When the sun goes missing

Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Norham Castle, Sunrise by J.M.W Turner.  Tate Gallery

The sun has been missing from this part of Northern England for many weeks now.  On the 21st August it also went missing from the skies of America, but only for a few minutes when the moon got in the way.  During this total solar eclipse the sun was completely covered over for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, if you were standing in the right place.  This seems a short time to do without the sun in comparison with its longer absence in my small part of the world.  People, though, travel long distances to experience this very brief blotting out, just as those living through its longer absence in the summer months often travel to places where the sun fills the skies with its powerful presence, without any bothersome clouds.  Two kinds of contemporary sun worship, perhaps?

There is not usually much media talk devoted to the absence of the summer sun in Northern places.  It is not considered to be ‘news’.  Total solar eclipses are a different matter.

total eclipse 2017 Getty Images

The moment of totality on 21st August: Getty Images.

 

During all the talk of the eclipse on BBC radio 4, I was struck by the number of scientists  who said that the minutes of ‘totality’ were a very special experience – an experience they could not put into words.  One even agreed that it was ‘mystical’, which surprised me.  So what do writers – whose business is words – have to tell me about this sudden vanishing of the sun that I have not yet been fortunate enough to see myself?  Two accounts of total eclipses have been brought to my attention in the run up to the eclipse; Annie Dillard’s description of the total eclipse over America in 1979, and Virginia Woolf’s diary notes on the one over the UK  in 1927.

These are different types of account.  Dillard’s is written a couple of years after the February event and is a long, carefully crafted piece of work.  Woolf’s is a diary entry a day after her night journey up to Richmond, Yorkshire to see an eclipse in June, where the total covering of the sun was only 24 seconds. Her account is much shorter and presumably just one draft.  As she says at the start of the entry, her attention is to ‘sketch out’ the experience, while Dillard’s essay has more complex aims that include critique of the culture she  was living in.   The winter morning sky was clear for Dillard, but Woolf’s early Northern British summer one was full of predictable cloud.

Despite these differences both these writers drew on similar images to try to convey the impact this event had on them.  Both included their journey to the place as part of the experience, and remarked on how standing on hilltops in the early morning, staring at the sun, made them feel connected to our early ancestors:

Woolf –   ‘I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world – druids on Stonehenge;’

Dillard –‘It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring.’

 

Nasa satellite image of eclipse

NASA satellite image of the start of the eclipse

 

Both writers equated the sudden darkness with death :

Woolf- ‘We had fallen.  It was extinct.  There was no colour.  The earth was dead.

Dillard – ‘There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down.’

There was a shared sense of disquiet:

Woolf – ‘We had been much worse than we had expected.  We had seen the world dead.

Dillard – ‘We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there.’

Take the sun away from our planet and you take away the life of most of earth’s creatures.  This is stating the obvious but it takes events like total eclipses, volcanic eruptions and long, sunless summers to remind us of our dependence on this burning star – something that our ancestors were all too aware of.  Electricity and modern technologies serve to dim our sense of this vital relationship, while at the same time they bring us more knowledge about the sun and the galaxies we are just one tiny part of.  We now know that our ancient fears, brought so vividly to the surface during total eclipses, will eventually be realised.  The sun is dying and we are moving away from it.

Sun & Moon Plaque

The actual death of the sun is too far in the future for our minds to encompass, thankfully.  But I, for one, struggle to comprehend that this beautiful planet is as finite as each of our individual lives.

One theme of Dillard’s essay is the inability of everyday language to capture the immensity of experiences such as total eclipses, or, indeed, of our life on this earth:

All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work.

She echoes what eclipse watchers were saying on the radio – that they could not describe how they felt. That is why she set to work to give a full account of her experience and what she had observed of human behaviour, as well as the motion of these masses of gases and matter that make up our world.  We need writers such as Dillard and Woolf, and other artists, to give us words for our fears and our awe.

