GENERATION and regeneration

I spent a lot of time this summer and autumn at the GENERATION exhibitions celebrating art made in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sometimes I was working, as a freelancer in the NGS education department, sometimes working on my own material, and others being a tourist at other exhibitions in the series around the country.

In the RSA building on the Mound in Edinburgh there were seven rooms devoted to the work of seven different artists. To my own surprise, my personal favourite grew to be Martin Boyce’s installation of a park at dusk. This comprised skeletal steel benches, bed-frames and off-kilter bins in primary colours, was divided into sections by black mesh fences placed at oblique angles, and lit by fluorescent tubes representing trees. Originally designed for Glasgow’s Tramway, a larger, more industrial space than this, the biggest room in Robert Playfair’s RSA building, it appeared to be (re)creating a sense of urban decay and fostering a feeling of menace. I’d ask my tour groups how optiimistic it made them feel on  a scale of 1-10; most responses were between 3 and 5. The work’s apparently incongruous title,  Our Love is like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours is the chorus of the song ‘The Village’ in  New Order’s 1983 album  Power, Corruption & Lies.

Music, it strikes me,  is possibly more ‘generational’ than any other artform. Members of my tour groups tended to be either too young or too old to know  much about the post-punk and ‘industrial’ sounds, often emanating from Manchester, that became the soundtrack to the lives of students in another post-industrial city.  Boyce and a number of other artists in the exhibition studied on the Environmental Art course set up at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s. The course is credited, in the Generation Reader, a collection of essays published to  accompany the exhibition catalogue, and in a BBC documentary made about the exhibition, with being responsible for  the artist-led energy that produced such a diverse body of work during this time. Both stress how great emphasis was placed on socialising. I wondered what happened if you were an introvert with different tastes in music – what happened to the artist as outsider? – but maybe you just (just!) studied painting.

Anyway, after three months I’d settled on the Boyce room as the one most conducive to writing, low light levels notwithstanding, and I started to find it uplifting. At twenty-minute intervals, a  plangent soundtrack, specially composed for the installation, played as text slowly formed, then dissolved, on one of the walls. It was hard to read – Boyce devises his own fonts to blur the boundary between text and image – but seemed to say this place is dreaming. For a time I thought it read ‘this place is breathing’.

It occurs to me now that Boyce’s text could also be a reference to the phrase terribilis ist locus iste.  Originally from the Vulgate version of Genesis 28.17, and most often found inscribed on door lintels,  this was Jacob’s response to his vision of a ladder leading to heaven. Terribilis has been variously translated as ‘dreadful’ (King James) and ‘fearsome’ (New English); it means ‘awesome’ in the sense of sublime, terror-inducing.

This place is not terrible to me. I have partly measured out my adult life in the exhibitions I’ve seen in these rooms; sought them – and found comfort – in times of distress, shared memorable afternoons in them with friends, and been privileged to work in them.  This year, Boyce’s soundtrack and text and manufactured gloaming worked against the urban harshness of his physical materials in a way that allowed memories and imaginings to float free. This place was breathing and dreaming because it was immersive, real and unreal simultaneously, a creative and potential space. Also . . .  the portable gallery seats unintentionally referenced the steel and chain-link of the fencing and bed-frame components of the installation and, with a person seated on them,  became a temporary part of it. (These paragraphs are in the past tense because the exhibition closed on 2 November. Our Love was de-installed and returned to homes in various collections, including Tate.)

The open thresholds between the rooms gave sight-lines to works by other artists. From Our Love you could glimpse the gorgeous purples of Callum Innes‘ Exposed Painting series, or the black and white palate of a space made over to woodcut prints and ceramic works by David Shrigley that  playfully questioned the limits of black-and-white thinking. I’ve written in the company of Innes’ slow-burning paintings before, and it’s easy to find in them a meditative quality. More surprising was the  effect of sitting amidst Shrigley’s army (or pantomime cast?) of torso-less boots on plinths – boots that we are figuratively invited to fill, and that Shrigley will fill when his work is sited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016.

Over at the Portrait Gallery, Luke Fowler‘s 61- minute film The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott loosens the memory in a manner different to Boyce’s parkscape. Shot in 21st Century West Yorkshire, it features footage from the 1950s of Marxist historian E P Thompson, and an original soundtrack which includes a setting of Blake’s ‘London’. A voiceover (sterner in tone than that of the charismatic Thompson himself) reads from Thompson’s reports on the WEA classes in Social History and Literature in eleven West Riding towns. As well as a portrait of a man, he’s created on 16mm film a narrative of a place where industrial and rural landscapes are held in balance. Fowler’s image-assemblage maybe even works a bit like memory itself. He shows where habitation has spilled up hillsides, like a reverse landslide.  A lorry passes between gritstone walls at the pace of a horse and cart as smoke from a chimney in a field merges with cloud. Skies are punctuated with pylons and factory chimneys that look like Venetian campaniles.  Fields, olive from their gritstone underlay, are overlaid with snow. At night the moving lights of cars weave amongst the still ones from buildings, creating illuminated  townscapes where neon, sodium, street, factory and domestic lighting co-exist in a painterly fashion.  The time it takes a car to pass across the frame seems longer than if you were standing on the pavement yourself. Fowler cuts from the shot of a  factory, chimney and tower block warmed by a sunlight that makes of them a Mediterranean composition, to a close-up of the chimney’s top showing, not a cloud-capped tower, but one crowned with scaffolding. He revisits a frame from earlier in the film, but now the soundtrack has moved on.  And he dwells, too, on the details: the interiors of educational institutions, from stained-glass crests in windows opening onto more West Riding masonry, in both its hewn and unhewn states, to corridors and functional seating. (This paragraph is in the present tense because the film exists even when it isn’t being watched.)

I had a four-day interlude in the West Riding myself at half term. I visited the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the umpteenth, but  it retains its power to seep onto my soul. One of the other reasons for my visit was to look at and try to write about the horizon – the elongated concave  profile of Saddleworth Moor, the skyline as seen from the Calder valley. I was prevented from achieving this by a mist which pressed down into the valley, amplifying the hoot of the Transpennine train, and on the upland spur where I was staying accentuating underfoot textures – flag, cobble, pebble, brick, grit, leaf, mud – on by-ways with names like Beaumont’s Bolt and Pudding Lane. It insinuated itself round the midriff of Emley Moor television mast, and chilled through several layers of clothing in the  mornings, as I stood at an exposed hilltop bus stop where a big vista of high moor and industrial valley appears in clear weather. By midday sun had squeezed enough heat through the mist and onto the land for lunch to be taken outdoors at a village pub. It obfuscated plans, but it assisted memory – being up here on winter nights, high above the conurbation lights – and enabled the creation of new narratives, such as the fit between Luke Fowler’s vision of the location and my own experience if it.

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During this period the wonderful Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival  was running, this year with the theme ‘The Power to Communicate’. South Side Writers generated the text for a great wee exhibition at the Southside Centre. I attended a screening of Regeneration at Craiglockhart campus, formerly the war hospital where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, who acted as poetic mentor to the younger Owen, was treated by the psychiatrist WHR Rivers, pioneer of psychotherapeutic methods used with ptsd today, and surely one of the great heroes of WW1. Rivers also worked on the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. In the film of Pat Barker’s novel, adapted to give more of a  narrative arc (I don’t recall having any problem with the book’s narrative geometry), he is shown to experience secondary trauma. In the novels, if my memory is accurate, his own neuroses are attributed to his experiences working as an anthropologist in Melanesia in the Pacific, and a relatively minor childhood worry – one doesn’t need to have been to war to be beset by hard to-shift-demons. If one has been to war. . . well, thank the goodness that remains for Rivers and his legacy.

Afterwards there was a panel discussion involving the screen writer Allan Scott, an Afghanistan veteran and two psychotherapists from the Rivers Centre for traumatic stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – where, in addition to medication and talking therapies, it seems they offer art therapy but not creative writing. Of course, there are many situations where the non-linguistic nature of art, or music, is what is needed –  but wouldn’t it be a highly appropriate tribute to Rivers and his most famous patient if, as more research is conducted into the efficacy of the ‘writing cure’, this were to be adopted in the clinic named for him?

Pat Barker, unable to attend, sent a generous message, which included a phrase that went something like: ‘while you work on the material, the material works on you’. This is an excellent encapsulation of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing. To put it another way: you generate the material; it regenerates you.

the power to communicate

I’ve lost my voice. I think I contracted something on an Edinburgh tram. I caught one one along Princes St on their first day of public service, en route to the Three Harbours Festival in East Lothian. There was a continental, party atmosphere in central Edinburgh. The sun was shining, staff were aplenty and smiling  and there was no mention of delays and budgets, though one of the tracker announcements was playing up, and the number of minutes to the promised arrival of the next westbound tram kept increasing rather than decreasing. A tannoy announcement  exhorted people to take selfies (I never thought I’d use that word) and send them to Transport for Edinburgh. I don’t even have a smart phone, and hadn’t thought to bring a camera. My friend Rosie and I went on to have a grand day out by the sea, wandering around the open studios, and enjoying some excellent fish and chips. I regretted not packing the camera: Cockenzie looked continental too, and next time the weather’s that good, the twin chimneys of the power station that overlooks the port may have been demolished. On the way back we’d had enough of the 26 bus by York Place, alighted and hopped onto a second tram. This is where I suspect I was infected. It was like rush hour on the London Underground, and it was with relief that I fought my way off at Haymarket. My camera had stayed at home, but Olga Wojtas, a fine writer, was out and about with hers. I was particularly amused by this shot of Ingliston Park & Ride.

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Enough to give you hayfever. From which I was suffering anyway, before the onset of summer cold. After a week of attempting to clear nasal and cerebral congestion with some vigorous coughing and nose-blowing, I strained my vocal chords. I didn’t know you could do that. As a year-round allergy sufferer, I’m always attempting to un-block congestion by these means. The doc advised me to shut up for a week. Luckily I’m not a singer, actor or motivational speaker, and voluntarily keeping schtum (partly voluntarily: I can only whisper and croak) is actually quite liberating – as I remember from a couple of bouts of laryngitis when younger.

Ironically enough, this term’s theme at South Side Writers is ‘The Power to Communicate’. We’re contributing text for an exhibition of digital art at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in October, and taking the opportunity to address the topic as widely as possible while we’re at it. You could say that promoting the power to communicate is what a writing group does by default, but once you start tackling the issue deliberately, the questions raised are many and fascinating. When you move beyond famously power-laden discourses like law and medicine, themselves very fertile areas for creative writers, you can begin to consider the fictive or poetic potential of kids passing notes in class, or dedicatory quotations in gifted books. And I think it’s always useful for writers, whatever their level of experience, to examine and maybe re-evaluate how they communicate to their readership.

I shan’t be communicating via the spoken word this Friday. I can, however, nod, smile, wave, print out a handout and write illegibly on a flip chart. Were the theme something other than ‘the power to communicate’, I’d probably cancel the class, but under these circumstances I think it will be fun just to give it a go and see what happens.

 

mad march and invisible colours: could spring be far behind?

The closing lines of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, and a reflection that the poet didn’t live in Scotland and wasn’t factoring in climate change, formed an accompaniment to many of my March wanderings: to Fife for  StAnza; to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery  for a workshop on creative writing for undergraduates in English and journalism from Napier University; to Glasgow for a two-day training event; into the snowy hills, wafting my walking poles around like ski sticks. The month-long cold snap was ushered in at StAnza, where I  facilitated a workshop called ‘Different Viewpoints’ on the first morning. Sponsored by Lapidus Scotland, this undertook to examine through practical exercises the relationships between ‘personal’ or ‘therapeutic’ and ‘creative’ writing, and between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ stimuli. Against the backdrop of, and engaging closely with, an exhibition of poems and paintings about liminal spaces entitled Unmapped, the participants created poems that beautifully wove together personal experience, memory and present-moment response to real and imagined places.

Back in Edinburgh, facilitating a session for undergraduates, rather than the ‘adults’ I usually work with, set me thinking further about ekphrasis, or the use of visual art to inspire writing, and how and why we teach it. When the BP  Portrait exhibition was up earlier in the year, in the winter proper, I took to  reading Michael Longley in front of a wonderful portrait of the poet, The Dailects of Silence, by Colin Davidson  At the close of his most recent collection A Hundred Doors, Longley has an elegy, ‘White Farmhouse’, which concludes with a line that cites Marcel Duchamp’s claim   ‘titles are invisible colours’. Are they? I need to ponder some more, but titles (if not artist statements and gallery glosses) can be of abiding interest to those with a textual background who are looking at pictures. What are we to make, for example, of Ben Nicholson’s habit of supplementing a matter-of-fact dating or stating of medium with a descriptor, as in June 1961 (Green Goblet and Blue Square), or Painted Relief (Plover’s Egg Blue)?

