor for human material, our own bodies.” It is this materiality, as well as immateriality of language that the exhibition constantly transfixes and transfuses; for Davenport states that “The Dark Would” is as much about “how we encounter our own mortality”, “it is about living in this moment, but living it knowing that we’re not always going to be here… it is the great thing, but also almost the great tragedy of humanity”.

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Figure 2. “The Dark Would, Nine Realms of Dead Poet, Version 1a 2013” by Mike Chavez-Dawson

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Figure 3. “The Dark Would, Nine Realms of Dead Poet, Version 1a 2013: Stein” by Mike Chavez-Dawson

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Figure 4. “The Dark Would, Nine Realms of Dead Poet, Version 1a 2013: Dickinson” by Mike Chavez-Dawson

One exhibit namely “The Dark Would, Nine Realms of Dead Poet, Version 1a 2013” by Mike Chavez-Dawson, is a series of Rorschach abstract paintings constructed entirely from the names of dead poets, handwritten in wet blue paint, it appears like the cells of nuclei, or vessels of the human body, conjured from text form. The work inspired by Dante “teetering between comprehension and experience”, draws from “memories of the dead poets’ work”. It is the immateriality represented in the work, and the immateriality of the work itself, which once the show concludes will be burnt, before being remade again for another showing of the work, that engages with the theme of reincarnation and mortality. As the exhibition finds its central nexus in “Dante’s Inferno”, it talks personally about the middle-ness of a life, a state of “in-between-ness” as the synopsis states. Sufficiently as the wood,  depicted by Dante where the protagonist finds himself and, “where the straight way was lost”, the forms in “Nine Realms of Dead Poet” are in a state of transformation upon the page, as state of forming, out of formlessness, or forming back to formlessness, like the early universe. The nuclei the artist conjures through paint are both saturated with the meaning of the dead, and also bereft of it, and this is a notion that the text from “Dante’s Inferno” engages with, the paradoxical state of “in-between-ness”, a no man’s lands of the soul. The metaphor for language as a human body, is explicitly demonstrated in this work, with the forms of names, becoming the forms of departed bodies, and departed language and words uttered in the written word.

It is the word, and the place of forming and formlessness that seems to ignite both the cognitive and material sensibilities that “The Dark Would” portrays. It is in fact this moment of creation that epitomises both the artist and the world as a synthesis between the hand and the act of creation. John the 1st the Bible immediately comes to mind. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The Bible, NIV, John 1) “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The words in “The Dark Would” are both fleshly and spiritual, as they depict, as Davenport suggests what is perhaps the great tragedy of the human condition, the cognitive awareness that “you will not always be here”.

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Figure 5. “The Secret” (2004) by Marton Koppany.

As you will reluctantly leave behind the great tome of “Dante’s Inferno” you then ascend the stairs and you will come across two giant sets of gaping parentheses, brackets leaving the gap for nothing between them save for a doorway, upon which you reside (“The Secret”). The first room you come upon featuring a site based poem installation piece by Stephen Emmerson entitled “Albion”, is as much about engagement with that beyond the living as many of the other works in “The Dark Would”. Assembled from a sheet of plastic cloth, with four typewriters at each corner, and a pentagram at its centre, Emmerson’s “Albion”, invites viewer participation to engage with the work of William Blake, “the visionary English poet and artist”. “Participants can channel Blake, using the pentagram and typewriters.” During my visit to the exhibition I saw a few people tapping away fervently trying to construct their own poetic work to mirror the exhibits desire.

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Figure 6. “Albion” by Stephen Emmerson

Upon entering a large hallway room, that is at the top level on the Upper Church Gallery of Summerhall, a room filled with art and lofty beams hung across the ceiling, you see works from Simon Patterson in “Black-List: Henry’s Older Child, Black-List Elaine & Saul Bass, 2006”. “Blacklist” (2006) as exhibited here, consists of two large scale canvas works from Patterson, which is part of a series of 10 paintings, in the “Blacklist” series, the paintings depict scrolling semi-fictitious title credits for films painted on black, emulating the theatrical cinema screen. The names of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, actors and cast and crew are depicted, and Patterson’s anamorphosis and combination of multiple film titles enables him to create his own unique credits. The credit paintings in “Blacklist” are in part a commentary on the paratexts surrounding the work of film or art, and in the short accompanying book for “Blacklist”, contains an essay examining these associations, of the paratextual work that surrounds the main predominant work of art.

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Figure 7. Simon Patterson “Black-List

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Figure 8. Simon Patterson “Black-List

The notion of the paratext is later examined in a work “Holocaust Museum” (2011) by Robert Fritterman that reframes captions of holocaust photographs from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The textual work in captions once again re-imagines in this case pictorial rather than motion picture work, through textual means, thus providing the audience’s imagination a place to fill in the visual images in their mind’s eye, as well as commenting on the nature re-contextualised image as a translation from the spectatorial pictorial dimension, to the text based imaginative realm. The work reminded me of references for a dissertation or essay work, and the seemingly autocratic system of categorisation juxtaposed with the emotions of the content.

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Figure 9. “Holocaust Museum” (2011) by Robert Fritterman

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Figure 10. “The Secret” (2004) by Marton Koppany.

