Tag Archives: Sara Maitland

Two paths..

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.

Installation booklets, including the essay on this blog

Installation booklets, including the essay on this blog

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.

Installation view of some of the AIR film-fragments

Installation view of some of the AIR film-fragments

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.


Gabriel’s shadow dance with one of the AIR films, projected in the gallery of St John. I think the twilight makes Melanie’s drawings look like written scrolls

 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.

Church installation of one of the AIR films: central in front of the altar!

Church installation of one of the AIR films: central in front of the altar. The cruciform shape is hard to miss in this context.

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).

Installation view of Anna and Pauline's films, playing via digital picture frames placed on music stands in the entrance to the church

Installation view of Anna and Pauline’s films, playing via digital picture frames placed on music stands in the entrance to the church

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.

Installation view of a moment from AIR, installed in the Belfry at St John

Installation view of a moment from AIR, installed in the Belfry at St John

All these are pathways through Drawing Breath. Now seek yours.


A Crystal In My Ear

Hello Anna. I will answer your questions, but I want to mention something else first, before I forget it (and perhaps before it goes away).

I am suffering from vertigo at the moment. The medical diagnosis is Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo: I think this means that there is nothing to be seriously worried about, that it has a sudden onset, and that it’s related to my movements or head positions. This sounds like a very long diagnosis for something I could have deduced myself! I also found out from the doctor that it can be triggered by a virus, and I do also wonder whether it has something to do with me trying out too many tumble turns in the swimming pool.

As anyone who has experienced vertigo will know, it can be quite debilitating to suddenly feel like you have lost your connection to gravity. Suddenly the world has shifted on its axis to an indeterminate point. It also feels like something is deeply wrong: I guess most of us are so fixed to our sense of up, down, left and right in the world, to the solidity of the ground under our feet, that any unexpected alterations to this sense of reality really do feel world-changing.

"Tidens naturlære" (Nature of time) 1903 by Poul la Cour, Ill. 40. The book is digitized at s:da:Tidens Naturlære

“Tidens naturlære” (Nature of time) 1903 by Poul la Cour, Ill. 40.
The book is digitized at s:da:Tidens Naturlære

After being recommended various exercises and head movements, I did a little more research (and am very grateful to you for your recommendations as a fellow vertigo sufferer!). From some of the videos online that I was watching, I understand that BPPV is caused by one of the particles in your inner ear becoming dislodged. As it moves around in the fluid of the inner ear, which usually tells you where your head and your body is in relation to the rest of the world (I have visions of an inner spirit-level), it starts sending strange signals to the brain about which way is up. Most of the exercises seem targeted at getting the crystalline particle – called an Otolith – to go back in its correct place, so it stops sending strange signals.

Pigfish Otolith  Species Name: Orthopristis chrysoptera Oldest Observed: 4 Years Reproduced using creative commons license from the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Florida: https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/5425402603/

Pigfish Otolith
Species Name: Orthopristis chrysoptera
Oldest Observed: 4 Years
Reproduced using creative commons license from the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Florida: https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/5425402603/

I tried to find out more about Otoliths, not least because this makes me think of the Otolith Group, a collective of moving image artists Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who also collaborate regularly with a range of other artists, including the Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah and Eyal Sivan. I didn’t know that an otolith is actually an evolutionary remnant of our connections to fish. ‘Fish bones’ are much larger than the otoliths that humans have, but both are made of crystalline structures of calcium and protein. In fish, birds and mammals, these tiny crystals are part of the structures that help us to balance, to ‘see straight’ and to figure out where we are in relation to the rest of the world. They are also incredibly beautiful, as you can see in the image to the right. Human otoliths, or otoconia, are microscopic – only 3 to 30 microns across.

So here I am, literally struggling to know which way is up. But while I’m waiting for my vertigo to gradually subside (and apparently it will, with time), it has made me think about the connections between a dislodged crystal in my ear, and processes of listening, of interpreting and understanding the world, that we are asking of our participants.

Vertigo makes the world feel askew. It is not askew for people without vertigo, and it’s not even the case that everyone experiences vertigo in the same way. But what interests me about this is that a bodily sensation (or an impeded sense in this case) completely changes the ways I can experience the world. It is quite destabilizing, and the effect is that I am often distracted by the fact that the room is spinning when I’m trying to listen carefully to what someone else is saying.

So: what Sara Maitland says about the brain being part of the body is absolutely true. The microscopic crystal currently floating around in my ear canals is speaking gibberish to my brain. My brain can’t understand it, and as a result my entire perception of the world is radically, but hopefully also temporarily, altered.

