Friday, 25 November 2011

Harold Budd and The Necks in Exeter


Harold Budd, Werner Dafeldecker and The Necks came to The Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter to play on Wednesday, brought together under the aegis of the Sound and Music organisation in a concert which recognised the affinities they have with each other. The evening was given its own uncapitalised title, time being, a heading which pointed to the one of nature of this musical meeting, as well as alluding to its improvisational nature. Time is an important element in the work of Budd and The Necks, and they are both capable of creating an atmosphere in which it seems to be held in suspension. Harold Budd often labours under the ambient label, although he is only ambient in the sense that Eric Satie and Debussy are ambient, composing piano or keyboard pieces which conjure rich and evocative atmospheres rather than concentrating on definite melodic and harmonic structure and development. The Necks are an Australian trio of long standing, having been together since 1987, and comprise Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Tony Buck on drums. It’s the classic jazz trio line up, and there’s certainly an element of jazz in their approach. Their music is totally improvised, with no preconceived or composed material brought to the stage. But it is a take on jazz which stretches its improvisational time out, allowing a piece to unfold at a deliberate and reflective pace with changes introduced gradually and additively. Nothing is sudden in this music. It has sometimes been likened to minimalism, as motifs are frequently mulled upon in a repetitive way, but the attention to small details and nuances of sound tend to belie such convenient categorisation. In the end, it is what it is – Necks music.

Werner Dafeldecker is an improviser on bass and electronics, and is something of a middleman here. Like many improvising musicians, he has worked in a wide variety of contexts and formed many connections with a disparate set of musicians. He has played with Necks pianist Chris Abrahams in the leftfield rock trio Autistic Daughters, and was one of David Sylvian’s collaborators on his Manafon LP. Harold Budd’s recent records Perhaps and Avalon Sutra have been released on Sylvian’s Samadhi Sound label, an acknowledgement of his abiding influence. Dafeldecker has also recorded with Stevie Wishart, on of improvised music’s few hurdy gurdy players (I’d say only, but the eclectic Japanese noisemaker Keiji Haino made a scorching album with an amplified, feedback-splintered version of the instrument) and leader of the sublime medieval group Sinfonye; on the same LP (Mikroton from 2009) with AMM and modern classical pianist John Tilbury; with laptop glitch manipulator Christian Fennesz on the apocalyptically prescriptive LP Till the Old World’s Blown Up and A New One is Created; with Otomo Yoshihide and other Japanese technological mavericks (many of whom performed at the Phoenix some years back in the Contemporary Music Network tours Japanorama and Turntable Hell) on My Dear Mummy from 1999; and, perhaps inevitably, with arch-collaborator Jim O’Rourke, America’s answer to Brian Eno. Harold Budd first recorded on the latter’s Obscure label, releasing The Pavilion of Dreams in 1978, which Eno also produced. He has also collaborated with a number of like-minded souls: with the Cocteau Twins on The Moon and the Melodies, and later with the Cocteau’s guitarist Robin Guthrie; with Jean Cocteau fan Bill Nelson and Andy Partridge of Westcountry pop pastoralists XTC; with fellow American composers Daniel Lentz and Ruben Garcia; with Ultravox founder John Foxx and ex-PIL bassist Jah Wobble; and, on two exquisite records from the early 80s (The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror) with Mr Eno himself. Dafeldecker adopts the Eno role tonight, taking to the stage first with Harold Budd. There are no introductory remarks, which is a shame; given the mellifluous murmur of Budd’s voice revealed through his readings of poetry (both his and others) on several of his recordings, it would have been good to hear it in person. But after a brief nod of acknowledgement, it was straight down to the music.

Although it was Budd who had taken sole billing for their duo, it was Dafeldecker who took front stage, standing before the table upon which his small boxes of digital wizardry were laid. Budd sat at his piano, which was positioned with its rear end towards the audience. Perhaps in a deliberate act of self-effacement, which shifted the emphasis on to his musical partner, he was largely eclipsed by the tilt of the open lid, reduced (from where I was sitting) to an emblematic glimpse of his thick mop of white hair and white-shoed feet. Dafeldecker began proceedings by delicately tweaking a few nobs and adjusting the sound levels of the amplifier, small and undemonstrative gestures which created a roiling hiss of static sounding like rain hitting the ground, and added an underlying drone of humming bass. Throughout, he provides enveloping aurorae of sonic shimmer and distant rumbles from thunderous stormclouds, sound effects for wide horizons. His gradually constructed intitial soundscape provides a bed upon which Budd, an inert observer for the first couple of minutes, can begin laying his distinctive billowing, rippling chords, extended and Debussyesque. They are harmonically quite static, content to rock and drift in the swells, the more structured progressions of other performances and recordings left back on land in this new, more provisional and fluid improvisational environment. Echo and reverb blurs the sound, leaving it hanging for extended moments in the air, the aural equivalent of Russell Mills’ slowly shifting images which are projected onto a screen above the musicians at the back. Mills provides another Eno connection (with Eno, the usual five degrees of separation can generally be narrowed down to about two), having produced covers for his albums (including The Pearl), as well as those of David Sylvian. Both Budd and Eno (and Sylvian) have joined him in his Undark musical projects too. His projections are full of soft blues, yellows and reds and are suggestive, in their porous horizontal divisions of colour blocks, of skies, lakes, deserts, mountains and seas. At one point, they seem to form into the outlines of one of Munch’s depictions of luminous Nordic coastlines. The introduction of more clearly defined formal elements (vertical dividing lines, squares and circles) bring to mind the colour fields of the abstract expressionists such as Clifford Still, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

The soft-edged blurring of sound and image makes this the music of weather, ambient in the sense of evoking atmospheric states and the nebulous coalescence, movement and dissipation of clouds or waves (again, reminiscent of the Debussy of Nuages or La Mer, or the Ravel of Une Barque sur l’Ocean). Dafeldecker took Budd’s chords and subjected them to various manipulations, looping, making them hover in vaporous suspension, bending through a tweaking of the circuits and transforming them into something other. He briefly took up the bass, but used it anything but a virtuoso style, detuning a string to pluck one slack, reverberant note, which was fed back to add more rumbling undertow. Budd sat out at intervals whilst what he had produced was put through its metamorphoses, until Dafeldecker once more created a field above which he felt he could set those chords drifting once more. After about half an hour, Dafeldecker allowed the loops to wind down and fade away, the clouds wafting off and our vessel washing ashore. It was an arbitrary point at which to stop a piece which had no natural point of closure, not theme to return to or climactic chord to reach. But there was enough of this rich and intoxicating duet to leave the senses satiated.

After the interval, the three musicians of The Necks came onstage and stood or sat still by their instruments for a few moments before starting, as if waiting for someone to make the first move to break the silence, sounding out the auditorium to decide which direction to take. In a piece of total improvisation which will grow from this first gesture, it is a weighty decision to make. Chris Abrahams began by playing a repeated, Budd-like rippling piano chord. Then, perhaps taking a further cue from Budd, he dropped out, and Lloyd Swanton swayed slowly between two notes on his bass. A duet built up with Tony Buck, who played gently on bronze bowls, using the soft headed mallets which he played with for most of the set, and seemingly agitating chimes and cowbells with his feet (all of this activity was mysteriously taking place below his drum set, behind which he crouched). The array of dampened and jangling percussive sounds which he produced evoked Alpine rurality or the play of breezes, perhaps heralding storms to come. This was a performance which shifted through various different sections, lacking the cohesion and unity of some of The Necks’ improvisations. There was a tension evident at certain moments, with the music rising and falling, leading to subdued intervals in which it was uncertain as to which directin it would take next. This was a creative tension, however, and the refusal to settle into an easy groove worked in the music’s favour, and made for the perfect conjunction with the shifting meteorological moods created by Budd and Dafeldecker in the first half.

Abrahams brought the piano back into the mix after the bass and mini-gamelan had built up momentum, and led the music in another direction. He and Swanton asserted themselves at periodic junctures, channelling the improvisation into a new configuration which the others would pick up on and build upon. Abrahams kept within a narrow range in the centre of the keyboard for much of the time, but as the piece progressed, began to slowly migrate through the octave, increasing the intensity as he did so. From its delicate beginnings, they moved through hypnotic swirls of sound, with Swanton taking up his bow and providing sustained underlying tones, and into a stormy section in which he ferociously strummed power chords on his bass as if he were in a stoner metal group. The grimace on his face suggested that this was not something he could keep up for long. Buck provided a pounding Mo Tucker accompaniment, and Abrahams hammered the repeated piano chords, sending overtone shards splintering into the air. It took on the ritualistic air of one of Charlemagne Palestine’s strumming music pieces for a while, although thankfully leaving no blood on the keys. Finally, having reached a thunderous climax, the storm passed and calm reasserted itself. Abrahams’ chords slowly died away, Swanton’s last bass note resonated into silence and it was left to Buck, who had by this time taken up his drumsticks, and had been playing shimmering patterns on his cymbals, to draw things to a conclusion. His final, steady taps on bronze bowl, cymbal and chimes were like the last pattering, arrhythmic drops of a rain shower, bringing the concert around full circle from Dafeldecker’s opening cloudburst. We left refreshed and invigorated, and outside the weather was fine, a clear and warm autumn night.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

British Art Show 7 in Plymouth

Part Two

A short stroll around the corner from the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery brings you to the Plymouth College of Art. Here, Edgar Schmitz once more provides spacey sounds and a nebulous visual loop at the threshold, ushering us into a space apart from the familiar world outside. Brian Griffiths’ sculptural installation is pitched in the gallery, a ragged and mouldering canvas strung from wall to wall, filling the space. The tent is formed into the shape of a bloated, decaptitated head, with eyes slashed in front and ears and muzzle pinned out by taut guy ropes. It looks like the flayed and padded hide of a monstrous Mickey Mouse. Grubby and faded, it is a totemistic object grown sinister through repeated use, now exuding an air of diseased malignity. The dark, gaping holes of its tent flap eyes and its dumb, mouthless muzzle make it look like a death mask, a grotesque taxidermic imitation of life. Campers’ badges sewn onto the back trace a ritualistic trail of towns and cities through which this sick visage has toured, infecting them with its grim, nihilistic stare.