On the wall of the room is a print of the parentheses work “The Secret” mentioned previously. All encompassing these three mirrored sets of brackets leave the opening and room for a place of philosophical and existential questioning, in a sense that is what “Dante’s Inferno” verse alludes to, the notion of finding yourself in a dark wood. Here, perhaps the parentheses describe something of a forest, where the gaping void between them, serves as the human place of interior and physical geographical respite, as if the human rests, inclined among the typography itself. Brackets become trees, typographical symbols surrounding our former use, entrapping us in the dark wood, upon which we are left to make our own content for the vessel of the parentheses to hold. “The Secret is wordless, and in a sense imageless… The absence of other text or symbols means the brackets could be linguistic or mathematical, though their order doesn’t conform to the normal hierarchy of either content.” “The Secret” conceives a “dialogue between presence and absence”, “a dialogue between “poetry (textual, visual or concrete) and visual art”, between “space and mark” and between “present and possible futures.” (Matt Dalby, April 28th 2013). The positioning of the parentheses at the entrance to the Upper Gallery of the exhibition configures that passage and the exhibition as a place for philosophical questioning, as if the Summerhall exhibition is its self, a dark wood, or a dark “would” a possibility upon which to conceive, and imagine possible futures through re-contextualisation, and the gaping hole between the brackets is therefore a metaphorical passage for the questioning to take place. The parentheses presence at the opening of the exhibition hall is as much trapping as liberating, with it signifying and emotional and architectural trapping, as if the artists of the exhibition are imprisoning the viewers in their wood, their lair of questioning.

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Figure 11. “A quilt for when you are homeless” (Arthur + Martha, 2012). By homeless people in Manchester in collaboration with arts organisation “arthur + martha”. 

In the centre of the exhibition floor is a handmade quilt work stitched by homeless people in Manchester, a work created in collaboration with arts organisation “arthur + martha”, the quilt  carries the words and thoughts of the homeless sown into its cloth. The work brings together different groups of people, and states of living, offering the viewer a place for recapitulation upon their own place and relation to these people, as well as providing a “keepsake, an offering” for when the writer and reader encounters emotional difficulty.

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Figure 12. “Imprisoned” book. By Richard Wentworth.

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Figure 13. “Imprisoned” book. By Richard Wentworth.

As you approach the far walls of the long Upper Church Gallery you will encounter a number of works by Richard Wentworth, that explore the trappings of the word. As we have previously established it is “The Dark Would” exhibition’s use of  “the material of language” as a “metaphor for human material, our own bodies”, that epitomises the trajectory of the works shown here, and “Plume”, (2011) and “Said the Spider to the Fly” (2013) works consisting of caged books explicitly display this metaphorical analogy. “Wentworth has made numerous works where dictionaries are forced to house ‘bookmarks’, which resolutely refuse to fit. As if this mixture of childlike joy and adult rage were not enough he has know started to ‘imprison’ books.” Wentworth’s imprisoned books, capture the spirit of the enclosed and the world beyond, they are configured as “lockable architectures”, and the visual concept of the cage draws attention to the dichotomy between the books outer exterior, the “face” and “visage” of its covers, and its interior organs, its pages. The book therefore becomes “an idea” a “concept” to be thought about, rather than an entity to be understood and apprehended. “These flexible wire enclosures enhance the book as an idea”, while its soul is lost and instead re-imagined and reconstituted in the eyes of the beholder. Wentworth thus re-contextualises the book as a desired and admired object, curiously through its entrapment, it is perhaps this that most fundamentally captures the relationship between the word and the body. The trapped book is idealised, and longed for, because it cannot be read, the form of the book betrays the forming or formless identity within its pages. It is as if the book itself was an idealised lover, waiting enigmatically yet unattainable, this lover and this object of desire is perhaps desired only because it cannot be entirely known, it cannot be touched, caressed or read through love – instead love is projected upon it, and dreams and desires are found in the mind’s eye of the beholder of the desired lover. Therefore, Richard Wentworth’s trapped book works provoke a dialogue between the identity of the spectator and the spectated, the lover and the loved who cannot meet, but can only meet in the ephemeral instance of a gaze. Instead the lover and the loved are consoled through envisionment and imagination of the other, and perhaps this is ultimately what Davenport’s “The Dark Would” strives to capture and instil; namely the relation between confounded words and images of words, that seem to be speaking a complex and sometimes paradoxical language. To the extent that “the material of language is a metaphor for human material, our own bodies”, Wentworth’s trapped book assimilates a metaphorical dialogue with the conversations of human actuality. The desired body of the book, and the desiring body of the lover enact the body language of looks and glances of attraction, it is the dichotomy between this oftentimes deceptive body language and the interior world of the intellect that transpires this conversation, between aesthetic and interior meaning, provoking lies, truths and the visions that they capture. The body language metaphor for the trapped book stratifies the ideal of this emergent desire to capture language both pictorially and intellectually, and it also suggests a very physical relationship that is thematic throughout this exhibition, this sensory physical relationship is also captured expressively by Richard Long’s textual walk art pieces.