Sometimes though, when the clouds part briefly to reveal the sun in all its summer glory, and I rush out to worship it, and top up my levels of vitamin D, what goes through my mind is a much simpler account of how the sun nurtures our well- being.  It is a song, written by a fellow Northerner, and the music (absent here, but oh so much part of the message) summons up for me the warmth of sunshine on my skin:

Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

George Harrison, Abbey Rd, 1969.

Sun & Moon Plaque

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Noticing 2: walking with other species

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the dogs listen to the forest

In  my last post I was thinking about our observation of the world about us, and the other beings in it.  Here I want to consider how this noticing is shaped by the bodies we inhabit.

In the photo above, taken in a Scottish winter, the dogs are ahead of me on the forest path.  They are listening intently, their ears held erect and swivelling to hone in on interesting sounds in the thick of the trees.  While I am noticing the way the winter sun lights up the snowy path, and thickens the darkness of the surrounding forest, they are noticing the presence of other creatures within its dense growth.  As usual on our walks together, they are engaging with this place differently from me, using senses that are common to all us mammals, but differently attuned  Watching them respond to the world makes me aware of my own human-ness.

Wittgenstein said: ‘if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’  Other species that dwell on this planet have their own cultures, interests and ways of communicating.  But he also said: ‘If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.’    This is an example of a context in which we can understand the feelings of others, through their actions.  For this philosopher the context drives the communication. Regarding other species, we know the causes of many of our dogs actions because they are part of our daily lives. We share a long history together.

hare_hound getty.edu

medieval illumination http://www.getty.edu

As countless books demonstrate, we know a lot about this particular species, and they know a lot about us humans.  Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a Dog’, for example, explores how dogs perceive their worlds and our relationships with them.  From childhood, we build up our consciousness of self and other through our interactions.  These interactions are not only with other humans, but also with other species and the plants and places we spend time with.

I am in a wood with the dogs and I have stepped to the side of the path and crouched down to look closely at some pale fungi sprouting from a fallen log.  The lurcher runs back to look for me.  I watch silently as she runs right past me, even though I am in plain sight.  I notice that she is looking upwards to a height which I realise is roughly where my eyes are when standing.  This unusual direction of her gaze makes visible my upright, two-legged position; how I carry my main sense and communication organs perched on the top of my body.   In contrast dogs mainly keep theirs close to the earth that their four limbs are firmly planted on.

garden and Shell Island August 2016 004

Their noticing is led by their noses, jampacked with sensory cells.  What makes a walk an aesthetic experience for me is most often what I see – the sunlight dancing on the water, the blue mountains melting into the far horizon.  The sharp tang of seaweed and salt water, or the coconut perfume of the gorse flowers may add to my pleasure.  For the dogs though, beauty is to be found in a heady mix of fragrances.  Potentially edible ones are exciting, maybe leading to a sun-cured rabbit carcass or the remains of a picnic.  Places frequented by other dogs are also of great interest to them, and they study the messages splashed onto gate posts and rocks with the same absorption as my contemplation of a graceful tree, or bank of bluebells.

As we walked along the river one day I glanced up the wooded slope to the right of the path.  Half way up, amongst the young saplings, my eyes slowly focussed on a motionless deer, almost blending into the dappled shade.  I then made out two more nearby, as immobile as statues.  The dogs were just in front of me, noses to the ground, unaware.  They discovered the scent trail of the deer some minutes later, by which time the deer had disappeared. 

Similarly, in another wood an old fox and I stared at each other for what seemed like a goodly amount of time, plenty enough for me to admire his red pelt and bushy tail.  I don’t know what he was thinking about me.  This silent interaction was abruptly terminated by the dogs rushing back down the path, ears and tails up, their noses now full of his particularly pungent perfume.  The fox made a quick exit through the undergrowth.  Dogs need movement to trigger their visual attention, whether they are looking for their human friend, or for the opportunity for the kind of chase that lies deep within their bones.

We humans also have in our minds imagination and language, through which we can enter into other consciousness, to amplify our perception of this world We use these for creative purposes as I said in the last post.  We are also slowly discovering that other species too have complex communication systems and creativity.  Sharing our time with other species can remind us that we are embodied beings too.

