Encyclopaedia Ball – an interview with myself.

This is about a project I’m working on, called Encyclopaedia Ball. The project is to turn a set of 1950’s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid ball of papier mache. I thought I’d write this blog in the form of an interview with myself.

Q. How did you start on this project?

A. The ball form came first. My wife was experimenting with pulped egg cartons as a sculpting material and ended up making a series of small paper pulp balls, about the size of golf balls. I liked them. They reminded me of David Nash’s Nine Cracked Balls. I have a large stash of academic journals I originally got for making papier mache with, so I tried pulping the paper from one of them. I found it didn’t pulp well, but I started layering the pages over a core of pulp, with wall paper paste. I got the idea of continuing until I’d used the entire journal. It was a rather thick conference proceedings volume published by the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] and this became the first of my ball pieces, ACM Ball. After that I made a ball out of a copy of the Bible. I kind of had a vision of a really huge paper ball, like a boulder, so using the encyclopaedias suggested itself.

Q. I understand that the encyclopaedias are a family heirloom. 

A. They were bought in the 1950s by my grandfather for my father. My grandfather was worried that my father wasn’t doing well academically, and hoped the encyclopaedias would help. Naturally, my father never read them, and nor did my grandfather, who had them in his house until his death. Then my parents had them in their house for a few years and never read them. Then I got them and put them in my attic. And didn’t read them. In the 1950s, a set of encyclopaedias was the equivalent of the internet, it was where you went to answer random questions. A set of encyclopaedias can also take you on rabbit trails and open up new things to you. But it’s easy to leave them unopened on the shelf. There’s something closed, or a bit forbidding about them. The irony is that, if I’d had them as a child, I would have read them. I loved the Encyclopaedia Britannicas at school.

Q. What does your father think of you turning them into a ball?

A. He doesn’t know. He would probably think it was stupid.

Q. How do you conceptualise the project? I mean, you’re taking all of this knowledge and sort of locking it shut. Is it a comment on information overload, the burden of knowledge…?

A. I haven’t tended to conceptualise it much, but I guess there are a number of strands. My understanding of the piece has developed through the act of making it. It’s true that I’m locking information up and it could be seen as disrespectful of knowledge – like screwing it up into a big ball. There’s something precious or even sacred about the form of the book and a corresponding sense of sacrilege about destroying them. On the other hand, those encyclopaedias were locked shut for decades and I will be the only person who will ever see every single page. In a sense, I’m also opening them up. It has been heartbreaking at times, to see some of the beautiful images in there – hand drawn images and photographs – just to hide them again under layers. I started taking photos of the ball as it progressed, particularly of images and things I found interesting. That set of images is part of the work, a companion to it.

Q. There’s something performative about it, then?

A. Yes, I think so. I’m finding that more so. It’s quite a physical process. At one point, I thought it would make a nice evening project for when I’m too tired to do other work, but it’s actually hard work. It’s reached the point where I have to stand up to do it and there’s a certain choreography of how I need to move it around as I work on it. And of course, I’m seeing all of these images and reading snatches of text. I’m living through all that knowledge. It’s bringing different things into my mind as I work, changing me. 

Another touchstone for this project has been Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone. This was a ball of plasticine, weighing the same as the artist, which took on the form of the environment as it was rolled and moved about. He rolled it to the gallery and it picked up imprints of grates on the street etc. My ball has a similar set of constraints – if I ever finish it, the size will be determined by the encyclopaedias – and it’s something that will continue to evolve over time. Orozco’s ball changes every time it gets handled and mine will take years, probably, to complete. I could see it being exhibited and then continued to be worked on. 

I also think a lot about another of David Nash’s pieces, Wooden Boulder. Again a large ball, much bigger than mine, made of wood. It got trapped in a stream when the artist was trying to move it, and spent years being moved by the force of water down the stream, to the river and out into the sea. There’s something about the form of a rough sphere that appeals to me.

Q. How far into the project are you? You say you might not even finish it?

A. I’m up to volume 6 and I think the set has 24 volumes. So I’m about a fifth the way through. But I’ve been working on it for two years. Not constantly of course. It’s pretty boring work and I don’t know if I’ll complete it. I might just stop. It might get too big to fit through the door. I might drop it on my foot and decide enough’s enough!

