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Wednesday 21 November 2012

Words on Wednesday: One writer to another

Borges to Bioy Casares: If you want to write, don't edit books or journals. Read and write.

Bioy Casares to Borges: That's why when one writes a lot, most of it's bad; you should see the books I published back then.

Borges to Bioy Casares: The sooner one can determine his shortcomings, the better. There was a time when I wrote using archaic Spanish, then the Buenos Aires street slang lunfardo, and even Vanguard expressions from the Ultraismo movement. When I run across similar writing, I remind myself that I'm free, because I already made those errors.

From the essay by Adolfo Bioy Casares, 'Books and Friendship' (1987)

Borges (left) and Bioy Casares (right)

Sunday 18 November 2012

Songs on Sunday: What I'm currently listening to

This should perhaps be retitled as 'How I'm currently listening to.'

I don't seem to be listening to my mp3's stored on my external hard drive anymore, and I still haven't bought a CD (except as a present) for quite a few years now. I suppose I just listen to music on YouTube, I don't even bother with Spotify or any music platform like that anymore (got sick of the adverts and they can be blocked on YouTube).

So, I listen to new music I find, like The Gaslamp Killer:

I like being able to discover new music on YouTube, mostly from watching a vlog from one the many music reviewers (the best being Anthony Fantano @ This makes me more likely to go see these bands or buy their music (although not in my case).

I also tend to seek out old tunes that I love, like this one by Martyn Bennett. Of whom I should really write a long review about the man and his music. He was an amazing musician and holds deep resonance in my life, for many reasons.

The good thing about music on YouTube is the possibility of people posting whole albums, although these seem to get blocked much quicker than single videos. Indeed, that is the whole problem with finding music (new or old) on YouTube. You might bookmark a video, or a couple of videos by an artist, but on returning after a week you find that several of your videos are now marked as a [deleted video] or [private video] or [unplayable video] as it now carries a copyright notification.

"The YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated due to multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement."

Once they're gone, it's total deletion, no record remains of what the video was (not in all cases, sometimes it remains, but won't play). So, unless you've an excellent memory of what video 17 in a playlist of 80 was, that band will probably stay forgotten.

Anyway, this isn't a post about open access or defending the right to download for free. I'm fairly ambivalent about these things, I can see that artists need to make a living as well. I'm less worried about record labels and whether the people making claims for copyright infringement are always representatives of a label or even have a just claim.

Monday 5 November 2012

Melancholy Mondays: Dead Dog

Earlier this year, as I've mentioned before, my dog died.

Some time ago I'd blogged about when he was quite ill, it made me think about the differences one has in experience between dealing with humans and animals one cares about when they are suffering.

Well, by way of coincidence, at the time my dog died this year, I was also grieving for the recent death of a very close friend. As I don't yet feel able to write directly about that particular experience, rather only mention it in passing, instead I'll talk now about the dog, Herman, and how a dog's life influenced a human's.

Where to begin? Let's start before I even met, and named, him. At the time I was reading a variety of literature; classic novels, folk tales, philosophy, anthropology, history, and the occult. I was intrigued by the notion of naming and one's living up to their name. If other people also believed in the destiny or worth of a name or title, might this increase the character of the name? Anyway, I found this passage in 'Transcendental Magic' by Eliphas Levi (which is, as one might expect, mostly bunkum):

The bull, the dog, and the goat are the three symbolical animals of Hermetic magic, resuming all the traditions of Eygpt and India. The bull represents the Earth or the salt of the philosophers; the dog is Hermanubis, the mercury of the sages – otherwise fluid, air and water; the goat represents fire and is at the same time the symbol for the generation. Two goats etc etc.

At any rate, I found the name of the dog and its possible shortened alternative, Herman, to be a most amusing choice for a dog name. The drawback? That I didn't presently own a dog.

Some time passes. During which I also discover that Hermanubis was a Greco-Egyptian god, combining (unsurprisingly) Hermes and Anubis. They both have similar roles and if, as I imagine, the idea was to aid cultural integration (I'm thinking Alexander invading Egypt), one can see them as an obvious amalgum. A historical myths textbook tells me (from memory) that Hermanubis wasn't as popular with the people as the other combination gods and was mostly forgotten. This obviously made me love the name more, an underdog god!? Awesome.

Anyway, also around that time, someone in Ayr probably found that their Staffordshire Bull Terrier was unwantedly pregnant. So, they dumped the new-born litter of six puppies in a bag by the river, the implications are obvious, but quite what happened is not. At any rate the local police found or were told about these puppies and they took them to a nearby veterinary surgery, where a friend of mine worked. Over the next five weeks my friend, with help from her husband and others, hand reared these mewling whelps. A task, if you have any knowledge of it, which is very tough and time consuming indeed. All six were successfully raised and, at the time I came to visit, half had found new homes.