As the book of “Dante’s Inferno” lies open and vulnerable, to the eyes of the observer, as if displaying all of its internal organs as pages for us to see, it is Wentworth’s trapped book that coheres with this act of seeing, and this act of apprehending that the exhibition first drew us into; and it is certainly the act of contemplation of the reemergence of the self, and desires for the future that the “dark wood” (“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods / where the straight way was lost.”) seeks to illuminate. We as viewers are both the prey and the predator, we enact looking like hunting and being addressed with the vision of art as being hunted.

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Figure 14. “Chasm of Lethe” (2012) by Eric Zboya.

At one side of the hall your eyes will drift across a work by Eric Zboya entitled the “Chasm of Lethe” (2012), the work is an abstract and exploded form, in a virtual sculpture of two dimensions, the work takes the text from Dante and reconfigures it in sculptural form. The work displays a transfusion of text and the visual, to the extent that the visual has become the text and the text has become the visual. The manifest intimacy between textual and visual forms is so intense that the two mediums have wholly become each other, and it is as if they have given birth to an offspring that shares their traits and genetics, this is perhaps evident in the lines and letter like resembling forms that Zboya’s “Chasm of Lethe” is constructed from.

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Figure 15. “ONE HOUR SIXTY MINUTE WALK ON DARTMOOR, 1984” by Richard Long.

In the Lower Gallery of Summerhall are two large works from Richard Long, separated by 60 years the works are formed as huge circles of descriptive words, desiring two walks, a “ONE HOUR SIXTY MINUTE WALK ON DARTMOOR, 1984” and “HUMAN NATURE WALK, TWENTY ONE WALKING DAYS ON THE HIGHVELD ON TWO PROPERTIES WITHIN THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND, SOUTH AFRICA 2011.” The circular works evoke images of the texture and sensory aspects of walking, providing a circular immersive impression of the act of walking as an engagement with the senses of the activities of nature, the birds, the trees, and the ground beneath the feet. Long’s works attribute to the sensory aspects of living and the motion of walking, in hearing, feeling, sensing, touching, looking and apprehending the world around us. As we have seen through analysis of previous works, such as “Holocaust Museum” for example, it is the images that the text conjures that is part of the illusion that text art offers, and Long’s circular text art certainly reconfigures some of that kinetic energy of walking and motion, both in the rhythm of the words when they are read, and in the visual display of the words, in their circular form which provides them with energy. Long’s words, both speak to something of the human body as a locale for words, and also the physical sensibilities of the human body in the world as it engages in physical heat, exhaustion and splendour with the tactile real world of South Africa. As the synopsis of the exhibition suggests  that “the material of language is a metaphor for human material, our own bodies.” Long’s text art can be seen to epitomise this. Like the “bodies” of the dead poets in “Nine Realms of Dead Poet”, Long evokes the nature of being alive, and the awareness that you are alive, tingling with the senses of actuality, as you pass through the world on the kinetic and mobilising journey of taking a walk.

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Figure 16. “HUMAN NATURE WALK, TWENTY ONE WALKING DAYS ON THE HIGHVELD ON TWO PROPERTIES WITHIN THE CRADLE OF HUMANKIND, SOUTH AFRICA 2011.” By Richard Long.

In the “The Dark Would” volume 2, Carol Watts eloquently describes such a process that Long’s works manifest, “What might it mean to walk with Richard Long? I am thinking here of walking as a transposition in the carrying of through of thought. A spatial poesis for limbs. Along and between an assembling of forms, from the unwitnessed event of a making in the natural environment, to its visual registries as photograph, text and sculpture.” The assembling of the medium of the world, as registered through senses, is conceived in the act of walking and as “Nine Realms of Dead Poet” suggests, it is this forming of forms, and breakage of formlessness, back to formlessness as a reincarnation process, that the circle offers us; for the circle is a re-incarnatory medium for visual display, as its reading forms a process of a never ending return to starting again at the beginning. As bodies walk through time, confronting both themselves in others and in nature, so do bodies walk through a sea of words, as evoked in the numerous text-art found in this exhibition, and the circular pieces mobilise the viewers’ eye as it traverses across their words, taking the eye for a walk.

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Figure 17. “I used To” (2013) By Sarah Sanders.

In the hallway at the centre of the Lower Galleries you will come across a large text art work by Sarah Sanders, “I used To” (2013), the work consists of sentences beginning with “I used to…” and then following with a statement such as, “I used to be ashamed”, being and example the artist provides in a video for the Internet channel Summerhall TV (2013), these seemingly personal statements are emblazoned upon the wall, in black paint, their barely legible dripping letters running tears of paint down the wall surface. Sander’s work epitomises something of the impossibilities and possibilities of language both as a executory and a recreational medium. Sander’s use of “I used to” configures an element of time and identity, as she looks back at a past self or identity of her artistic self.  Once again mobilising the theme of “Dante’s Inferno”, the work “I used To” is a place for interior recapitulation and reflection. Sander’s words become vehicles to mobilise temporal looking as well as aesthetic surface looking, and the visage or face of the words themselves clearly attribute to that ideal; their dripping quality signifying something of the untamed nature of the soul, that does not want to admit its suffering, its woes or its misdemeanours.

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Figure 18. “Scrapheap Services” (1996) by Mike Landy.