Q. How big do you think it will get? Bigger than a doorway?

A. I don’t know. Probably not that big. The bigger it gets, the slower it grows, because the surface area to cover gets bigger all the time.

Q. Describe the process of making it.

A. It’s not complicated. I use wallpaper paste, like you do when you do papier mache at school. I just layer on page after page. For some reason, it tends towards being a rounded cube, rather than a sphere. I don’t know why that is – something to do with how the paper overlaps. I’ve tried various strategies to avoid it, but it doesn’t work. A mathematician could probably tell me the optimum way of doing it. I end up tearing the paper into smaller pieces in order to ‘correct’ the shape – I’m not sure if that is cheating or not, but I make the rules! I have a theory that it’ll become less of a problem the bigger it gets, because each page will cover a smaller proportion of the surface. When it was small, each page completely covered the ball. If it is a problem. I don’t know!

Q. There’s something quite aggressive about it, as an object. It’s like a wrecking ball!

A. It is! It’s fallen off the table with a crash before and it’s a wonder it didn’t break the floor. I suppose you could say it’s quite masculine, if you want. It’s quite a perverse thing to do to a book. I like heavy, solid compact things. It’s like a bomb. A knowledge bomb! It’s got all this trapped knowledge buzzing away like nuclear energy. I was also responding to the work of Jukhee Kwon, who’s work I saw in the 2018 Aesthetica Prize in York. Her work with books is very light and the books are quite literally opened up as she cuts into the pages and creates these cascades. I wanted to take the opposite path. Jukhee Kwon’s work seems to turn knowledge into spirit, whereas my balls turn it into matter. 

Q. Is there also something about knowledge being a burden, or obsolete knowledge?

A. Certainly, there’s something around obsolescence. Printed encyclopaedias are obsolete things. Knowledge becomes dated – these encyclopaedias are from the 1950s and a lot of the knowledge in them will have been superseded. And so with our knowledge today. And with the internet or whatever. I worked in a bookshop for a while, and one of the things I learned was that old sets of encyclopaedias don’t have financial value. Having lots of books can be oppressive. In the Bible it says about there being no end to the making of books and with much knowledge comes much misery. Knowledge ends up forming archaeological strata and it’s only the surface you see.

Q. I believe you have a party each time you reach a new letter?

A. Yes! I started doing that. Each party involves food and drink beginning with the new letter. I’ve only done it twice, as I’m still in ‘C’ and I didn’t do ‘A’. They haven’t involved many people – just my family – but maybe I should make them into more of a thing. I like the idea of art having a social aspect. Although I’m not particularly social…!

Q. What will you have when you get to ‘X’?

A. My head examined, probably.

B for Ballistics.

Japanese block printing (my version)

Here are some experiments I did with a bastardised version of Japanese woodblock printing. Instead of using oil based ink, this technique uses water-based drawing ink and starch paste. The starch paste slows the drying of the ink and allows it to be printed. This was just a dipping of the toe in the water, but I might do some more. There are some great videos on YouTube of Japanese masters doing this properly; I’m just seeing if I can use it in my own way.

In the two pictures above, you can see the tools I used. In the cup is a mixture of acrylic drawing ink and starch paste (I used Japanese Jin Shofu paste, which I normally use as a paper glue). I tried various brushes, including a watercolour wash brush and a house painting brush, but I found that a large makeup brush worked best. You brush the ink on. You don’t need very much, but it’s best if it’s even. In the other picture, you can see the results. Top left: I didn’t wet the paper. Top right: paper too wet and too much ink/starch. Bottom left: still too much ink/starch and paper possibly still too wet – the block took a lot of the paper surface with it. Bottom right: better, but it still took some of the paper surface off. Might be bad paper (it was cheap paper). I printed them with a Floplast 110mm press (= a piece of 110mm soil pipe filled with concrete).