Sadly I don't have any pictures of the puppy Hermanubis on my computer here, but he was the smallest, the runt of the litter, and as the previous dog we had owned, who had died young, around seven years previously, was also the runt I had decided I would pick a large powerful dog instead. When I got there there was indeed a big black puppy, two in fact, and a small brindle coloured puppy, who fought against his bigger brothers attempted bullying. The other dogs seemingly had no interest in me, being too easily distracted by food, but the little dog grabbed hold of my sock and wouldn't leave me alone. It soon became quite obvious that he had chosen me. Powerless to resist an 'attack of cute' I happily took the puppy home and showed him around his new garden (the bit were he nearly fell into the pond due to my negligence shall be stricken from the records).

Over the next few years, the now named Herman, became part of our small family unit. I didn't train him beyond the point of basic welfare, this not being practically useful, it is rather an exercise in needless domination of another living creature. Some people enjoy that, I don't really, this might also highlight my reluctance to even say that I 'own' a dog. I'd rather say that I help look after one, but that sounds dangerously wimpy.

However, in 2005, I went to University in Wales and left Herman behind. I'd see him over the summers and for short holidays, but he was really my mum's dog from that point on. Something that neither ever really got used to. So much so, that whenever I returned (including a longer stay winter to summer 2009-10) it would initiate a battle for dominance between them. I'm not sure mum was aware of this, but she always won anyway.

Earlier this year it became obvious to my mum that Herman was very ill indeed and in a great deal of pain. This was confirmed as a case of, quite advanced and quite terminal, cancer. After some time and some difficult telephone conversations we decided that all reasonable attempts to prolong his life and comfort him in his illness were at an end. However, rather than the stressful journey to the vet's surgery, she came to my mum's house and the veterinarian who had once raised him, now put him to sleep. A simple straightforward dog's life, only nine years alive, but in that time he had proved himself a good companion.

What influence might a dog have on a human life, beyond a purely practical one? Indeed, what sort of connection might there be between two different creatures?

It seems that there are various types of our emotional connections, not just within our human to human interactions but with other beings and things that share our world of care. These are all types of caring for an other we could say. The manner in which we care for a specific other individual, the personalised care we call love, seems different, for example, from the level of care we reserve for our friends. It is perhaps not wholly true to say we do not care for our friends individually, this only introduces a leveling in friendship, but we might still say that there is a level of caring we reserve for friendship, which is distinct from that for one's romantic partner (people can move about these levels too it seems, a lover becomes only a friend and a friend becomes a lover – more than friends).

So, we might label our emotional connections towards certain types of (human) individuals or people, but also there are also those connections with other beings (animals) and things (art or sport). We think that if something from this category were to be treated like the care we have for humans that there is something odd. In a certain sense this seems straightforwardly apparent, psychologists call it displacement, there is a definite absence in the person's life that they fill with an obsessive care for their poodle or their Porsche. Fine, but let's not talk about these extreme cases. What is the emotional cost for caring for an animal compared with a human? It is here that a certain type of philosopher or scientist will want an accurate measure to be made, such that we can make an accurate comparison. “How many dead strangers equal the emotional impact of one dead dog?” We want to somehow permanently fix and therefore accurately measure these phenomena so that we might be able to say with confidence that this is how it is. I can understand the want for clarity, isn't it at the basis for my discussing this subject? However, this cannot be achieved, for even one individual it is a life's task of self-evaluating and thought to discern how and why one thinks and feels the way they do towards the things they care about.

If I can't 'fix' it scientifically, indeed, if I've decided this is the opposite of what we want to achieve when thinking about situations like this, what can be said about this connection between person and dog?

Plato called the dog, the most philosophical of animals, and I agree although our reasons differ, for I believe it is the dog's reaction with an almost constant joy and wonder to the world that means they deserve this accolade. I suppose I initially intended Herman to be my hermit's guide through the (philosophical) underworld. Although I didn't even half believe this, but found the existence of it comforting in some sense. I think he performed this role outstandingly. One might query the supposed lack of intelligence a dog has (especially a dog like Herman) in this position of spirit guide. The dog teaches us, Herman taught me, life isn't difficult or complex. Life is beautiful. Joyous. Short.