As much as literature and language are fundamental aspects of human culture, and we have seen the displayed synthesis and disparities between what is said through language and through the facade or aesthetics of language, two artworks explicitly display these ideals. One by Mike Landy in “Scrapheap Services” (1996), and the other a poster graphic design comic strip by Revue Litteraire Letteriste for Directeur Alain Satie. Landy’s “Scrapheap Services” poster fantastically depicts various emblems of British culture and nature and even humans being swept or conferred into trash mounds. The work depicts workers sweeping letters and miniature human bodies into trash heaps and trash bags. “Scrapheap Services” suggests both the potency of language as a very physical, affective material and fabric of society, and the intimate relation between humans and words, suggests profoundly by words and humans sharing garbage heaps and being disposed of as seemingly equal entities.

The Revue Litteraire Letteriste comic strip is adorned with letters, that seem to transfuse and mitigate with the identity of the protagonists, displaying language as an affective sexual, communicative, and intellectual ideal that actually becomes part of the anatomy of characters’ faces and visages.

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Figure 19. Susan Hiller’s “From India to the Planet Mars, 1997-2004.”

The significance of the aesthetic facade of letters is continued in the work of Susan Hiller’s “From India to the Planet Mars, 1997-2004.” The work consists of twelve text art drawings made upon black, with illuminated light-boxes that catch the white highlights; the work displays some of the relationships between writing and drawing, her works are automatic, and capture the effervescence of the two mediums where letters turn into drawings and drawings into letters. To return to the relation between the purely aesthetic and the aesthetic meaning that lies beneath the facade of these artworks, Hiller’s work reminds us of the nature and proximity of meaning and form, where typography, drawing and meaning seem fundamentally interlinked. As in the previous example of Sanders, “I used To”, the artist uses words and images interchangeable to evoke and capture ideals and emotions. Moreover, Hiller’s work captures something of relationships between people, as well as depicting images alluding to the greater universe and the cosmos.

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Figure 20. Jenny Holzer’s “Lustmond”, (1999)

No other work than Jenny Holzer’s “Lustmond”, (1999) in the exhibition epitomises more explicitly that dichotomy between the beauty of form and aesthetics and the horror of meaning and content. The tiny LED display work from 1999 is a small screen with scrolling and mesmerising lettering that flashes in multiple colours and provides a seductive immersive rhythm, yet upon closer inspection the text’s content is a response to violence against women in war. The significance of Holzer’s image work lies in its ability to confront and transform viewers expectations and preconceived notions surrounding beauty and brutality. While the scrolling texts offers a mesmerising visual sanctuary for the ocular organs, it shatters the seductive framework of this aesthetic beauty, with the savagery of content, and the actual reading and apprehension of language. Thus Holzer counters the brutal message of language with an aesthetic facade of visual language, that betrays its wanton form. With allusions to the title of Marton Koppany’s parenthesis work “The Secret”, Holzer’s light display, holds its secret within the ever evolving boundaries of form and content.

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Figure 21. Book of Stephane Mallarme (Heart Fine Art archive, 1842-1898) poems.

You will turn to your right and out of the corner of your eye entrap a curious object in your gaze. Sitting beside Jenny Holzer’s “Lustmond” and dominating the room in this Summerhall exhibition, is a book of Stephane Mallarme (Heart Fine Art archive, 1842-1898) poems kept in a cage, the poems were some of the first to pioneer a visual approach to the layout of a poem on the page, where liberated words would form positioning without the spatial constraints of traditional verse layout. Like Richard Wentworth’s “Plume”, (2011) and “Said the Spider to the Fly”, (2013) the caged book communicates notions of the written language the liberation and entrapment that it provides us with. The free flowing spatial cartography of Mallarme’s poems, represent the ability for poems and literature to take us into a liberated world of our mind, while the surrounding cage represents the physical world of our reality which is sometimes guarded from our dreams.

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Figure 22. “The Eaten Heart” (2013) by Carolyn Thompson.

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Figure 23. “The Eaten Heart” (2013) by Carolyn Thompson.

In a small darkened room you will wander through a collection of figurative exhibits, predominately mannequins wearing T-shirts displaying philosophical slogans, and a small exhibit will catch you attention. Barely recognisable at first, this exhibit does not immediately stand out. However, upon closer inspection you realise that “The Eaten Heart” (2013) by Carolyn Thompson directly confronts and epitomises the central central themes of “The Dark Would”. Consisting of a small softback Penguin book whose pages and words have been removed “with the use of a scalpel” , the book is left interred in a skeletal form, that leaves only words that “pertain to body parts”. The book “The Eaten Heart” is in itself the artists’ adaptation of Penguin Great Loves version of Giovanni Boccacio’s “The Eaten Heart: Unlikely Tales of Love.” As the synopsis suggests, it is “By removing these words from their (former) context and grouping them together, (that) their significance changes dramatically, celebrating the abundant innuendo in Boccacio’s original text.” What “The Eaten Heart” captures is the notion of the exhibition’s central metaphor, that of the words on a page and the anatomy of the book resembling the human body. Thompson strips away the primary flesh of the text, so that all that remains is the consistent skeleton, perhaps suggesting and questioning the nature of the skeleton as being what we are remembered for. The words in themselves conjuring aspects of human anatomy, body, heart, fingers, bosom, corpse, eyes, hair, ass, skin, teeth, tongue, lips, cock, flesh, blood, hands, mouth, save to stratify that despite the entity of the human body being a vehicle for thought, this is what it has ultimately been deprived of through death. No longer a cognitive thinking being the skeletal body, consists of pure remains, or the remains of thought, like the remains of thought evident in this book, and the gaping holes for its lost mourned for text. It is interesting to note that while many of the parts of the human body, are those that would be lost in skeletal remains (hair, flesh, heart, blood), themselves evident viscera organs and liquids that exist only in the alive body, it is also the absence of the thinking cognitive organs such as the brain, the rational organs that we use to comprehend that we are alive, that epitomises the betrayal of the thinking, cognitive human. Despite the heart connotations prevalent here. If the “Eaten Heart” is both a twofold eulogy to the mortality of language and ourselves, it is also an emblem of the demise of meaning, when the soul is lost. Dante’s Inferno, “In the middle of this our mortal life, / I found me in a gloomy wood, astray” seeks to comprehend and discover the identity of the human spirit, and perhaps this is the miscarriage of walking lost into the darkened forest, the fundamental stripping away of organs, of the heart and the flesh among them, as a revival to the absolute nature of the human condition and what is means to be alive, and to enact living upon all things.

When you emerge from the dark wood, perhaps you will breathe more slowly as you have traversed that midway period of contemplation, and have learnt many things about yourself along the journey. Only, it is now time to find the way you were searching for.

Reading the dark wood: An analysis of “The Dark Would” art exhibition (2013)

Essay and accompanying illustrative images by Ad Howells, 2013.

“The Dark Would” runs from Sat 07 Dec 2013 to Fri 24 Jan 2014 at Summerhall, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom.

Full details and video about the exhibition are available from the Summerhall website at www.summerhall.co.uk.

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Find a place for weeping: A journey through Jupiter Artland

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Figure 1. The tree above the artwork “In Memory” by Nathan Coley

Me and my Dad recently visited Jupiter Artland which is a large, beautiful park area outside Edinburgh hosting a series of predominately sculptural art pieces. I last visited the park five years ago in 2009. Looking back at my photographic images captured in 2009, it was a beautiful sunny day. However, our visit on the 15th September 2013, was the last day on which Jupiter Artland was open for the autumn before it closes for the winter period from September to February, and it was a day filled with dramatic outbursts of rain and mist covering large “life mounds” these large plateaued hills create a fascinating green landscape of sculptural abstract grass.

As we made our way along the path through Jupiter Artland we came across the first piece of art consisting of a large metal cage that holds a large piece of square grass within it, and a hole into stone constructed hole that leads down into the earth. Perhaps this piece entitled Suck by Anish Kapoor (figure 2.) is suggestive of a prison which presents a locale for escape only in the form of a hole to swallow or, dissipate the prisoner to another earthly realm below the ground.

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Figure 2. Suck by Anish Kappor.

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Figure 3. Firmament (2008) by Anthony Gormley.

Wandering through the beautiful forests of the park, in the grey gloom of this overcast day, I spot the next piece slowly emerging from the thicket of trees. This Anthony Gormley sculpture entitled Firmament (2008) of a vast giant figure of a man lying down upon the grass; this piece solely constructed from metal, is a depiction both of the importance and the futility of a humans place within its kind and hostile world. Gormley’s art piece inhabits a sculptural world where gestures are yielded and broken. The figures metal construction creates a paradoxical place for a questioning between the material weight of the gesture of this reclining figure and the universe where it resides. The wire-like structure of the figure’s body leaves gaps for air and sky to seep through, both creating an abstraction and a sense of immaterial weight, a place in which the body is present but also absent. Gormley therefore entertains a questioning of the body as a site for reemergence and passage in addition to the materiality and the carnal physique of the physical body. The body therefore becomes a site for the world, in this case the sky and the clouds to look into the interior anatomy of the body itself, indicating its sculptural qualities entwined among the form of the landscape. The landscape of the world and the landscape of the post-womb body are in this way transfused as an exchangeable identity, a kind of casting of impressions of the human animal, upon the nature from which it was born. The positioned gesture of the figure is indicative of an act of looking towards the earth, thus contemplating the natural, material world, the place where it will materially end it’s life. While the sky above it transfigures, another identity, that which is incarnated in the soul of every human, the sky and the air become a transgressive, escapist realm; now which Gormley’s sculptural incarnation indicates is living inside the soul of this transfigured human body. Living through the gaps in the creature’s anatomy, are those passages for air and reflection, that however belied, are resting somewhere beneath the creature’s conscience, in a place that remains still mentally touchable for the creature, despite the creature’s seemingly despairing demeanour. (Figure 4.)

“Gaps of sky seemed poised for a site of new entry, creating a kind of emergent travesty of the human body, where the body is an immaculate material fabric for possession, obstruction, action and inaction, and the soul flies from it, gaping at its ardour of the earth, and the sordid physicality of the utterances of arms and legs upon the earth, which the material body will eventually rot into.”