But when my brain is interpreting my body differently, it also affects the ways I speak, the ways I listen, and what I feel capable of doing with my body and my brain. Typing is actually quite difficult because my eyes have to dart rapidly around the screen. Lying down is also quite difficult because this seems to make the room spin even more. I understand that language is abstract – certainly the language we use here in English. It’s true that it doesn’t directly represent an emotion through the series of alphabetical symbols that make up a word. But speech – speech is embodied, fundamentally so. And speech is also language. And the spoken word is, so very often, a richer way of communicating the poems that we have asked our writers to produce as interpretations of Air

I have been utterly bewitched by the recording of Owen Lowery speaking about his experiences and understanding of interpretation as he wrote his poem for our project. I wrote this to Anna once I’d heard it on Thursday evening:

“The way that Owen parses his words is INCREDIBLE. Can you hear the sub-vocal sounds of his breath? Is his breathing regulated by a machine of some sort? I’m asking not to subtract from the meaningfulness of his words but to add to them. He is expressing his thoughts about interpretation and the Air film embodied through his form of breath. And that breath is rhythmically tied to what sounds like the mechanical regulation of his body. I think it’s incredible. I want to be able to hear *under* his words as well as to hear the words themselves. The sound recording of his voice is very meaningful to me in the ways it connects in unspoken ways to embodiment. The words say something and the breath adds something to it.”

Anna explained to me that Owen is tetraplegic, and consequently his speech is performed between breaths on his ventilator. I think this gives astounding presence to the concept of embodied interpretation, not just through the content of Owen’s words, but through the ways his voice embodies them.

I’m not in any way suggesting that my recent experiences with vertigo, and Owen’s embodied recording of interpretation, have any similarities. It’s actually the difference I am much more interested in. The ways that our bodies do speak through language. And maybe writing, as an intermediary in that process, is fundamentally connected to embodiment, whether we want it to or not?

Body and/or Brain?

Hi Jenny – I have been having such fascinating email correspondence with the contributors to this project, particularly with Sara Maitland, (she wrote ‘On Silence’ and other books)  who is, or was, going to  contribute words, but now has come to the conclusion that a prose interpretation  of a film-poem is impossible. Her email begins ‘I surrender’. She has approached the idea of interpretation with such integrity that it has prevented her making one; and I see where she is coming from and respect her for it. One particular aspect that she brings to the debate is – should an interpretation be able to be interpreted back again? Hmmmm… I look at everybody’s interpretations and see that they couldn’t, so then  I wonder, were we right to use the word ‘interpret’ at all? Would an interpretation in words only be possible if one wrote a description? Perhaps Sara is right, it is the ‘being a poem’ rather than a prose piece that makes it possible.  Joan McGavin’s lyrical poem comes closest to ‘an interpretation’ so far. Anyway I do see how the idea of interpreting back again, once lodged in the brain, would make life difficult, if not impossible.

As you said in your last post, ‘when we sent out the brief to our poets and musicians, we only asked if they could think about how their bodies might become part of the interpretation. We didn’t even know whether it would be possible to produce an interpretation ‘from the body’. I wonder, Jenny, how you will respond to what she has written here:

‘Where we seem to be at odds is that I think of my eye certainly, but also my brain as part of my body.  (If you turn off your brain you are dead – this is a biological fact.) Is it interesting that in little (partial) brain deaths – strokes, heart attacks, severe concussions – it is most usually language that goes? (This is followed by the sense of “touch/feeling”; and then taste. Sight and smell seem to be the senses least affected – and language the most.)  One point here though is surely that “speech/language” is NOT an embodied sense (like sight, hearing, feel, taste, smell); it is an output (a response to external stimuli) and it is entirely cultural/social and, if I may and in very small letters, necessarily intellectual. Unlike the “senses,” language takes a long time to learn, can only be learned through models, and is almost entirely “abstract” (there is no embodied connection between the word for a thing and the thing itself. “Embodied language” feels a slightly odd concept to me. This is part of the reason why I was so fascinated by your project and why I am longing to see how other writers managed this (to me now, though not before I had embodied my own  failure) internally contradictory “stunt.” (Stunt is meant in an entirely positive way – like any other “skilled practice.”)’

In response  I would say that Claire Hillier’s piece ‘Sestina’ (which she wrote for Elemental Dialogues – Fire) was truly an embodied interpretation, both from the writers point of view and for the viewer too… So from Sara we will have to accept her words about the process rather than the results of it, (which I have much enjoyed) though I was so looking forward to what she might have written as her interpretation. Meanwhile I am still in correspondence with Sebastiane about the title of his piece which desperately (to my mind) needs a title. He would like to call it  ‘Air struck gently away from the body’. Some, no doubt, wouldn’t have a problem in interpreting this as being the instructions for striking a match, but I am not sure it would have struck home for me. BUT Sebastiane has sent a picture which is perfect I think. Don’t you? (And beautiful). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA