I listened this week to a radio program by Iain Sinclair about weather. He talked about our loss of weather; about how we (the city dwellers) live our lives in boxes made out of brick, metal, concrete and glass. How the weather is no longer relevant to us (until it ‘goes wrong’). Our weather comes to us brokered by professional weather forecasters. Yet, “We are in weather and we are weather”. Interesting that (apparently) creative writing teachers tell pupils not to include weather in their writing but in Victorian literature weather was a character in its own right and set the scene (“It was a dark and stormy night”!) The Victorians were aware of their weather, whereas to us it is something outside of the main stream of our existence, like what’s on the telly (on the other side of glass and possible to turn away from – draw the curtains; turn the telly off). Weather is like the stream of time; like the surface of time.
As a cyclist I can reflect on my own experience of weather. Weather exists in two narrow strips, one at the beginning and one at the end of the day, when I cycle to and from work. If it’s fine I don’t tend to notice it; often it opposes me. This week, it threatened to blow us off course and into the paths of vehicles, so Ioana and I took the bus to work and back. Actually, we walked part of the way, which enabled us to enjoy the wind. But at least we were out in it and are usually out in it, even if just for narrow strips of time. Weather doesn’t engender tourism. Nobody goes to see weather, like they go to see landscapes, though weather is always a part of the landscapes people go to see. Weather is too unreliable.
The radio program included an interview with a man with a phobia of weather. This man couldn’t do anything until he had listened to the weather forecast. He was afraid to open the curtains. He described wanting to curl up into a very small ball because of weather (any weather, it seemed). In an odd way I can understand the fear. There is something uncanny and ‘other’ about the weather. It is not for nothing that we sometimes describe a sky as ‘threatening’. If it was a malign (sentient) force, what a terrible force it would be: always above you, looking down at you and in a position to reach down and pluck you up. When I was a child I used to like to imagine that the sky was some terrible monster that I had to get indoors and away from as quickly as I could. But how safe can you be indoors from the weather? The power of the sky is in it’s look, in it’s malignant eye, and it can see in through windows and thin curtains. It affects the inside too. It is in you as well.
I just started reading a book of poems by Roy Fisher. Weather is here too. Here is a poem called Leaving July:
Low crippled clouds drag on a naked sky
over night leaves that point
ravines of darkest green down steeply
from the pale plateau of glaucous twilight;

the sky flattens on the land and gazes
back up into itself with rainwater eyes
out of blue rutted sockets on a builder’s site:

it levels along the wires and the stump arms
of telegraph poles, almost at cool-tiled house-height
where long roofs make a floor for shallow midnight.

I also like these lines from another poem:
The night slides like a thaw
And oil-drums bang together.


Gracious epiphanies


Another quote. I was struck by this from the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, quoted in an edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.

“In turning toward his own inwardness and looking for his own subjectivity to grasp and express, [the artist] may become divided from things and imprisoned in himself. He may lose at the same time the poetic spark of creativity and the sense of the very work to be done, if he forgets that the creative self cannot possibly be revealed except in the joint revelation of the reality and transreality; of things and of some secret meaning grasped in them. Why? Because it is in an awakening to things that creative subjectivity awakens to itself. In and through that obscure and emotional knowledge, inexpressible by concepts, expressible only by the work which is poetic knowledge and in which subjectivity itself is made into a means of grasping the world.”

The quote is from a 1954 book by Maritain on his friend Georges Rouault and was brought up in the context of an interview with Thomas Hibbs, who has written the text to a catalogue of an exhibition of paintings by Rouault and Makoto Fujimura. Ken Myers, the interviewer, went on to unpack this quote a little by saying:

“This is a concise expression of Maritain’s belief in the way that art helps us know something about the existence of the world. Things – apples, birds, a sleeping girl, a man on a horse – reveal reality. Things aren’t just meaningless stuff. They are gracious epiphanies. Things confer a kind of real knowledge about the world, though not a knowledge that fits into concepts. Artists and composers and poets help us as we try to perceive that knowledge”.