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Figure 4. Firmament (2008)

Gormely remarks upon this sculptural work to the notion that it poses a thought process  “…about the endless condition of the sky and the conditioned space of architecture.” The sites of entry into the body of the sculptural, remind the viewer of Gormely’s principle ideal – that of the body and the soul, and how the sculptural place where the body is situated defines this body-soul relationship. Gormely’s sculpture indicates that the artist not only sculpts physical matter, but he also sculpts air. Gaps of sky seemed poised for a site of new entry, creating a kind of emergent travesty of the human body, where the body is an immaculate material fabric for possession, obstruction, action and inaction, and the soul flies from it, gaping at its ardour of the earth, and the sordid physicality of the utterances of arms and legs upon the earth, which the material body will eventually rot into. The soul sees them as effigies that can only travel so far, before the soul carries them to a realm that is strange and new.

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Figure 5. Firmament (2008)

The shadows upon the ground beneath the sculpture indicate this facility between physical structure and invisible presence. (Figure 5.) In the ardour of this physical structure, light is seen both through the gaping holes in the body’s structure, but also in the effect it has in creating the shadows upon the ground. Light creates this medium for transference between these two actualities, permeating the landscape with imprints of the interior and exterior of form and their realities.

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Figure 6. Weeping girls: Laura Ford

The exhibition at Jupiter Artland is not only a place for a enacting contemplation, is is also a place for weeping. After you have travelled off on a path into the forest, you eventually come to see some grey figures of weeping girls situated in relevant places in the landscape. These figures in Weeping Girls by Laura Ford are mostly depicted with their heads down and their long hair obscuring their faces, both concealing their expressions but also allowing their emotions to be read without these signs of facial expression. The girls are weeping in the landscape, but as much as they attempt to disguise their sorrow or pain, they cannot escape the enormity of the landscape that now contains and is permeated with their interior suffering. It is therefore when the viewer reflects on the landscape and watches the girls weeping within it, that the audience transforms their perceptions of this surrounding environment. The environment becomes a vessel or container, not unlike the body, upon which thoughts are felt, blamed, praised and ingrained within. The external environment becomes a repository for tears, a place where tears evoked by thoughts, emotions and memories, some derived from far of places are inflected, resonated and then shattered. The act of mourning transforms this external environment, clothing it in the invisible spaces of other times past in seconds, years, or decades.

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Figure 7. Stone House, Bonnington by Andy Goldsworthy. External source: Jupiter Artland website.

After emerging out of the landscape of the Weeping Girls, we come across a stone house (Stone House, Bonnington) by Andy Goldsworthy, when you enter the house you realise that instead of the occupants and evidence of a human dwelling, the interior is filled with a rough undulating landscape of stone, as it has become reoccupied by nature. Not only does the interior of the house startle the viewer, it suggests both the harmony and the disharmony of humans living beside nature, both questioning our identity within the landscape of the natural world.

While I indicated how Gormley’s Firmament sculpture of a single figure alone in the landscape,  showed how the merger of landscape and human form, is ascribed through the construction of gaps and spaces within the figure for nature to reengage, both as metaphors for spiritual reengagement, and as reclaim of the material world in decomposition of the body, Goldswothy’s Stone House depicts such a human-nature engagement in a different way. The contrast between Firmament and Stone House is displayed partially through the viewers differing visual-physical participation in the work; instead of observing gaps in the anatomy of the figure, the viewer observes a direct physical incision or kinetic trajectory into the landscape of the sculpture, culminating in a “meeting point” in the a physical threshold of the doorway as a place to question domesticity and the environment. Therefore, Gormley’s and Goldswothy’s works are both about the portals of incisions of gaps and doorways, but they are achieved through different invitations into the sculptural works physical and visual viewing experiences.

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Figure 8. The interior of Stone House, Bonnington by Andy Goldsworthy.

Goldsworthy’s Stone House, explicitly depicts a transfusion between the domesticity and comfort of the primarily human construction and inhabited domain of the house, with the invasion of nature, a natural world from which this human domain was sourced and constructed from. Goldswothy states, “There is something unnerving about entering a building in which nature is the occupant” and this work is sufficiently concerned with the edifice of human activity, as it is with the edifice of humans’ conception of their own identity. The sculptural and the three-dimensional nature of the artwork elegantly portray both a temporal dimension to the artwork and a temporal dimension to the viewing experience of the artwork. The nature of the expectations of the house is questioned, through the use of sculptures’ kinetic and tactile means of revelation. Upon viewing the house from outside, you immediately accept it as a means to cultivate and protect human life, both in its ability to shelter, retain warmth and provide comfort and you can also reflect on its place within the landscape of nature. However, as you step through the threshold of the doorway, you realise that these assumptions have been fundamentally questioned, namely that nature lives inside humans’ construction.

The sculpture both invites and thrives upon the human viewer’s discursive movement through it, creating a shift in the perception of the viewer as they move from the outside before the threshold towards the interior beyond. This kinetic movement is a vehicle that both demolishes and reconfigures perception of the domestic and the wild environment and it achieves this through the free will of human engagement, in a revelation of information in resting in the bedrock of time. The invitation of the doorway provokes a sense of carrying the weight of thoughts of the outside world into the interior space. The sculpture that thrives on this spatial and temporal relation, displays not only this invitation for revelatory sense of kinetic movement, but also a temporal contrast between the lasting time of the stone, and the lasting time of the wood of the house’s roof. However, the Stone House is ultimately a place of reengagement between nature and humans, as Goldsworthy states, “These houses become a forum in which the nature of the place and human nature meet.”

