Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Death in Venice: A review of Helen Sear's 'the rest is smoke...'.

I'm in a former convent in Venice looking at a Monmouthshire wood, there are numbers painted on the trees, and this is intercut with a young woman in a red dress circling the trees, her hand reaching out for the trunks. After a while I realise the numbers are counting down, and I start to intuit the meanings behind these images.

Helen Sear's “the rest is smoke...” is a rumination, a distillation on the temporary nature of existence which is currently being exhibited at Santa Maria Ausiliatrice for Wales at the Venice Biennale. The title comes from an a tiny Latin inscription circling a recently snuffed out, still smoking candle in a painting of St Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna that hangs in Ca’ d’oro on the Grand Canal. Roughly translated as “Nothing is stable if not divine, the rest is smoke”.

It starts with a big flashy (in both senses of the word) video installation entitled “In the company of trees”. Visit a beech wood on a sunny day and you'll recognise that flickering, as the light penetrates the canopy of thin-fingered branches their leaves forever moving on the breeze.

Life is embodied in the form of the young woman in a red dress circling trees in a wood. The red numbers on tree trunks counting down to zero are marks for felling, the death of the trees. Stills of the young woman, the trees and the red painted numbers are interwoven in a palimpsestic projection. It hints at and builds to a bigger picture of something concerned with our own and our environment’s temporality. And that's perhaps another concern of the former ’temple’ in which it is situated.

In the Pre-Raphaelites, who’s work Sear’s has been likened, red is the colour and symbol for lust. That's not the case here. Sear’s use of red symbolism indicates youth and vitality and perhaps the freedom of liberation, which is in stark in contrast to the inherently male gaze of those ’crazy’ Victorians.

All photography is perhaps a ghost story. The effect here is something akin to a multiple exposure broken down to its constituent parts and reassembled to merge and flicker in unexpected ways. That figure ghosts in and out of the frame, merges with it and, at times disappears in a calming, natural interlude. Yet the inexorable path to zero, to our and the trees’ imminent demise, soon resumes to haunt us once again.

The exhibition is made up of five rooms, some of which feel like an afterthought. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism; although it doesn't hold together as a complete whole, it does represent the piecemeal way the human mind works. Sear talks about breaking the narrative to form a greater whole. This isn't storytelling, that's not complete story of the way visual art works, we are dealing with ghosts after all.

As we exit the first room with the main video projection there's a fine quote on the wall of an anteroom by John Berger relating to how people have historically measured themselves against trees. In height for example or in the mimicry of trees in columns and there's plenty of the latter in Venice and supposedly in the building which houses the exhibition (it was too dark to see them).

The next room, perhaps the least convincing, contains the fairground like attractions of a (computer generated?) reflection of trees moving in a pool and a video diorama of birds feeding at a bird-table. This small scale acted as something of a relief after the big brash projection, but I found myself wanting to move on, perhaps too quickly. Size subconsciously imparts importance and even if we know better, we sometimes accept its message.

Next, a spectacular sized black and white photograph of trees stacked-up horizontally after felling. It's the end of their existence as living things and it is printed onto perhaps fifty narrow metal strips leant against the wall of an otherwise monochrome room. We’re reminded of Berger’s words once again as the plates represent upright, vertical trees or perhaps planks in both size and scale. The focal point is always on the cut part of the trees, and it's as if the trees have left an impression on the metal that felled them.

Anyone who's used ’layers’ in Photoshop will also know a ’stack’ as an inherent part of that process of creation, this also relates to the video editing process of ’In the company of trees’ and indeed the creation of this piece itself. The city of Venice is also built on piles of wood, trees driven into the mud to form its precarious foundations, so another link becomes apparent.

The penultimate room has photographs of greened, mossy stumps and that final number zero rendered as a red circle. At first it feels like a full stop and unconvincing as either document or commentary. But after a short while I realised that it works in contrast to the monochrome stack in the previous room and that the colours seem to hum in relation to one another.

It's in the final room where the exhibition becomes whole again. A single image backlit in yellow illuminates the small room. It's an image of a field of oil-seed rape, clear felled of trees, that has been overlaid with a second image of twigs which we are told mimic the arrows piercing Saint Sebastian in the painting by Mantagne. Those twigs are red again, referring back to the red dress of youth and vitality and the numbers in the video projection. But these are now the red of pain and suffering, the canonisation or sanctification of the trees and hints at a possible afterlife in the religious sense. It’s an image that illustrates absence more than the substance of what it depicts. We’re in the realm of phantoms, ghosting again.