I like the phrase ‘gracious epiphanies’. It needs a bit of chewing over, that one. It makes me think of Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel, Gilead, in which the character, John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist pastor who is dying, reflects on his life for the benefit of his young son, who will never grow up to know his father. Ames is a sensitive man and his accounts contain many ‘gracious epiphanies’; little things that reveal poetic truths. When his fiery grandfather, who is also a pastor, talks about his visions of Jesus, which had spurred him to shed blood for the abolitionist cause, the younger Ames responds that there is a great sun shining over the whole world. I must look up the proper quote, as I’m not sure I got it right. I think what he means, though, is that the gracious epiphanies in things speak with a voice just as direct to anyone with an ear to listen as the supposed visions do to the grandfather (whose mental stability the book ultimately casts doubt on). It’s the same thought as expressed in Psalm 19, when it says: “The heavens declare the glory of God”.

Rouault and Fujimura, who are both very different artists, derive a sense of the meaningfulness of the cosmos from their faiths in God. In the same edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers interviews Stratford Caldecott, author of a book called Beauty for Truth’s Sake, on this same theme of the loss of a sense of a coherent meaning within creation being linked to the denial of beauty. There is much to think about in this area!

I also like Maritain’s observation that poetic knowledge is not expressible in concepts. It is obscure and emotional. Felt. That’s why it is so hard to talk about what one is doing as an artist. I have a bit of my Dad in me, which is hard-nosed and thinks that this ‘knowledge’ is no knowledge at all and ‘just feelings’. But even my Dad, for whom such thoughts have no meaning at all, responds to the lines of a 1963 SAAB 96!

Garden blog

“Every garden is a replica, a representation, an attempt to recapture something, but the form it finds for the act is that of a mental picture, so in spite of its special properties a garden is just another of the images of art” (Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, 1977, p. 3)

Olga painting
Olga painting in the garden

Here is a picture of Olga painting the flowers in our garden. I came downstairs from working on the computer, or from working in my studio, and saw her doing this. I got thinking about all the artists’ gardens I know of. Emil Nolde created several fantastic flower gardens, the final of which, at his house at Seebuhl in the far north of Germany, is still there. The flower beds spell ‘A’ and ‘E’, the initials of him and his wife. I’d like to visit some day. Derek Jarman created an elegiac Zen-like garden at his house on Dungeness, which is also still there and which I’d also like to visit some day. This garden is formed from the sparse shingle landscape of Dungeness and features strange driftwood pillars, recalling some prehistoric sacred site or a Zen garden. It seems to embody some of the spartan and somewhat melancholy feel that want to capture in my own painting. The feeling of making art at the remotest edge of the world; on the frontier between the world and eternity.

Ian Hamilton Finlay created a well-known garden, Little Sparta, in the hills south west of Edinburgh, which is also a work of art in the full sense. I visited it once, when I lived in Glasgow. I took my bike on the train to Lanark, then cycled the probably ten miles or so to Little Sparta. I hadn’t made an appointment, which you are supposed to, but there was a big group from Germany, or New Zealand, or somewhere (I forget), so the staff kindly let me in with them. The man himself was there, sat on a bench in the sun surrounded by his staff (who I seem to remember all wore blue sweaters and were young, though maybe I’m making that up). Someone was handing him a mobile phone with someone on the other end. “What? I can talk into this thing?!” the old man said, holding the phone away from his face, like it could harm him. Little Sparta is a lot smaller than it appears in the photos of it.

I must get some of those Chinese lantern plants. I saw some in someone’s front garden on Almsford Road. They are beautiful and have a feel about them which is at once uncanny and comforting, like childhood memories. Probably remind me of making stuff out of orange tissue paper in primary school about this time of year, or of visits to relatives.