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Noticing 1

Arctic_Tern_141 IBC

from the International Bird Collection

This post is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘After a Rain’ (Selected Poems, Wave Books, 2010), in which she explores being ‘a noticing kind of person‘.

Like the arctic tern in the photo above, many of Ruefle’s examples of noticing are grounded in observation.  Here is one of them:

………, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like
there is no tomorrow while the very aged
will give you a weightless grip for the same reason,

And here is a recent observation of mine, not so beautifully condensed as Ruefle’s.

I noticed that the heron on the other side of the canal did not flap away in the usual indignation as I passed by with the dogs.

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Grey heron by Andy Holt for RSPB.

On my return I checked and saw it in the same intent position. Moving on, a sharp splash made me look again, to see the heron backing away from the water’s edge, a flash of silver in its beak, and then its thin neck bulging as it swallowed.  I have passed countless solitary herons staring into the water, but this is the first time I’ve seen one get its reward.

In this kind of noticing we rely on our senses – sight, of course in my case, but also hearing, and touch in Ruefle’s consideration of  the grip of a hand.  Perhaps you can think of when smell or taste have been part of something you’ve noticed?

Ruefle also makes use of another type of noticing in her poem.  Here is an example:

……… and I noticed the road followed roughly
the route of a zipper around a closed case,

Here, you may say she is drawing on sight, but this is imaginary vision, a noticing that draws on her language knowledge to make new connections between things.  She also mixes the two kinds of noticing together – as in the first example ‘I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow‘.  This kind of noticing is a primary staple of poems, of course, and is also part of the work of visual artists, using the power of image rather than words.  Louise Bourgeois’ work immediately sprang into my mind as I was thinking about this kind of noticing:

BOURgeois NY Times

One of Bourgeois’ spider works from the New York Times.

This kind of noticing is a creative process of course, and so here I am, thinking about creativity again, which wasn’t my initial intention in this post!  As such it needs a great deal more practice than those based on observation only, at least to make connections that open up the eyes and minds of the rest of us.  Here is another sculpture example, this time from Kiki Smith:

Rapture by Kiki Smith

 

My journals are jampacked with small incidents I have noticed.  They are there for me to remember and rejoice over, but these quickly written notebooks are not the place for this second kind of noticing, such as the kind of connections Mary Ruefle shares with us in her poems.  This kind of noticing makes me go ‘oh yes!’ as the image she has summoned up in words enters my mind, and I begin to savour the rich meanings invoked.

Honing our senses to notice what is going on around us is though, something we can all make more space for in our daily lives, and prepares the ground for the second kind.

Facing my fears for 2017 with the help of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’.

I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.

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Goya’s ‘The Dog’, from the Prado Museum website

All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.

It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016.  Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them.  Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter,  makes an emotional impact on me.  In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of.  This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.

I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting.  Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter.  He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it.  Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward.  No wonder John Berger pointed out

Seeing comes before words

in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).

I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety.  He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.

goyas-dog-croppedBerger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate.  That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’.  What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable.  A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away.  There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.

But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course.  The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state.  For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus

Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.

goyas-dog-cropped

 Jones sees defiance where I see fear.  What do you see?

What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into.  We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then.  He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about.  He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:

we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge.  I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us.  Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.

The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach.  This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s.  But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life.  I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.

goyas-dog-croppedThere does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them.  Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet.  He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago.  Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness.  It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting.  Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent.  What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together.  Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise.  Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.

from http://www.hiraeth.wales/2011/11/07/wales-greenham-common-and-occupy/

Women working together at Greenham Common

our musical selves

georges-braque-www-guggenheim-org

Georges Braque ‘Guitar, Glass and Fruit Dish on Sideboard from http://www.guggenheim.org

I have been thinking for some time of writing about music as part of our set of ‘selves’, long before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature!  Since music is an everyday part of most people’s lives, and universal to all cultures in our diverse human world, it should have its own space on this blog.

Music is certainly the basis for more than one of my everyday identities.  For over ten years I’ve been a member of a variety of local choirs, formal and informal. (I am currently part of a small ‘chamber’ choir).  With these different groups I have sung a wide range of music from traditional African songs to large, choral works by Berlioz, Handel, Karl Jenkins, and Brahms.