Did I suffer in the same way when he died compared to my friend? You are asking the wrong sort of question.
But you didn't cry as deeply or bemoan the fates for his death? No. Perhaps because I didn't need to. The dog doesn't have the same sort of knowledge about life and suffering that we do. However, I didn't reason this at the time either.
Do you value X before Y, what category level might one set them? My dear departed friend once told me that he wanted to meet Herman some day. Although I give no thought to the possibility of a self surviving after death or heaven or such like, still the thought of them both walking together in the quiet countryside fills me with immeasurable happiness and deep comfort. Immeasurable.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Silly Saturday: The 'Best' of Street Fighter the Movie

An excellently put together and edited video highlighting one of the worst video game film adaptations ever (and that's really saying something!).

And by worst, I mean the best!

Continuing the theme of 'so bad they're good' films, started last week with Hercules, this is another feast of; camp acting, dreadful line delivery, wrong headed casting, Jean Claude Van Damme, a ridiculous script and nonsense plot. Fantastic fun!

Friday 19 October 2012

Photo Friday: some city shots

The Magician produces a rabbit from his wallet...

Golden Post box for a local Paralympian

Golden Box in Golden Square

This should give some idea of what country I'm presently in...

Away from home this week, normal service resumes next week.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Words on Wednesday: Interview with Georges Bataille

"Writing is the opposite of working... that the right thing to do in life [is] to devote [oneself] to commercial activities, and if you did something else, you were doing something evil."

Georges Bataille discusses the key concept in his book 'Literature and Evil' in a TV interview from 1958. Interviewer: Pierre Dumayet. Translation: hvolsvellir

Saturday 13 October 2012

Love is the Law (4): Love as illness

Love as illness.

Understanding is not a cure, but this defines the apparent problem (the problem of love as illness). We are ill with love in that we don't or cannot understand how we are experiencing the strong overpowering love we do feel towards an other. This still relates to the passive idea of love, however, in this mode our passivity means we are under its thrall. Love controls us and is therefore an illness in that we normally control our lives in a direct rational manner. However, we might also disagree with this description absolutely. The activity of reason, loves dulling or numbing of the action. Reason as controller.

Most emotions/feelings can be understood and expresed as an individualised perspective, however, love that is mutually expressed, shared and recipricated is therefore something quite other going on. In this sense it is the most philosophically important expression of an emotion, hence the image of a test, if this is what Wittgenstein meant. Perhaps we could think of the individual's love (non-reciprical for another also as a test, if so, the fuller kind (shared) is then a public inquiry.

Silly Saturday: The 'Best' of Hercules in New York

I love terrible films. Not films that are boring, or lazy, or exploitative, but films rather like this. Hercules in New York has it all, terrible acting, terrible writing, terrible direction, terrible effects. It's the holy grail of terrible films.

Update: (23/04/13) The above video has been blocked, damn shame, so here's another one.

Friday 12 October 2012

Philosophy (Film) Fridays: Victor Krebs

An except from the film 'Light Denied' by Delos Films.

A brief conversation with Peruvian Philosopher Victor J. Krebs

Thursday 11 October 2012

Theatrical Thursday: Noho Theatre Group & Beckett

An excellent and interesting little documentary about a Japanese theatre group (Noho) performing Beckett, described by director Jonah Salz.

The theatre styles Salz mentions are; kyogen and noh.

Beckett and Japanese Theatre - some of my musings

There is a sparsity and strangeness about both that seems to suggest some kinship. Indeed, although Beckett wrote in English, French, and German there seems still to be something fundamentally un-European about him. Perhaps it is his Gaelic/Celtic nature that is part of Europe but yet distant, culturally, from this also. Something alien among a wider society, like a cuckoo in the nest. Some aspect of Beckett's work always seems to be searching for a home or else suffering from some sort of home-sickness or world-weariness, what Freud called the uncanny.

Japanese culture for so long utterly isolated from the rest of the world (although we now respect this, but yet are suspicious of North Koreans for the same policy of voluntary isolation) and yet derived from the Chinese, developed something quite unique artistically in their retreat from the world.

What about the idea of intercultural theatre, is there something inherently problematic in the transposing of a play from one culture to another? We might not think Beckett such a problem, his plays were mostly devoid of any specific cultural references. Is the problem then applying a cultural paradigm to a playwright whose works were mostly acultural? 

There's a problem with something being acultural, namely that we can't escape our context, or rather, we can't escape a cultural context. We might be transcultural (as Beckett was) but we are not denying (cannot deny) the cultural aspect (and it's influence). In a sense then all theatre must be retold from the current group and director's perspective, something imposed upon the playwright's original vision, even if they share the same culture. Although this difference would be less, but what a intercultual play might show are aspects in the original that were 'hidden' (now I don't really mean hidden, but that they were things one could not see without this version of the play) before. Intercultural theatre is therefore doing something no difference from setting a Shakespeare play in the 21st century, but it uses the cultural difference to highlight relevant features. What these are might vary from culture to culture.


