Robert Holcombe: Folklore, Ritual and the Modern Interior (1955 – 1975)

13 Feb
Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Exhibition opens at Xero, Kline & Coma, 258 Hackney Road, London E2 from 7 – 9pm on Thursday February 13th, then runs for four weeks, from 15 Feb to 9 March (gallery opening times are Sat/Sun 12 – 6pm). 

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [RH: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi (1984)]

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [RH: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art between 1948 and 1951 and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in the city of Leeds. His early, if oblique, involvement with the Independent Group continued into the 1980s, and he maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared.

Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was generally usual at the time. The consumerist excesses of the Immersions series (1970 – 71), the inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors elsewhere, alongside the many disturbances of ordinary spaces that colour the whole body of work, all suggest an artist with a satirical as well as unsettling and surreal take on the emerging society and politics of his age.

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Keren Goldberg’s comments on this exhibition in Art Review can be found here.

Robert Holcombe Exhibition Guide (Syson, 2013)

22 Dec

The Family Bible & Other Fables: Works from the Robert Holcombe Collection (1948 – 1978) is a fictional retrospective exhibition, offering a selection of around 70 works from the three decades of collage held by the Robert Holcombe archive. It’s on display at Syson Gallery and Antenna until January 31, 2014 (the gallery reopens on January 8th after the Christmas break).

The Modernists - Diplodocus (1967)

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1984]

“The question of identity is fascinating. I evade myself. I use only found materials on which I leave no obvious mark and I reconfigure them under an identity that is not mine. But each work generates a fingerprint, anonymous to the casual glance, yet so revealing to one prepared to enter that very particular labyrinth that no escape from identification seems possible without gloves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1973]

1964 programme

ROOM ONE (Timeline, 1948 – 1978):

Unidentified Artist: French etching showing a murderous priest in a storm, 1825.

The origins of this image, or its path into Holcombe’s family, are not known, but Holcombe’s sister, Elizabeth Booth, notes that it was hung in his childhood bedroom, and he took it with him when he left home to study at the Slade in 1948. Clearly, something in this mysterious and violent scene – a portrait of a priest murdering a woman with an axe in an Gothic landscape racked by lightning – resonated with Holcombe, and its influence, both in specifics (the cut tree in its disjointedly theatrical space) and broader terms (its generally unsettling atmosphere and ambiguous message) can be seen in much of Holcombe’s own work. Booth acquired the picture on Holcombe’s death, and notes that by 2003 he would have had it close for pretty much the entirety of his eighty years.

Ozymandias (1948)

This small collage is one of only a handful of works to have survived from Holcombe’s early years. This image, derived from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of 1818, was made and framed the summer before he left Leeds to begin his studies at the Slade.

Corset (1951)
Revolt (1951)

An unrelated pair of early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued. Letters of the time suggest that, by 1951, he had developed a particular interest in the possibilities of colour screen-printing and was concerned with questions of printing as an element in graphic and interior design. It has been suggested that he was already moving away from fine art as a focal point of his interests by his second year at college, which – if true – would be consistent with his decision to pursue a very different career path to his contemporaries after 1955.

Gothic Conversation: A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel (1952)

A small work, explicitly indebted to Max Ernst and the conventions of Surrealist collage (see also: Corset and The Reading Room of 1951: a sly nod to Ernst’s Loplop also appears in The Kiss, made during  1957). A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel  is significant in bringing together the biological, religious and pop-cultural (here, specifically cinematic) elements that would define much of the work that followed. The atmosphere here is also notably similar to that seen in the anonymous 1825 print he had brought with him to London.

Gothic Conversation: Telekinesis I & II (c.1952 – 56?)

It is difficult to date this unsigned work in two parts with any certainty, but stylistically it closely resembles the work he was beginning to make in the mid-1950s, just prior to and following his return to Leeds in 1955. Many works like this were produced, initially as part of a series of Gothic Conversations, and this group appears to merge, around 1965, with the often similarly-toned and themed Folklore Series.

Marine (1955)

Marine (1955)

“I have no recollection at all of what was on my mind at the moment of creating this, nor any memory of the location of the landscape towards which this strange but real sea creature, whose identity I have also forgotten, directs its gaze. It feels as though I dreamed the whole conjunction and woke one morning, surprised to find it among my papers…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1962]

Marine is one of many images made between 1953 and 1966 based on plates from Stoddard’s Portfolio, a popular collection of photographs showing the sights of the world published by The Werner Company of Chicago and London in 1893. Because the publication ran through many mass market editions over the years, by the 1950s it appears to have been a cheap and versatile source of backgrounds for Holcombe’s early collages. With only a few exceptions, he is drawn to generic and anonymous imagery rather than the more distinctive kinds of photography that were available to him had he wished to use it.

The Kiss (1957)

An unsettling image made from an equally unsettling illustration in John Bull magazine, The Kiss is notable for its anticipation of what would later become the Ghost Pornography series around 1978, in the use of fabrics as a spatially disorientating device, and for its sly nod to Loplop, the bird-like Max Ernst alter-ego who appears in many of Ernst’s collages and paintings from the 1920s onwards. Holcombe signs the work ‘GH’, Gene Harrison, and his own use of a dual pseudonym (the other is ‘MH’, or Michael Harrison) suggests a self referential joke about such avatars may be at least part of the meaning of The Kiss. This may also be reading too much into what is, after all, mostly a genuinely disturbing image of dysfunctional romance.

Untitled (1957)

This untitled image is notable mainly as a very early precursor of a technique that would later be pursued in a more systematic way, in this case the Biological Camouflage series of 1973 – 78. It is also rather unusual in Holcombe’s work for utilising an unsigned watercolour (said by Elizabeth Booth to be a small mountain landscape by a Swiss amateur painter and mountaineer, Mattheus Theobald) rather than a generic tourist brochure photograph, as the base for its visual manipulation. The painting itself was purchased from a street market during a holiday in Swabia during 1956 so is likely to have been bought with the purpose seen here in mind.