193222batala-croppedA year ago I also joined a samba/reggae drum band and entered into a new world of rhythms and movement.  According to Ian Cross, a musicologist, the Igbo word, nqwa, which we translate as ‘music’, encompasses singing, playing instruments and dancing.  The sum of these is what ‘music’ means to these people in Nigeria.  Singing is a tiny part of the music we make in the band, but choreographed movement is as important as the drumming, unlike the choir, where embodied action is much more static, and concerned with the lungs, throat and mouth rather than the whole body.  Being part of this band, and performing outside of buildings, in our public spaces, feels like this wider kind of music making, which is not surprising as our rhythms originate from the mixed cultural spaces of North Brazil.

After lengthy periods of ‘apprenticeship’, I can now say I belong to both of these groups.  They draw on quite separate parts of the local community, and my ‘drumming’ self feels distant from my ‘choir’ self – two groups of people making different kinds of music that draw on distinct cultural traditions and networks.

LIPS Choir

Lips Choir, London, (not one of the choirs I have been a member of), photo taken by Michael Eden, on Timeout blog 2014

There is little spatial or social overlap between the two, yet, I move comfortably between them, unifying them within my particular body and mind, and adding them to my other ‘selves’ that I have chosen, or inherited.

For most of my life though, I didn’t actively make music – I was not able to think of myself as having anything ‘musical’ to contribute.  Possibly, I was too busy taking risks in other ways.  But music has always been a part of my everyday life, intertwined with all my experiences, through listening, and through dancing.  Certain concerts I’ve been to are like memory markers in my mind – such as those by Leonard Cohen and Salif Keita in Barcelona, and Ella Fitzgerald in Manchester – mental places I can go back to, and catch the ghosts of fleeting happiness.

Music, however you define it, is, of course, so important in our lives because of its intimacy with our emotions.  It expresses them, and produces them in the listeners, in complex ways. Ludwig Wittegenstein, who could be said to be an epitome of ‘the intellectual’, spending his life wrestling with theory, was also passionate about music (although he limited this passion to a handful of German composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms).  His involvement in this music was as just as intense as his engagement with trying to change the way we see things, such as the language we use.  He became a ‘virtuoso’ whistler, and could whistle whole movements of symphonies.  Listening to, and performing music in this way helped him through his periods of black despair and depression.

Apparently, some evolutionary theorists argue that music is just a ‘by-product’ of other human survival competencies, because it does not ‘produce’ anything essential to survival. They say its disappearance from our worlds would change nothing.  For me, this kind of reasoning results from a detachment from the theorists’ own bodies and emotions, and from the everyday world that surrounds them.  It ignores the ways music can rescue us from emotional darkness, as it did with Wittgenstein,  as well as the ways it is threaded through our celebrations on being alive, of longing and belonging.

vermeer-the-concert

Jan Vermeer ‘The music lesson’ from commons.wikimedia.org

Reading

‘Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution’.  Ian Cross, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, 930.

‘The Imaginary African: Music, identity and Race’.  Nicholas Cook, Samuel Colerigde-Taylor Newsletter, 2015, 38.

‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius.’  Ray Monk, 1990, Vintage.

Green Man: past and present

This is the Green Man that oversees my garden, courtesy of a local artist.

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I knew he had to be there as soon as I laid eyes on him, but I didn’t know much about his origins, apart from a vague association with pre-Christian beliefs.

UprootedSo I was happy to read Nina Lyon’s recently published book ‘UpRooted’.  This is a book about what little is known about this enigmatic figure, and its current revival.  It’s also about being English and Welsh in these first decades of this century and at times Lyon’s wry descriptions of some of our contemporary rites and rituals (and her own attempts to construct these) made me laugh out loud.  She weaves into these discussions of past and present philosophies about the relationships between Nature and spirituality.

This book is about place, as well as people and their ideas, especially the woods and valleys of the border lands between England and Wales, where the Green Man once had a significant presence.

She takes us to places where images of the Green Man were incorporated into the early medieval buildings of the newer Christian religion, in order, perhaps, to curtail the power of these earlier deities.

Her main focus is on the old kingdom of Archenfield, once a centre for Celtic beliefs, located in what we now call Herefordshire.  She takes us to Garway church, where there is a carving of a horned Green Man.  The church was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the site of an earlier wooden one, .

Garway_Church_-_Green_Man

By Kxjan – Photographed from ancient stone carving., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37015203

This early Green Man is on an arch dated to around 1200 and why he is there is not known, but the warring activities of the Templars connect this rural building and place with countries and beliefs far away to the East.  Lyon gives us a detailed description of this image in her book but I wanted to see him for myself, at least digitally for now.   That is the main reason I am writing this post – not to attempt to summarise Lyon’s book (I’d rather you read it for yourself), but to look at these Green men she discusses and reflect on some of what she says about them.

She also takes us to the nearby Kilpeck church, built by local masons in the twelfth century.  These masons are thought to have been overseen by someone who trained, or worked in South West France, so we can see how two small, institutional buildings were part of global networks and set me thinking of William Golding’s richly imaginative account of this earlier time of building in ‘The Spire’.  Like globalising movements today, Kilpeck shows us the local in the global with its rich carvings from pre-Christian life and worship.  There are at least two Green Men, among a wonderful array of Celtic images.  Here is the one you see on the doorway, before going in:

Kilpeck_Green_Man

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=434197

These two powerful images in Garway and Kilpeck are given a more abstracted, distancing human form, in strikingmy garden 2010 comparison to the contemporary Green Man who guards the fertility of my small garden, and oversees my desire to encourage wildness within it, with as light a management as my neighbours will tolerate.

However, the Green Man that was originally on the roof of Dore Abbey, built in the same century as those above, is more recognisably human and approachable :

This is what Nina Lyons says about this Green Man:

He had the demeanour of a laughing Buddha, or an anthropomorphised Sun. This was the Green Man of pub signs and summer-worship.

He is a Green Man made by the Cistercians, formed from within their beliefs of working with the land, and with animals, his smile and colour symbolising the beneficence of Nature, with blue skies and rich harvests.  He reminds me of the version of the old Roman god, Bacchus, who officiated over the drinking of wine and free for all sex, the powers of fertility and creation.  The two Green Men of Garway and Kilpeck, in contrast, index the havoc-wreaking power of Nature we have no control over – the roaring winds, the floods and droughts, the tree roots cracking through concrete and the joyous mass of plants that take back places we have abandoned.

I would like to know what the people who made these images called them, what the people who went into these buildings during that time thought and said about them in their Welsh or medieval English tongues.  They certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘the Green Man’.  As Lyon said, this is a very recent name, invented by Julia Hamilton, writing about folklore in 1939.  Lyon argues that much of the writing about figures such as the Green Man, like Hamilton’s, and those of the Late Victorian, have created new myths, based on speculation, because all we have is a diverse set of images like the ones I have included here, and a rag-bag of remnants of old tales and rites.

Still, as Lyon says, the Green Man himself, representing our relationship with the very force or soul of Nature, has always been with us, ‘It had been there all along, hidden at the edges, doing its own thing, like a wild man of the woods.

These days he is coming out of the edges and into our garden centres and our festivals in new forms, as this photo from the Pilton Green Man day shows.   I think the Green Man, in his multiple guises, is as important for us today as he was to our ancestors, local and global.

Here is a friend’s Green Man,  who watches over her garden – a very ‘foliate’ man, but also less alien than the early medieval representations. green man Mary

 

Green Man 2013 by Mary

‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house

 

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Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.  I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside.  I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon.  Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits

The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007).  This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.

In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words.  Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices.  The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism.  But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.

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The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside.  So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later.  However, the artist directs your experience of  the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.

Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011.  She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.

Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’

I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking.  They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.

Words are things

This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008.  I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words.  Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.

In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘.  This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House.  I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.

56_MaryKelly_Mea Culpa_Detail_Johannesburg_2

Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from marykellyartist.com

Reference

Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012, http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk