Friday, December 02, 2005

On Location 2

In the last entry we started in Eastern Europe, specifically Prague, and eventually arrived, more or less, back in London. Today we start in Eastern Europe again, this time in Plock, in Poland. Plock was the birthplace of Stefan Themerson who along with his wife Franciszka Themerson was a central figure in the Polish avant-garde film scene of the 1930s. The Themersons founded the Polish Filmmakers Co-op and a film journal ‘f.a’ as well as making five films that experimented with the improvisational photographic possibility of light and shadow, influenced in part by Man Ray’s ‘Rayogram’ photogram technique. They came to live in London in 1942 where they made two further films ‘Calling Mr Smith’ (1943), an anti-war film that denounced the Nazi destruction of Polish culture, and ‘The Eye and the Ear’ (1944-45) a light play analogous abstract interpretation of four pieces of music by Karol Szymanowski. The Themersons spent the rest of their lives in London where they died in 1988. Their films are enchanting, playfully avant-garde and poetic, and it’s no surprise to discover that they were active in other media and disciplines. Franciszka was an inspired and skillful illustrator, Stefan a writer of poetry, novels and philosophy. They also ran a publishing house, the Gaberbocchus Press. For more on the Themersons see the Themerson Archive.

While I was familiar with their film work and vaguely aware of their publishing, writing and other activities, it wasn’t until recently that I actually read any of Stefan Themerson’s writings. Specifically his philosophical essays ‘Logic, Labels and Flesh’ (Gaberbocchus Press, 1974) and his novel ‘Bayamus’ (1945). The novel impressed me partly for an affinity it shared with the Oulipo group of writers (which includes the likes of Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Harry Matthews and Italo Calvino) and their aesthetic mentor Albert Jarry, inventor of Pataphysics a ‘science’ that attempts to describe a world beyond the metaphysical in a parallel universes. I recognised in Themerson the same delight in the play of language and the absurd. I also discovered that Gaberbocchus Press were the first publishers of the English translation of 'Ubu Roi' Jarry’s 1896 play, which is widely acknowledged as a precurser to the dada and surrealist movements.

One particular concept, described in both ‘Logic, Labels and Flesh’ and ‘Bayamus’, excited my interest. In the former it is presented as a revolutionary literary form, in the latter, its first incarnation, within the context of a fictional narrative in which Bayamus discovers Semantic Poetry. The innovation of Semantic Poetry is to dismantle the assumptions and over-simplifications contained within nouns in poetry, in essence to remove the ambiguity of the language of poetry by replacing the ‘beauty’ of poetic language with the ‘truth’ of definition. This may have been influenced by two particular facts of Themerson’s situation: that ‘Bayamus’ was his first novel written in English, not his native tongue, and that he had recently left a country devastated by a dictator who relied upon the rhetorical power of language as an orator to inspire and mobilise nationalistic emotions to genocidal ends. Perhaps it is no wonder that Themerson developed a suspicion of the ambiguities of the use of language and dreamed a cure. Semantic Poetry may have sought to clarify and codify the meaning of poetry, however it didn’t necessarily make it more easily understandable. Each noun, for example, had to be written in a form that spelled out what amounts to a dictionary definition. So, for example, the childrens’ poem ‘Taffy was a Welshman’ whose first four lines are:

“Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to my house
and stole a leg of beef.”

translates as:

“Taffy was a male native of Wales
Taffy was a person who practised seizing the property of another unlawfully & appropriated it to his own use and purpose,
Taffy came to the structure of various materials
having walls
& windows to give light and air
he came to that structure which was a dwelling for me
And there he appropriated to his own use
one of the limbs of the dead body of an ox
prepared and sold by a butcher.”

...and so on. It is almost impossible to render in the basic html of a blog, but Themerson also set these translations in typographical form intended to make it possible to read the complexity of their accuracy and their lack of ambiguity. In ‘Bayamus’ there are also SP translations of Chinese Poems, Russian Ballads and passages of the Bible.

I’ve always been interested in language and aesthetic forms that diverge from the colouration of poetic language, moving away from the easy option of the romantic, the expressive, the spectacular, the comfortably aesthetic. Interested more in the difficult poetics of minimalism, or the utilitarianism of concrete poetry. I suppose this has links to conceptualism, dating back (like everything) through Marcel Duchamp, his Readymades and love of functional graphics. I am also drawn to the work of Richard Long and the way his ‘landscapes’ couldn’t be more different to the Romantic Tradition in aesthetic form, or the work of Mel Bochner, which consists of the measurements of the gallery space, on the walls of the space itself. There are numerous examples of 20th Century conceptualism and the literalness of these artists is on one hand a recognition of the ordinariness, of the everyday, of the quotidian, but in a paradoxical way they also draw attention to an aesthetics of anti-aesthetics, conferring the idea that there is an inherent, albeit difficult to apprehend, poetical quality in the mundane. The liberation of Themerson’s Semantic Poetry is that it has the potential to undermine that latent extraordinariness, in a sense it says that it is more difficult to give an accurate description than it is to provide an ambiguous poetic sensation.

I had previously attempted to introduce the idea of a non-poetic language in a ‘poetic’ or ‘lyrical’ context in a song description of a particular place. This song forms part of a larger project, still in progress, which attempts to describe a particular place, in a number of ways, using forms that are not usually considered ‘aesthetic’. For example using the language of a lease, or a statutory legal notice, or a straight forward recitation of measurement, to describe the place; and in some way to attempt the visual equivalent of those verbal forms. This has proved to be a problematic proposition because of course the work of much of 20th Century art has been to ensure that most language forms (and I will include visual language in this), have achieved a level of poetic resonance when the form is used in an ‘art context’.

The place that I was trying to describe in the song is St Helier Estate, a London County Council estate, on the south western edge of Greater London, built between the wars to re-house the poorer and slum-dwelling residents of inner London. My grandparents on both sides of my family were among the first tenants of the estate and I was born there. In spite of its socially neo-utopian original intentions, it is probably no surprise to report that it is the most ordinary, everyday and unglamorous places one could imagine. But it is not without its own charm and inevitably has a nostalgic draw for someone like myself who has been away from ‘home’ for a very long time. Ironic too that the only place that I can with some justification call ‘home’ is a colony of migrants from the great inner-city diaspora (my grandparents thought they were moving to some Elysium, some rural idyll), refugees from inter-war poverty and the result of a social experiment and of course none of the living members of my family remain there.

The song took the form of an old English folk song ‘The Green Grass Grows All Around’ which has a kind of zoom-out from a macro image as the basis of the lyric. Like all good folk songs it has been reproduced in a variety of versions, one was in the film ‘Wickerman’, but the main narrative goes along the lines of “...the bird was on the twig, the twig was on the branch, the branch was on the tree, the tree was in a copse...” etc through to “... and the green grass grew all around”. I was struck by the literalness of the language and the way it could be grafted onto a description of a contemporary housing estate, established in the late 1920s, built on what was previously light agricultural land. The fact that St Helier Estate is built in a configuration that centres upon a large traffic roundabout at Rose Hill seemed to make this spiralling/zooming out of the lyric all the more appropriate.

"...and the yard is by the hedge
and the hedge by the pavement
and the pavement by the grass
and the grass is on the verge
and the verge becomes the gutter
and the gutter’s in the street

the street it has a name
the name’s on the estate

and all the names meet at an enormous roundabout..."

The song I recorded ‘Aroundabout’ was released on Storm Bugs's ‘comeback’ EP record ‘Bugs Are Back’.

A few weeks ago I reworked the lyrics of 'Aroundabout' along the lines of a Semantic Poetry translation, entered on this blog as South Circular.


Blogger ps said...