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Figure 9. In Memory by Nathan Coley and the surrounding landscape situating the art piece.

Following the trail through the beautiful forest to our next destination, there is a lustre in the air and the sound of wind whipping up the grasses of this September day, the sky is close to crying from the grey clouds, adorning an ashen hue to the faint, withering complexion of the trees. As you venture deeper into the forest, and follow this trail, you come to a small clearing off one side of the forest. By now the ashen hues of the sky are subdued and sunlight rakes through a skeletal tree that stands naked without its leaves, in contrast to the clothed trees surrounding the form of it. The lack of leaves and the shape of the branches, allow for an admiration of the form and structure of the tree, as it seems to touch the sky. Below the tree is a small stone structure with a narrow opening, inside there are gravestones, an art piece In Memory by Nathan Coley – this is another repository for human grieving, in continuing the theme established by the artworks Firmament and Weeping Girls. (Figures 9 and 1) It is as if the tree has been touched in some way by the connotations provoked by the place where it resides; here I find another place where the environment bends and transforms to the identity it hosts and lives. Rain builds, culminating in a torrential downpour, as a group of children and tourists cower beside the walls of this austere spectacle.

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Figure 10. The path through the art trail in Jupiter Artland (2013).

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Figure 11. Over Here by Shane Waltener.

Walking along the path and picking up the trail, I come across a gathering of trees looking onto a golden field; in the background are bales of harvest and between the trees I can discern a giant cobweb created from nylon, the work entitled Over Here, by Shane Waltener. (Figure 11) If these works have so far been about finding the self, displaying emotions of grief and weeping, but also entertaining the notion of capturing, and transfiguring our emotions through art, then this piece exemplifies this last ability to capture and transform. The giant cobweb as a work of art not only captures the insects it was designed for, but it also captures our sense of viewing the world. The web creates a place for looking. It is hard to recognise the web in the trees as you approach it, but as it catches the light, you can differentiate the whiteness of nylon from the whiteness of the sky. The illusion the web creates, of the seen and the unseen as a place of deception, creates a space for optical disguise and optical transmutability. As the web transfigures a site of optical visibility and invisibility, the work goes further in such an exploration. The transparency of the web, allows the external backdrop of the environment behind it to be viewed and in this way the web, in all of its immateriality, briefly optically transforms the landscape which it veils, as if it is capturing the landscape itself; capturing all of vision and enslaving it to the complex labyrinthine fabric of the web. The viewed world, from this position is only articulated clearly through the view of the circular hole in the centre of the web, a place both for the eye and the insect to escape. As insects might weep in the web, with the notion of capture invading their minds, the eye is caught briefly by the aesthetics of web as it lingers on its complex patterns and shapes, before traversing it like the insect, as it explores its intricate passageways and routes.

The web as art displays a conjecture of immateriality, but it also preserves the notion of its endurance as an art piece. This nylon web lasts longer than many of the insects it attempts to capture; yet the web seems unable to temporally capture the landscape it straddles, to the changing nature of seasons and time. When I looked at images captured in the summer of 2009, I saw a green field of summer in the background, but bales of the recent harvest covered the field of this 2013 visit.

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Figure 12. Cells of Life by Charles Jencks.

Passing this sculpture and wandering back into the forest, there was time to admire the grey leaden sky and follow the path to the next destination. As you emerge from the trees, there are two giant masses of plateaued grass, these hills offer a portal into the world of Charles Jencks’ landscape artwork entitled, “Cells of Life”. (Figure 12). This last piece examines the interior anatomy of the body, by externalising it in eight landforms, with a connecting causeway round four lakes with flat summits, creating multiple locales for reflection upon the paradoxically smallest and microcosmic structure of the life-form itself. The thematic concept of the work is the notion of describing the life of a cell through the principle of a single cellular division called mitosis. The concentric circles that make up these landmasses conceive a relation to the many organelles present inside the units of life and from an above view the anatomy of this landscape can be discerned as a representation of the early divisions of the cell into membranes and nuclei. (Jupiter Artland website). As much as this sculptural and architectural work “is a landform celebration of the cell as the basis of life” (Jupiter Artland website, 2013), it is also a piece that engages a place for self-reflexivity to take place. The works’ integration with the landscape, and the audience’s interaction with the work, form a two-way dialogue with the work. As people wander through this work and explore the interior anatomy from which they are part, the externalising and enlarging process confronts the schema for identity, as a locale for interior reflection. Interior reflection seems caught in the vestiges that this landscape leaves imprinted upon us both visually and viscerally as we walk through this world. I could not help but recognise the sense of curious naive exploration of the small gathering of people in the rain. There is certainly a feeling of naivety at what you are looking at, when you are unfamiliar with the structure of cells, but the landscape exudes another kind of primeval impression upon you, as you encounter something unknown yet so close inside you, as a revelatory structure that is part of your body and every living organism. The space Jencks creates is as much about contemplation as traversal; the narrow causeway that runs through the lakes, creates a sense of intimate incision into the landscape, a dimensional portal into a unknown world. A curving, spiral path that climaxes in a small summit of a hill, appears like an ammonite, one of the most primal forms of life, and a fold in the plateau presents a border in the cell wall of an organism.

