Wonderful photos of the installation and performance sent to me by Richard Goulden. Thank you Richard.
Wonderful photos of the installation and performance sent to me by Richard Goulden. Thank you Richard.
I’ve been thinking about Pauline while installing the ‘Air’ film in James Turrell’s Skyspace in Tremenheere Sculpture Garden near Penzance in Cornwall. Our collaboration has been so rich and all-encompassing, it was hard for me to install and to experience this installation without her. And yet she brought so much to the experience even through her absence.
Because her work has always been concerned with mortality and because the film was inspired by our reading of Rilke’s ‘Invisible Breath’ and because now, with her own health failing, my response has such a personal deeper resonance in relation to mortality… because of all this she was, and is, present through her work, her life and her breath.
So I will write this to, and for, Pauline.
Since I spoke with Neil Armstrong a couple of weeks ago and he offered us this opportunity to install our film in the Turrell Skyspace ‘Tewlwolow Kernow’, I came to realise how important it was to create an installation which did not deny the elemental nature of the sculpture itself. Projecting onto the side as if it were any old wall or screen simply would not do.
I think I mentioned that Robb Higgs recommended a friend of his who plays saxophone to create an interpretation to play live with the film? His name is Andy Marston and he invited Matt Thompson a trombonist to join him – and I had no idea if that was going to work either. But there’s been something about the Elemental Dialogues project hasn’t there? Right from the start. I’ve taken risks by working with so many different contributing artists, and I feel it has stretched us all and given us so much. There has been such a generosity of spirit. But it’s always scary.
So there I was in a panic, when thoughts from Bachelard’s ‘Air and Dreams’ which you introduced me to, came to mind, do you remember us trying to imagine how we could represent air, the invisible element, as a silent film? It seemed so relevant to consider again his idea of air (if I have understood him right) being within the reverie of ‘what is’ between me here and the distant tree over there… and then I remembered me reading the Death of a Moth to you. Virginia Wolf looking out of her window at the space between her life at the table writing, the dying moth fluttering against the window pane and the plough working the field on the distant hill. Here in the Skyspace the air resounds between me and infinity, captured in the ellipse which forms the hole in the top of the space.
Turrell has designed lighting which changes as twilight falls and the sky moves from the visible, to indigo and on to become a solid black velvet void, quite reminiscent of the early works of Anish Kapoor we saw at the Hayward years ago, but the lights are not on now. And it is night.
What would happen when our film was projected onto the wall? When music made by humans disturbed the sounds of nature? How could our film possibly add to what Turrell had already created? Or worse still, how could the film not detract from the Skyspace?
So, it’s Wednesday 18th November, 7pm. Pitch black.
Imagine yourself walking up the hill, through the wild, wooded garden with candles in jam jars lighting the way (those that hadn’t been blown out) and down an unlit tunnel into a vast white egg shaped space. Sit yourself down on the ledge which runs all round the edge. Lean back and look up, through an elliptical hole in the roof, into the void. An oval beam of moonlight falls on the wall. An owl is hooting. (Actually there were some magpies too, making an awful noise, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to say that about nature.)
We had decided to project the ‘Air’ film onto the curving wall at the end of the ellipse. The musicians stood, silhouetted below, looking up to follow the film and be aware of the sky. As the film began with the stars floating down and swirling around on the wall, astonishingly the real stars came out, (having been hiding all day behind a furious wind and lashing rain) glittering against the indigo sky.
What was happening was magical because the film interacted with the space and the space interacted with the film, changing my perception of the white walls, the void and the sky, whilst combining with the haunting breathy (and sometimes soaring) notes of Trombone and Sax. The flickering dancing momentum of the film, swaying from dark to light and back again, worked with the void to create a new site specific interpretation of both the film and of the Skyspace itself.
The sky at moments a solid velvet black and invisible as the film lit up the space below, then, as the film darkened to murmuring scratchy dewdrops in the black web, the sparkling sky returned beyond. Lost in this moment, when I thought it could not get any better, a circular wisp of transparent cloud passed low, just over the hole in the Skyspace, whilst the film went on dancing below.