Or even
…your journey will take you across a marshland,
dotted with pylons, gates and disused workings,
there are no reliable maps of the marshes,
a number of distinct sectors have been identified,
however it appears that the position of the sectors changes,
depending on the route taken…(Green On The Horizon 1988)

Having engaged in some of this quasi instructional, faux precise, semi detached language as landscape writing myself I would say that rather than eschewing romanticism it can be seen as a recharged form. Romanticism is always confused with a reckless abandon to the emotional and the elemental, one thinks of Casper David Friedrich

“The pure, frank sentiments we hold in our hearts are the only truthful sources of art. A painting which does not take its inspiration from the heart is nothing more than futile juggling.”

However whilst the inspiration may be emotional it does not follow that its portrayal is similarly thus, and Friedrich’s works are as tight and precise as anything by Richard Long or for that matter Structuralist filmmakers. There is an unacknowledged detachment between inspiration and execution. Over time the emotion tends to becomes confused with the artwork (if not for the artist then for the audience) and one then has all the romantic clichés of the doomed solitary figure tramping the landscape in a long coat high on laudanum and melancholia.

The paired back particulars of the descriptive goes some way to restoring an equilibrium between emotion and execution but rum the risk of abandonment to articulation and a fetishisation of precision and process. Material emotion if you will.

Friday, December 02, 2005 10:12:00 am  
Blogger Steven Ball said...

Yes 'Green on the Horizon' is part of that 'tradition'. I agree with you about the romantic confusion. One of the points that I was going to make clearer in the original post was that, in spite of his 'conceptualist' processes and practice of exhibiting photos of the landscapes of his walks, along with lists of names of places, etc, Richard Long is still kind of Romantic as his work suggests as much a continuation of the project of the reconciliation of 'man' and 'nature' as say, in Turner's.

I gather Friedrich was certainly concerned with 'the sublime' and religious spirituality, gothic inspiration and shared these concerns with the English Romantics. In this sense he was very much of his time and Romanticism as the appeal to emotional directness can also be seen as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. In this sense Long's work is Romanticism without the emotion.

Aside from "the romantic" I did also list: "...the expressive, the spectacular, the comfortably aesthetic...", which was intended to suggest that there are hangovers from all these centuries old styles throughout contemporary forms as well as newly invented and reinvented ones. Which is inevitable, the tropes become shorthand for many things, they become stylistic cliches.

Your characterisation of the melancholic solitary artists is amusing, but also sad because I think there is still some residual hangover of the 19th century romantic figure even today. The artist as solitary, often misunderstood struggler, desperate for recognition, bitter when it doesn't arrive, sort of thing, is often underpinned by the idea of the artist as unique and special, a seer of sorts, whose every gesture and piece of garbage is important having being touched by the hand of the genius. The most successful and visible self-perpetuating example of this today would be Tracy Emin, which is why I find her and her work so deeply conservative.

Back to emotion though: Themerson's project was in a sense to remove the emotional, or more accurately the emotive, from poetic language. To clarify expression. Of course there is a double irony here. Some might suggest that ambiguity and crypticness is necessary for 'poetry'. One aspect of this is emotional expression, and/or effect. Themerson's challenge was an attempt to make a new form of poetry which (unlike most avant-garde abstract and language poetry which often obfuscates in eschewing syntax and semantics altogether) can still be read for 'meaning'. The second irony is to do this and still call it poetry, albeit in translation. I'm sure he was aware of the absurdities and contradictions of all this.

I'm not sure about your idea of 'material emotion'. I don't think that I'm approaching the problem with a view to 'restoring' emotion as such. I don't really see emotion as coming into it at all at this point. It's more a question of how one might find new ways of using language, in particular to representations (reproductions if you like) of (the experience of) particular places. And I would happily extend my definition of language to (non-verbal/textual linguistic) use of sound and image. This in the broadest possible cognitive sense, not in the post-structuralist sense of the dominance of language or grammatology.

Friday, December 02, 2005 12:14:00 pm  

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