Gothic Conversation III (The House in the Forest)

The Radiation Chamber (1958)
The House in the Forest (1964)
1964 Programme (1964)

In The House in the Forest, a fractured moon hangs among the dark trees of a wood in which a famous Workers’ Centre built in Moscow during the 1920s plays the part of the traditional folk-tale cottage. Whether Holcombe intends the juxtaposition of folktale and revolutionary architecture to be read as hopeful or satirical is difficult to tell. He is certainly known to have been conscious of the interesting work being made behind the Iron Curtain (he is thought to have met Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow in Paris during 1963, and dedicated the Krakow suite of 26 collages to her in 1964) and, for similar reasons, to have been acutely aware of the problems faced by the residents of these only nominally socialist states.

The Modernists (A Haunting) [1965]

The Modernists: A Haunting (1965)

The Modernists series is a loosely themed group of works created by Holcombe between 1965 (when the prefix is first used in a title) and around 1976, when the last works appear to have been made. Unlike more consistent series, like the Krakow portfolio, or the later Biological Camouflage and Ghost Pornography cycles, The Modernists images are linked only by their interest in the thematic subject matter and imagery of modernity itself, drawing heavily on design, fashion, architecture, film and other related material. The variousness of The Modernists also allowed many one-off devices and experiments to be included: A Haunting appears to sow the seed and anticipate a technique that would be much more systematically deployed in Ghost Pornography fifteen years after it was first made.

The Modernists: Idyll (1966)
The Modernists: A Lawn (1966)
The Modernists: Jack London’s Study (1966)

Holcombe’s levels of activity appear to have fluctuated over the years, though before 1981, when he abandoned collage altogether, there are no lengthy breaks in his pattern of working. The beginning of The Modernists cycle in 1965 does appear to have had a liberating effect on him, however, and his productivity between 1966 and 1968 is large and sustained, though unlike other sequences, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. A somewhat darker outcome of this visit was the explicitly anti-fascist portfolio of monochrome images known as Images Portugaises: Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional (1961) in which the blandly appealing propaganda scenes circulated internationally by Salazar’s government were overlaid with illustrations from manuals of surgery, skin disease and machinery.

Folklore Series: The Passageway (1966)
Folklore Series: Canada (1966)
Folklore Series: The London Transmission (1966)

Concurrent with The Modernists beginnings in 1965, Holcombe had also begun making work under the general title Folklore Series, a vehicle for dark, fairy-tale like and explicitly surrealist images of enigmatic scenes and presences. Where The Modernists series develops a kind of ambiguously Pop-inflected aesthetic clearly influenced by the burgeoning young consumer culture of the mid to late 1960s, Folklore Series tends to maintain a pre-war set of concerns, notably with the uncanny and ritualistic, and its images feel more like a subtle linear evolution of the concerns seen in Holcombe’s 1950s works than a new direction. In works like The Passageway, the emphasis is very much on disturbance.

The Modernists: Diplodocus (1967)
The Modernists: A Family Luncheon (1967)
The Modernists: Afternoon (1967)
The Modernists: The Lady of Shallot (1969)
The Modernists: Primavera (1970)

The Modernists series continued to dominate Holcombe’s output during the next few years, and some of these are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the archive. Diplodocus (1967) has become something of an emblematic Holcombe image, its constructed space inhabited by a dinosaur skeleton seemingly revealed to us by an archetypal sixties girl whose outfit matches the curtain she draws back. Intended meanings and symbolism are mostly fluid and enigmatic. Holcombe’s decision to construct a series of 78 Tarot images in 1971 was justified with an observation in a letter to Paolozzi of 1972: “The Tarot reader works not by supernatural means but by allusion, as users intuitively read oblique symbols for personally applicable meanings. I believe art operates in exactly the same way, becoming meaningful only by an intuitive process…” Much in Holcombe’s Tarot Series is echoed in The Modernists, where some symbols – often sexual or political – are clear, others left completely open-ended.

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series: Christ of the Termites (1969)

A more enigmatic response to the religious theme, here a photograph of a church interior is occupied by a termite mound, seemingly built in homage to a hovering mathematical shape. The lunar rise in the foreground of the image, strewn with thorns and roses, is an early, and therefore inaccurate, image of the moon’s surface. It’s noteworthy that several other Holcombe works of 1969 (see also: The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City) have lunar themes, probably inevitable at the high watermark of the Space Race, when after ten years of anticipation and competition with the Soviet programme, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission finally placed humans onto the lunar surface in July 1969, and (Holcombe noted later) “marked the end-point rather than a real beginning for all the promises of Space exploration our generation had been raised on”.

Folklore Series: The Innocents I (1972)
Folklore Series: Black Sun II (1973)
Folklore Series: On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975)

Many of Holcombe’s 1970s works, particularly those in the Folklore Series, develop an apocalyptic tone, often reminiscent of the scenarios found in the dystopian Science Fiction cinema of the same period. In Black Sun II (1973), Home (1975) and On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975), post-war domestic residences seem oblivious to darkening skies and hovering tumours, while The Innocents I (1972) shows a child, isolated in some bleak alien landscape. Elizabeth Booth has suggested that this image may be an oblique reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella The Little Prince, first published in English in 1943, and probably read by Holcombe during his convalescence in Malaya in 1944.