The Who I am page has been much updated, now including What I do, which is a summary of the new layout or schedule for this blog.
Let's see if I can manage to stick to it.

Anyway, here's a funny picture of a Tapir

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Words on Wednesday: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (Book Review)

Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

Published by Macmillan in 2000

Perdido is Miéville's second novel. Perhaps foregrounding the general theme of the setting, Perdido is Spanish for; lost, missing, abandoned, astray, idle, irreparable, tainted. The world setting itself needs some mentioning as it seems larger than the book can contain, bursting with the writer's love and enthusiasm. It certainly feels like something Miéville has spent a great deal of time thinking about; the world is like a living breathing thing that goes on after you've shut the book, countless stories seem to write themselves as you read, thinking of half mentioned characters and places and where it all might lead.

The setting isn't the only strong point in the novel, the characterisation of major and minor players is rich and engaging. Also, a point that would't normally need to be made, but Miéville can write believable female characters (although as a male perhaps I should ask for a second opinion on that) something that cannot always be said of his contemporaries. Quite often in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre one tends to find the female characters as 2-d stereotypes or fantasy figures, a favourite Sci-Fi author of mine, Iain M. Banks, is particularly guilty of this. However, Miéville's female characters are well-written and aren't pandering to anyone. Despite this there are times were the dialogue just *clunks* and I think this is because Miéville is enjoying himself too much with the language. I think that sometimes it's a risk for an author to get too enamoured with his project, with the setting, and so forth. However, this is a minor quibble and, if I'm honest, it does fit with the Steampunkish (pseudo-Dickensian cockney villain) theme. It's just a bit jarring on occasion.

Another note about the characterisation in the novel. The non-human characters are especially vivid and understandable in terms of culture and motive. Obviously their 'alien-ness' isn't played up (like in a Sci-Fi dealing with first contact f.e.) because we are to imagine this city (New Crobuzon) as a melting pot of species. Thus, instead it feels like a description of outsider cultures being ghettoised. One of the ideas that didn't work for me, and it's quite a biggie as it's a plot hook, I'll try and describe this without giving any spoilers, it's reification of creativity. That is, making it have thinglyness, specifically as food, anyway, that's probably too much already. Just to say, like some of the dialogue, it took me right out of the book and into pondering. Not always a bad thing perhaps, but it did grate with me.

Perdido has some excellent ideas and a plot that really zips along, as well as the superb characterisation, which makes us really care about what happens to Isaac, Lin, and the others, but it doesn't quite get out the description of genre fiction and become the literary equivalent speculative fiction. However, amusingly, Miéville doesn't really fit into a straight genre classification. Perdido might be Sci-Fi and Fantasy, because it's not quite 'Steampunk' either. Actually, I'm not sure about the emphasis on science, because although a plot device it's not a core concept of his story. It doesn't infiltrate all manner of descriptions (i.e. Arthur C. Clarke's massive 'what-if?' science descriptions) in the novel, but the social aspect does. The experimentation with ideas about how different cultures form the social and political organisations is a key concept in the story, as is their getting along together (or the failure therein). I'd therefore suggest calling Miéville a writer of not science but of Social Fantasy and place him alongside Ursula Le Guin in terms of style. Albeit, at this stage of only having read one of each of their books, lesser to her.

Words on Wednesday: Interview with China Miéville

A excellent interview. 

Nancy Pearl talks with London-based "weird fiction" (after H. P. Lovecraft) author China 

Miéville seems a very articulate, intelligent and sensitive writer. A good role model for aspiring writers, a touch of swagger perhaps, but aware of this affectation too.

I've only read one of his books, Perdido Street Station, but enjoyed it immensely  Once I find the time (and work my way through a mammoth backlog of 'must read' books) I intend to search out Embassytown.

Novels, good novels, good stories, are like mulch for creative thought. The thoughts need not be directly related to the matters at hand, that is, discussed in the context of the novel, but it does plant a seed to germinate in some part of the mind. I found this especially true when reading 

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Tuesday is Art News Day: Rothko Work Vandalised!

Please note: There's swearing aplenty below...

This won't come as news to anyone, but as you all know a Rothko painting, Black on Maroon (1958), was vandalised by Vladimir Umanets at the Tate Modern last Sunday afternoon (7/10/12). Umanets argument is that it is not vandalism but an expression of his 'Yellowism', which is not an art movement as such, but seeks to inspire (in part) the question, “what is art?”