Before I conclude I have to admit to feeling somewhat conflicted by the sheer expense of this enterprise. Wales’ funding of £400,000 seems like a lot of money for one photography exhibition in the context of the generality of public funding for photography in my home country.

The (otherwise excellent) book accompanying the exhibition credits the involvement of 38 people other than the artist. I certainly don't believe either artists or curators or gallerists should be compelled to work for free, far from it, but I do question a cast of that size and the funneling of so much funding into one event.

How do we measure the efficacy of arts spending if it's not either in support of individual or groups of artists and the community in which they work? I’d question if it is “of contemporary relevance to Wales", that oft repeated line, a catch all for rejection of public funding with which so many artists are painfully familiar? Of course it isn't, it’s universal, it is addressing the bigger picture, and is probably better for it.

It should be noted that much of the funding will come from the British Council and presumably European sources. It's not from the photography budget per se, but has gathered around itself funding from other sources. Maybe this is more of an illustration of how generally photography is treated as a second-class citizen in public funding, but I seriously doubt any of the other arts are accustomed to such generosity. The exhibition will tour Wales after it has completed its six-month run in Venice. Also - and this is important - it is free to enter, unlike the eye watering €25 a head to enter the main Arsenale/Giardini sites of the Biennale.

We also shouldn't forget that the main curators Ffotogallery (the “national development agency for photography and lens based media in Wales”) are, for once, promoting an artist working in Wales, something they have been widely criticised for failing to do with sufficient frequency.

The Venice Biennale seemingly attracts funding like almost nowhere else. To put Wales’ £400k into context; the brand new building for the Australian Pavilion alone cost an astonishing AS$7million from “philanthropic sources”. The exhibition inside was excellent, incidentally, but have we gone a little mad?

That main Giardini/Arsenale area is only a tiny fraction of what comes under the umbrella of the Biennale; the whole city is seemingly one big gallery (and this in a city already stuffed full to overflowing with galleries and churches bursting with old masters). From opulent palazzos on the Canale Grande to disused churches and little rooms off little explored ’calle’, almost all of the remaining Biennale is entirely free to enter. And it is a wonderful thing, if only more cities had so much ambition. For that reason I'm pleased the Wales ’pavilion’ is on the outside of the main site, it's more democratic, more accessible and free.

Having said all that Sear’s “the rest is smoke...” is another wonderful thing. It is compelling, intriguing, perceptive and profound in a way that so much of the other art I saw at the Biennale simply wasn't (though not all). So congratulations should properly be made to those involved.

I'd urge you to go and see it when it returns home. Sear’s “the rest is smoke...” genuinely steps up to the big table of the arts. If it sometimes fails to measure up to its own ambition, this is perhaps because that ambition is so great. And I'm not about to criticise that when we need more work with eagerness and commitment to stretch our minds and helps us see anew. Sear brings a depth to her rumination on the landscape and our relationship with it that I can barely remember encountering before. It should be on your must see list if you have any interest in art, the landscape and our short stay on this little blue planet.

St Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, courtesy of Wikipedia

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

An Easter Tale: In Pursuit of Spring and Edward Thomas’ photographs from 1913.

As I write it is almost exactly 101 years since the poet Edward Thomas cycled from London to Somerset. Navigating via the cathedral towns of Winchester, Salisbury and Wells over an Easter weekend during the tail end of winter, in what was a late Spring. It was, he said “A north Easter". That journey was to become the basis for his prose work ’In Pursuit of Spring’. And amongst his archive at Cardiff University are some remarkable photographs made along the journey, most have never before been published. You can see the route taken on the map below; Alison Harvey at the University’s archives has geotagged the spots photographs were taken along the route.
Image courtesy of Zee Maps.

About two years ago while researching Edward Thomas’ poetry as possible inspiration for a photography series I was lucky enough to visit the University's Edward Thomas Archive. Surrounded by boxes of manuscripts, notes and letters I was shown a small brown battered Manila envelope labeled with Thomas’ home address and ’53 photographs’. Inside there were actually 60 brown, faded photographs most noting on the reverse, in pencil, the locations along the route.
The envelope containing Edward Thomas' photographs from In Pursuit of Spring, 1913.