Words on Canvas were invited to write in response to paintings in the Royal Scottish Painters in Watercolour (RSW) annual exhibition. There were 252 works in the exhibition, and our deadline was just a week after we first got to see them. I had a couple of hours in the gallery beforehand, en route to the Portrait Gallery to have a look at Rousseau and Hume prior the Napier session. I quickly saw the work I wanted to write about, Gordon Mitchell’s Lasting Impressions, a painting of a sun lounger  against a sun-baked wall whose cracked plaster revealed the shapes of human silhouettes. I was reminded first of  the second paragraph of  The Wasteland, the lines about aridity, broken images and shadows, that lead up to ‘I will show you in fear a handful of dust’; and then, more optimistically, of a standing joke about the cost of hiring a sun lounger on the cote d’azur from last year’s summer holiday. Fine, but on Monday morning fifteen other writers (minus a couple I bumped into in the gallery who were already hard at work) would need to choose from the remaining 251. The usual WoC format is a Gallery tour, covering just  four or five works, followed by a writing critique session a fortnight later.  Feeling under some pressure, I started to jot down the titles of works that attracted me for one reason or another. Then I took up the catalogue, and noted down titles that themselves appealed (invisible colours if you like). Bingo, eureka, etcetera. Rousseau, Hume. On Monday I asked those writers who hadn’t already seen the exhibition and selected a work initially to choose a title that appealed, and write to that before seeing the picture to which it pertained. Then we paired up and did some writing exercises in front of the paintings, and a week later we had a pamphlet of stories and poems, and were ready to attend a reception where we were introduced to the painters of the works we’d selected. ‘Have you met your artist yet?’, we’d ask as we encountered each other circulating the exhibition, glasses of fizz in hand. Several writers reported uncanny correspondences between their thought processes and those of their painter-partner.  Gordon Mitchell told me his sun lounger was located near St Tropez. I had it not terribly far away, on the Cap d’Antibes, but then I don’t suppose it’d have been in Copenhagen or Anstruther.

Meanwhile, the South Side Writers concluded their term on fruit & veg with an attempt to break out of the tradition and make an original,  contemporary statement on the subject, accompanied by a very tasty and refreshing fruit salad. Mine felt very modernist, nearly a century past its sell-by date.

In Glasgow just before Easter I did the two-day training for Living Life To The Full (LLTTF). This is a CBT-based programme designed to be delivered in eight sessions in non-clinical settings, by professionals from different fields who season the basic template with their own personality, experience and knowledge. The target client or user is the individual with mild to moderate depression or anxiety, maybe near the bottom of a long waiting list for treatment,  but it could, I think, be really useful for helping anyone to problem-solve their way around the various obstacles they inevitably encounter. Writer’s block, relationship tensions, builders who don’t turn up. Well, maybe not the latter: it doesn’t promise miracles. The programme was on the periphery of my radar untilLapidus Scotland members were invited to learn more about it at a Bibliotherapy seminar at the National Library of Scotland in February. We heard some pretty inspiring presentations, by Drs Ann Wales, whose job title, Programme Director for Knowledge Management, doesn’t quite convey the extent of her humanity and intellectual curiosity; and Chris Williams, founder of LLTTF. Later we took part in  sessions which could be loosely categorised as either  ‘creative’ (poetry, storytelling, journalling) or ‘scientific’ (concerned with the transmission of knowledge and information).

After this I felt fairly sure that my place when working in healthcare settings was firmly in the creative camp, but I was curious to learn more about this method dedicated to transmitting health information (according to a social, rather than medical, model) in simplicity and clarity  in order to help individuals make positive changes in their lives. I signed up for the training. It turned out to be a truly inspiring couple of days. After an accelerated trip through the components of the programme, we were divided into small groups, with the task of preparing a small chunk of it to deliver to the rest. Oh no, I thought. I’m too tired. I haven’t slept properly the last few nights. I assimilate information slowly, with much reflection and walking around: I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t want to look a numptie in front of esteemed Lapidus colleagues, or the lovely people from other fields I’ve only just met. Luckily, the extrovert part of me that enjoys a bit of a performance kicked in. I had fun, and, I hope, communicated my points effectively. More than that, hearing the others’ presentations really helped to reinforce everything we’d  learned in a short space of time, and I left with a sense of the possibilities that this new tool might afford.

Now that April’s here – and yes, I would like to pop down to England, though my guess is that the spring isn’t much more advanced there this time – I’ve paced along the plateau of  Capelaw Hill and been to a stimulating workshop on poetry and place with Australian poet Mark Tredinnick at the Scottish Poetry Library. At the end of a UK tour where he too has written of ‘the winter / that did not want to end’, he appeared less tired than I, much closer to home. In an open-plan learning type format,  he interspersed his  own observations about the poetry of place with dialogue with the attendees about their approaches to the matter. The moment when  Mark asked me who I was reading at the moment – rather than when faced with delivering part of a LLTTF module at short notice after little sleep – was the one chosen for me to go blank. Michael Longley?  The many writers from and writing about these islands and beyond whom I encountered at StAnza? In truth I’d been thinking most recently about  influences further back in the tradition: the Anglo-Saxon poets, Wordsworth, Hopkins, sundry Modernisits, as well as relishing the challenge of how on earth, in the air or by the water  to make it new myself, now. I could have talked about some or all of these – or about prose writings on place by the likes of  Kathleen Jamie and Robert McFarlane; or innovations other Scottish writers and artists are making – some of them in a  global context. Or I could have engaged more with some of  the many things that resonated for me in the others’ words that afternoon . . . but eloquence had well and truly taken leave of me. It may take some sun and more visible colours to power up my brain again.