Firstly, am I worried or concerned that a great piece of art has been potentially destroyed? No.
I'd be no more concerned if the Angel of the North was scrapped or if the Mona Lisa were defaced (again). I suppose I'm just not that precious about art works. I doubt Rothko would have been that bothered either. What bothers me is; the nonsense Umanets talks, his ability to speak this without contradiction, the lazy yet violent response by many people against the vandalism, and generally the ignorant attitude many have to contemporary art. So, that's quite a big and angry list.

Here comes the rational argument bit...

1. Umanets is or is not a vandal.
2. Art works are precious and must be preserved.
3. Rothko is or is not a great artist.

1. Umanets is, from a legal definition, a vandal. However, beyond that definition the question posed becomes one of value, or rather, the value of the action. For example; was the man (Paul Kelleher, who was subsequently jailed for three months) who decapitated the Thatcher statue in 2002 a vandal? Thus, the answer to (1.) depends on our answer to (3.) it seems. If you think Rothko a fraud or conceptual bullshit or whatever then you might not consider Umanets a vandal (other than legally) but rather a saviour for common sense etc.

However, and not just to shit in your porridge, I'd like to say that Umanets is not a vandal, and that Rothko is a great artist, but that art works do not deserve special treatment. Why?

2. Now I'm not advocating slinging all art into the bin or storing it in a shed, but that our sanctification of art is ridiculous. It stems from the bullshit medieval religious power structures that art once served, but that now it should be breaking away from and, further, helping in the breaking down of. Art gallery's are like cathedrals, where one silently and reverently gazes in mute and (most importantly) passive admiration at the beauty of the work and the skill of the artist.
Fuck that shit.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to hail Umanets as a hero, I think he's a cretin with a nonsense self-aggrandizing agenda. One that the media seem all to willing to encourage, mainly because they've lost the ability to intellectually engage with and criticise events.

Anyway, in one sense artworks are cultural artefacts or icons and for the sake of history they should be recorded. This does not mean the individual object must last forever as an undamaged relic for us to place in a reliquary and worship but most importantly for the rich parasites to buy and sell. It is for these parasite fucks financially worthwhile to keep the 'art is something distant', 'art is something special', 'art is something holy' worldview alive. To keep art as a tool for the (rich and) powerful, thus increasing it's value.

Before returning to Umanets and the nonsense of Yellowism, I'll briefly cover 3. Now, I'd like to write a longer piece about Rothko, but let's do that separately and once I've spent some time properly viewing his works and not just as a reaction to this. I claim that Rothko is a great artist, but what makes an artist great? Paintings valued at 50 million plus? Not to my mind. What is it that makes an artist great or good or worthwhile? I believe the answer must be in their depth of vision. Something Rothko has, but more than just this it is their experimentation with ideas, their attempt to investigate something, to have an ongoing intellectual/artistic development, to try and say something that makes it worthwhile.

In conclusion, my lack of concern about (2.) means that my finding Rothko a great artist (3.) is unimportant, but I though you'd like to know that I do think Rothko worthwhile. I only mention this to contradict a lot, of what seems like, amusement with the damaging of 'modern art' something that most people (are told, by the tabloid press) dislike. An example of which is found on the satirical British website Daily Mash, I find the Daily Mash's response to be just too close to what a lot people think to be really funny. Actually, that's a lie, it's still funny. I laughed. I suppose that a Conservative reaction would be; Umanets is a vandal (broke a law), Art is precious (historic legacy), Rothko is not a great artist (modern art is rubbish). A Liberal 'art-lover' would react; Umanets is a vandal (defaced art), Art is precious (humanity's greatest achievement), Rothko is a great artist (apparently, have no reasons for this, but must be).

A response to Umanets in closing. It is obvious that he is legally a vandal and will probably get a three month sentence for this, in that he has damaged someone else's property. Much like if he stole your bike or pissed on your rug. Is art property, that is, an own-able valuable object? Under our current considerations, yes, obviously, but do I think that this should be the case? No. Should people be able to damage existed artworks just because they don't like them or they want to force a bullshit manifesto upon the world? I think the answer must be that you should not damage something simply because you dislike it, but perhaps because of what it represents (Thatcher statue). This doesn't mean Kelleher was right, but we should be able to voice our disgust with works like that (and if we're not, perhaps then destruction is allowable). Rothko's work was chosen arbitrarily (it seems) or perhaps only because of the artist's controversy (i.e. 'is it art?') or the object's value. Should we allow Umanets the time to voice his bullshit, simply because it's entertainment for the media? Not without an intellectually rigorous response, which is not yet forthcoming. That is to say, allow him the space to show how limited his Yellowism is, not celebrate his childish outburst. That he, an idiot, knows how to manipulate the media to get his daft message across is a laughable damnation of our culture.

P.S. Compare and contrast...

That's not a knife [vandalism], THAT'S a knife [vandalism]
Crocodile Dundee

I've just remembered that when David Nash's piece Big Bud was vandalised he remade it into Charred Cross Egg. Perhaps, because he was cross? Sorry, being silly, but he didn't try and restore it. What Rothko would do were he alive is a matter for speculation. Any guesses?

Monday 8 October 2012

Saturday 6 October 2012

Love is the Law (3): Surety of love

That's right, I made a Hamlet meme. What of it?

Surety of love.

Am I sure of my love for JJ? Does the questioning of the fact admit to some weakness or inherent failure? If we believe the modern lies about love, i.e. love as the ideal state that one finds oneself either in or not in, this might indeed be the case.

Take this example of the recurrent discussion about when one should tell their partner that they love them. Most advice seems to revolve around this coming about only after a gradual build up of contact. Love is not to be questioned, just felt, like an endless divine moment. A perfection that cannot be denied or inquired into.
Too much thinking” or “don't overthink” comes the cry. However, we shouldn't just passively accept our emotional state, at least this emotional state, but it requires one to work at it. Love as a developing 'thing' – isn't this reification of love simply as dangerous as the simple acceptance?
Something like a private determination, as Murdoch describes it in 'Sovereignty', but it can't be just this because it isn't just a private feeling (as in the feeling of repentance) but instead it is the 'something shared' with a specific other.

How can I be sure of JJ's love for me? Is this a totally different question? Can I be more sure of my own love for JJ?
What are we looking for in this surety, if we find it answered with an instance of love won't we later require yet another? Surety wants something final, but if it is an ongoing 'test' (a test of who you are; how honest you are about yourself, both to others and yourself) then it can never be totally sure.
The surety cannot be held onto as it also involves this specific other, whose mind you cannot directly influence and if you begin to try and subtly influence them then this is manipulation and control, which is surely not an act of love.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

David Nash at Kew: Art exhibition review

David Nash is a British sculptor, well known for his large outdoor works almost exclusively in wood. Nash is currently artist-in-residence at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. David Nash was born in Surrey in 1945, but has spent most of his working life based in Wales. I'd suggest that this time in Wales, in rural North Wales specifically, has helped shape his understanding of the natural environment, an understanding that is shown in his art and how he talks about his work in interviews. To my mind the Welsh landscape is undeniably beautiful, but it is also hard and rugged, it is a working landscape that bares the marks of the struggles to make a living throughout Welsh history. It is not therefore a landscape merely of 'scenery' but of living and working, of 'doing'. The slate tips that dominate the locality of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Nash’s adopted home, testify to this history. There is a practicality about this natural connection, fostered in this worked landscape that removes the potential for a pseudo-shamanic interaction, for Nash the spiritual is part of the physical; there is a combination in activity. As Nash says in an interview of 2001, "There is no shamanism. You can bring those associations to them, but my concerns are fundamentally practical. The spiritual is dovetailed into the physical, and the two are essentially linked with each other. To work the ground in a practical, basic commonsense way is a spiritual activity.”

Nash is often connected with Land Art, but this is itself problematic, as Land Art is no movement or anything as definable as an 'ism'. There are several fairly distinct strands and Nash could be described as taking part in a different approach, one that Ben Tufnell (in his excellent book Land Art) calls 'Working with Nature', that is, with growing art and planted projects like the ongoing work Ash Dome. Although denying the spiritual and ritualistic dimensions in his work (as employed, for example, by another 'working with nature' artist Chris Drury) there are definite and purposeful social and political aspects in Nash's work. The Ash Dome, for example, created/planted in 1977 was at a time of specific political upheaval and serious economic gloom in the UK when the threat of Cold War and nuclear annihilation seemed very real. The work is then a gesture for something for the future, when our focus had become so based in the short-term; the Ash Dome makes a commitment to the future, one with “an extended duty of care, a constant need for tending.” (p.91, Land Art)

His ambition also has a certain Walden element to it, as quoted in Tufnell 2006: “I want a simple approach to living and doing. I want a life and work that reflects the balance and continuity of nature. Identifying with the time and energy of the tree and with its mortality, I find myself drawn deeper into joys and blows of nature. Worn down and regenerated; broken off and reunited; a dormant faith revived in the new growth of wood.” (p.88)