The Modernists: The Wedding at Cana (1974)

A similar technique is used here to that seen in The Family Bible series, but both the source images (here, rather kitsch mid-1950s photographic tableaux of scenes from the life of Jesus instead of the more delicately coloured engravings of The Family Bible) and Holcombe’s treatments are less reverent and, at times, border on the kind of comedy later seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). The Wedding at Cana presents the disciples as attending a bachelor party where the light of Jesus is the glowing shirt of a 1950s washing powder advert. Holcombe, in adding deliberately provocative and inappropriate items to the scene, seems to be partly venting against the puritanical Methodism of his boyhood, but also asking how, in an age when every festival and ritual in the Christian calendar has become an opportunity for consumerism, anyone could seriously object to a collage that simply shows what these events now look like in the homes of those most likely to be offended.

Ghost Pornography: Gilt (1978)

This is the earliest image in the final (known) cycle of Holcombe’s active period, Ghost Pornography, which (a couple of precedents like 1965′s The Modernists: A Haunting aside) he began in 1978 and finally abandoned, so far as we can tell, around 1981, along with his thirty year collage-making activity in its entirety. The reason for his abandonment of this life-long habit of collage-making isn’t known, though Booth believes a combination of depression after 1979, partly based in the wider political situation, increased workload in his final decade before retirement in Leeds, and also, more hopefully, a simple feeling of completion, may all have been factors. Booth also notes that he did continue to make collages on a more occasional basis, mostly as gifts for friends and correspondents, but no longer followed his routine of working at his desk in the spare bedroom for an hour or two most evenings after work. It seems that between around 1981 and 1987 he also began to sort the material he’d been making, securing and framing pieces that may otherwise have suffered damage, but put everything into storage on his move to Exeter in 1988. It was this only partially ordered archive that Booth inherited in 2003 and from which these works have been selected.

Performing the Curtain Rituals I – IX (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors. Holcombe’s purpose, according to a letter written to Eduardo Paolozzi in 1966, was “…to pursue a feeling that once these patronised ‘native’ figures were cut from their original desert and jungle contexts and relocated in modern European interiors, they became both incongruous and rather more like ourselves: the peculiarities of our own customs seem to be exposed. A Pere Ubu-like figure inhabits an ordinary living room; a Zulu warrior poses in front of orange curtains beside an English Nurse, and so on. In the latter, the nurse’s ritual costume does not contrast with but echoes the warrior’s: her clipboard is a shield, her breastplate and utterly impractical head-dress make no more or less sense than his spear, shield and loincloth do. That half the world now aspires to these bizarre interiors only heightens this disjunction between tradition and modernity and the tensions and symbiosis that blur them. I am also in love with the colour balance these combinations of printed materials produce when they are all viewed together…”

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Jesus in Martha's House] (1967) (800x682)

ROOM TWO (The Family Bible):

The Family Bible (1967) [shown as projections]

These works exist only as loose portfolio pages, and are made on the actual plates of a Victorian bible. Because of this, they are extremely delicate and being shown here in projected rather than physical form, to aid their conservation. The series itself is one of the most explicit reflections of Holcombe’s Methodist upbringing. Notable scenes from the Old and New Testaments are brought up to date in a variety of dryly ironic ways: Moses raises his arms before a vision of the El-Al airline’s hyper-modernist office signage or descends from the Mount bearing not Ten Commandments but two brightly coloured Cream Sodas. The men wringing Joseph’s Garments in their hands appear to be polishing silver with a branded product. Joseph’s dream, related to his brethren, is the apparition of a beautiful woman stepping from a bathtub, while a dinosaur strolls past The Fall of Man, oblivious to Adam and Eve’s misfortunes. While often satirical in tone, The Family Bible series also contains more mysterious images: in The Entombment an image of Christ’s body being laid to rest is itself entombed under painted concrete, while Jesus in Martha’s House shows the blue gown of a kneeling woman dissolved into a cloud of blue hyacinth petals.

The Modernists - The Modern Interior I (1967)

STAIRS:

The Modern Interior I (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same images, reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making these two pieces. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s photo-silkscreens, insofar as Holcombe painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

Biological Camouflage: Renaissance II (1978)ROOM THREE (Renaissance):

Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance II (1978)

Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance II (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance III (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance IV (1978)

Most of Holcombe’s various Biological Camouflage series add cellular or other microscope images to landscape photographs, seeking “spatial displacements and disruptions of landscape and architecture, a kind of Land Art on paper. Or maybe it was just about noticing how perfectly cellular patterns blend into and unsettle generic scenes (sourced from tourist guides) using a very simple formula…”, as he wrote to Cy Albertine in 1984. The ‘simple formula’ was that each collage would impose only one modification to its background, presented as a kind of opened hatch within the frame (no diagonals or tilts of the added rectangle or square image are permitted) and somehow ‘matched’, camouflage-style, to the space it modifies. In this smaller group, however, the effect is very different. The grounding images are paintings – four Italian Renaissance frescoes and a French Renaissance tapestry and fresco – while the biological elements are both multiple, shaped and manipulated more elaborately within the frames. Even so, the unsettling effect remains comparable to the many photographic Biological Camouflage series to which this variant is a kind of marginalia.

The Modernists: The Birth of English Modernism (1965)

The earliest known work in The Modernists series, this strange image merges an opium den with molecular forms, spun from the vaguely surprised hands of an English labourer. It  presents a kind of imaginary source moment for what now, in hindsight, resembles the most significant cultural shift in Europe since the Renaissance itself.

The Modernists - The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

ANTENNA (Late Works):

The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

Holcombe had first met Richard Hamilton as a fellow student at the Slade in 1948 and this homage is built around various elements associated with Hamilton’s work, all set on the background of a poster showing the members of Roxy Music, a band famously shaped by Hamilton’s influence during his time in Newcastle. Here almost completely obscured by devices like the male body-builder from Hamilton’s iconic 1956 collage What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, relaxing after his exertions of the 1950s, a beaker of unidentified white liquid from a Science Fiction B-Movie and polished Brancusi-like military projectiles, the members of Roxy Music array themselves around a run-down pool hall while Hamilton’s own implied presence is in the position occupied by the viewer, entering the scene like a guest at some spatially and temporally disjointed party.

Immersion I: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion II: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion III: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion IV: The Surgeons (1971)
Study for Immersion (1970)

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

Studies for ‘The Consumer’ (undated, c.1956 – 61)

A row of portraits of a child, each slightly different, are overlaid with consumer products, cut from magazine advertisements of the mid 1950s, and indirectly anticipate the Immersions series of 1970 – 71, though no direct link is made in Holcombe’s correspondence or journals. If the specific work for which these studies were made survives it has not yet been found, and no completed work titled The Consumer is catalogued in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: Resetting the Clock to Another Incorrect Time (1969)
The Modernists: Liberty Leading The People (1968)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated images in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: The Modern Interior II (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same photographic images, as reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making two versions of this piece. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s use of photo-silkscreen, insofar as Holcombe here painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

The Modernists: ‘…And Now I Unleash the Power of Pure Thought…’ (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series, and such related images as ‘And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought’, pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

California: A Study in Yellow (1974)

A fairly simple 1970s update of the device often used by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, by which the subject matter of a figurative painting is de-emphasised in order to highlight more formal and abstract properties. In Holcombe’s version, it is unclear whether he intends the same effect to be experienced, or is more obliquely satirising aspects of formalism in art by producing an image that announces its own superficiality with the word ‘GLOSS’ hovering inside the frame on a somewhat exotic looking paint can. There may be a self-deprecating humour at work in that, by 1974, Holcombe was already making his own formally constrained Biological Camouflage images, which adhere to very strict and near-minimalist compositional rules.

Black Sun (II)

THE READING ROOM (Miscellany):

The Reading Room (1951)

One of a relatively small group of surviving early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued.

Constellation: Coffee Lounge (1955)
Constellation: Shellac I & II (1955)
Constellation: Pump & Shellac III (1955)

Eduardo Paolozzi recalls a number of these small, square images being displayed “scattered across a wall with drawing pins, approximating the pattern of a particular star formation, possibly Orion or The Great Bear, but I can’t exactly remember. Holcombe had an idea that he might photograph and develop the images as negatives and present them in tiny light-boxes inside a darkened room, but nothing ever came of the idea to my knowledge”. The five images framed here are the sole remaining fragments of this unrealised project.

Study for ‘Performing the Curtain Rituals’ (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series in Holcombe’s mid-sixties output, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors.

Comics Series I: The Birth of the Hero (1970)
Comics Series II: Confrontation on the Steps (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series and such related images as The Modernists: And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought (1970), pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City (1969)
The Modernists: Our Price to You, Including Postage & Packaging! (1969)
The Modernists: The Last Supper (1974)
The Modernists: Sof-Set by Max Factor (1966)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the Holcombe archive.

the modernists IX

Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

A Very Unreliable Tour of Primary (Nov 30)

30 Nov

This 30 minute ‘fake tour’ of the Grade II listed Primary building was written quickly, delivered off the cuff, and was intent on little more than being vaguely entertaining and drawing the many artworks around the various parts of the old school to participants’ attention. It is part of Primary is Open 2013, a three day programme of open studios, events, exhibitions and performances that still has one day to run, on Sunday December 1. See the link for details:

http://www.weareprimary.org/2013/11/primary-is-open-programme-2013/

Primary (Exterior View)

Primary (Exterior View)

Welcome to this short tour of the Primary building, in which almost everything you will hear is false. But stay alert, as a very few things might turn out to be true. We’ll begin with the display you can see here in Project Space One of work from all the artists now based at this former school.

Mik Godley (Hanebu in America)

Mik Godley (Hanebu in America)

As you can see, Mik Godley has painted an image from an old photograph, now lost, of one of the mysterious aircraft reputedly captured in Lenton during World War Two, and brought here for study in 1943. We aren’t sure of the exact details, but believe that the school’s science teachers – particularly Mr Jonathan Wright, of whom little is known apart from the fact that everyone who encountered him commented on the green corduroy suit he wore long before such garments became fashionable – worked with the children on dismantling the gyroscopes and other mechanisms found inside the technologically advanced craft, which had been involved in a bombing raid on the old Player’s factory, and forwarding their findings to the MoD. It was disassembled in the playground outside and slowly pieced together again in this very room, where it made – we’re told – for a very stimulating science project that summer.

Basement (Image May Be Incorrect)

Basement (Image May Be Incorrect)

It is worth taking a brief look at the basement. We will not spend long here: all I can tell you is that this cellar may once have been connected to the caves network under the city, and is reputedly the haunt of a red-haired lady in an elaborate dress who is predicted to appear here on the first of December, between the hours of around five and eight pm. Nothing more is known about this so-called ‘red lady’, but I believe a group are gathering here tomorrow to await her appearance and you are all welcome to join them.

Primary Project Space One Display

Primary Project Space One Display

As we return to Project Space One, it is clear that not everything in the hang here is quite as it seems. You may note that statements made by the Primary staff suggest there is at least one work by each of the artists based here, but this is only partly true. At least three artists have mysteriously disappeared since the building opened, and while Andy Lock’s whereabouts are not known, I met Matt Hawthorn in a pub over by Mansfield Road only recently, so can confirm that he has fled to Yorkshire for reasons he won’t discuss: he is not buried in the school grounds as some rumours in circulation have suggested. But the mystery of Frank Kent’s disappearance remains unsolved. Two months ago we were told he had “gone to take up a place at the Royal Academy”, but this news followed a prolonged and increasingly virulent dispute with Mik Godley and Niki Russell over the exact shade of grey that the wall you see here should be painted. As the disputes escalated, it seemed that only once Kent had vanished was the shade you now see chosen. Things like this can be troublesome and dangerous in any group situation, always threatening to erupt in some new round of reprisals and vendettas. Most of us avoid getting involved in the violent arguments that regularly erupt over paints and tools and get on with our work as best we can.