Photos of the Erskine Bridge

I’ve been sifting through some photos I took back in 1996 when I was at Glasgow School of Art. They came out of a project I was doing related to the Antonine Wall, the Roman construction which spanned the Forth-Clyde isthmus. I made a series of cycle trips to locations along the wall. The sequence of photos I’m presenting here are of the Erskine Bridge, which crosses the Clyde near the western end of the Antonine Wall, within sight of the fort at Old Kilpatrick. Suspension bridges have been another of my obsessions. There is somehow a connection between the miraculously thin concrete span of the bridge and the Antonine Wall, which was also a structure extruded beyond what one would think possible.

 

Monoprinting in the cold

© Matthew Herring 2018. Prints on floor in studio
© Matthew Herring 2018.

Today I finished working on a monoprinted text piece. It’s the third I’ve completed out of a series of them. It was freezing in my studio – the ‘Beast from the East’ brought snow and storm Emma contributed wind – and I had a job to get the ink fluid enough! I put it on the heater until it steamed and probably nearly caught fire. 

An almanack out of the attic

Whilst sorting out stuff in my attic recently, I came across an almanack I made for a project at Glasgow School of Art in 1996 or 1997. This thing is made of paper mounted on mounting board in a concertina-style book: 13 ‘pages’. It lives in a box made of mounting board. Box and almanack are decorated with orange acrylic paint (unmixed orange and a peach-coloured tint) and graphite. I’m far enough away from the person I was when I made it that I think I can start to unlock some of its meanings.

(Images © Matthew Herring)

My first year supposedly on the illustration course at Glasgow was frustrating. Neither of our two tutors were practicing illustrators – one was a packaging designer and the other I think had been a commercial artist (i.e. graphic designer) in the days before computers – and neither had any interest in teaching illustration. Most of the projects they set were either idiotic (“design a planet”) or basically graphic design briefs. Into this context came: “Make an almanack”. It had to use two colours only, as if it were to be printed using a two colour process. One of our tutors, remember, harked back to the days when artists made colour separations by hand. Peculiar thing to teach, on the brink of the digital/internet/multi-media age.

An almanack is usually heavy on type. For a computer-phobe who went to art school to learn to illustrate, almost nothing could be more calculated to turn me off a brief. Either: learn Adobe QuarkXpress (and how to use a computer in general), or do the whole thing by hand. This was in the days when computers lived in a special room guarded by a technician more unhelpful than any librarian; crashed if you breathed on them; and had to be fought over tooth and nail. In 1996/7 I was a frustrated fine artist pretending to myself I wanted to be an illustrator while being extra frustrated at not even being taught that. (The 40 year-old me wonders why I didn’t leave and go to a different art school).

To top it all, a suggestion: why not do something about Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Saint Mack of the Dollars. Into this plays the tension of Glasgow School of Art in those days and hopefully not still: be a Mackintosh theme park for tourists, or a working art school. The fine artists in the Mackintosh shared their space with tourists. For the illustrators and graphic designers in the leaky Foulis building over the road, since demolished, it was this: do something Mackintosh and it might get produced for the gift shop. Our tutors were in cahoots with the gift shop.

So. My almanack was an anti-Mackintosh, anti-graphic design, anti-commercial, anti-sense, anti-almanack. On one side of the concertina: a front cover and twelve images. On the other side, a jumble of calendars, mad handwriting and scribbled drawings. Nowhere does it say which year it is for and it is utterly unusable, as intended. I barely remember what my tutors said to it. I think they were more-or-less indifferent to it. If they realised it was a deliberate and frustrated attempt at a riposte to their project and whole approach to teaching, they didn’t care.

This is what is going on in it:

 

‘Images side’

 

Page 1: front cover

Has the following hand-drawn text in smudgy graphite on a pale-orange ellipse on an orange ground: “The This Almanack Was DesiGNED by Me for Me And is DeDICATD TO ME”. Orange was my colour of the apocalypse: the colour of a nuclear sunset. A pale ellipse surrounded by a ‘burnt’ black border on an orange ground was a nihilistic gesture: a vacuous “that’s all folks!” portal at the end of everything. A burnt out tunnel to nothing (not even Bugs Bunny).

Page 2

On top of a C.R. Mackintosh motif of four squares sits a sack with eye holes and ‘z’s coming from it, some backwards, as something is asleep in the sack. Behind it, a distraught girl I copied from the Beano says in a large speech bubble: “Charles Rennie Mackintosh ate my hamster!!”. This, in a puerile way, closed the door on it being sold in the school shop.

Page 3

A Bold washing powder box label copied in mirror image. My attack on packaging design? A landscape intrudes on the design, in the middle ground of which is a strange hand motif that will feature in many of the other motifs. What does the hand mean? Self pleasing? The manual process of making the almanack opposed to the coming onslaught of the computer? Drowning, not waving? I didn’t know at the time.

Page 4

An image copied from a Polish painting I knew: “Zdzisiek jumps of the Palace of Culture & Science every morning”. I was interested in the Polish Poster School and anti-communist Polish art from the 1980s. Did I see myself as having to engage in irony against an unsympathetic regime? The city in the background could be Glasgow.

Page 5

A fat man with no eyes and a fish for an arm. In his stomach: a knife, an Avro Anson aircraft, a bolt, a WC sign, a mouse, a star in a circle, a Polish flag, a can of Old English cider, and several hands. The knife: murder? The aircraft: I had started to rekindle my childhood interest in aeroplanes as a refuge from what I hated about my course. The cider: probably what I would have drunk. The rest:? I was probably the fat man with the fish hand ingesting all of these.

Page 6

A flying anvil with the insignia of the hand in a sky shot with orange clouds. It has a propellor and flimsy wings. The left-hand third of the page is a flat orange ground with a scalloped edge, pushing the anvil image almost off the page. A picture of absurdity flung back at my tutors? Being an artist as impossible as a flying anvil?

Page 7

In the top half: three hand motifs and an assortment of symbols: hearts, gunsight, stars in circles, knife and fork, ladies’ toilet sign. One of the hands has an eye and fork-arm, with which he menaces the other two. They also look like wild-west cacti. In the bottom half a Royal Canadian Air Force Grumman Avenger. Aircraft formed part of my personal surreal at this stage. Aircraft are extremely specific (to those in the know) and bring with them such specific associations that to juxtapose them is very pungent. Part of the poignancy of aircraft, particularly military ones, is their ephemerality: advances in technology make them quickly obsolete, and scrappage and destruction in war make them extinct as types. I discovered the work of Guy Johnson at this time.

Page 8

A sort of strange hand-tree-thing with part of a B17 bomber behind it. A Christmas tree and a cedar from the Lebanese flag.

Page 9

The British Rail logo in a mocking sort of cartouche and the words: “Happy Birthday BR 1st Jan 1948”. Three hand logos and birthday candles. My dad worked for BR. It was a cynical and I guess ironical thing to wish BR happy birthday (it wasn’t because I cared about BR, though I kind of did). Again it is a symbol with very specific resonances: personal, national, nostalgic. The BR logo had, by that time, become a sort of generic sign for a railway in the UK. BR was already dead. The BR sign is as ubiquitous and unremarked as a WC sign and, hence, intrinsically comic. BR would have been 48 or 49 – I discovered the offbeat anniversary at least a year before the first Google Doodle.

Page 10

An orange egg shape with a lion logo from something or other and the ‘CE marking’. A hand emerges from the egg, like a hermit crab. In the background, drawn in graphite: spheres and stars in circles.

Page 11

WG Grace with an orange beard with a childishly-drawn floral border which invades the picture-space, threatening WG’s eyes. WG Grace looks like Engels, who appears later. I was aware of Terry Gilliam’s use of WG Grace’s image a Monty Python animation. Big beards hiding stiff upper lips: the afterglow of the twentieth century’s dismemberment of the nineteenth, before the current century’s rediscovery of it as a comfort bolt-hole for hipsters.

Page 12

The Mcdonald’s logo with three arches and the words: “McSwindle”. A thumbs-down symbol. I worked in Mcdonald’s just before going to art school and didn’t like it. An obvious candidate for a bonfire of the symbols.

Page 13

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in profile on top of some walking hands and a leaf-litter of stars in circles. The commie leaders came from a  film still from a book on Polish art. I didn’t care that much about capitalism or communism; they were just grist for the same mill. I developed the star-in-the-circle further in other work. It is a symbol of optimism and power (and American imperialism – it is the US air force insignia), but I piled it up like discarded aircraft parts at the corner of a field in one drawing.

The ‘calendar side’

 

The other side of the almanack is all painted orange and most of the drawing is in graphite. The calendars are muddled and jumbled together on three only of the 13 pages, again like discarded things. There are some crudely drawn monsters, like those from the margins of a child’s schoolbook. There are more apocalypse-ellipse-voids and some black holes. There are some piled up circles (without stars). Various texts, some of them swiping at commercial entities: “Sweet nothings”; “Oblivion wellcomes [sic] Graham Kendrick [a Christian singer]”; “Pizza Hut says: Never go with stranglers”; “Metsa Serla [paper company] says: 1999 has been cancelled”; “Christmas has been cancelled”; “No Yom Kippur”. One page has: “17 Historic Wednesdays. 17 things invented on a Wednesday: 1 Snakes + ladders, 2 Snakes + ladders […] 17 Snakes + ladders”. Presiding over the whole are the words, in white in carefully traced Octopus typeface: “Everythin ends here” (around it, in white, in my handwriting: “The World ends”; “Party’s over folks!”; “All change!”. Octopus was my favourite way of kicking back at graphic design (now it’s Times New Roman).

I’m not really quite sure what to say in conclusion to all this! As a thorough negation of the brief it barely raised an eyebrow (I doubt I got a good mark, though). The frustration of youth. Funny that in a setting where one is taught ‘visual communication’ nobody thought to even attempt to discern what I was communicating. Including me. I don’t know really….

Oh, the box is titled: “aHistor y O th world”, and it does actually have the year – 1998 – crossed out (in letraset).

Top Shed Residency blog 7 (Friday): Orford Ness

Orford Ness © M Herring 2016
Orford Ness © M Herring 2016

Today was the last full day of my residency. I went to Orford Ness (I tried to go there earlier in my residency, but all the boat trips were full up). Orford Ness is a large shingle spit joined to the coast south of Aldeburgh in Suffolk and separated from the mainland for most of its length by the river Ore/Alde (it is rather like a bigger version of Blakeney Point, which I visited on Monday). Orford Ness is a mysterious place which was home, for eighty years, to a top secret military research establishment. Military activity ceased in the 1980s and it was sold to the National Trust in the 1990s. It was used by the military, among other things, for testing bomb aiming methods and is still littered with unexploded ordinance. The MOD have cleared paths for visitors to follow, and you stick to these, or risk getting blown up.

I first heard about Orford Ness several years ago through a BBC radio programme by Paul Evans and had wanted to visit ever since. Evans’s programme, with its blending of documentary and poetry, perfectly captures the strange atmosphere of Orford Ness. During my residency, I have been re-reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which also describes a visit to the Ness. Both Evans and Sebald experienced a sense of unease and disquiet visiting Orford Ness. Sebald describes visiting on a day that was, “dull and oppressive”, and feeling, “at the same time both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head”. Evans, if I remember rightly, spent the night on the Ness and was spooked by a hare. Sebald was also, “frightened almost to death” by one which had, “a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided”. I saw a hare too, one which, in the distance, shifted from being a coypu to a mutjac deer to a dog before I guessed it was a hare and got my binoculars fixed on it to confirm the identification. It was too distant to see if it had a human-like face, but it still a disturbingly indeterminate presence. Even the way it moved across the shingle desert – forwards, stop, back, stop, forwards again – was oddly indeterminate. It vanished from time to time in the yellow grass and then seemed to reappear at a spot where it was previously, as if the pocket of time it inhabited had been cut up and spliced together in the wrong order.

To get to Orford Ness, you have to take a small boat the short distance from Orford. Walking down from Aldeburgh, where it joins the mainland, is forbidden, though there is no physical barrier to stop you, only a scary sign. The day I visited was hot and sunny. The part of the Ness closest to the land consists of marshland – I saw lots of little egrets and lapwings – crossed by a tarmac road. A stoat edged round me like I was a chugger it wanted to avoid (but with little more concern than this), as I ate my sandwich sat outside the information building. The road then crosses a tidal creek with mudflats either side, which divides the Ness lengthways. The seaward part of the Ness is a large flat shingle desert. I say flat, but it is actually gently ridged, a bit like land bearing traces of ridge-and-furrow farming. The whole site, especially the shingle part, is dotted with military structures. A large radar station bearing the codename Cobra Mist is to the north – the masts there now transmit the BBC World Service, but it was once the world’s most powerful radar station. A series of bunkers and some strange concrete structures nicknamed The Pagodas, which occupy the shingle to the south, used to house experiments connected to Britain’s early nuclear weapons programme. The visitor path takes in a structure known as the Bomb Ballistic Building, which resembles an airfield control tower, the lighthouse and the closest of the nuclear weapons bunkers.

Orford Ness, exposed and on the North Sea coast, is notorious for biting east winds and I bet that being there in the middle of winter on a grey stormy day is some lugubrious experience, with the wind moaning through the twisted steelwork of derelict buildings and banging sheets of corrugated iron. On a hot, sunny day, with the sky a lapis blue, it has a different atmosphere that is harder to define. Sitting outside the bunker, I tried to get to grips with what I felt about the place. I was prepared for it being eerie and desolate and all the other adjectives. I had a headache and felt a little like Sebald in struggling to marshal any particular thoughts. The lack of shade makes it a difficult place to spend much time on a hot day. The light and heat are radiated back by the shingle and start to tire your eyes (I had no sunglasses) and head. A heat haze made distant objects shimmer. However, the main feeling I got was of a kind of mineral stillness. Everything seemed made of the same stuff and fixed in eternity. Having to walk a pre-determined circuit (with other people all doing the same) increases the sense of fixity and oddness, like you are a bunch of marionettes walking round a prison exercise yard which is also, with the logic of a dream, a desert with strange toy-like buildings set at the corners of the circuit. It reminded me of the stiffness of certain Balthus paintings.

Dried teazel plants poke up from cracks in the tarmac in perfect imitation of iron fixtures rusted into shapes that obscure their original purpose. Tiny scarlet pimpernel flowers resemble flakes of dull red paint on the crazed road surface. Ragwort smells sharply of radish – if anything could survive a nuclear holocaust, I’d bet on it being ragwort. It seems to embody toxic waste-ground. Yellow horned poppy is just as weird as at Blakeney Point. “Do not touch any suspicious objects”, the sign says. Does that include yellow horned poppy? The greenest vegetation is within the roofless bunker, protected from the wind.

Everything tends to nothing. Sitting outside the bunker I tried to note down a few thoughts and came up with the phrase, “nothingness that hums with energy”. It’s not a bad ideal to aim for in art, I think to myself. There is an energy about Orford Ness, that isn’t immediately apparent, but which is somehow behind everything. The more nothing there is, the more it hums with energy. Looking out across the shingle into the heat haze, solid objects such as the lighthouse and Bomb Ballistic Building seem as if they could suddenly disappear (and reappear somewhere else – position being relative on a featureless surface). Everywhere what you notice are alignments: two concrete cubes on the shingle line up at right angles to the horizon; a rusted piece of metal roadway lines up with a distant shed, again at right angles to the horizon; the lighthouse and nautical marker (another tower) exchange charge like two electrodes. It as if nothing exists until it is in alignment with something else. As I point my camera about, I realise that what things are tending towards are the cross hairs of a gun sight or bomb aimer’s sight. Horizontals and verticals constantly lining up and moving apart, as if the land is taking aim.

On a sunny, calm day the energy is all potential, stored for when the storm winds rip across the plain.

I started to fear that my headache would get worse and I’d not be fit to drive back to Norfolk, so I headed back to the jetty, feeling like I was betraying myself a bit. I was back on the Orford side by two o’clock and glad of my flask of tea. I’d like to go back to Orford Ness and do some work there. It’s easy to feel like you know what you are going to somewhere like that to experience and then trot out the clichés, but harder to make sense of it in its own terms. Did I experience what I expected and what others experienced? I don’t know.