This want, to ‘get back’ to the simplicity of nature isn’t especially new; we can see the traces of it in the Victorian morality of authors like Thomas Hardy, as well as Thoreau and many others, but it isn’t the age of the desire that is incongruous, rather it is the crypto-spiritualism of transcendence, the rejection of the practicalities of the world and of civilization that is striking. At once it seems to make the human un-natural and alien, it starts to distance the practical as a tool of anti-nature, but this paradox should be handled carefully. When Nash began to develop his green art, he only used natural or traditional tools, carving the tree slowly by hand. This reverence for the traditional arts would seem to emphasize the rejection of modern technology and if he had kept this approach one could see him slide towards a pseudo-shamanic ritual, however, Nash nowadays (and for some time) makes full use of all modern equipment and technology, sculpting his works using a chainsaw and using iron and bronze cast foundry pieces. Further, Nash makes an effort to show that the direction of the work is forward looking, with an eye on our future, one we share alongside and working with nature and that “we cannot separate ourselves from the natural world. Our actions, from everyday activities to essential industrial work, have an impact on it. My work invites the same consideration.” (From David Nash at Kew Gardens, 2012, p.7) It is perhaps a mixed message that Nash seeks to convey, certainly it is one that is laden with much ideological baggage, but it is this perceived questioning of man’s place in nature and of the relationship that seems to make Nash an appropriate artist for Kew Gardens.

A Map of Kew Gardens with the Sculpture locations

Kew Gardens is more than a visitor attraction. It, like Nash, is an amalgamation of contrasting ideals. One the one hand it is a Victorian hangover, a green cathedral that promotes a reverence of nature, and on the other it is a very contemporary place of active horticultural science, indeed, with the ark-like Millennium Seed Bank it also a store of science. There is an artificiality about Kew that seems to separate it from Nash’s work. It is a created display with plant species gathered from all over the world; and as such it represents a kind of plant zoo, as there is something distractingly out-of-place about a polar bear in London there is something like a lesser effect with the Gardens (this perhaps due to the fact that almost every British garden is something like a junior model to this Victorian monolith as it also contains so many foreign species). However, the effect is still there, this is not the practical worked landscape of Wales with its naturally occurring (although humanly cultivated) ash trees. Here then is the conundrum- at what point does human interaction become unnatural? Despite all of Nash’s attempts there is still an acceptance that the natural world must be shaped in some manner if we are to change it for our ends, it cannot be persuaded and we must accept responsibility, for it is we who alter for our own ends. This is something that Nash’s rejection of shamanism can achieve, with a spiritual focus to the work we find ourselves constantly shifted away from an immediate connection with nature (or art for that matter).

Nash's exhibition, which runs for nearly a year, is displayed in situ among the fantastic landscape of the gardens themselves, where he is also using the dying and dead trees of Kew to create new works. So, this is not just a retrospective of old works, but a collection of new works created from the gardens, using trees that have come to the end of their natural life. The illustration below shows how Nash operates his ‘Wood Quarries’. The sketches he makes have been compared to that of a butcher, with different ‘cuts’ representing different sculptural works.

I submit for consideration that it is this ‘butchering’ of the trees that some have found so rough, barbaric, and distasteful. This is because it goes against the reverent romanticism that many have for nature, or rather, for how we should appreciate nature. Perhaps then Nash is showing another way of seeing nature, not merely as an industrial product, but not as a distanced spiritual object either. To my mind this sort of falling our between Nash and the critic originates in a failure to grasp his concept of nature. Now, I would say that this is in no small part due to the locale, which muddies the waters, but it could also be the viewers own Romantic predilections (if any) and what (for them) constitutes proper art.

Charred Cross Egg. Brutal or beautiful or something else?
The work is a development of an earlier work, named 'big 'bud'
that was vandalised. Pragmatic rescue or not?

For many this won’t matter, they are striking objects in their own right anyway and loom in the landscape as do many public artworks, but this too is a problem, this is not ‘public’ art rightly considered – it is not made to decorate a building façade or plaza – but it is natural art made to bring us into the landscape and consider one’s relationship with the natural world. Thus it is best kind of conceptual art, it is more than just an idea loosely configured or an art object devoid of further thought, rather it is a something that asks questions of the viewer and demands something back.

Black Trunk. Mirrored against the Kew pagoda
it makes mankind's efforts appear rather fragile.

And yet, it is not just the juxtaposition with Kew that distorts the message. One might ask the works themselves for a continuity of this message and find them lacking. Nash has in the past (1994, but earlier versions exist) drawn up a ‘family free’ that shows how his works have developed, branched off, and grown. Rather than an explanation, this looks like an excuse, or worse, being caught red-handed trying to impose a later thought of order by retrospectively narrativizing one’s own life and work.