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Figure 13. A view from above one of the cell resembling structures in “Cells of Life” by Charles Jencks.

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Figure 14. Cells of Life by Charles Jencks.

Unlike Kappors’ prison resembling work, Suck, Jenks Cells of Life is not a place of entrapment of stratification, Cells of life, assumes expanse, growth and immersion. The path of the narrow causeways and the spiralling forms of the life mounds themselves, entertain and engage with the encouraged notion of “taking a walk”, the sense of moving three-dimensionally through space, both physically and in the optical-haptic engagement of vision upon the visuality of the art, creates a sense of liberation provoking a thought of celebration, and evoking the concept of interior growth. (Figure 14). Three-dimensional movement both creates a kinetic sense of aesthetic pleasure but also engages fervently with the viewing experience as a mode of discovery and the recovery of ideas. These landmasses offer both climaxes of looking at their summits, where you can experience the cartography of the landscape in its whole, as a synecdoche at the cellular level, and a climatic build up to this moment of omnipresent altitude. (Figure 13). The passages formed by walking both stimulate the mind, and the desire to reach conclusions, those that may be gained from the geographical view above; however Cells of Life does not answer questions but poses them, it creates questions of form and identity, and our place within that world and identity, by engaging with these concepts both schematically and subconsciously. The organic nature of the life forms nurtures our walk, and the unique line we choose to take through it, helps to shape both the landscape and our conceptions of it. During my journey I was fascinated by the sheep that would run up the sides of these structures, seeming as enthralled by the work as humans, as the sheep explored another territory outside the prison of their enclosure. It was a moment that spoke perhaps the the universality of Jencks’ artwork, and our continued captivation and allure to it, derived from its address to the most fundamental building blocks of life. Walking across a small bridge that straddles one of Jencks’ incarnated cellular structures, I recognised the experience that the bridge represented – that notion of travelling to another unknown place beyond the mist, that the bridge hopes to symbolically depict.

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Figure 15. Cells of Life by Charles Jencks.

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Figure 16. Cells of Life by Charles Jencks.

The idea of travelling to another place, and reviewing the world with a fresh outlook are what these works by, Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormely, Laura Ford, Nathan Coley, Shane Waltener and Charles Jenk’s, respectively, Suck, Firmament (2008), Weeping Girls, In Memory, Over Here and Cells of Life have fundamentally engaged with. The act of looking becomes a fundamental preoccupation for these artists; and following the trail through the forest and landscape of Jupiter Artland offers momentary glimpses into the artist’s notions of identity, place, space and time, as the journey describes an evolution in different themes and modes of looking and reflecting in awe. The Cells of Life is not a place for weeping, but a place for the celebratory, and the act of being induced to wonder or incredulity at the spectacle of these giant cellular building blocks of life. However, perhaps it is therefore a place for a different kind of weeping; if Jencks offers us a place to weep, both cartographically, situated in physical space and in our mental landscape, it is a place to weep in joy, crying warm tears of cathartic optimism.

Image sources

Images 1-6 and 8-16 are original photography by Ad Howells (2013).

Image 7. Stone House, Bonnington by Andy Goldsworthy. External source: Jupiter Artland website.

Exhibition: “From Death to Death and other small tales”

Art

Ernesto Neto “It happens when the body is anatomy of time” (2000). “From Death to Death and other small tales” Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

The piece resembled parts of the human body – membranes, tissue, organs, construed in the fabric of lycra, dwarfing the spectator who travels beneath it and finds an intimate experience, the odour of clove, cumin and turmeric rising from the bottom of large skin like amorphous pillars, grafts of protruding tissue in a kind of temple to the body itself.

The exhibition

The exhibition “From Death to Death and other small tales” (Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection) at the Edinburgh National Gallery of Modern Art is a fascinating exhibition, a poetic study of the mortality, sex, and fragility of the human body as a container, organism, and vehicle for other states of consciousness. Each piece established and then develops upon the condition of the human body, whether through the fabric of suggestion and subtlety, or in its creation if a direct statement or question towards the viewer.

I often find with these forms of conceptual art that reading the text beside the piece informs so much of my experience of viewing the work itself. In many cases it entirely transforms my perception and comprehension of the work, becoming an evolving schematic process of looking and apprehending. From Picasso’s “Nu Assis” (Seated Nude; 6 June 1969) which is in part a figurative portrait of Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline Roque, to Duchamps “Fountain” (1917/1964), the exhibition spanned a plethora of artists who confront modernity and the human form. One of the largest works was Ernesto Neto’s large sculptural work entitled “It happens when the body is anatomy of time” (2000). The piece resembled parts of the human body – membranes, tissue, organs, construed in the fabric of lycra, dwarfing the spectator who travels beneath it and finds an intimate experience, the odour of clove, cumin and turmeric rising from the bottom of large skin like amorphous pillars, grafts of protruding tissue in a kind of temple to the body itself.