It is now late September, one of my favourite times of year. I took the photos of Olga a few weeks ago now and several of the plants which are thriving in those photos are now dying back (though the nasturtiums and red pelargoniums are still going). It’s a bit odd, but I’m taking as much pleasure out of putting my old, spent tomato plants in the compost as I did out of watching them grow and harvesting the tomatoes. This morning I cut a big cucumber plant down and stuck that in the compost. It might be a manifestation of my love of tidiness: compost is tidier than plants. Plants grow all over the place and are ‘untidy’, but compost is homogeneous and rich. There is also a sort of comfort from the cycle of life. To know that putting dead plants in the compost bin is like burying a corpse that will rise again (a tomato reincarnated as a calendula). But I do have an inordinate love of putting things in the compost and of the process of rotting in general (I’m even pleased when a tomato goes mouldy in the bowl, so I can stick it in there), which is why I like this time of year, probably.

Other artists’ gardens? I wonder if Damien Hirst gardens. He moved to Devon, so he probably does have a garden. I wonder if he grows calendulas and dead heads them (probably has a gardener). Does David Shrigley grow peas? Austin Wright lived very close to me and had a garden, which, from the wonderful film about him on the Yorkshire Film Archive website, looks like it had that quality of picturesque neglect that you only get on farms. His sculptures were sited against old apple trees and overgrown shrubs. It was winter in the film, so maybe that accounts for the look of it. Maybe he grew calendulas in the summer, but all we see are snowdrops. The film reminded me exactly of my parents’ cine films of their garden when they first moved to their present house (in 1981, eleven years later and at the same time of year as the Austin Wright film), even down to the pond in the centre of the garden.(In my parents’ case the pond was six foot deep and got quickly filled in for safety).


Ioana’s family house in Agas, Romania, has a similar garden, with a railway line at the bottom. (In true Romanian style, the neighbours who live on the other side of the railway climb the steep embankment, cross the tracks, slide down the other side of the embankment and squeeze through the gap in the barbed wire fence and hawthorn hedge in order to use the garden as a short cut to the main street. Even though there is a tunnel and a road about twenty or thirty feet further along. They saunter past the house as if nobody gives a shit, say ‘Buna dimineata’ and let themselves out through the side gate). One of Wright’s sculptures (one of the ones with tall stem-like elements which wave in the wind) would look good in the centre of the Agas garden and, in fact, there is a decaying hay rick there which looks like a sculpture.

There are loads of garden spiders around at the moment. Everywhere. Big fat ones. They’re so round and cute I don’t even mind if several brush against my face as I try to make my way between the bushes and into the greenhouse. They’re a bit like odd ripe berries.

Gerhard Richter quote I like

This is an interesting quote from Gerhard Richter: “ When we describe a process, or make out an invoice, or photograph a tree, we create models; without them we would know nothing of reality and would be animals. Abstract pictures are fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can postulate. We denote this reality in negative terms: the unknown, the incomprehensible, the infinite. And for thousands of years we have been depicting it through surrogate images such as heaven and hell, gods and devils”.

It comes from a text for documenta 7, Kassel, 1982. He goes on to say: “In abstract painting we have found a better way of gaining access to the unvisualizable, the incomprehensible; because abstract painting deploys the utmost visual immediacy – all the resources of art, in fact – in order to depict ‘nothing’”. Then later: “This is not some abstruse game but a matter of sheer necessity: the unknown simultaneously alarms us and fills us with hope, and so we accept the pictures as a possible way to make the inexplicable more explicable, or at all events more accessible”.

I can relate to this idea of art making as a sort of sense making. I like the idea that we create these models of aspects of reality in our minds, which we can then attempt to replicate in paint or some other material. An artwork should be something that you turn around and around in your mind (like you can turn a model round in your hands and look at it from all angles, but you can’t do that with the reality). Also, interesting to note the connection with the transcendent. God has set eternity in the heat of men, so the Preacher tells us. The abstract painting is an analogue that points both ways, though it is simultaneously stuck in its own reality. Why does the unknown fill us with hope? Is there ‘nothing’?