A section of Nash's 'Family Tree'

That Kew is hosting a Nash exhibition is something that places Nash as one of British art's grand old men, a person of renown and 'a name'. Certainly it is something that will make him better known to a larger amount of people by being at such an iconic location. That his work is defined by its relationship with the natural is something that I deeply appreciate and hope that some aspect of this message is conveyed. However, I am also sceptical of the clarity of the message and the method of conveyance, that is, the art works specifically in the location of Kew Gardens.

King and Queen I.
This title is too distracting, on first viewing
it was much more impressive without.

After viewing Nash’s work you cannot help but look differently at the natural surroundings and perhaps Kew itself emphasizes this effect. And this is perhaps the best compliment one can pay Nash’s work, for all its failings, that there is a type of artistic seeing that comes from repeated viewing, it gives you another perspective on the ordinary world around, makes you think again about the arrangement of nature, wondering about our impact and our meddling, all art, all good art gives us this, but perhaps in different types and/or manners.

A collection of the works in the temperate house.
From top left: Plateau (2011), Crossed Egg (2002), Red Frame (2008)

David Nash at Kew Gardens (Kew, 2012) - All images used
Ben Tufnell, Land Art (Tate, 2006)

Hypothetical Morality

Hypotheticals aren't what we base our morality upon. 

Take this example. We start by asking, whether you would ever kill another person?

A: I would never kill another person.
B: How could you say that, think of a hypothetical situation X, whereby the murder of another would not only necessary but potentially good.
A: I'm not thinking of any future potential possibility, but my attitude now. That is, who I am at the present and under these current situations. How would I know how I would act in a situation I do not know.
B: Then think of a situation that you do know.
A: That is possible, but it won't help your case. Think of these two questions.
1 Would you like oranges if you were a dog?
2 Would you ever love another human being? 
2b 'Specific human being'
How could I answer these kinds of questions? Your hypothetical ethical question is as unanswerable.

Monday 1 October 2012

Thoughts at 5am

Originally written on the 13th of May at 5am

"Our thoughts drive round upon themselves, eddying into depression and anger against the world, a dark deep swirling mass of contradictory feelings arise..."

Closeness to someone drives me to retreat, to seek individual isolation. I love her, but her touch pains me this morning. So I sit in another room and feel awful instead. And when I hear her sigh I feel doubly so. That my upset might upset her also, makes me feel much worse. My pain, my failure to connect, my fear to connect, is not something I can easily master or control. It is the black dog that is beyond my current powers.

This is death. It destroys me and through me, all I touch. It is the part of me that knows death. It desires it. The strong dark part of my soul. It fights for control, seeks to make this feeling my only feeling. To drive me mad and kill me. Not so very long ago it was winning, but not any longer, although the residue remains and burns in its contact. Like a poisonous film of black sludge it has stained the air, got into my lungs and my blood, darkened my eyes and filled my ears and throat. It coats me like an oiled seabird.

It is a feeling of choking. I feel a painful desire to run, to scream, to rend flesh from my bones, to not be. In this spirit being close or intimate or restrained feels like agony. What do I want to do? To walk away, to keep walking, to curl up somewhere cold and dark on my own, to have nothing to do with the world of people, with the world of pain and potential failure and of dying.
To be totally free.
However, I know this desire to be madness, it is an animal reaction of one driven mad by pain and fear. No, it is not animal, worse than that. It is the illusion of reason, the lies of the mystic, "transcend the world of pain for peace in the holy realm of pure reason." All the lies of reason that will free us from what? The fear of loss.

The fear of being alone drives one to be alone. The fear of death drives one to embrace death. To want it. Our thoughts drive round upon themselves, eddying into depression and anger against the world, a dark deep swirling mass of contradictory feelings arise around this convoluted system of thought. Pure thought seems to offer clarity, to make the situation understandable and remove it, to distance the pain, but these thoughts have arisen from fear and cannot be made pure by more of the same. All this will eventually do is block the system, causing an overload that manifests in a variety of ways. I am currently suffering from one of these.

The slate can be wiped clean by some isolated activity, something world denying, at least, this has always been my method, but what if there is another way?

I love her. I trust her.

And yet fear this. Fear the loss of it.

I must stop trying to run away. Learn to trust myself. Embrace her.
But what if she ultimately rejects me? Wouldn't all this have been for nothing?
If this is your fear and you run from it, if you push her away, then it will come to pass. You fear death so much you had begun to embrace it. Don't do the same thing again. This time something is different. You have someone who cares for you as you care for them. Reason can't help this fear, only love can.

Go back and hold her.