The next venue in the Show’s tour of the city is the Plymouth Arts Centre. To arrive here, you have to cross the permanently busy roads which circle the central boulevard of the post-war city plan, skirt the bizarre assemblage of off-kilter and wholly unrelated decorative facades which front the Drake’s Circus Shopping Centre, pass the bombed out church now marooned on a traffic island, and descend through an underpass and into the stained concrete grottoes of the bus station. The Arts Centre is housed unobtrusively in a couple of terraced Georgian houses on the outskirts of the Barbican area. Down in its basement gallery a selection of drawings Mick Peter and Alasdair Gray. Peter’s work tends to be split into two panels, akin to the layouts of comics. The drawings themselves also share the boldly outlined forms of comic book imagery, with a similarly limited colour palette, in this case red and black. This gives them a direct immediacy, together with a vaguely propagandistic look. There is continuity between the panels, but the division marks some transformation or shift of emphasis, which makes for a contrast between upper and lower sectors. In Talbot’s Room, an impossible tree house is perched on a flimsy upper branch of a leafless winter tree, reached by a long, spindly ladder which is itself planted precariously on the roof of a dilapidated shack. The shack is elevated on makeshift scaffolding, tilted along the incline of a steep slope down which it looks likely to toboggan should one of its unstable frame of criss-crossing props be knocked away. The whole structure is a study in tenuous and provisional balance, subject to complete collapse at any moment, and held up more by hope more rational and skilfully realised design. In the upper panel, two bare branches of the tree extend, their jagged lines expanding to form two roughly sketched eyes which look like they might have been extracted from a protest banner or poster, daubed on with urgent vitality. All the dangerous, makeshift architecture and hazardously knocked together platforms have been created in order to ascend to the perspective of this elevated, godlike vision. In another picture, a country stile straddles a dry stone wall, which has been constructed with whatever mineral materials lay close to hand, its haphazard form a matter of expediency. It is a jumbled assemblage of different shapes, sizes and textures, chaotic but nevertheless interlocking to create a temporarily stable order. The two upward pointing poles of the stile extend into the upper panel, and following the line of one, like following the end stars of the Plough to find the pole star, directs our attention to a hovering object floating weightlessly in the sky. It is the hollow framework of an open-sided dodecahedron, one of the ideal Platonic solids, its pentagonal shapes folding together in perfect symmetry to create a twelve sided geometrical object, a reflection of changeless heavenly order. This contrasts with the cluttered scree and timebound regolith of the earthly flux below, fashioned by human hands into more contingent and changeable patterns.

The author, playwright, poet, essayist and artist Alasdair Gray was represented by seven of his portraits, whose simple and boldly outlined bodies and features and striking colour contrasts made them the perfect partner for Peter’s drawings. The economy with which he conjures the character of his sitters (and they do tend to be seated) and the broad areas of clearly defined colour with which he surrounds them, making them stand out all the more assertively, reflect his longstanding preference for painting murals, which have graced various sites around Glasgow, from synagogues to chip shops, churches to underground stations. This economy of effect also echoes the clarity of his precise and uncluttered prose. The subjects of these portraits are a mixture of friends, literary acquaintances, and models from Glasgow School of Art and elsewhere. Two are taken from a series of studies he made of may Hooper, who modelled for him in 1984, and for whom he seemed to feel a particular affinity. In his book A Life In Pictures, he remarks that he intended to fill a small book with portraits of her. He also notes that he used a thick-nibbed fountain pen, which allowed him to vary the thickness of the outline and thus suggest the solidity of the body without recourse to shading, which would intrude upon the simplicity of the drawn figure.

May In Black Dress on Armchair portrays her in the same manner familiar from the strong women of Gray’s fiction; calm, assured and relaxed, with hands folded in her lap and head resting lightly but alertly on the back of the chair. May On Invisible Armchair finds naked, her support magicked away from beneath her, floating weightlessly on the aether. Gray surrounds her with monotone background of blue acrylic, as he does in the previous portrait, which here makes it look as if she is ascending into or floating upon the summer skies. It is evidently an element in which she is comfortable, her passage through it effortless and natural, raising a quiet smile of relaxed pleasure. The tone of her flesh derives from the unadorned manila brown of the wrapping paper which Gray has used, enhanced by the contrast with the enveloping background colour. He has often used unconventional surfaces to draw and paint on, seizing upon whatever was readily available, whether it be wrapping paper, newspaper or the reverse side of wallpaper rolls. He admits, in the autobiographical book gathering together a generous selection of his art A Life In Pictures, that ‘even nowadays, when I can afford good quality cartridge paper, it still makes me uneasy and self-conscious because too expensive to risk spoiling’. The unconventional materials are put to imaginative and idiosyncratic use, their particular colour and texture lending their own quality to the picture where the surface is allowed to nakedly reveal itself. It perhaps even helps to suggestively hint at the direction the composition might take, in much the same way that the shape and texture of the walls, floors and ceiling of a building would guide the form of his murals. The May pictures were completed in 2010 (‘with the support of my recently acquired art dealer’ as Gray lets us know in A Life In Pictures), a lengthy gestation period from their original drawing in 1984, which may be partly down to a certain reluctance on Gray’s part to bring a work to a definitive conclusion, partly due to the conflicting demands arising from endemic impecuniousness, and partly due to an abiding anxiety about possibly spoiling the effect of the original drawn delineation of the figures with further detail and colouring.

Alasdair Gray - Andrew Gray Aged 7 and Inge's Patchwork Quilt (copyright the artist)
The portraits often incorporate carefully stencilled words marking names and dates which, along with the details of dress and furnishings, act as memorials of a moment or a very particular time and place. In the case of the picture Teacher, Historian, Poet, Angus Calder, this acts as a final memorial, the dates 1942-2009 marking the span of his life and the portrayal of his final days lending him dignity in death. The words on the pale chalk blue of the background (the fading world) give the portrait context, telling us that Calder is ‘in an Edinbourg care home where he died, and is here murmuring recollections of Nairobi University’. From the bedbound constraints of the end of his life, he travels back through the expansive continents of his memory. It’s a compassionate and calm portrait, a visual obituary tribute which asserts that character and personality persist right up until the end. Blue Denim, Christine and Dan Healey, Rex Scotorum has both the title subjects sitting calmly at a table, straight and upright as if enthroned and facing their courtiers. He is nude and potbellied, folded hands covering his modesty, head topped with a crown and long beard trailing in sinuous lines – A very Blakean figure. Mick Broderick, painted in 2008, sits in a chair, but has none of the relaxed, easeful presence of May. He is serious, guarded and wary, with arms and legs defensively crossed. His face looks out at us from an indirect angle, and with a suspicious cast to the features, eyes giving a sidewise glance of measured appraisal. The portrait of Alasdair and Ann Hopkins proudly declares its delayed period of completion, the words Drawn 1982: Painted 2009 inscribed on the background. The subjects sink side by side into their sofa, he relaxing with a whisky, she cradling a blissfully dozing white cat in her lap, a picture of domestic comfort. The cushion provides an area of colourful patterning, which can also be found in curtains and carpets and clothing in other pictures. In Andrew Gray Aged 7 and Inge’s Patchwork Quilt from 2009, this patterning resides in the coverlet which shares equal top billing with his son. This is a memory piece, with detail recollected from decades ago, revivifying the quilt, which glows with the freshness of new creation and what Gray describes in A Life In Pictures as ‘the bright heraldic colours I most enjoyed’; Colours which once more recall the vivid immediacy and striking impact of his murals.

The final part of the Show takes you out of the city centre and, if you choose to walk, leads you on an interesting trail across the Hoe and around the back of the Mill Bay docks, where bundles of coniferous tree trunks always seem to be in the process of being loaded or unloaded. You cross over into the Stonehouse area of the city via the imposing 18th and 19th century grey stone blocks of the marine barracks, wend your way through neat rows of early 19th century terraced houses until you come to the grand arch, bestrode by a triumphant 13 foot statue of William IV, which leads into the Royal William Yard, built between 1825-33 and ‘by far the most impressive single architectural group in Plymouth’ according to Nikolaus Pevsner. The extensive compound was created according to the needs of the Victualling Board of the British Navy in order to provide its sailors with the food and drink they required, and have a place to preserve and store it. Of the various old breweries, bakeries, mills and storehouses which have now been converted to flats, offices and restaurants, the exhibition took place in the connecting halls of the slaughterhouse, where up to 100 cattle met their end every day in the mid 19th century (memorialised by a couple of carved bulls heads on the rear of the entry arch) – an appropriate setting for the cutting edge of modern art, although thankfully there are no butchered Hirst beasts here.