Geert Goiris and Die Dachboden Bande

Broken stuff on the rocks, Flamborough Head, 2006
Broken stuff on the rocks, Flamborough Head, (c) Matthew Herring, 2006

I have two new enthusiasms to blog about. A little over a month ago I went to the wedding of my friends Miriam and Martin, near Hamburg, in Germany. Ioana and I took a couple of days to explore Hamburg and visited the Kunsthalle, where we saw an exhibition of the Belgian photographer Geert Goiris. Seeing Goiris’ photos for the first time was one of those ‘wow’ moments. His website has all the ones I in the exhibition, I think – check them out! Goiris seeks the extreme edge of civilisation. He journeys to places like the Arctic, Spitsbergen, Iceland, Scandinavia and deserts. There he may sometimes present nature in her pristine state (images of ‘whiteouts’ in the Arctic recall Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and Erased De Kooning), but the strandline of civilisation is never far away. An image of variously coloured shipping containers spaced out on the snow, a snowstorm in the background eliminating the boundary between the land and sky, is a particular favourite. The containers appear to hover in an indeterminate white space. It looks like a minimalist abstract painting (perhaps by Raoul de Keyser). Other works, in the same series, focus on the Russian ship which took Goiris to the Arctic and her crew. images are striking in their economy and observation. Stark and beautiful. They are surreal in the way that they make the familiar strange (“[…] like the surrealists, I don’t locate the bizarre next to daily life, I place it in daily life”, he says). Great wit and keen observation are evident: a collapsed and decayed cactus in the desert resembles a huge hideous spider about to pounce; a view of a lava field (in Iceland?) dusted with snow resembles, for all the world, a stormy sea; the boarded up windows of an abandoned hut in the wilderness look as if they are mirrors reflecting the landscape, so closely do the tawny landscape and the grain of the plywood match each other. Echoes of Magritte, who loved to confuse land, sky and sea. Some of his images of volcanic rock echo Dali.

Another way in which Goiris seeks the extreme of civilisation is through his theme of abandoned modernist structures, especially those with a futuristic, utopian feel to them, like Futuros and other UFO-like structures. A glade of spherical water towers (I think), which look like queer mushrooms, is particularly surreal – have they been converted into homes? Running through all of this work, and one of the things which I think compels me to it, is a sense of melancholy. Surrealism was always about melancholy. There is a beauty about melancholy. I think Goiris’ work will become a touchstone for me, as it has a number of the elements I am striving for: a great formal simplicity but with nevertheless a great deal of feeling invested in it (no formal coldness here; Goiris even uses the words ‘romanticism’ and ‘sensationalism’ about his work); a sense of melancholy in the fragments of civilisation; an interest in landscape, particularly wilderness, and the interface between wilderness and civilisation; and a keen eye for the uncanny.

Platform shoe sole and float on the beach
Platform shoe sole and float, Flamborough Head. I had these two objects in my bedroom until I got married, when I threw them away. (c) Matthew Herring, 2006.

These musings reminded me of, and to an extent helped me make sense of, the experience of walking under the cliffs at Flamborough Head from Filey Bay and coming across fragments of smashed plastic objects nestling among the chalk boulders: fish crates from Hudson Bay, children’s buckets and spades, toys, flip-flops, floats, bottles and jerry cans. For some reason, it was very moving. All the things lost in the sea at the other end of the bay ended up here, smashed to pieces by the sea and the rocks. The sea was doing its own version of Michael Landy’s Break Down (where the artist fed all of his possessions through an industrial shredder). There are places which function as a kind of ‘exchange zone’ between wilderness and civilisation, where the products of civilisation have to be broken down and converted into the idiom of nature: plastic buckets have to be made like pebbles, worn down in the same way as flints. This is the mirror of the process by which we convert wilderness into our idiom, by imposing roads, buildings and electricity cables on it. We digest nature and nature digests us. (Though the poisoning of the sea around mid-Pacific islands by minuscule fragments of poly bags testifies to the unpalatability of much that we produce).

The other enthusiasm I intended to write about in this blog (which has got longer than I intended, as usual) also came by way of our trip to Hamburg. It is a small toy museum, called Die Dachboden Bande (‘The Attic Gang’) in a converted warehouse in the Speicherstadt. It is really more like an art installation, designed by its founder to express philosophical ideas. Old toys, many broken and dusty, are piled up without any labelling or the organising principles we associate with a museum but in the manner of an attic. The visitor explores this magical, haunting and unsettling space in order to make up his or her own narrative from the highly charged objects and arrangements. Again, a wistful melancholy is the feeling that reigns. It reminded me of a Jan Svankmajer film and of the Skogar Folk Museum in Iceland (the latter was also the creation of one man and the objects in it have a similar kind of potency). Ioana had a field day, as she loves toys. Dachboden Bande has a nice website, here.