Michael Pinchbeck - The Drawing Board [Photo by Simon Withers]

Michael Pinchbeck – The Drawing Board [Photo by Simon Withers]

We’ll now go to the second Project Space upstairs. On the stairs, note that Mr Michael Pinchbeck’s plea for help, written in chalk the night he vanished, a few days ago, remains visible. We are trying to crack the code he’s using to cry for assistance and still have hopes he might safely return. If you wish to take a few moments to study the text, or notice anything that might assist us in our efforts to find him, please talk to someone. Time may now be short.

Suspiria (aka Project Space Two)

Suspiria (aka Project Space Two)

As we enter Project Space Two, you will observe that it was once a dance school. Now, I don’t know how many of you have seen Dario Argento’s giallo classic, Suspiria, a baroque Italian horror film set in a dance academy isolated deep inside a mysterious forest?  A little known fact is that much of the footage in which the students rehearse their stretches and pirouettes under the stern gaze of the powerful witches who murder anyone who proves too curious or disobedient were filmed in this very room, now stripped down from the sumptuous excesses seen in Argento’s film to this rather plainer set-up but still, I believe, more or less as it was. It’s thought that the filming of Suspiria here may have unsettled the ghosts and spirits that had formerly been quiet and this might help to explain the prevalence of unexplained incidents that have since taken place within these walls.

Blue Building Interior [Photo by Niki Russell]

Blue Building Interior [Photo by Niki Russell]

We don’t know if this is true or not, of course, but if we look out of the windows and survey the playground we can see the abandoned Blue Building opposite. Disturbances there have coincided with Primary Open Studios events in both the years we’ve been active: last year, a pumpkin-headed figure appeared to perform rituals there, trapping an audience inside for six hours before they were (thankfully) safely released. Last night, ghostly figures were seen moving about inside. If anyone knows what these apparitions might mean, do talk to one of Primary’s staff in confidence. Exorcisms may be possible as part of the Studio Development Programme.

Speaking in Tongues by Simon Withers

Speaking in Tongues by Simon Withers

Coming back downstairs, you will notice these ritual ceramic stones made by resident artist Simon Withers dotted around the building. Withers explained that he has placed the ‘stones’ onto key points – the buildings own ‘ley-lines’ – where they act as control points for the chaotic energies all around us. They are also, Withers once confided, not real works of his own at all – that is just a pretext. They are actually Hydra’s teeth, bought from a very distant descendent of Jason of Argo, who you may know for his adventures in pursuit of the Golden Fleece in ancient times – his family now live on an estate in New Basford and like to keep a low profile, it seems – and should some final apocalypse occur, then the display cases can be broken (like fire alarms) and the teeth thrown to the playground. Each fragment when they shatter becomes an armed skeleton capable of fighting any undead or spectral hordes that may appear, under the command of a head of Zardoz. I don’t know if Mr Withers is prepared to discuss these things or not, but you may find him about the building, disguised as a gardener or photographer, measuring the energies of the  old school for reasons best known to himself.

Tent by Louisa Chambers (2013)

Tent by Louisa Chambers (2013)

The board of Primary tells us that these mysteries are being investigated: apparently only the other day, the school was visited by a painted VW camper van called the Mystery Mobile, and two women, Daphne and Velma, and their male and canine accomplices, Fred, Shaggy and Scooby, have built this outpost on the Mezzanine with the aid of Craig Fisher as a base for their explorations of the mysteries of the building. They have told us that they believe the old caretaker may be implicated: his house is now a gallery, but his former secret closet – known as Mrs Ricks’ Cupboard – remains full of mysterious, slightly occult drawings, credited to Louisa Chambers – and the group, known as ‘Mystery Incorporated’, believe the caretaker, Mr Hopgood, may still be living on the premises, trying to frighten away the artists and public who are now here.

Liam Aitken's Portal at Caretaker's House

Liam Aitken’s Portal at Caretaker’s House

He may, of course, be wearing a mask that makes him look like one of us – indeed he may very well be one of us – so do keep your eyes open, in case his mask slips and we are finally able to expose him. In the meantime, I can only direct you to the signs of his continued presence… Before you go on to search this caretaker’s house, and just to add a final safety note, please be aware that the portal in Liam Aitken’s room inside this house is thought to require some particular care as you pass. Last night three people appear to have fallen into it and their voices have been heard this morning inside Michelle Arieu’s porcelain pyramid downstairs, begging for release from their entrapment.

Michelle Arieu's Pyramid at Caretaker's House

Michelle Arieu’s Pyramid at Caretaker’s House

You may also observe that Simon Withers has clearly been performing rituals in the room next to Arieu’s in an effort to free them. So do take care as you explore, but be assured that Mystery Incorporated have told us all this will soon be solved…in the meantime, thank you for your attention on this brief tour and do enjoy the rest of your day’s exploration of the building.

Simon Withers at Caretaker's House [Photo by Simon Withers]

Simon Withers at Caretaker’s House [Photo by Simon Withers]

Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture With Illustrations (2013)

16 Nov

Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture with Illustrations

This is the text version of a ‘fictional lecture’ delivered at Nottingham Contemporary’s symposium Shimmering, Shining, Vomiting, Glitter: The Poetics and Politics of Disgust on November 14th 2013, part of the public programme around the Asco exhibition No Movies. Video from the live stream of the presentation can be found here.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that approximately 60% of the material used to support the case I am about to make is fictional. Then again, since the case I intend to make is for ambiguity, fluidity and the blurring of accepted categories – particularly, in this case, our tendency, in ‘objective’ encounters, to find beauty in material we might otherwise have been conditioned to find disgusting or repellent – perhaps it’s appropriate that the ground on which the case for confusion and ambiguity has been built is itself, like those substances we tend to find repellent (vomit, blood, flesh, decay) extremely slippery. The notion of disgust itself often seems linked to ambiguous substances and spaces where mutations and slippages happen, where the borders separating the inside and outside of bodies blur, where the literal ‘bad taste’ of kitsch asserts itself in some context where it doesn’t fit: is it ‘in bad taste’ to fabricate evidence and draw fictional conclusions? Perhaps this paper’s form could provoke disgust as well as provide a framework for a discussion of its ambiguities.

Robert Holcombe: Film Strip – Reconstruction Of A Work On Paper (1966)

Robert Holcombe: Film Strip – Reconstruction Of A Work On Paper (1966)

To establish the ground rules of this talk, I’d like to show a short film in which it seems the unsettling inhabits the hypnotic and the abject conceals itself inside the appealing: Robert Holcombe’s Film Strip (1966). The original version of this exists only as a one-off book work, in the form of a concertina storyboard, which was speculatively reconstructed with permission from his estate in the summer of 2012, an idea largely justified by Holcombe’s notes outlining an intention “that this collage book might already be, or could one day become, a film of some sort…something haunting, formally precise, but entirely random in its patterning” [Holcombe: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, September 1967]. If it achieves nothing else today, Film Strip should at least help us to enter the mood of slight unreality and blatant artifice appropriate for the paper that follows and is, in its own way, a small Asco-style ‘No Movie’ of its own.

“Everything is all mixed up, the situation … ambiguous” [Alina Szapocznikow, 1972]

“Everything is all mixed up, the situation … ambiguous” [Alina Szapocznikow, 1972]

But that’s by the way. We begin our real discussion with a review of the Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow’s MoMA retrospective earlier this year, in which one writer, Yevgeniya Traps, points out that that during her training in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the war – a war in which she had survived the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and internment in three concentration camps, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz – Szapocznikow did not respond to her experiences in the way we might expect, with self-conscious high-humanitarian seriousness and solemnity, but through a darkly playful and at times Pop-like lens: insofar as it is autobiographical in any conventionally literal or direct sense, which in her case is simultaneously inevitable and doubtful, Szapocznikow’s work refracts her wartime experience, and the Holocaust itself, through a distorting mirror, rendering her own near-miraculous continued existence as a species of unsettling hallucination.

Alina Szapocznikow: Tumours Personified, 1971)

Alina Szapocznikow: Tumours Personified, 1971)

“[Szapocznikow] brought an unabashedly feminine sensibility, coupled with a hard-won contempt for traditional pieties”, writes Traps. “[Hers is] the vision of one who has witnessed the dismantling of the world and improbably lived to tell of it. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five, Szapocznikow’s response to the atrocities she had lived through seems to have been “So it goes.” Like Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden and who concluded that writing an anti-war novel would be not unlike writing a book against glaciers, she seems to have realized that, even without wars, without human cruelty, “there would still be plain old death.” Such knowledge was, as it tends to be, hard won: Szapocznikow was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951, and died, at the age of forty-seven, from breast cancer. The tuberculosis perhaps helps explain the artist’s apparent obsession with the consumption of bodies, as does the cancer. One of Szapocznikow’s most striking pieces is Tumeurs Personnifiées (Tumors Personified), made in 1971, using polyester resin, fiberglass, paper, and gauze: a series of faces laid out on the gallery floor, suggesting decapitated heads, washed up on some seashore like small dead creatures…” [Traps, The Paris Review, January 2013]

Alina Szapocznikow with Grands Ventres (1968)

Alina Szapocznikow with Grands Ventres (1968)

Szapocznikow’s works have tended, when they were ‘placed’ at all, to be discussed in relation to those of such American artists as Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, but while there are certainly shared concerns, materials and techniques with such artists (and some temperamental similarities to others, not least Paul Thek, George Segal and Ed Keinholz), the question of actual influence in either direction is (as always) fraught and complex. Szapocznikow’s interest in the dismantling of the body, in particular, seems in her case a highly specific, if not at all dogmatic, anti-fascist gesture: as the Marquis de Sade understood perfectly, the sensibility that produces fascism is fundamentally rooted in attempts to eradicate the ‘soft’ body from its armour, to erase difference, to impose abstractions on the mess of actual bodies. Fascist mentalities seek to cleanse the world and people it with uniforms filled with marble and machinery instead of actual flesh and organs, since the vulnerabilities and unpredictabilities of human presence have been made philosophically, politically and viscerally intolerable. Szapocznikow’s response to this cleansing tendency invites very particular responses, notably that instinctive but extremely contradictory convulsion that occurs in human perception when an image of startling visual beauty – perhaps something suggestive of Islamic tile patterns or a plant-form, a nebula or stone, a sexual trigger, a breast or vagina or some juicy, edible fruit – suddenly reveals its true identity on second glance: what we see is now a fungal growth, a tumour, a fold of cut skin, a cluster of cancer cells or an excised liver. The response turns abruptly from desire to disgust: a muscular contraction, an affective revulsion in which the ghost of that initial desire disturbingly remains.