At last I could stop and breathe. I leant back, absorbing the elemental sense of air in the space and in my body, feeling the presence of you Pauline and the terrible sadness of your being so very ill. Whilst all the while, the final words of your favourite interpretation of the film by Briony Bennet – played over in my mind:
‘a wisp remains, / but you can only hold it / for so long. ‘
slows dark turns.
There— the gap,
and the curtain.
There is no chaos,
only roads travelled appear,
through electric windows.
Your code floats,
separating one light
from the next.
Memories of the sea
on the air.
Cobwebs draft light pictures,
answer the gentle
dispersion of stars.
Your particles delay,
from passing time.
Inevitable waves erode
the glue-drop silk,
dilating your tracks out
into the night.
Sometimes, to meet others,
hollow unspoken curves,
for a moment,
but do not cease.
Breath is borrowed.
before expiring across moments,
of occasional flourish.
You are tethered.
watching false birds on wires.
reaching the limits
of your view.
Tail slips, open palm,
a wisp remains,
but you can only hold it
for so long.
Jos said – a sky burial…
And I was thinking when that cloud passed over, of 21 grams…
we all went down to the restaurant and had delicious food and saw the other interpretations screened, with sound, in the café where Penny Florence also presented work about interpreting Mallarmé through digital poetry, so we had good conversations about interpretation with an intelligent and enthusiastic audience. Indeed it was an evening to remember (oh what a cliché – it was brilliant).
Neil and Jane who own the garden, and made it all happen, were so wonderful, we must think of a way to thank them properly. I will write.
Sadly there are no photos. There is no film, no record at all beyond these words. I was too tied up with both the technology of making it happen, and giving myself to the experience. I tell myself that it was not meant to be viewed through a lens (and I forgot to record the music even though I had a mic with me, sorry Andy and Matt). I admit there were inevitable technical hitches, but if you ignored them, it was an incredible experience. I would say that at moments it was sublime! (I’ve been angsting about all the technical stuff but Paul says that to achieve even a moment of ‘sublime’ is pretty good). When we come back next year with ‘Water’, it has the potential to be so much better, having learnt so much this time.
These are the curatorial notes I made to accompany the Drawing Breath exhibition at St John on Bethnal Green. It is still on until 16th May, so do get down to see it if you can.
There are two pathways to think about this exhibition. I would like to say that they compete, much like the starting point of the project: ‘There is no one truth, only competing stories’. Except that these stories don’t compete against one another exactly. Depending on how you look at the works, you might find any number of stories, threading in and out of one another. Nonetheless, here are two paths to guide passage through Drawing Breath…
A path of generosity: elemental dialogues and embodied interpretations
Anna Cady and I have been collaborating for over five years. We were brought together because of the ways that she practices forms of creative collaboration, particularly relating to bodies: the bodies of vulnerable people, the bodies of dancers, of refugees, of children. My research on embodiment and phenomenology in film and art brings me to think about how we experience our bodies in front of creative work, but also what creative practice does to and with our bodies. Elemental Dialogues, of which the film AIR, centrally installed here, forms the third part, is partly a story about ways of linking the interweaving stories of film, poetry, sound, composition, dance and drawing.
Some of the artists in this exhibition have sought to understand what it is to interpret ‘from the body’. Some have produced interpretations that stay close to the skilled and ingrained forms of bodily practice that are most familiar to them. One of our participants – Sara Maitland – found the whole process so befuddling that she wrote the gentlest and most thoughtful of refusals to us, writing, “I surrender!”
Anna and I have talked at length about the precarity of making a creative interpretation: how vulnerable a position it is for an artist to let go of a piece of work, and to give it freely to someone else for their interpretation. This is what has happened with AIR: the film was given generously to other artists, who have generously given back to produce the diverse work exhibited here.
The film itself is inspired by the concept of air as an element – in the old sense – as a fundamental component of life. Inspiration – a taking in of different elements – is also what Pauline and Anna’s film works have done, drawing on writing from Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Lucy Boston, Gaston Bachelard and TS Eliot. However, in opposition to the conventions of film narrative, AIR does not begin with words – it begins with images and sensations. The stories, as Anna tells it, flow out from there.
The process of embodied interpretation is not about inspiration, however. Part of the thought-work of the project has been to come to terms with what embodied interpretation means, and how the instruction to produce an ‘interpretation’ differs from a response, or an inspiration. What we were seeking, as curators of this project, were not works inspired by – breathing in – the film AIR, but works that exhaled, articulated, an interpretation, through the body of the artist.
So many of these interpretations speak of breath: Tami Haaland’s short poem uncovers the paradox of breathing – how air knows, ‘sees’ our insides in a way that we never can. Briony Bennett’s poem speaks of the things that are given and taken away in a breath. Sebastiane Hegarty’s composition sits on the cusp of the audible, decomposing and recomposing the sounds of a match, struck and flaring. Jan Henrickse’s sound piece shifts echoes, reverberations and rhythms across glass-like textures that exceed the opening and closing moments of the film’s frames. Time is pliable in each interpretation: some stick closely to the time of the film, accompanying it through each fade and billow. Others follow these ebbs and flows with humorous curiosity – like a.rawlings and Sachiko Murakami’s sound poem. Gabriel Galvez’s butoh-inspired movements flex sensuously with his breath; more than this: the breath he takes in, his interior sense of his body’s air, interprets (organically, primally) the film AIR, and the sites in which it is projected: in this case, the softly illumined staircases, arches and galleries of St John.
The curation of these works had to compete with another layer of interpretation: the weighty, light-filled spaces of St John on Bethnal Green. Light is not a friend to moving image projection. Unlike the dark, companionable domestic spaces of Drawing Breath’s first exhibition at Green Knowe in Hemingford Grey, the heft and texture of church walls, pews, ceilings, staircases insist upon curation that works with, rather than against the early summer light in a church on a busy East London junction.
A path of mortality… AIR
There is another pathway in this exhibition. A quieter, more hidden one, away from the witty bustle of a.rawlings and Sachiko Murakami’s sound poem, or Gabriel Galvez’s intimate dance movements and Melanie Rose’s tacit drawing. This is a pathway that requires delicacy and gentleness, and is as ephemeral, and as enduring, as the installation itself.
AIR is a collaborative film, co-created between Anna Cady and Pauline Thomas. Their work is mutual, so much so that neither Anna nor Pauline can see where one artist’s work begins and the other’s ends. In this sense, their creative stories are inextricably intertwined. But in a way, they are also quite separate. This exhibition is about breath, just as the previous exhibition at Hemingford Grey this March was too. In particular, it is about limited breath, liminal breath, dying breath. Pauline, whose touching work is gentle, ephemeral, has always been interested in the fleeting moments between life and death, light and dark. And Pauline is dying – or rather, as she puts it herself; she is living with terminal illness.
Pauline has graciously, generously given me permission to write about this. I’m grateful to her for letting me make public such an intimate and personal state of life. The reason I am doing so is because of this second pathway towards Drawing Breath, a pathway of mortality and intimacy. So many of the artists, poets, and composers involved in this project reflected on AIR from the position of breath. And for Anna, the film and the project are entirely about Pauline’s breath: her breathing, fragile, mortal body, but also her gentleness, her inspiration, her fascination for the smallest of gestures (a spider’s web glistening with water droplets, a flame struck endlessly inside a tiny matchbox).
We did not share this information with the participants when they were working on their interpretations. This was both in order to respect Pauline’s privacy, but also because mortality is a life element that so thoroughly colours our experience, it might have prevented our artist participants from making work about the film from any other perspective.
Last year, while I was recovering from illness (such a vague word for so many things) I spent a great deal of time walking around cemeteries in South East London – for no other reason than their proximity to my home. I remember being touched by quite how colourful these graveyards are: filled with flower tributes and balloons, plastic vases and photographs. They always struck me as the most joyful places of the living, filled with memories and kindness. There is a flagstone as I enter Camberwell Old Cemetery that I think about often. About tracing a memory through darkness and light. On it is engraved:
“While the light remains I will remember, and in the darkness I shall not forget.”
Inevitably, there is something elegiac about Drawing Breath. But this is both about Pauline and not about her at one and the same time. It is also about breath as a moment on the precipice between living and not-living, as an invisible trace, as a moth trapped in the lamplight, as a temporary enchantment, as astral dust motes, as smoke unfurling between two towers that coruscate into the dark. As darkness on a bright May evening, as the life of a day lily.
All these are pathways through Drawing Breath. Now seek yours.