Death ships and the secret crypt

Westman Islands
Vestmannaeyjar, by Matthew Herring, 2009 (c)

Reviewing the last two blog posts brought to mind an article by Jo Applin (who lectures in art history at York) about H.C. Westermann’s Death Ships (‘Death Ships’, Parallax 15:1, Feb. 2009). H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) was an American sculptor, known for his meticulously constructed and enigmatic sculptures, often made using traditional cabinet making methods, which fall between surrealism, pop art and abstraction. Westermann served in the US navy during the Second World War and Korean War. He witnessed a number of horrific incidents, including kamikaze attacks on US ships. In 1944, after the aircraft carrier USS Franklin was bombed with the loss of hundreds of her crew, Westermann was on board her sister ship, USS Enterprise, as she towed the still burning Franklin to shore. Westermann later described the sight of the huge, listing hulk and the awful smell of burning and of death. These wartime experiences probably lead him later to create a series of strange sculpted ships, which he called ‘death ships’. Their basic form is that of the hull of a large ship, often a sailing ship, with or without masts and always listing. Westermann played many games with this basic form, for example covering it with dollar bills or running it over with a car with inked-up tyres, but kept the basic form constant.

(There are pictures of some of the death ships on the internet, e.g. here and here. Wikipedia has some photographs of the Franklin, including this one, which shows the burned out Franklin on her return to New York in 1945. This image reminds me quite forcibly of the dark hulking presence of the death ships. There is also a quite heart-rending photograph of the burning Franklin with many of her crew still on board, here).

Applin talks about how, although the link to Westermann’s biography is easy to make, the death ships ultimately refuse to yield their meaning, or ‘speak’. She describes them as, “oddly inert, mute objects, full stops within Westermann’s visual lexicon”, and claims that “Westermann developed a secret visual language that seemingly described personal experiences and biographical incidents whilst simultaneously encrypting them and rendering them inaccessible”. Applin links this to the psychoanalytic theory of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, who discovered the psychical processes of encryption and secrecy. Abraham and Torok describe how the secret becomes sealed off within the subject in a ‘crypt in the ego’; the ego acting as a ‘cemetery guard’ to protect the subject from the secret. Applin states that: “The secret crypt remains unspoken and unarticulated, like a foreign body wedged inside the ego that goes on to haunt the subject, irrupting at irregular and unpredictable moments within the analysand’s discourse and behaviour, confusing and disrupting meaning and narrative order”. This notion, and the descriptive language that goes with it (‘secret tomb inside the subject’; ‘foreign body wedged inside the ego’), I find quite haunting. Abraham and Torok claim that these secrets are ultimately undecipherable, “remain[ing] closed and impervious to symbolic interpretation” (Applin’s words). Applin seems to be saying that the ultimate meaning of Westermann’s death ships is precisely this secrecy, closed-ness and refusal to speak.

If Applin is right, then it must mean that the ‘secret’ at the heart of the death ships is something other than the wartime memories themselves. Westermann spoke of these memories and dealt with them explicitly in some of his drawings. They are not a ‘secret’ in the context of his life or work. Something deeper, perhaps: maybe something that explains why the memories haunted him. Maybe there is some aspect of the memory which is so impossible to assimilate that it becomes transmuted into the secret. Westermann was haunted by the burning hulk of the Franklin, container of so many corpses. Death is obviously part of what makes the scene into a horrific one: the same burning ship would perhaps be merely a spectacular curiosity were it not for the presence of death. Death is something we learn of in our early childhood, however. The stench of death and burning makes death more palpably real, but still doesn’t seem to explain it. The human creature is haunted by memories and other ghosts but something within human nature causes them to haunt. I wonder if a kind of ‘wrongness’ (surfacing as a ‘strangeness’, or ‘uncanniness’) is at work. The listing of the ship is wrong: ships are not meant to list. The deaths of hundreds of young men all together with no chance of escape or comeback is wrong: young men are not meant to die in their hundreds. The one wrongness recalls the other and the acrid black smoke stinging the back of the throat and the nauseating smell just nail it in. I’m just speculating now: I have no way of knowing and if Abraham and Torok are right then the secret is ultimately impossible to unlock anyway. The secret is not, perhaps, the memory itself. But it must have been something intelligible before being transmuted into something unyieldingly dense like scar tissue.

It is easy to see how extreme, traumatic experiences such as Westermann’s might cauterise themselves into the soul like shrapnel. Seen this way, secrecy might become a symptom of what often now termed ‘post traumatic stress disorder’. However, I wonder if the phenomenon is universal. Psychoanalysts have pointed to deep traumas which leave their traces in all of us. I think that when you seek to allow the creative process to lead you, you are in fact guided by what is secret and inexpressible to yourself. Long before I read Applin’s article I had the feeling that my own practice was driven by something which I could never articulate and which I described to myself as a ‘shard’ or ‘splinter’ lodged somewhere in my soul (or ‘ego’ in Abraham and Torok’s terms!). It seems to manifest itself as a certain underlying feeling that I struggle to find a word for and which is always unutterable and unfocussed. A sort of sense of loss is the best I can do. This feeling is precisely like a splinter: small enough to ignore, but undeniably there. Abraham and Torok describe something which affects the subject in ways that are unbeknown to them, so, if this is the same thing, it will always elude being pinned down – there is just a ‘sense’ of it. It is important to say as well that I don’t think it’s something that I would want or seek to be rid of; there is a certain pleasure in entertaining it and I think it is a generator of creativity.

Untitled painting, by Matthew Herring, 2008 (c)

When I was a student at the RCA I was troubled that I found images of the Second World War so fascinating and enjoyed looking at them. It wasn’t the excitement of war that I found myself drawn to, because I found the stillest images the most compelling (and still images more compelling than moving images). It was the sense of loss and sadness and the sheer strangeness (‘listing’) of war. ‘Tragedy’ is one of the words that we use to describe this aestheticised ‘enjoyment’ of loss and sadness. It was almost as if I had within myself a very small fragment of the same loss and sadness, which elicited some kind of recognition or identification, although I had not gone through what I was looking at,. There was a temptation to re-imagine my own past to accommodate some experience, such as participation in a war, in order to explain, or justify, the feeling. Someone might say that this is just the natural human capacity to empathise, but what I’m talking about is too stable for that: the feeling is there even when there is nothing to empathise with. It also feels like something deeper than empathy and may even under-gird (certain types of) empathy. (In some, much closer, situations I find myself being remarkably un-empathic). The haunting of the secret and enjoyment are all somehow mixed up: I was tempted to say that for someone who had actually witnessed horror enjoyment is entirely absent from the experience of the secret, but the sheer glee and humour in Westermann’s death ships and drawings makes me wonder. It might be more that we aestheticise the secret to live with it. There is an undeniable beauty to the strangeness of war. In that case, Westermann would be responding to the beauty of the listing ship, as well as to its horror.

One of the consequences of all of this, I think, encapsulated in Applin’s conclusion that the ‘meaning’ of Westermann’s death ships resides precisely in their own resistance to (certain types of) meaning. I find this helpful, because it frees art from always having to be so transparent; it is entitled to resist having its core laid bare. It’s not that the shard or secret itself is denied, but that the secret is kept secret. When I paint I find myself creating my own death ships. “He has put eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:9).

Darkness at Noon

Abstract painting, titled 'Bluebird'
Bluebird (c) Matthew Herring

Another book I have read recently is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (Penguin, 1964, tr. Daphne Hardy). This little novel is a penetrating and fascinating study on the psychology of soviet communism and of imprisonment. Rubashov, a former Bolshevik leader from the circle of Lenin is in prison awaiting death during one of Stalin’s infamous purges. The novel consists of Rubashov’s interior monologues as he paces up and down in his cell and his various interrogations before his urbane former peer, Ivanov, and the brutally effective second-generation communist, Gletkin.

At one point, following his interrogation by Ivanov, Rubashov discovers a silent partner in his internal monologues, which he christens the ‘grammatical fiction’. This other ‘voice’ only speaks very briefly and at unexpected moments (usually accompanied by an attack of toothache, or Rubashov’s nervous habit of wiping his pince-nez) and remains silent when interrogated. The ‘grammatical fiction’ is the ‘I’ which communism denied; it is Rubashov’s conscience. His humanity. Interestingly, the things that induce the grammatical fiction to the surface are the same sorts of things that act as hooks to drag up buried memories in Austerlitz (see blog post, Memory Rooms), namely, memories of small seemingly insignificant details of past experiences. “[The grammatical fiction’s] mental sphere seemed to be composed of such various and disconnected parts as the folded hands of the Pieta, little Loewy’s cats, the tune of the song with the refrain of ‘come to dust’, or a particular sentence which Arlova had once spoken on a particular occasion” (p.91).

All of these fragmentary memories are the tips of icebergs; the icebergs being a series of betrayals in which Rubashov sacrificed the lives of individuals for the sake of the Party. In Rubashov’s case, the memories are not deeply buried in the past, as in Austerlitz’s, but what is buried is the sense of any guilt or compassion attached to them. Correspondingly, the ‘memory-hooks’ are more transparent in meaning than in Austerlitz’s case and come to the fore without the needing to be re-encountered. All that is in fact needed is for the thing which buried them in the first place, namely the amoral ‘logic’ of the communist mind, to be stripped away by incarceration and the proximity of death. Austerlitz’s memories were laid down in early childhood and attach themselves more to inanimate objects and details of the physical surroundings. Rubashov’s memory-hooks take on a more symbolic character (the sorrow of the Pieta drawing; the cats which were sacrificed for their skins; the song with it’s allusion to death), because Rubashov really knows what it is that he has been repressing. It is this Rubashov that is the grammatical fiction.

Memory rooms

Abstract painting, titled 'Lift'

Earlier this year, I read Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald (Penguin, 2002, tr. Anthea Bell). It’s about a Jewish architectural historian, Jacques Austerlitz, who escaped from Nazi Germany as a young child on a Kindertransport. His early past obliterated, in later life he embarks on a quest to recover his lost identity. The novel is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs – details of various buildings and spaces mentioned in the narrative; fragments of memory. Here is a quote I like very much. It’s in the context of Austerlitz talking about his youthful hobby of photography: “From the outset my main concern was with the shape and self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the moulding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass” (p.108). This quote is on the same page as a block of four small photographs: a detail of coastline with the land in silhouette; a slightly blurred detail of leaves against the sky; tiles on a roof; and factory chimneys belching smoke.


Further on, Austerlitz finds his way into the abandoned ladies’ waiting room at Liverpool Street Station in London. The sight of the dilapidated splendour of this room sets him into a kind of reverie which ends with a vision of himself as a small child being met in that very same room by his foster parents. The book is full of rooms and other spaces which all point back to the past. When I started thinking about the abstract paintings I’ve been doing I realised that they seemed to derive from two or three distinct sources: the open landscape of the moors (or deserts), rooms and engineering structures, such as bridges and gantries. One motif, a rectangle with one corner chopped off, which I did a version of today, (it occurred to me) might derive from the plan of my bedroom in my parents’ house, which had a door in the corner, making the room have five sides (my bedroom in my current house is also like this, as was one of my bedrooms as a student). I’m interested in the idea that, if I let the ideas be themselves, then they will gradually show their meanings – that they all point back to something.


Part of the key to Austerlitz’s past is his recognition of details of his environment. The recognition he experiences in the ladies’ waiting room at Liverpool Street Station is the starting point of his journey of rediscovery. As he walks down the Sporkova, the street in Prague where he lived as a small boy, before his flight to Britain, he notices small details, which reconnect him with his past: “It was true that I could recognize nothing for certain, yet I had to keep stopping now and then because my glance was caught by a finely wrought window grating, the iron handle of a bell-pull, or the branches of an almond tree growing over a garden wall. Once I stood for a considerable time outside the vaulted entrance to a building, said Austerlitz, looking up at a half-relief set in the smooth plaster above the keystone of the arch. The cast was no more than a square foot in size, and showed, set against a spangled sea-green background, a blue dog carrying a small branch in its mouth, which I could tell, by the pricking of my scalp, it had brought back out of my past” (p.213).

Later, as he leaves Prague by train to retrace his journey to the Hook of Holland, he is convinced that he remembers seeing the pattern of semicircles, triangles, horizontals and verticals in the glass roof of the Wilsonova Station (there is a photograph of this on p.309). Then he gets out at Pilsen to photograph a detail of the station there, “which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy at the sight of it, however, was not the question of whether the complex form of the capital, now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the children’s transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in itself, that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself” (p.311).


A few things interest me in this: the suggestive power of shapes, forms and simple things; the idea of inanimate forms impressing themselves on the mind of a child and then remaining there for the rest of the person’s life, hidden in the sediment of the soul and exerting a hold or a force; and the idea of inanimate aspects of one’s surroundings seeming to be alive. I remember walking with my mother to primary school up the hill beside Acomb Green, past an old house which had an iron gate with two gateposts. One, probably the older, was tall, round, slightly tapered and had an ornamental ball on its top. The second was shorter, square and had a flat square top. Both were painted green. I invested these two posts with complete personalities; or, more accurately, they just seemed to have those personalities. The shorter one always seemed to have just said something rude – the flat top probably reminded me of a pair of rude lips, or a jocund flat cap. The other seemed to be rather stuck up and to be telling the shorter post off. They were part of my everyday experience and it was rather like passing two old men who were always leaning over the same wall. “Now then, gentlemen!” “How do?!” “Morning!” (Now, when I pass them, I’m more likely to notice the painted false window on the wall of the house. I need to go down on my knees to be impressed by the posts again – height is everything).

Beauty of abstraction

I was struck recently by an interview on the radio with Cecil Balmond, the engineer who is realising Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Tower. He was talking about the aesthetics of the laws of physics and mathematics and how he took to mathematics when he saw the beauty inherent in it. The observation which struck me was that, for him, the beauty lies in the fact that it can be abstracted. This interests me because sometimes you come across the idea that the opposite is true – that abstraction is somehow cold, calculating and inhuman. (I’ve just read C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi novel, Out of the Silent Planet, in which the cold, evil imperialism of the character of Weston is linked to his scientific, abstract thought. The good character, Ransom, is a humanities academic. Ransom’s first instinct on encountering the alien race, the sorns, is that they must be technocratic, calculating, soul-less overlords to the cuddly hrosses – in fact, they turn out to be a feathered version of Tolkein’s Treebeard).

The quote I liked the best from Cecil Balmond was this: “I think the beauty is that it can be abstracted. I think that there is a huge power of abstraction in engineering, so that you are not limited to the surface of things; you can extract down, and, in extracting down I think there is a process beauty at work, because you come to the essence of something, and there is a beauty when you find that. So I think that in that sense, yes, there is a whole process of discovering beauty through engineering processes – through scientific imperatives – that gives you a feeling of discovery of beauty, though it’s abstract, and I think it’s because it’s abstract that it’s powerful”. I like the idea that by abstraction you can come to the essence of something – and that beauty lies there.

A rainbow is a way that the world appears

I like this phrase of Roger Scruton’s from The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford, 1997, p.4): “A rainbow is a way that the world appears”. It is part of a discussion about the ‘realness’ of sounds and rainbows. I like the idea that the world has ways of ‘looking’ – that there are types of phenomenon, or characteristics of phenomena, that are just part of the way that the world ‘looks’. Scruton also makes the sly observation that one can tell a ‘real’ rainbow from an illusory one (e.g. one painted on the side of a camper van), because, if you can approach it, it isn’t real.