“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all” [Andre Breton, Nadja, 1928]

“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all” [Andre Breton, Nadja, 1928]

It’s on the ground of a shared interest in the literally ‘convulsive’ physical and psychological response that an image or object of this ambiguous kind might trigger – the ‘convulsive beauty’ that Breton’s 1928 text, Nadja, declares an archetypal surrealist effect - that it seems Alina Szapocznikow may, or may not, have entered into a brief but significant dialogue with the entirely fictional British artist Robert Dennis Holcombe in Paris sometime during 1963. Robert Holcombe, born in Leeds in 1923, and so only three years older than Szapocznikow herself, had served and was injured in Malaya during the war and in 1948 gone on to study printmaking at the Slade in London alongside contemporaries like Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and other early architects of the Independent Group. Yet instead of pursuing a career in art, or assuming any public visibility during his lifetime, he maintained these contacts at a distance after returning to Leeds in 1955 to work in the city’s municipal planning office while making his own collage works as a mostly private activity.

Robert Holcombe: The Passageway (1966)

Robert Holcombe: The Passageway (1966)

In works like Holcombe’s The Passageway (1966) we can see immediately how close some of his concerns were to Szapocznikow’s during this period, despite the very different materials and methods used. The fragmented and disordered body, the convergence in one image of attraction and revulsion, some inheritance, conscious or otherwise, from the formula for ‘convulsive beauty’ described by Andre Breton in 1928, all are present and foregrounded in Holcombe. As with an line like Angela Carter’s “his wedding gift, clasped round my throat…a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat…” the impact of an image like The Passageway is crucially dependent on a double-take: a simultaneity of perspectives that strikes when we see the image. The body is well-proportioned and classically beautiful, but the skin is diseased. The public hair is concealed, in accordance with academic decorum, but with a fig-leaf of fertile spawn. A simple response appears to have been made deliberately impossible.

Robert Holcombe: Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional] (1961)

Robert Holcombe: Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional] (1961)

While The Passageway post-dates Holcombe’s possible meeting with Szapocznikow, and may well have been influenced by his encounter with her work a few years earlier, these concerns do appear in his output earlier and independently, albeit in very different forms to those manifested by Szapocznikow. In 1961 Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional], an explicitly anti-fascist portfolio, was constructed from a book of propaganda images published to sell Salazar’s Portugal to the world: Holcombe had acquired the book on a visit to Lisbon in 1960 as part of a delegation sent to view and study the construction techniques used for system built public housing.

Robert Holcombe: Krakow – Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

Robert Holcombe: Krakow – Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

In relation to a possible link with Szapocznikow, we know that Holcombe was in Paris at some point during the winter of 1963, as part of a small team sent on a similar architectural research trip to visit new buildings on the city’s outskirts. Because of this, we also know that he was in Paris at a point in time when Szapocznikow maintained a studio near the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, a studio where she remained until her move to a house on Rue Victor Hugo in 1964, so it’s perfectly possible for a meeting of some kind to have taken place. What isn’t clear is how Holcombe’s decision to specifically dedicate a series of 26 images, Krakow (1964), to Alina Szapocznikow on his return to Leeds came about.

Alina Szapocznikow: Dessert V (1971)

Alina Szapocznikow: Dessert V (1971)

It seems most likely that he met Szapocznikow herself, and perhaps visited her studio, as there are no records of her taking part in public exhibitions in Paris or elsewhere during Holcombe’s time in the city, and the works that his series references were not, at that stage, featured in any periodicals as reproductions that could otherwise have been available prior to or during 1964. The monochrome photographs used as background for the 26 images comprising the series also show locations in and around Krakow, often places linked to local legends, ghost stories and uncanny tales, so the Polish material and very clear allusions to Szapocznikow’s sculptural work suggest a very conscious kind of homage was being undertaken. The question of why Holcombe made it, and how he came to at least appear to know of work by Szapocznikow that had yet to be publicly seen, may never be fully explained.

Robert Holcombe: Krakow - Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

Robert Holcombe: Krakow – Pour Alina Szapocznikow (1964)

The possibility of an undocumented meeting would be the most likely explanation but beyond the internal evidence of Holcombe’s own Krakow series and the speculation it encourages, no account of Holcombe’s activity during his 1963 visit to Paris, beyond the basic work itinerary of site visits and municipal meetings, has yet surfaced to cast any further light on the origins of this particular series, or indeed any other influence Szapocznikow may have had on his work during the 1960s and 70s. Despite these uncertainties, there’s an undeniable logic to Holcombe’s interest in the assemblage methods and surreal and anatomical themes that surface in Szapocznikow’s works even more often than they do in his own typical output: a temperamental affinity seems very likely to have been quickly established in any circumstances which might have led to a 1963 meeting between the two.

Robert Holcombe: Garden (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Garden (1953)

In this light, it may be worth reconsidering some examples of Holcombe’s 1950s and early 1960s work in the light of both Szapocznikow’s aesthetic sensibility and Breton’s concept of ‘convulsive beauty’. Perhaps these might be considered useful keys to understanding both the nature of the shifts in his own work between and the middle and later 1960s and the general shift in visual culture that took place, in England, at least, under banners usually somewhat reductively labelled ‘Pop’ or ‘Social Realism’. In a journal entry, written just the year before his visit to Paris he was already considering ideas that might almost have been written by Szapocznikow herself, suggesting a shared aesthetic and mutual fascination with material liable to produce contradictory (and ‘convulsive’) responses: “I have been thinking increasingly about what we consider with disgust; how such things seem if we can only forget what they are. From the jewel-boxes of diseased cells under microscopes and the soft furs of black mould on decayed meat, to the ripe blood-fruit of internal organs and the exotic fauna of physical decomposition, there is beauty in all those things from which we instinctively recoil…” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Journal,, 1962]

Robert Holcombe: Feast (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Feast (1953)

