Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.

patterns gallery

Here's the start of a new photo gallery, called patterns, collecting abstract images of organic and inorganic, natural and industrial structures.

The image that best illustrates the idea is this one, 'Beijing Tree' (2013), where organic and inorganic overlap...

Beijing Tree

Explore the full patterns gallery.

planned landscapes

Exploring "the effect our culture has on landscape," Ger Dekkers' photo book 'Planned Landscapes: 25 Horizons' (1977) shows the Dutch polder landscape at its starkest, abstract extreme.

If, as the saying goes, God created the world but the Dutch created Holland, then these photos reveal the Dutch as obsessive-compulsive planners, designing and executing their environment with a ruler, dividing manmade land and domesticated water, laying out straight asphalt roads and planting functional windbreaking lines of trees.

Ger Dekkers - Planned Landscapes - single image

The book consists of 25 landscapes, each consisting of a series of seven square images performing a formal operation on what are already rigidly formal compositions. Cinematographically speaking, Dekkers uses tracking shots - usually parallel, sometimes perpendicular - and occasional panning shots to create slightly different perspectives of the same landscape. His mathematically executed operations further heighten the landscapes' artificiality, resulting in minimalistic, graphical compositions that remind of Mondrian's paintings except for the pale palette of greens, browns and blues.

In many instances the landscapes become purely abstract compositions of lines and planes, with the horizon as a constant, always in the same place in the middle of the square. As Dekkers explains:

The horizon acts as a middle line in the square pictures; this gives a continuous line that runs throughout the series, and thus the whole project.

The continuous horizon line is repeated in horizontal lines of tree shadows, and juxtaposed by vertical lines of trees and canals, occasional diagonal lines of dikes, and sometimes, very playfully, the curve of a road. Even the frivolous patterns of clouds, which in 17th century Dutch painting often dominated low-horizoned landscapes to emphasize nature's majesty, are here subjugated to the middle line of the planned horizon.

Ultimately, as Dekkers' approach shows, and as other modern Dutch artists have also realized, only by taking its plannedness to its graphic extreme is the Dutch landscape's beauty revealed.

Here is one complete series, titled 'Wood near Biddinghuizen 2' (provisionally cobbled together from a battered copy, just to show the idea).

Ger Dekkers - Planned Landscapes - Wood near Biddinghuizen 2

The book, from 1977, dates from the era when planning was at its modernist height, with Le Corbusian thinking looming large over both city and landscape planning. To create these kinds of images today would still be possible in some parts of the Netherlands (Flevoland, Friesland, Zeeland perhaps), but it would probably be much harder to find such pristinely empty horizons. The new era of neoliberal planning would be unavoidably visible somewhere on the horizon in an industry zone of distribution center boxes or a newly erected suburb that advertises authentic living in the country.

In our information age it would also be difficult to find any landscapes unadorned by signs - road signs, warning signs, property signs, billboards, recreational signs for boating, bicycling, walking with or without dogs, and explanatory signs at each of the tiny patches of newly introduced wilderness picturing which species have been designated to thrive there.

In a strange way, Dekkers' planned landscapes are a thing of the past, replaced by micro-managed landscapes whose horizon is constantly broken by clutter and nudging - abstraction replaced by distraction.

reality poem

Dis is di age af reality
But some a wi a deal wid mitalagy
Dis is di age af science an' teknalagy
But some a wi check fi antiquity

W'en wi can't face reality
Wi leggo wi clarity
Some latch aan to vanity
Some hol' insanity
Some get vision
Start preach relijan
But dem can't mek decishan
W'en it come to we fite
Dem can't mek decishan
W'en it comes to wi rites

Dis is di age af reality
But some a wi deal wid mitalagy
Dis is di age af science an' teknalagy
But some a wi check fi antiquity

Dem one deh gaan outta line
Dem naw live in fi wi time
Far dem she dem get sign
An' dem bline dem eye
To di lite a di worl'
An' gaan search widin
Di dark a dem doom
An' a shout 'bout sin
Instead a fite fi win

Dis is di age af reality
But some a wi deal wid mitalagy
Dis is di age af science an' teknalagy
But some a wi check fi antiquity

Dis is di age af decishan
Soh mek wi leggo relijan
Dis is di age af decishan
Soh mek we leggo divishan
Dis is di age af reality
Soh mek we leggo mitalagy
Dis is di age of science an' teknalagy
Soh mek wi hol' di clarity
Mek wi hol' di clarity
Mek wi hol' di clarity

- Linton Kwesi Johnson

Here is the song: 'Reality Poem', from his 1979 album 'Forces of Victory'. This particular song doesn't just showcase LKJ's legendary dub poetry, it also balances his words with an equally lightfooted, extended guitar jam in the second half of the song that says just as much about reality...

For some more explicitly political tracks, try 'Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)', 'Fite Them Back', or the evergreen 'Inglan Is a Bitch' (which is also great as spoken word).

the cave

Each day is a glass room that we must smash in order to break through into a landscape, and be involved. To be involved is to be alive.

Well-known for his prose, poetry, illustrations and visual art, Mervyn Peake's plays have somehow largely escaped attention: of the ten plays he wrote only one was staged during his lifetime.

'The Cave' (1950s) had its world premiere in 2010. Described by biographer G. Peter Winnington as Peake's "most philosophical work", the play was reviewed in The Times as having:

...streaks of the angry postwar nihilism of Anouilh and Sartre: the hopeful theme of rejecting fear and social coercion leads only to amoral fragmentation in the last act. But it is extraordinary: a howl, an imperfect and painful philosophical struggle, part of a remarkable artist's testament.

The play is set entirely inside a cave and covers thousands of years of human history. Its three acts take place in, respectively, the Stone Age, the Middle Ages and the mid-20th century. In these three situations, the same family is confronted with a stranger, a girl whose free spirit is felt to be threatening. They fear her because she knows no fear. Only the family's eldest son, an artist, recognizes in her a kindred spirit.

'The Cave' is subtitled 'Anima Mundi', the eternal world soul that connects all life on earth - an idea formulated by Plato, though known in other cultures as well. With this concept Peake expresses the central mystery in the play, a mystical spirit that endures independently of religion and in spite of mankind which seems driven only by fear and conformism.

The family's hostile and superstitious response turns out to be a constant throughout history - from the prehistoric nature worship and the medieval Christian witch hunts to the post-religious 1950s. For Peake the modern age is by no means free from irrational, dogmatic ideas either. Fear of the atom bomb, which threatened to bring destruction on an even larger scale so soon after WWII, looms large over the third act. (While these days the nuclear doomsday scenarios might seem outdated, there are curious parallels with the dominant fears of our own age, of terrorism and surveillance.)

Peake's aim with 'The Cave', in his own words, was "to show how man has always needed the supernatural in the form of one kind of God or another". The play grimly shows how man needs God primarily to exorcize his own fears, and how in absence of religion he will seek replacements in politics and alcohol (as subtly implied by the liquor cabinet in the third act, on the spot where before stood an altar and an ecclesiastical gargoyle).

However, unlike the postwar existentialists - who couldn't imagine any kind of religious faith after the Holocaust - Peake did not reject the metaphysical completely. Instead, he made it into an imperative: modern man's challenge is to use his creative powers to animate the world himself.

Mary, the girl who embodies the world soul in 'The Cave', pleads:

You must know in your heart that it is not the creed (...) that matters but man with his nerves and sinews, his dreams and his courage and his restless spirit. Man the Miracle.

In 1945, soon after the liberation, Peake visited the concentration camp Belsen as a war artist of the British army - an experience that would haunt him for the rest of his life, and that would make the responsibility of the artist and the efficacy of art into important themes in his work. 'The Cave' brings together the two themes of religion and art, involvement and animation/creation in a hostile world.

For despite its destructive ending, 'The Cave' also shows that direct experience of the world soul is possible, albeit only for some. It is the 'Anima Mundi' as 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans', the mystery that evokes both fear and fascination, and that is reflected in the wild, surreal visions that Peake paints in his dialogues.

The metaphor of the glass room he had used before in a poem, 'Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room' (c. 1946). Even more explicitly than in 'The Cave' it made inspired living into a daily challenge for man, even if the glass room of his soul is so "blind with usage" that he can no longer see the miracle of man, and of the enduring world soul.

A decade later, in 'The Cave', Peake's outlook was decidedly more somber, but this essentially optimistic idea still survives.

The text of 'The Cave' is so far unpublished, though an edition of Peake's plays has been announced.

all the world's memory

Because he has a short memory man accumulates countless aide-mémoires. Confronted with these bulging repositories, man is assailed by a fear of being engulfed by this mass of words. To assure his liberty, he builds fortresses.

Alain Resnais' short documentary 'Toute la mémoire du monde' ('All the World's Memory', 1956) explores memory, the theme he would further pursue in films like 'Hiroshima mon amour' and 'L'Année dernière à Marienbad', in its most physical form: the library.

An homage to the National Library of France, which aims to collect everything printed in the world - the francophone world, that is - the film is also an essay on the record-keeping obsession of man, that "paper-crunching pseudo-insect".

But from a 21st century perspective, what is most impressive, and curiously nostalgic, is the sheer physicality of all this knowledge. The film shows the height of analog information culture, with over 100 km of shelf space, millions of index cards and a vast pneumatic messaging system.

From our perspective, too, man's "fear of being engulfed by this mass of words" is almost presciently ironic...

Criterion has the complete film online.