Mick Peter in the slaughterhouse
The first thing which draws your eye when you walk in is Mick Peter's large, bright red sculpture, which looks like it might have been dipped in a vat of fresh blood, and which contrasts strikingly with the grey stone walls. Its singular primary colour gives it some sense of continuity with his red and black drawings seen in the Arts Centre. He has modelled a couple of architect’s tables, raised to a vertically sloping angle. The sharp points of set squares are embedded in them, as if they’ve been thrown like darts, and they stick out like the fins of geometrical sharks. What looks like a half-melted saw forms an undulating bridge between the two separate tables, linking them like the hemispheres of the brain. These objects, normally solid and the bases for creating structure and order, seem soft and mutable, caught in the act of imitative transformation, or at the beginning of the process of changing into something wholly other. You sense that its colour is one thing that it can’t alter, however. Opposite is a standard laminated metal bench of the sort commonly found on railway stations, seemingly constructed with the deliberate intention of denying anyone the chance of getting too comfortable. At one end, the plastic lamination has been burned away, leaving a scorched circle of metal. This is because, at certain intervals, a naked man walks by and sets a small fire at one end, perching on the other to watch its chemical flames. The whole then becomes the stage for a sculptural tableau, with contrasting elements of flesh, metal, plastic and fire. It is the work of , who in 2008 created , and incredible installation for which he filled an empty flat with liquid copper sulphate, which covered its surfaces with deep blue crystals, turning a very ordinary locale into a glittering, enchanted cavern. This was a similarly startling and imaginative idea, but the naked man failed to make an appearance whilst we were there, so it remained in ideal form only.

Haroon Mirza has constructed an audio sculpture made up of discrete elements which nevertheless connect with each other to make a unified whole. Various media through which music and sound can be played are brought to bear. A record player spins the Joy Division LP Unknown Pleasures, identifiable through its label, with its pulsar waveform mountain range. The needle is kept stuck in the playout groove by a sticker, which acts as a buffer, creating a rhythmic loop of crackling white noise. Another, tilted, turntable slowly turns, the elevated record balanced at the tip of its spindle acting as a cog which connects with a long dangling flex from which a naked lightbulb is suspended. The record carries the lit bulb around in an elliptical revolution, is if it were part of a phonographic orrery. The bulb passes over a transistor radio, tuned between stations, causing it to emit bursts of hissing static with its 40W solar flares – the sound of the universe’s background radiation, a more chaotic music of the spheres than that envisaged by Pythagoras. Another record lies flat on the top of a spindle, slowly revolving, a black vinyl plinth awaiting some heroic statue or fetishized commodity display. The back of a pick up arm abrades it from below, creating grinding repetitive noise rhythms. Behind the cluster of gramophones, a CD player rests on a tall stack, its disc skittering through a digital stutter which never manages to resolve itself. The media of tape and television are covered by a recorded performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape played on an old set, the volume turned down to render the old man and his spools dumb. The screen points away from the other elements, leaving Krapp in circumscribed, self-created isolation. The whole assemblage is occasionally flashed with strobe lighting, a reference to Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis’ epilepsy, which the artist himself has also suffered from in the past.

The Otolith Group consists of artists Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun (can two people really be considered a group? Perhaps the Otolith duo sounded a little underpowered). They have made a short film called Hydra Decapita, which combines various layers and interposed stories and narratives to make connections between the Atlantic slave trade, art and imaginative fictions of escape and historical reconfiguration. Atmospheric film shot along the rocky coastline of Cornwall evokes the sublime terror of the sea and creates an ominous backdrop to the event which is the historical crux of the piece: the throwing overboard of 133 slaves who had fallen sick from the Zorg slave ship, in order that the company could claim insurance for the loss of a now devalued cargo. This is linked to Turner’s 1840 painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On, which the Victorian critic John Ruskin extolled in his 1843 volume Modern Painters. Eshun talks of Ruskin defending and celebrating this painting. I’m not sure whether he means on a formal level, or whether he is implying that the picture is somehow in itself part of the fabric of the slave trade (which had recently been abolished in most of the British Empire at this time) and its justifications. Selected lines from Ruskin’s review are sung by Anjalika Sagar, expressing the sublime beauty of Turner’s painting, which seems to suggest that the suffering of the slaves is ignored. A more complete and representative quotation from Ruskin’s writing would have made his feelings about the subject clear. He goes on to set the ‘nobility’ of the painting in a moral context, suggesting that the tempestuous elements are ‘advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as is labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror’. The romantic sublime here is a terrifying, engulfing force to which the slaves have been thrown, and the arm and chains sinking below the waves in the foreground, lit by the glow of the setting sun, raise explicitly accusatory hands which gesture towards the slave ship departing on the horizon. It is a picture full of pity and horror, the latter perhaps made a little too explicit by the exaggerated monstrosity of the giant fish which gather for the feast – but exaggerated effect is part and parcel of propoganda. Ruskin was given the painting as a present, but later sold it because he found it ‘too painful to live with’.

Hydratic worlds - return to Drexciya
The Otoliths draw on the mythologies behind the music of Drexciya, a duo who emerged from the Detroit techno scene and shared its science fictional imagination. They invented an aquatic world, Drexciya, into which the offspring of the drowned slaves were born, a fantasy of escape which rewrites history. This is elaborated into an alternate cosmology here by a voice filled with a rather desperate stridency, cryptically identified as Remnant of a Hydrogen Element. He is heard spinning assertive theories and stretching the boundaries of scientific credulity whilst the camera remains still within a womblike cave, looking towards its curved mouth; a place of safe retreat from which to be reborn into a newly created world. The voice talks of a waterworld surrounding a star in a vast shell, insisting that this is possible, as if conviction is enough to make it manifest. Another, more resigned voice sends reports from some future moment, possibly in a post apocalyptic or politically oppressive world, her attempts at making sense of recorded archives appearing as semi-coherent text on the screen. There are also interludes in which we see flowing water shot in extreme close-up in such a way that it resembles flashing, glinting streaks of light. These appear like background static initially, and are accompanied by the detuned white noise of coded numbers radio stations. Just as voices emerge from the background sound, so the visual static resolves into the chaotic flow of water, noise resolving into comprehensible signal in a way that echoes in microcosm the complex elements of the film as a whole – although the degree to which meaningful pattern becomes apparent may well differ from viewer to viewer.


One Work: An Exhibition for Modern Living by tvnportal

Matthew Darbyshire’s An Exhibition for Modern Living creates an enclosed show room within walls of white shelving and fills it (and the shelves) with exemplary domestic objects reflecting the taste for shiny, mass-produced glitz and glamour, a collection of glittering totems of lightly held values. Artificial and cheaply manufactured materials predominate, with plastic, chrome and porcelain the smoothly presiding textures. There are pink curtains, a pink felt-lined phone, an array of plastic hourglass drum stools, a curtain of trailing gold discs, paper globe lanterns lining the floor like beached bouys, neatly paired and laid out designer trainers, a gold lame jacket hung up ready for a night out, white and pink elephants, and a sequined union jack cushion. White ceramic Buddhas, pink felt Christs and a gold-plated Ganesha point to a shallow and bogus religiosity which has been reduced to cheap commodification, consumer icons in this temple of kitsch. The title of the installation is taken from a 1949 exhibition which sought to point the way towards a bright and rational post war modernist future in which new design would create the shape of a new world. Such dreams of modernist purity have been transformed into the jumbled variety of objects on display here, which are possessed of a uniform characterlessness despite their seeming diversity, and form part of a comfort zone of reassuring blandness. In the centre, a chair rests on a small patch of artificial grass, a parodic fragment of the pastoral in this denatured, anaesthetised Eden. On the other hand, you could view it all as being just a load of camp fun, a counterblast to modernism’s earnest seriousness and lack of visible humour. The smooth, soft-edged, and shiny lightness of its squared off space and contents makes a notable contrast with the rough hewn grey stone walls with surround it. It seems that it is this enveloping colourlessness and incipient, cheerless gloom (these are the walls of an old slaughterhouse, after all) which it is trying to fend off with its distracting surface sparkle.



The final work which you come to in this part of the Show is Christian Marclay’s The Clock, an appropriate point of culmination given the widespread acclaim that it has garnered, including winning the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale art exhibition. It’s a 24 hour film collaged from myriad movie and TV clips, all of which contain some reference or allusion to time, and the appearance of clocks and watches in many of which (observed or unobserved) is synchronised with the actual time of its projection and viewing. If a character on screen checks his watch and sees that it is 10.30, you can do the same, and find that the time actually is 10.30. It’s an idea which needs no justification, exerting its own absorbing fascination and being sheerly enjoyable in its own right. It throws up odd juxtapositions of genre, era and mood, and reveals the central role which time plays in the movies, and the kind of scenarios in which it’s an important factor. Westerns include a good deal of waiting, a natural enough consideration given the difficulty of travelling to and from the minimally civilised outposts of the wild frontier. Railway stations are also a recurring location in which time and waiting are inherent, and in which clocks are naturally prominent. There are many films in which a rendezvous is set, and we share the tension of a character wondering whether it is going to be kept or not, with nervous glances at the advancing minutes. Ticking bombs and hostage situations, or any scene involving a countdown or deadline, have a more urgent timebound tension, with clues having to be uncovered and solutions hunted down within a prescribed period. The film develops its own rhythms, with periods of relative inactivity and reflection punctuated by bursts of more frenetic action. Morning, afternoon, evening and night all have their own filmic moods and atmospheres, and different genres tend to find their own natural time of day to inhabit and come to life in. Certain key times suggest themselves; it would certainly be interesting to see what happens around midnight and during the witching hour. We saw a segment lasting from 4.30 until 5, a period which sees the end of school and of office hours, with the resultant anticipation of being liberated from routine and preparing for the excitements of the evening ahead.

The Clock is, above all, a gift for the film buff. The buzz of recognizing favourite films, or the vexation of trying to recall just where this or that scene comes from is a real pleasure for the cineaste, as is the anticipation of what will come next, or when certain moments will turn up (what was the time when Harold Lloyd was hanging from that clock face? And what did Peter Fonda’s watch say at the moment that he dashed it to the ground at the beginning of Easy Rider, rejecting the constraints of time?) Whilst we were watching, there was a wildly disparate range of films and actors. Denzil Washington was sitting moodily, waiting for something or somebody, at various points throughout. There were scenes from Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes and Mystery Train, characters tending to a good deal of hanging out in his films. Shelley Duvall turned up in Robert Altman’s Three Women and Thieves Like Us. Humphrey Bogart waited in vain for Ingrid Bergman at a Parisian station in Casablanca, whilst elsewhere the 4.50 from Paddington was expected in the eponymous Agatha Christie adaptation. People also waited for trains to arrive bearing fateful passengers in High Noon and Once Upon A Time In The West. Ingrid turned up again in Gaslight, worrying that she was losing her mind as details of her house were subtly altered around her, whilst Betty Davis prepared some domestic mind games of her own in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Both Dickie Attenborough and Dirk Bogarde leave buildings in fifties or early sixties England, looking shifty and checking the time. George Chakiris from West Side Story can be seen mooching around at various junctures, looking unreal and airbrushed in Technicolor tones. We voyeuristically follow John Lithgow’s killer in Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, his murderous garrotte extending from his watch and thus affording us frequent glimpses of the time. We see Jean-Pierre Leaud grow up, playing Antoin Doinel as a boy in Truffaut’s 400 Blows, and as a young man dodging the Parisian traffic in Stolen Kisses. Jack Nicholson clock watches his final few office minutes away until retirement in About Schmidt, whilst Steve Martin endures the agony of waiting for his dithering boss to come to a decision, acutely aware that his chances of catching the flight he’s booked on are narrowing by the minute in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Maggie Cheung sways along the street in Wong Kar Wei’s In The Mood For Love, a film which seems to unfold in a permanent state of temporal suspension. Juliette Binoche potters about in her Parisian attic room in Alice et Martin, and Peter Cushing leans against a fireplace in an elegantly appointed Victorian parlour, waiting for someone or perhaps just musing. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, takes measured steps away from Roger Moore in The Man With The Golden Gun as they pace out an old-fashioned duel. Robin Williams sits in his study waiting silently for Matt Damon to open up in Good Will Hunting, and River Phoenix stares out over the desert horizon I My Private Idaho. A young Mel Gibson races up and down the trenches at various intervals in Gallipoli, finally arriving just too late to deliver his most vital message. Timothy Spall sits in his stationary taxi, staring out at the world beyond his windscreen in a daze of uncomprehending disconnection and dull depression in Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing. Patrick McGoohan tries to convince disbelieving onlookers that they are about to get blown up by a bomb. John Simm’s Raskolnikov tries to sell his watch to the old pawnbroker he will murder in Crime and Punishment. Robert Redford manages to stop time, smashing the stadium clock with a mighty slow motion stroke of the baseball bat in The Natural. Bank clerks wait for closing time in an episode of The Twillight Zone, whilst Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour pass the time on a warm summer’s day in the shade of gazebo in writer Richard Matheson’s Somewhere In Time (just having a title which references time is sometimes enough to warrant inclusion). The time to come flickers in LED digits on the dashboard of Harrison Ford’s ascending car in the future city of Blade Runner. And so on.

Controlling time - The Thief of Bagdhad
In a key thematic scene from Alexander Korda’s Thief of Bagdhad, Conrad Veidt’s crafty vizier Jaffar explains to Miles Malleson’s foolish sultan why his new time-telling toy is such a potentially ruinous and revolutionary invention. ‘I hope this dangerous device will never be allowed into the hands of the people’, he pointedly muses. ‘If people once begin to know the time, they will no longer call you the king of time. They will want to know how time is spent’. ‘Oh you’re right’, the sultan witters, ‘the people must never know’. Time is money and its possession is power. As we approached 5 o’clock, this particular section of The Clock’s 24 hour cycle built to a climax with the final duel from Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More. Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel faced off against Gian Maria Volonte’s psychotic bandit Indio, with Clint Eastwood acting as rifle-bearing arbiter, opening the stopwatch which has been a central motif throughout and setting off the melancholy music box waltz the cessation of which marks the point at which the gunfighters may open fire. The usual Leone play of wide angled shots moving in to close-ups of narrowed eyes and twitching fingers is intercut with various scenes of individuals and groups waiting and watching in a state of suspended anticipation. Many of them have been encountered already in the last half hour (there’s Denzel again). It grants the ritualised duel in the middle of a desolate nowhere a large and rapt audience, where usually only the man with no name is present as a taciturn and expressionless witness. It’s an inspired piece of editing, funny and suspenseful, with Ennio Morricone’s stirring score synchronising perfectly throughout, and its conclusion is a fitting point at which to exit. I’d love to see some more of The Clock. Later sections must be more difficult to catch, falling as they do outside gallery hours, although there was a 24 hour showing during the Art Show’s residency for the hardy and dedicated insomniac.

Into the blue - Keith Wilson's Zone 1

Outside, behind the slaughterhouse and looking out onto the boat dotted harbour, you could find Keith Wilson's Zone 1. This consists of two parallel winding walls made out of steel, which form a narrow corridor, just wide enough to walk through. Its contours apparently model those of the Picadilly Line as represented on Frank Pick’s famous map of the London Underground system. Its interior walls are painted the same royal blue as its diagrammatic equivalent. In the context in which it is placed here, however, it more resembles a cattle run, guiding the beasts to the slaughter in the stone houses beyond, or perhaps acting as a channel directing waste viscera out into the harbour and thence into the sea. On the other side of the slaughterhouse, sculpted white cattle graze on the grassy quadrangle, seemingly nothing to do with the British Art Show exhibition. You could imagine them being driven through this passage, possibly being daubed blue in the process. But the blue of Wilson’s Zone also fortuitously mirrored the blue of the clear skies, and suggested the undulation of waves on the water. Squeezing through its winding space was a symbolic way of exiting the Art Show. It was an eclectic and wide ranging survey, encompassing all manner of media and modes of expression, an ideal primer for someone such as me who knows relatively little about what’s going on in the contemporary art world. I certainly enjoyed the underlying element of the fantastic, the science fictional imagination suggested by the Wellsian subtitle. Not everything was engaging or absorbing (and how could it be without being tailored specifically to an individual’s particular tastes and interests) and some of it was frankly baffling in the traditional modern art style. I have tended to ignore those works which left me indifferent and about which I have nothing to say other than a quizzical ‘huh?’ These may be precisely the things which affect you in a profound way, of course. It was great to have this show venture beyond the usual cultural boundaries and into the hinterlands of the South West, and the trail across the city between venues made it an exciting art adventure. Hopefully the schoolkids and students who were present also got something out of it, and some seeds of inspiration were planted in their imaginations. It continues until the 4th December.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Beware The Weird!


I really enjoyed this review of Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s The Weird anthology, published on The Guardian site on Friday. It’s a skilled and sustained pastiche of the hyperbolic and adjectivally excitable style of HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and others from the Weird Tales era, with its author Damian Walter adopting the persona of the doomed writer scribbling his final, half-crazed explanatory notes in some dank subterraenean passage before They find him once more. Unfortunately, its wit seems to have been rather lost on many of The Guardian readers commenting on it below, who dash off accusations of pretentiousness and obscurity. Actually, Walter conveys the fact that the anthology brings in authors beyond the usual literary suspects (‘weirdness I had not even dared to conceive’) such as Rabindranath Tagore and Eric Basso, and stories by those usually associated with the literary mainstream (‘the eruption of weird in the work of otherwise mainstream writers’) such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ben Okri and Joyce Carol Oates. There’s a subtle dig at the elevation of China Mieville to the status of The Guardian’s official advocate of SF, fantasy and the weird, the genre writer it’s acceptable to read (‘Bow now before the Mieville. BOW! BOW!’), and whose theorising gives it academic credence. Neil Gaiman is amusingly posited as the benign, genial force set in Gnostic opposition to the pitiless rigour of the Mieville’s ascendant demiurge. If you don’t comprehend the basis of the pastiche, there are plenty of links (or portals, to get in with the spirit of the thing) to get you up to speed. So ignore the carping voices, and enjoy the different approach of this witty and well-informed review.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Forewarning



The Forewarning, which received its premiere showing last week, is trumpeted as Exeter’s first independent feature film, a claim which immediately invokes feelings of local interest and pride in a city not necessarily known for great cultural achievements. What it certainly is for its writer, director and producer Andy Robinson and the dedicated team which he gathered around him, is a labour of love. Andy strove assiduously over a period of six years to make this film, starting (and ending) with a budget of bugger all and filming and editing in the cracks of time available between holding down a full time job and raising his daughter alongside his wife, to whom he formally apologised before the premiere (a playful apology only, since she has offered vital support and encouragement throughout). The film follows the parallel lives of two focal characters, David Matheson and Sam Beaumont, whose lives are seemingly disconnected but whose paths vector in on each other during the course of the film. David has received a heart transplant after years of poor health, and it seems that there may be some supernatural agency at work, a vestigial presence which has somehow remained inherent in the physical blood and sinew of the organ. This guides him towards some mysterious purpose in a life which has otherwise lost itself in directionless drift. The story is about the matter of the heart, in metaphorical as well as medical terms, and Andy uses the supernatural elements to quietly examine the effects of death on the living. Both the main characters live in a numb hinterworld of loss, in which they exist in a state of self-doubt and negation. David is haunted by a strangely calm doppelganger, a still, self-possessed figure dressed in an immaculate suit of angelic white. It remains an ambivalent figure, frightening for him in its strangeness and its intimations of death, but never directly threatening. Sam’s ghosts manifest themselves through the digital fragments which are left behind in our highly technologised age, pixillated phantoms caught on mobiles, voice messages from beyond the grave. Her partner leaves a trail of cryptic crossword clues which lead to places connected with the progress of their lives together; everyday locales which are now haunted places in which associative memory has accumulated like an age-grown patina of moss or lichen. For other characters, different associations conjure up the lost. David’s mother grows emotional at a picture of a chalkboard covered with complex equations calculated by her deceased daughter in law. They are an outward expression of a part of her self which she finds beautiful and true, a mind which comprehended the essential order of the universe.

The well-tailored ghost
Both Sam and David are alone in the world, isolated figures disconnected from everyday human interaction through grief, anxiety and fear. Andy creates subtle connections between these lonely characters throughout the film, without having them actually meet. Both visit the cathedral green. Sam puts herself through a punishing session on an exercise machine treadmill, a neat metaphor for a life stuck in exhausting stasis. David enjoys his newfound health by running along the ordered concrete planes of the Exe flood channel, the ghost-presence of his donor subliminally suggested by his replication of the reflexive gesture of tapping the top of an aluminium post as he passes it. Whilst Sam spends much of the film seeking the answers to a crossword which leads her on a journey across town and through her life, David quietly and unobtrusively provides the solution to his mother’s Times puzzle, suggesting that he may prove instrumental in the reconnection of her fragmented emotional self. The whirligig static eddies and whorls of static on an untuned TV screen also seem to form a conduit between the two, as Sam presses her hand to the chaotic visual noise. It looks like it might push through to some other side, in the same manner that Jean Marais pushed through a mirror into the world beyond in Cocteau’s Orphee. The scene also recalls James Woods’ intimacy with a mutable TV screen in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. An associative cut to David’s sudden startled awakening implies the disturbance of some porous membrane through which the two are connected – the thin walls between the chambers of a heart, perhaps.

A life in pieces - the fractured self
The story makes much of the play of chance, counterbalancing themes of science and superstition in a Nigel Kneale-ish fashion. The keyring, which is the slowly revolving focus of the very effective opening credits sequence and which plays an important part in the story, is a twisted and tangled ball of metal wire which resembles a model of an electron particle cloud - a higher order emerging from seemingly chaotic motion. The tossed coin which lands on its edge (an impressively realised effect) points to a universe in which stranger complexities multiply beyond the simple binary choice of heads or tails. David’s wife was a scientist, which leads to the introduction of the ideas of quantum physics and parallel universes. The potential branching of alternate realities from the divergent outcomes of every moment is essentially a theoretical expression of the age old balance between the operation of fate and the shaping of one’s own destiny, which is central to the story.

There is also a definite sense of spiritual yearning in the film, a desire to find meaning beyond the manifest physical realities of the world, but not within the traditional religious traditions. Sam and her partner drank at the George’s Meeting House, a pub converted from an old 18th century Unitarian chapel, although they never went there on a Sunday, in deference to his parents’ beliefs. Sam also discards her St Christopher’s medal, which is a kind of parallel keepsake to the atom cloud keyring, after her partner’s death, a rejection of the idea that any power might reside in it, and of the faith which it embodies. The cathedral is a looming presence in several scenes, and (without wishing to divulge too much) the notion of self-sacrifice is, of course, central to Christianity. Even the book which Sam unpacks from the box of her partner’s belongings, Arthur C Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, is in keeping with this sense of yearning. It’s central idea of elevators ascending through the heavens and into space tinges his usual hard SF rationality with a hint of mysticism.

Influences - Rod Serling's Twilight Zone
The introduction of the strange into the everyday (or the rendering of the strange in everyday terms), often as a reflection of the troubled psyches of its protagonists, was also characteristic of the 60s TV series The Twilight Zone. Andy acknowledges its influence in the surnames of his principal characters, Matheson and Beaumont. These pay homage to Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, two of the show’s finest writers (speculating that the Christian names make reference to Sam and Dave, the duo who sang Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming is probably taking things too far). The programme also informed his decision to film in black and white in order to recreate some of the same sombre monochrome atmosphere. Beaumont’s own life ended tragically as he was ravaged with a mysterious illness which destroyed his mind and body, leaving him dead at the age of 38. The shadow of death which hangs over the film, and David’s own fear in the face of his fragile health is perhaps informed by this, as well as by the dark tenor of and air of angst and paranoia pervading much of Beaumont’s fiction. On the other hand, the romanticism which often comes through in Matheson’s episodes is also present. Andy certainly captures some of the quiet eeriness of the show, as well as the centrality of character to its storytelling, its exposure of deep-rooted anxiety, longing and fears. You can imagine the camera point of view swinging around at the end of the film to pick out the sports-jacketed figure of Rod Serling, hands clasped before him, informing us in his unmistakeable clipped and crisply articulated tones that Sam and David have found what they searched for; not in the centre of Exeter, but in the heart…of the Twilight Zone.

The dark imagination - Charles Beaumont
The film, for all its eeriness and supernatural trappings, is at heart a romance, however. Albeit one in which the objects of affection are largely absent. It’s an unashamed tearjerker in places, evoking strong emotions. In this, it is greatly assisted by the restrained and affecting performances of its two lead actors, Richard Perry and Marina O’Shea, as well as by Rebecca Crookshank’s warm and sympathetic portrayal of Jo, David’s old university acquaintance who helps him in his attempts to uncover his destiny. They, and Andy, avoid melodramatic histrionics, keeping instead to a more controlled display of feeling – subtler, more effective, and much more difficult to act, I should imagine. Andy pulls back from the overwhelming expression of Sam’s sorrow when the trail leads back to her old house. His camera discretely observes her collapse to her knees in the teeming rain from an upstairs window, the raindrops on the pane standing in for her tears, with her calm voiceover telling us that some things are just too painful. A passerby stops and stoops to ask her if she’s alright, a small act of everyday kindness which makes the scene all the more moving. It’s in the tradition of scenes in the movies in which rain symbolically conveys strong emotions, from the climaxes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Blade Runner (which perhaps unwisely spells the symbolism out in its ‘tears in the rain’ speech) to the more restrained shots of raindrops running down the windows in In Cold Blood, expressing the feelings which the character cannot articulate. Was it fortunate happenstance that the skies opened on the day of shooting, or did Andy patiently wait for a suitably sodden day. I suspect the latter is probably the case.

The lines of fate
An incidental pleasure for residents of Exeter is the imaginative use of locations. The cathedral and its surroundings exert an inevitable gravity. We also get to see the Mill on the Exe cycle bridge, with its oversized grinding stone acting as a suspension counterweight; the leafy parkland of Heavitree cemetery; the steep and narrowly precipitous stone steps by the side of the catacomb slopes (very much in the style of The Exorcist); the reflective shard of the Riddle Book sculpture, with the clone town blandness of the high street an appropriate site for a hallucinatory nightmare; a quiet backroad with a pillarbox embedded in the wall, symbolic of a sense of permanence, solidity and home (all the things which Sam has lost); the cool and rational interior spaces of the Peninsular Medical School; and the elevated platform of Polsloe Bridge station (halfway to Heaven?) from which the railway track dips and rises in a straight, predetermined line, heading towards the estuary and coastline. There are also many visually inventive details, which reflect Andy’s keen and cineliterate eye and his (Orson) Wellesian delight in mastering the medium. He even manages to make the Sidwell Street arcade, one of the shabbiest areas of town, look interesting with a carefully framed deep focus shot lining its tiled pillars up alongside each other. The shot from ‘inside’ the pillar box, looking out at Sam peering in, is effective in itself, and also serves to convey the idea of an unreachable place, of frustrated attempts at communication between realms which are nearby but separated by a seemingly unbridgeable gulf. The scene in which David talks of his past, and of his shame at proving unable to rescue his wife from drowning, is played out in a room in which the light from a table lamp with a moving ‘propellor’ lampshade casts strobing shadows onto the ceiling, enhancing the hypnotic feeling of being held by vital revelation. It’s reminiscent of the effects of motion created by the devices of early pre-cinema, praxinoscopes and zoetropes, which is suggestive of David’s digging deep into the buried recesses of his psyche to excavate suppressed and painful memories. Throughout, Andy’s framing is precise and carefully thought out, the result of a painstaking and perfectionist approach.

Before the film’s premiere, Andy modestly proclaimed that the film was a collaborative effort involving many of those present in the audience, cheekily and pre-emptively going on to add that ‘if you don’t like it, you’ve only got yourselves to blame’. Whilst this is true, there’s little doubt as to who is the controlling auteur here – the writer, producer and director and no doubt provider of tea and biscuits as the occasion demanded. So here’s to you, Mr Robinson (sorry, I just had to) and to the next project.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

British Art Show 7 in Plymouth

PART ONE


The British Art Show is a five yearly survey of contemporary art being created in these islands, which travels around selected cities in an attempt to counterbalance the gravitational pull of the capital and show new work elsewhere in the country (although the Hayward Gallery in London is one of the stopping off points this time round). This is its seventh incarnation, and it has made a rare detour beyond the cultural barrier of Bristol, venturing into the hinterlands of the South West and pitching up in Plymouth (as you can see from the youtube video here). This may be something to do with the Dartington Arts College decamping to Devon’s largest city, a consolatory bonus for what was otherwise a disappointing piece of economically motivated centralisation. The Plymouth College of Art actually plays a minimal part in the proceedings, the smallest of five sites around which the art is distributed. The disparate whole is given a loosely connective theme through the title In the Days of the Comet, the title of HG Wells’ 1906 novel. This was written after his initial burst of intense creativity, during which he wrote the concise, richly imagined and metaphorically resonant science fiction novels for which he is best remembered (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man and The First Men In The Moon). In the Days of the Comet’s science fictional premise, the transformative green vapours of the passing body’s tail bringing renewal and hope to a tired world, is a device which enables Wells to didactically elaborate upon his utopian political and sexual ideals. It is a transitional book, which combines his novels of character and social observation such as Kipps and Love and Mr Lewisham, with his increasingly self-important tendency to set the world to rights exhibited in SF utopias such as A Modern Utopia, The Sleeper Awakes and Men Like Gods. These are little read these days, so the Art Show’s chosen title gives it a sense of belatedness both in terms of its implication of living in the end days, and of the sense (whether intended or not) that the best lies behind us, that we are drifting through a period of cultural anomie in which contemporary art often fails to connect beyond a small and cosy clique. The science fictional element, communicated via Wells’ title if not his book, prompts artists to look beyond this moment into possible futures, to imagine alternative ways of seeing the world, and of representing that vision in new and startling ways. Which is what artists should be doing anyway, of course. Not all the participants take up the underlying theme, rightly refusing to be bound by prescriptive demands. But there is a definite imaginative thread to be traced between various of the works on display which evince a science fictional flavour – the scattered fragments left in the wake of Wells’ comet.