I was entranced, my literary studies fell somewhat by the wayside as, try as I might to concentrate elsewhere, my attention was continually drawn to these visions of the past. They are not only images of a lost era, but an era that was about to change suddenly, dramatically and irrevocably in only a few short months' time. And that change was to be witnessed as much as any by Thomas himself.

The power of this tale lies in its moment in history, Easter 1913, just before the outbreak of the First World War. While there were suspicions of war, Thomas was certainly unaware of the terrible tragedy that was about to engulf the world. Thomas cycled west to rediscover a joy for life and an appreciation for nature as the seasons changed to one of hope and renewal.

It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed and the dream is more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known, catch at the dreams as they hover.

Turner's Tower, Hemington, Radstock, Avon.
Escaping the claustrophobic confines of the city, and sheltering from the rain under the awning of a pet shop, his companion (or altar-ego) The Other Man buys a caged bird only to set it free a few moments later. There's a metaphor here for the escape and freedom of the journey and perhaps for the caging effect on the mind of the onset of war. Cycling into the uncertainty of a rain swept countryside "the road was like a stream on which I floated in the shadows of trees and steep hillsides".

As Thomas cycled west his mood lifted as the weather improved and the seasons began to turn. Where, finally in the Quantock Hills of Somerset  "on a glorious sunlit road the million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun", Spring finally arrives. He had found Spring and was “confident that I could ride home again and find Spring all along the road."

Nr Croscombe, Wells, Somerset.

In Pursuit of Spring was to be one of Thomas’ last prose works. Encouraged by his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, he became convinced the purer literary form of poetry was his future. Despite his four short years as a poet, Ted Hughes later declared Thomas to be the "Father of us all", meaning modern poetry, and poetry with a strong connection to the natural world in particular.

In Edward Thomas' hand "nr Tinkerswood".
One of the mysteries of these photographs is how two appear to be from Tinkiswood burial chamber in South Wales. How they made it into this selection of photographs is unknown, because it wasn't part of his route for In Pursuit of Spring. Despite being virtually opposite Kilve on the South Wales coast, a little inland from Barry, there's no evidence that Thomas crossed the Bristol Channel at this time. Written in Edward Thomas’ hand on the reverse is ’Nr Tinkerswood' which is how it was known until acquiring its non-racist recent name in the 1940s. I've included them because of the associated legend that anyone who spends a night at this site on the evenings preceding May Day, St John's Day (23rd June), or Midwinter Day would either die, go raving mad, or become a poet. Which seems rather apt in this context.

Edward Thomas.
When war broke out the following year Thomas struggled with the question of whether to enlist. Despite being, at 37 years old and married, exempt from the requirement to do so, he joined the Artist’s Riffles in 1915. His decision is often attributed, in part, to his friend the American poet Robert Frost whose book The Road not Taken was intended as a gentle mocking of indecision. Perhaps Frost (who had returned to the U.S.) underestimated the pressure to enlist in the UK and the febrile atmosphere surrounding the war. There was also a considerable government propaganda effort that must have swayed the mood of both Thomas and so many of his contemporaries.

When asked why he'd enlisted, he reputedly picked up a handful of soil, and said simply, ’For this.’ Today that gesture feels shockingly nationalistic, but perhaps that is an illustration of the skewed patriotic sentiment generated by the war, as wars have a tendency to produce. Indeed, Thomas had had bitter arguments with his nationalistic father and the poet Ralph Hodgson had accused him of being a German sympathiser. 

Edward Thomas in military uniform.
He died on the fields of Arras on another Easter; Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. At 7.36 am he was killed by the concussive blast wave of a shell as he, reportedly, stood to light his pipe. A concussive blast wave doesn't, as we might imagine, blow a person to pieces, but it sucks the air from their lungs and stops their heart. Life was literally sucked out of one of the English language’s greatest literary talents, as it was from so many millions.

The photographs themselves speak strongly of travel, of movement through the landscape. They are of (car free) roads and paths, views, and buildings discovered along the way. Far better literary experts than I have tried and failed to tie the photographs to passages in the prose. Which leads us to wonder at their purpose - were they an aide memoir a method of illustrating his journey to friends and family, or simply a record made from the joy of photography and traveling itself? Perhaps a mixture of them all.

The authority of the photographs lies as much with who made them as of the depictions within images themselves. They are ’journeyman’ photographs, in the both senses of the word. Yet, of course, one of the joys of photography is its accessibility, its democracy. And in 1913 it was becoming widely practiced and Thomas had only taken up photography two years previously.

An unnamed road along the route. 
To profess the images as art would be to risk the veracity of history. And, yet, the question of what is the art of the photographic record or document is one that goes to the heart of photography itself. As Gerry Badger wrote of Eugene Atget “one can be enveloped in reserves of poignancy, for which the extensively modest functions of the not prepare.”. And I think there's as much poignancy for us for that lost era before the First World War as there was for views of Atget’s pre-Haussmann Paris.

There is something in Thomas’ photographs of what Walker Evans describes as the ’projection of the person’. They reflect his passions and preoccupations, the English countryside as seen by that particular poet. If they are common preoccupations, those shared widely, then that is in part what the photographer who doesn't apply himself fully to the craft will generally produce. Despite that there is undeniable photographic skill here, and if it is necessary for every good photographer to be part poet, at least Thomas had that advantage already.
Castle St. Bridgwater.

Even the visual failings add to the poignancy. The darkness of some of the early images (a result of poor weather or technical errors?) creates for us, with the benefit of hindsight, a feeling of foreboding. As the journey progressed and the weather improved the photographs noticeably lighten. This was surely not intentional, but it does add to our viewing experience from the perspective of history. These are shadowy glimpses into the mind of the photographer and history obscures as much as it adds the false perspective of time.
Unknown location.

Indeed, the majority of the images were made at the end of his journey, 30 (out of 60) of those identifiable were made in Somerset. So it seems that as the weather improved and his mood lifted he was happier making photographs, as the growing happiness is also revealed through his prose.


Appears to read "The Darns nr Salisbury".
We will never know the internal motives of these images, we can only speculate. Perhaps they were the result of the simple joy of looking? I’d suggest they illustrate a more personal relationship with the land and the journey itself because photographs are inescapably personal. Even if we try to make them otherwise our choices in subject, framing and atmosphere define them as ’ours’.

Of course he should be better remembered by his poetry, such as In Memoriam, written only two years later, at yet another Easter, in 1915:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

And that is the final connection with Easter for this story; the Easter of 1913 when he set out In Pursuit of Spring; The Easter Monday 1915 of In Memoriam; and the Easter Monday, at Arras where he died. Easter, of course, is when we traditionally celebrate The Resurrection, and it is perhaps fitting that Edward Thomas’ words and now his photographs outlive him.

All photographs by kind permission of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, and the Estate of Edward Thomas.

I've added the remaining images below, please click on them to enlarge. 

Above Nettlebridge.
Appears to read "Warren near Laughton".
Approaching Edington, Somerset.
Arlesford, Winchester.
Bishops Sutton, Hampshire
Bradford Canal, Wiltshire.
Bradford on Avon.
Brook, Timsbury, Bath, Avon.
Croscombe, Somerset. 
Croscombe, Somerset. 
East Quantoxhead, Somerset. 
Edington, Somerset.
From Polden Hills, Somerset. 
From Polden, Somerset.
From Polden, Somerset.
Headbourne Worthy, Winchester.
Kilmerston, Avon. 
Kilve Priory, Somerset.
Leathered, Surrey. 
Mendips, Somerset.
Nr Froyle, Hampshire.

Nr Shapwick, Somerset.
Nr Ashcott past Walton or at Shapwick.
Near Grimstead, Wiltshire.
Nr Kilve Priory.
Nr Kilve.
Polden Hills, Shapwick, Bridgwater, Somerset.
Rudge, Frome, Somerset
Rudge, Frome, Somerset.
Salisbury Plain.
Shapwick, Somerset.
Swell nr Taunton, Somerset.
Swell, Taunton, Somerset.
The Hog's Back, Surrey.
Quantocks, Crowcombe.
Rear of above, mentions Coleridge.
Walton, Street, Somerset.

Wells Cathedral moat.
West Dean, Salisbury.

All photographs by kind permission of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, and the Estate of Edward Thomas.