The show is certainly well-advertised, with a large banner being the first thing you see as you leave the station, enlivening the dark grey concrete of the car park with which you are immediately faced. Even more impressive is the huge banner which is draped down the side of the Civic Centre, visible at the end of the long post-war pedestrian boulevard leading down towards the Hoe which is central to the post-war city plan. An impressive vote of confidence in the exhibition’s popular potential, it also serves to positively highlight the virtues of the 1962 building, whose recent grade II listing has caused considerable controversy. The first site you arrive at is in the equally impressive modern edifice of the University’s Roland Levinsky Building, which was opened in 2007, with its burnished copper exterior punctuated by variably sized and spaced vertical and horizontal windows. This houses the Peninsula Arts Gallery. The first of several interstitial works by Edgar Schmitz set in the thresholds and intermediary spaces of the galleries, was ironically the victim of the unusually sunny weather in a city whose weather forecast seems permanently set to ‘partly cloudy’. The projection in the lobby was thus bleached out by sunlight dazzle. Wolfgang Tillmans’ large picture Freischwimmer 155 immediately catches the eye as you walk into the gallery, and could be specifically designed to illustrate Wells’ story (it would make a good book cover). It’s miasmic, Brownian swirl can be seen, in this context, as the vaporous trail of the comet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the inspiration for the exhibition’s subtitle. The means of its production also echoes the blend of science and spirituality in Wells’ novel: It is a photographic image created without the usual camera equipment, instead producing an image by exposing the photographic paper itself to controlled shafts of light. Tillmans also produces a series of collaged news and entertainment images pressed beneath glass in museum like display desks. Art students were milling around these, listening to a seminar and remaining stubbornly dumb when asked for their opinions – perhaps it was too early for their brains to have engaged fully. This made it difficult to appreciate these reportage collisions of the terrible and the trivial, whose immediacy we were perhaps, in context, being asked to view as if from the historical perspective of citizens of the future. David Noonan’s large untitled tapestry adopted techniques usually associated with crafts to present a monumental representative image in a traditional style, rather like Grayson Perry does on a smaller scale with his ceramic pots and vases. It seems to depict a street scene in an African or Middle Eastern country, or possibly an imaginary city. The meaning is unclear, and the withholding of an explanatory title suggests such ambiguity might be deliberate, encouraging the viewer to make up her own story. The whole is woven with black and white threads, and rather perversely includes peacocks amongst its elements. Again, perhaps this is an encouragement to the viewer to colour it as they will with the unlimited palette of the mind’s eye.

Wolfgang Tillmans (copyright the artist)
Luke Fowler and Toshiya Tsunoda’s Composition for Flutter Screen immediately took on an air of mystery and ritualistic expectation as we had to part heavy black curtains and make our way in darkness into the space in which it was installed. The flutter screen was a loosely fixed white expanse of silky taffeta, which was periodically set into billowing motion by a fan at the side. A light shining on this screen from the other side highlighted its sheen and shadows, casting the moving contours of the material into dramatically contrasted patterns and emphasising the waves rippling across its surface. The whole seemed to be capturing a materialisation of breeze, of the currents of the air. Elevated speakers on either side produced two low-pitched tones of varying duration, and with a crackling aura of burry static. They sounded like foghorns, or Tibetan horns, their baleful braying sending a muffled aural beacon through the fog or clouds of the flutterscreen. Projections were cast onto the screen, all of them images of elemental evanescence and change, conveying the intangible and less solid qualities of the world – a moth’s strobing wings, water filling a glass, its protruding meniscus trembling, candles, the sky and telegraph wires. These images were blurred and did not always immediately reveal their true nature. The lit surface and the movements of the screen made it seem like it was itself a liquid surface, the projections as if refracted beneath, like the sequences of objects viewed under water in slow-panning motion in Tarkovsky’s films Stalker and Nostalgia. A group of primary school children were sat watching this one, occasionally giving each other bewildered or amused looks, before their teacher quietly ushered them out. I wonder if it will linger in their minds. With its repetitions of image, sound (including the soft whoosh of the fan) and rippling motion, it certainly exerted a hypnotic effect which increased the longer you sat before it.

Across the busy road from the very modern Roland Levitsky building is the more stolid Edwardian brick façade of the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, all backward looking, weighty baroque, which it the location for the next segment of the show. It provides a neatly incongruous setting for a modern art exhibition with its eyes on things to come, leading my thoughts towards the long-disused museum discovered by the narrator of Wells’ The Time Machine in the distant human future of the Morlocks and Eloi. Walking up the stone staircase to the first floor gallery spaces, we hear a cosmic music cue from Edgar Schmitz, a short sigh of electronic sound which is another of his occupations of inbetween spaces. It acts as a prelude, arousing anticipation and ushering us into a new zone, separate from the local archaeology and natural history displays below, with their flint spearheads and stuffed birds. The first thing you see upon entering the gallery in which the Art Show is housed are a series of sculptures by Sarah Lucas, perched atop brutalist breezebock plinths in prefab emulation of the elevated display of classical statuary or urns, which she’s called NUDS. They look like grossly fleshy tangles of extruded phallic meat, magnified versions of the curly mounds of sandy deposit left on the seashore by wee beasties burrowing beneath the surface. On closer inspection, these turn out to be made from tights packed full of white fluff. What looks to the casual eye like heavy and rocklike marbled material is in fact soft and pliable. A chap was crouched below these, sketching their edgeless organic forms on a large piece of paper and effectively setting them against the rigidly ordered grid of the old gallery’s roof struts and columns. Lucas’ relish in grotesque distortions of the flesh is carried across into the paintings of Milena Drajicevic, which she labels her Supplicant series. These head and bust portraits subject human features to disturbing alterations, turning mouths into rigid pillarbox slots or obscuring the face entirely beneath layers of cabbage-leaf growths. These appear like the results of mutations, alien fungal diseases or strange future fashions for self-erasing genetic manipulation. Phoebe Unwin also paints vaguely fantastical figures, creating hybrid or distended forms. The surface of her Man With Heavy Limbs is divided in to four equal areas. Three are patterned in an op-art style, with harlequin grilles of black and white and grey, and contain the limbs and torso of the seated subject. The top left quadrant crams in the head and upper body, leaving the whole looking very bottom heavy, and leaving the impression of a rather brutish giant.

George Shaw - Blocked Drain (copyright the artist)

George Shaw’s paintings are devoid of human figures, depicting the marginal and on the surface uninteresting nowhere spaces of his Coventry upbringing. They are made with Humbrol enamel paints, the kind which would have been used to paint a completed Airfix plastic model kit, which gives them the gloss of photographic prints. Such associations with childhood, both in subject matter and material, point to the construction of memory models, the gloss the transformative sheen of nostalgia. These suggestively empty places, the unpaved tracks running behind gardens and the fenced-off, rubble-contoured construction sites, are areas of great imaginative potential. Just as, in childhood, they were used as a stage for stories, games and adventures, so they are now ready to be filled with memories, real or invented. Ian Kiaer’s piece was something of a puzzle, composed of several discrete and scattered elements which challenged the viewer to put them together and make sense of them. Big shiny panels hung on the wall, a mirrored shop display plinth was attached to the floor, near to which a shower of small, bright circular spots dotted the wooden floor tiles, with what looked like a white-walled modernist mouse cage or fancy chocolate box positioned at the far edge of the whole assemblage. Perhaps sensing that a little explanation was needed to ward off peremptory dismissal, a helpful member of the museum staff came over to point out the relation of the work to Konstantin Melnikov’s modernist Moscow house, built in the late 1920s, of which she showed us some pictures. The yellow panels and circles suggest the play of light through its varied rectilinear and lozenge-shaped windows into its cylindrical interior. Melnikov’s futurist art and design fell foul of Stalin’s iron vision, with the imposition of a style which reflected the monolithic power of the state condemning him to internal exile and creative death. The tiny representation of his house is dwarfed within the gallery room, which is made to appear imposingly monumental in comparison, could easily be crushed by a stomp from the foot of any passing visitor. But it casts magnified areas of light, suggested by the other elements of Kiaer’s installation, its influence radiating beyond its own physical decline. I still wasn’t entirely convinced by the whole thing, however, which seemed to me to hog too much of the room to little real effect. Perhaps it needed to the sun to shine on it to bring it to life.

The centre of the room was dominated by a ramshackle structure erected by Spartacus Chetwynd. Disappointingly, this turns out to be an invented monicker, the artist’s real first name being Lali. But its still a great title to work under. Her mother is Luciana Arrighi, a film production designer. I wonder if she’s any relation to Nike Arrighi, so effective as the bewitched Lilith in the 1968 Hammer film The Devil Rides Out? Chetwynd’s work was an elevated shack constructed on a platform, its walls made out of old, discarded windowframes, giving it a patchwork look echoed by the rug on the floor. The whole can be folded away and transported on the platform, and there is a photo which shows it erected in a field. On the way up the stairs there were a couple of stray round portholes stood upright beneath the museum’s lengthy window, eliciting an initial ‘you call this art?’ response. Upon encountering this mobile home of which they are a detached element, they come to seem like spare wheels, or components which have yet to be discovered and incorporated. The house is like the dwelling of some post-catastrophe band of nomads, scavenged and built from the ruins.

Charles Avery (copyright the artist)
Charles Avery’s installation also has a post apocalyptic air to it. He’s set up a tableau, a 3-D freeze frame, in a large vitrine, whose metallic frame rises into geometric, crystalline shapes at its apex. The bottom is covered with drifts of greyish sand, which a crouched examination reveals to be layered in chiaroscuro gradations, like a reject souvenir from Alum Bay. The vitrine’s crystalline frame in grey metal makes it seem like a magnified version of a particle of these sands – a world in a grain. The sedimentary layers, drained of all colour, form the base of a blasted landscape, with wiry, dessicated growths spiking up through the surface. The tableau played out upon this bleak lunar desert relates to a text pinned on the wall opposite, which tells an explorer’s tale of journeys to a mysterious island, a locus of the weird, and the adventures he has there with his idealised female companion, Miss Miss. The story is fractured and vague, perhaps an insight into the confused mental processes of its narrator, and offers only tantalising hints as to the true nature of the imaginary world it depicts. It could be seen as an exploration of the creative process itself, the workings of the imagination made manifest with all its naked and unedited subconscious urges given symbolic form in the frozen fragment of story preserved in the glass cage. In this, it is a variant of some writers of old pulp SF and fantasy, whose rough-hewn and vividly imagined scenarios inadvertently projected powerful fears and desires in new configurations reflecting the spirit of the age, all of which amounted to a literary form of naïve art. Of course, many more writers in these genres wrote with a great deal more conscious control over their material. The tableau presents Miss Miss (an old shop dummy who more resembles a Miss Selfridge or Chelsea Girl) strikes a weary pose before the forked branches of a dead tree which suggests she’s been travelling for a long time through this unforgiving wasteland. Her backpack lies open and discarded behind her, its contents spilled. Before her, a snake leans on the sand, propped up on its single arm. Is this the end of Miss Miss? It’s a strange scene, full of genre surrealism which is enhanced by the fact that we don’t really know what’s going on. Like Miss, we are stranded at the mid-point of a story whose beginning and end we may never know.

Karla Black’s sculpture is also composed of sedimentary layers, this time of earth, the stuff of temperate rather than desert climes. It is open to the gallery air, unconfined by the containing, protective encasement of glass. Its stepped levels, with their subtle gradations of earthy colour, are textured with pebbles, clods and grains, providing naturally rich detailing. They rise to form the shape of an Incan ziggurat, with a flat plateau on top. This was dusted with what looked like yellow sherbet dab, with a scattering of brightly coloured sweet shards – sulphurous and gemlike mineral deposits. The whole could be a great geological formation or ruined temple on an alien planet, or simply a monumental chocolate cake. The schoolchildren in the gallery, let loose to draw what most caught their fancy, loved this one and had to be kept back from investigating too closely. It did have that quality of making you want to leap up on top and declare yourself king of the castle. The incongruity of soil heaped up on a well-polished parquet floor gave it a naturally intriguing air, with its indeterminate boundaries challenging the preciousness of immutable ‘do not touch’ modern artworks. Surely some of the loose crumbs of earth chaotically fringing the mound had tumbled down from the slopes during its period in the gallery. It’s a sculpture subject to the wider geological processes of erosion and the universal force of gravity, its form changing by the day, resisting attempts at anything more than superficial tidying and maintenance.

Simon Martin’s videos focus on the changing effects of slowly moving light sources on static objects. He shoots a lemon as if it were an astronomical body, observing it as it goes through phases of eclipse – a citrus moon or ascorbic asteroid. The shifting areas of shadow and light throw certain features into sharp relief. As with the moon, the divider between light and darkness brings out detail with preternatural clarity, highlighting the lemon’s pitted surface, its own craters and plateaux. In Martin’s other video, an African mask has its mouth, nose and eyes hollowed by richly dark shadows as the light source makes its steady sweep across its stern visage. This highlighting is reminiscent of the old movie keylighting through which cinematographers sculpted Marlene or Greta’s faces into exquisite masks. The bulky black boxes of the Trinitron TVs become like modern techno extensions of the ancient mask (although they themselves are like venerable relics in the speeded up historical time of the modern technological age). Black wood is backed by a distended skull of black plastic. The lemon, on the other hand, takes on a distinctly fleshy aspect at certain phases of its cycle, its sensuous curve contrasting with the foursquare black plastic moulding in which it is framed.

Elizabeth Price - User Group Disco (copyright the artist)
A door at the side of the gallery led into a dark space through which children were forbidden to pass. This promised forbidden and illicit pleasures, but was presumably because of the strong language and sexual references in Emily Wardill’s film Game Keepers Without Game. We saw the last 10 minutes or so of this 76 minute film, which had received its premiere at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter the previous year. It featured disembodied conversations and reveries, some quite explicit, spoken whilst the camera focussed on small details of dress, furnishings and décor. Without wishing to give the end away (which is precisely what I’m about to do) it all concludes with a shocking image of someone lying in a pool of their own blood, an axe embedded in their head. I’m not sure what led up to this gory conclusion, and I didn’t feel like sitting through the whole thing on the hard wooden bench to find out. The fragment I saw was intriguing enough, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of showing lengthy films as exhibits in art galleries (I must admit, I never sat through it in Exeter either). Perhaps I’m a fogeyish traditionalist, but I think a cinema with comfortable seating would be a more appropriate setting. Around the corner from this partitioned area, heavy curtains parted to let us into another room in which a film was projected, this time Elizabeth Price’s shorter 15 minute User Group Disco. This took place in what purported to be a Hall of Sculptures, with lines of text occasionally flashing up providing an accompanying commentary, as if the whole thing were a guide book to a museum of the future. These announcements had an authoritative air, partaking of the academy and the corporate boardroom. They were applied to a series of familiar domestic objects – whether kitchen implements, spinning LPs or ceramic female figures – which were lit against a dark background and made strange by their isolation and treatment as artefacts of a bygone civilisation. The kitchen implements were made to spin and roll as if components of a great mechanism set into action, and the camera roved around the objects in atomic orbit, giving the whole film the feel of a dance of perpetual motion. Pulsing, moody music finally broke out into A-ha’s Take On Me, which really set everything vibrating, giving these objects reverentially filed away in the mysterious Hall an uncanny life of their own.

Coming up...Alasdair Gray's portraits and Christian Marclay's 24 hour film The Clock.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Weird Fiction Review


Here’s a very promising new website which has been opened by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer called Weird Fiction Review. It is the online brethren of the Weird Fiction Review journal edited by ST Joshi. Joshi is an expert on HP Lovecraft, often seen as the godfather (although the lord knows what gods they might be) of twentieth century weird fiction, and also, in his 1939 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, one of its earlies theorisers and historians. Joshi has edited, introduced and annotated a couple of volumes of Lovecraft’s stories for Penguin Classics, The Call of Cthulhu and Dreams in the Witch House, each adding the post-title enticement ‘and other weird stories’. He’s also gathered together a fine crop of Arthur Machen’s pagan reveries in The White People (again with the ‘and other weird stories’ addendum), a collection of American Supernatural tales and two annotated volumes of MR James’ ghost stories. That all of these appear in Penguin Classics editions tends to mean that they are shelved alongside the likes of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Guy de Maupassant or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, thus pointing to certain affinities all might have with aspects of one another’s work. Such company lends these authors of The Weird (I guess we should capitalise it to give it categorical authority) the official heft of literary acceptance, placing them within a history of literature extending way beyond the boundaries of the modern realist novel or short story of character, which have come to be viewed as an inherently superior form. The Penguin Classics also encompasses the likes of Beowulf, a collection of English Mystery Plays, The Arthurian Romances, The Sufi narrative poem The Conference of the Birds, The Niebelungenlied and Japanese No dramas after all. Plus some fellow called Shakespeare, whose plays contained many a weird and uncanny incident. Joshi’s journal would appear to offer a furtherance of this accumulation of academic weight, presenting a persuasive case for weird fiction being worthy of wider and deeper consideration.

The Vandermeers clearly think this too, and the website seeks to define The Weird as a distinct substrata of the fantastic, separate from other seams such as horror, science fiction, heroic fantasy or magic realism. It may draw on any of these, of course, and they from it. The Venn diagram of the fantastic has many interlocking circles and zones of intersection. The Weird’s very mutability suggests that it is as much about general mood and approach as it is a generic mode. The Vandermeers point to The Weird as embodying ‘the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition’. They’ve gathered many examples for their new anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories which, in its impressive monumentality, attempts a definitive delineation of the genre’s contours. It spans the years from 1907 to the present, roughly the period in which science fiction also developed from its uptopian and scientific romantic roots into the genre recognisable to all today, thus pointing to a parallel evolution. The Weird is perhaps the irrational flipside to science fiction’s rationalisation of the fantastic, its troubled subconscious. SF takes place in a universe which operates according to some assumed set of natural laws, even if some of these are invented. The Weird attempts to peer beyond the veil of the natural world or warp the material of consensus reality. And if it spurns the rationalized fantasy of SF, then its also tends to eschew the secondary worlds of fantasy, with their pastoral or sublimely Romantic landscapes. If it does create worlds separate from our own, it tends to head straight for their urban centres, finding the grimy, smoking industrial heartlands. Its cities often bear a resemblance to real world locales, past or present. For many, the teeming warrens of Dickens’ Victorian London provide the model. For M.John Harrison’s ever-changing Viriconium, Manchester and fin de siecle Paris merge, and in Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, New Orleans, Venice and maybe a hint of Prague.

A follow up of sorts to their 2008 anthology The New Weird, the new collection dispenses with the prefix, which was useful for a time in helping to identify a new wave of fantastic fiction which revelled in its own baroque and grotesque creations and shared certain common influences. The Weird, with a few extra years hindsight, embeds these modern manifestations within a deeper history, stressing continuity more than novelty. We start off with an extract from Alfred Kubin’s 1908 story The Other Side. Kubin was also an artist, producing strange and disturbing images full of death and grotesquely distorted sexuality, and this points to the important influence of the visual arts on The Weird. Symbolist artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century such as Max Klinger, Arnold Bocklin, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon produced pictures which drew from the darker or more vividly realised worlds of the imagination, and these are often crying out for weird tales to be spun around them. Bruno Shulz, whose 1937 story The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass is included here, was also an artist, producing a series of shadowy glass prints (etchings made in black gelatine spread on a glass plate) for The Book of Idolatry in 1920. Leonora Carrington, whose 1941 story White Rabbits is in the anthology, was another visual artist. Indeed, this was primarily how she was remembered when she died earlier this year. Her fantastical imagery was, by the middle years of the twentieth century, defined as surrealist, the contemporary expression of the Symbolists’ fin de siecle fever dreams. The visual aspect of The Weird is acknowledged on the website, with an art section which has begun with a selection of paintings by the New Orleans painter Myrtle von Damitz III, whose monstrous grotesques could have inhabited the blurred landscapes and jewelled interiors of the Symbolists.

Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows (1907) and MR James’ Casting the Runes are two well-established classics of English supernatural fiction. The central narrative conceit of James’ story was incorporated into Jacques Tourneur’s otherwise loose 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon, whilst The Willows provided the title for Ghost Box artists Belbury Poly’s debut full length LP, with the story posted for a time at the Ghost Box website (you can now uncover a collage of photos with an accompanying extract from Arthur Machen’s The White People). The so-called hauntological music of the Ghost Box artists and their ilk (Demdike Stare, The Moon Wiring Club, Mordant Music, July Skies and others) and of new/psych/freak (take your pick or make up your own alternative) folk artists and bands carries the blood of The Weird in its veins (or its analogue circuitry), and provides a choice of possible soundtracks. Kafka’s In the Penal Colony (1919), whose inclusion in the anthology testifies to the enormous shadow which the Czech artist’s absurdist tales have cast over weird fiction, inspired another musician. Frank Zappa recommended that his listeners read it somewhere in the densely designed sleeve of the Mothers’ LP We’re Only In It For the Money. Belgian writer Jean Ray has two stories selected, The Mainz Psalter (1930) and The Shadowy Street (1931), which I’d be very interested to read having seen and greatly enjoyed Harry Kumel’s 1971 film adaptation of his god-haunted house novel Malpertuis. Jerome Bixby’s It’s A Good Life (1953) and Charles Beaumont’s The Howling Man (1959) both provided the basis for memorable episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, perhaps the finest showcase for The Weird on TV. Mervyn Peake’s Same Time, Same Place, published in Science Fantasy magazine in 1963 and posthumously included in the miscellany edited by his wife Maeve Gilmore Peake’s Progress, makes the commonplace setting (in its time) of a Lyon’s Corner House tea room seem strange and foreboding. Peake is another writer of weird fiction who was also an artist, and this story is an example of his ‘head-hunting’ (the search for interesting and odd heads, rather than just faces, to sketch and spark the imagination) transposed to literary form. You can hear the story read by Peake’s son Sebastian (or it may be Fabian) on the recently released British Library audio CD of selections from Peake’s Progress.

James Tiptree Jr’s (aka Alice Sheldon’s) stories were published as science fiction, but they were haunted by death and despair and had a raging intensity and need which tended to drive them towards a breakdown in the rational surface of the world. The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats (1976) is a typically incendiary tale which traces the development of the psychological mindset which accepts and enacts atrocities. It is also aware of its deep Weird roots, playing out an inverted enactment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Harlan Ellison’s stories share the intensity and heightened emotions of Tiptree’s work, as well as the poetic prolixity of their titles, and his The Function of Dream Sleep (1988) brackets his deeply felt 1989 collection Angry Candy along with its opening story Paladin of the Lost Hour (one of my favourite of Ellison’s). Both show Ellison at his most affecting and powerful – the Weird with a passionate heart. M.John Harrison was a primary influence on modern writers of weird fiction, with his Decadent city of Viriconium providing the foundation upon which Ambergris, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon and KJ Bishop’s Ashamoil were built. Egnaro (1981) and The New Rays (1982) both appear in this anthology and in his collection The Ice Monkey (I still treasure my signed copy of the 1988 paperback). Egnaro, with its seedy bookshop described in uncomfortably familiar terms (I know these places perhaps too well) is one of his stories which warns of the dangers of losing oneself in fantasy, drifting apart from the real, whilst also being alert to its allure. Its narrative of a hopelessly questing protagonist searching for half-glimpsed elsewheres to escape from the disappointing present is recast in the context of Harrison’s Viriconium mythos in A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, a story which is itself radically re-aligned by the replacement in the title and throughout of one word in A Young Man’s Journey to London, included in the Things That Never Happen collection. The New Rays is a painful but compassionate story which confronts the incomprehensible weirdness of science and technology as it suddenly manifests itself in the lives of ordinary people, offering solutions and cures which to all intents and purposes may as well be magic. It has a strong affinity with Robert Aickman’s 1975 story The Hospice (published in the collection Cold Hand In Mine), in which the strange country of death banally interposes itself amongst the shabby reality of the world. Aickman excels in conveying an immanent sense of other places and presences in the back streets, scrubby commons and rubble strewn development sites of cities and suburban residential borderlands. His stories are not necessarily frightening, but combine the ordinary with the intangibly strange to subtly disconcerting effect. Both he and fellow writer of weird tales LTC Rolt were founders of the Inland Waterways Association, set up to save England’s canal system from falling into ruination. My father in law, a transport enthusiast, has knowledgeable tomes on the canals by both. There must have been something about spending so much time around the stagnant, algae-tinted water of disused locks and the dark mouths of long, claustrophobic barge tunnels that triggered the morbid imagination.

Elizabeth Hand is another writer who is well aware of her literary antecendents, and draws both on the art of the Decadents and Aesthetics and on the ancient rites, myths and beliefs of the Classical and Pagan past in order to replenish the world with dangerous enchantments. The Boy In The Tree from 1989 draws mythic archetypes from the human mind in a manner akin to Robert Holdstock in his Mythago novels. In her afterword to the story as printed in her 1998 collection Last Summer At Mars Hill, Hand acknowledges the influence of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, noting the synchronicity with which M.John Harrison’s similarly inspired story The Great God Pan came out at the same time. Hand’s story was adapted to form part of her first novel Winterlong which, with its otherplanetary setting, is an example of science fiction and The Weird combining to mutually beneficial effect. Angela Carter and Tanith Lee both provide variations on their latterday fairy tales in The Snow Pavilion (which only saw the light of day in the 1995 collected edition of Carter’s short stories Burning Your Bridges) and Yellow and Red (1998). Tanith Lee, in her short stories, seems to be one of the writers who most closely approaches Carter’s style, the lush, poetic prose which traces its descent from Decadent literature – heirs to The Savoy and the Yellow Book, Baudelaire and JK Huysmans. Michael Chabon’s The God of Dark Laughter (2001) elevates Coulrophobia (the morbid, irrational fear of or aversion to clowns) to the level of a dualistic conflict of cosmic proportions. The anthology could equally have included his Lovecraftian pastiche In The Black Mill, included in the collection Werewolves in their Youth and written as if by his authorial creation August Van Zorn. Chabon cunningly fooled the literary world into feting him as the next great American writer with his first two novels, which followed the accepted patterns of the coming of age story (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and the tribulations of the conflicted artist narrative (Wonder Boys), before revealing his generic proclivities with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Gentlemen of the Road, Summerland and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His book of essays Maps and Legends their fogbound atmospheres and gaslit urban mysteries which often serve to turn phlegmatic Watson's assumptions about the normal order of the world topsy turvy. KJ Bishop closes proceedings with her 2010 short story Saving The Gleeful Horse. It’s good to see that she’s still writing (unlike Steph Swainston, sadly, who has announced that she’s packed it in and is returning to teaching). I’ve been eagerly awaiting a follow up to her marvellous 2003 novel The Etched City for some time, hoping that it wasn’t a dazzling one off. And Bishop is another author of The Weird who is also an artist, as you can see here.

The site has also launched with a couple of interviews; one with Kelly Link, of whom I was not previously aware, so I’ve already been introduced to an interesting new writer; the other with Neil Gaiman, who needs no introduction but is happy to introduce others in a generous and genial fashion. He’s always a good source for literary recommendations, and here he cites his own early Weird influences and inspirations: Lord Dunsany above all, and Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber and RA Lafferty. Asked to describe his own notion of what constitutes weird fiction, he suggests it’s ‘like a visit to a strange place – a holiday in unearthly beauty and oddness, from which you may not always safely return’. A wonderful evocation of its power to transport you from you immediate surrounds and concerns and perhaps to change your perspective on them forever. And is there such a thing as being too weird, Mr Gaiman is asked. His answer comes back immediately and unequivocally – No! Perhaps this offers a good subheading for this exciting new site: Nothing is too weird.