Like Alina Szapocznikow in the Polish context, Holcombe’s work at this point seems to have become increasingly politicised but resists obvious routes of social protest and activism while insisting on absurdity and humour, albeit of a markedly dark variety on both counts. Even in works of the 1950s like Garden (1953), in which a sliced-open internal organ is framed as fantastical garden seemingly filled with stars and microbial plants, or Feast (1953), which places a digestive tract into a Buckingham Palace stateroom to mark the Coronation, these interests are present in embryonic form. As he wrote in 1962, making explicit the political point he may have intended the otherwise uncanny or surreal image of Feast to communicate during the coronation year of 1953: “If the State or Nation is a body, as many insist, then the place where all its wealth and produce ends up after the other organs have done their work should not be considered the head, as is commonly suggested, but the arse…” [Holcombe: Unpublished letter to Cy Albertine, August 1962]

Robert Holcombe: Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

Robert Holcombe: Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

As de Sade wrote in 120 Days of Sodom, almost two centuries earlier, “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace…”. It is not so much that, as Angela Carter’s explicitly Sadeian narrator says in her 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann, “everything it is possible to imagine can also exist” but that, as Szapocznikow’s interest in the dismantling of the body and embrace of fluidity, slippage, softness, mutation and vulnerability tells us, that “everything that exists is open to imaginative transformation”.

Alina Szapocznikow: Lampe IV (1970)

Alina Szapocznikow: Lampe IV (1970)

Isn’t this exactly what Szapocznikow’s Personified Tumours do, embracing even her own lethal illness in pursuit of an imaginative immersion in the transformed matter of the world? And if Szapocznikow immerses herself in the uncomfortable pleasures and unpredictabilities of real bodies, Holcombe, around the same moment, is seeking visual analogues for a sense of entrapment (and constructing small portals of escape) from our wider immersion in a consumer culture whose boundaries, even in the later 1960s, were felt to be tightening, holding the emergent consumer somewhere between a new plenty and too-much, a dream and a nightmare, convulsive beauty and convulsive disgust. That both artists draw on these convulsive strategies, where boundaries implode, categories shift, the world undergoes mutations and our own responses slip easily between glimpses of beauty and visceral recoils from bad taste, only heightens a sense of frustration that any actual connections between them remain highly tenuous and entirely undocumented.

Britten in Oxford/Writing For Voices: Breath (2013)

10 Nov

On the 9th November, Britten in Oxford, in association with the John Armitage Memorial Trust, staged a Festival of Choirs at the University Church of St Mary on the High Street, to premiere six works made as part of the Writing for Voices project. Six writers were teamed with six composers and each allocated a choir, then tasked with producing a five minute choral piece. Nine months on from the starting point, during a weekend in March, the completed settings were performed and recorded, with the project set to feature on Radio 3′s The Choir to be broadcast on December 8th. Ahead of that, the text for the piece I worked on with York-based composer Hilary Nicholls is given here, alongside the programme note putting the bare lyric into a bit of context. The finished work was sung by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford last weekend.

Britten_in_Oxford_Concert

Programme Note:

Our starting point for Breath was a fragment of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Eighth Elegy, from The Duino Elegies, which Hilary had already begun to set before the project began: “Immer ist es Welt/Niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht” (“Always world/ Never Nothing without No”). Taking Rilke’s line as an oblique starting point, its sound and the negative affirmation of its meaning, Wayne created a series of fragmentary texts which celebrated breath as the essential physical element of the voice and as a force both inside the body and in the world beyond it. The mystical abstraction of Rilke’s affirmation is returned to flesh and desire through a series of images built around ripening and growth. Hilary’s setting employs elements of the Messaien and diatonic modes and is primarily polyphonic, with significant solo elements.  Four part writing at the beginning broadens to eight parts at the conclusion. The whole uses breath as both its subject and material.

[Hilary Nicholls & Wayne Burrows, October 2013]

Breath

“Immer ist es Welt/Niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht”

Rilke: Duino Elegies – Eighth Elegy (c.1922)

(i)

Hear this – our breath

(ii)

we speak blown leaves
alveoli swell with air

Hear this – our breath

(iii)

no sound not ours
no flow inside

our skins not us

no voice of ours
not raised

Hear this – our breath

(iv)

These notes shift
where buds grow
on green vines

words fall in clear space
as fruit falls
on black ground

Hear this – our breath

(v)

Our throats fill
with blown leaves

a wind shakes
lungs                  trees

Hear this – our breath

(vi)

our flesh                         warm breath
these lungs                    grow leaves

words rise                      clear space
shall rise                         through us

words breathe              on skin
desire                               new growth

Hear this – our breath

(vii)

Hear this – our breath

as breath falls             still

Britten in Oxford (BB Portrait)

The Return of The Apple Sequence (October 2013)

27 Oct

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)The Apple Sequence was published in December 2011, marking the culmination of my own contribution to a project called Orchard, led by Neville Gabie, which commissioned several artists to respond in different ways to the site of a former fruit and vegetable market in Sneinton, Nottingham, which had just undergone a large scale reconstruction in the hope of reviving the surrounding area’s fortunes. Nearly two years on, the market itself continues, and the trees planted in the square and adopted into the wider areas of St Ann’s and Sneinton are, so far as I can gather, thriving, even though the old market buildings themselves have remained frozen in a state of semi-dereliction, the result of a long stand-off between the developer in possession of the buildings’ leases, whose ambition is to demolish, and the council’s own ambition for improvements to the existing 1920s buildings, perhaps fancifully, or not, imagining themselves in possession of a small-scale Covent Garden five minutes’ walk from the city centre, and at the heart of an area recently designated as Nottingham’s ‘Creative Quarter’. What the final outcome of this decade long stand-off might eventually be is anyone’s guess, but perhaps it’s the sudden commercial interest in this part of Nottingham’s Eastside, and in issues of food production and distribution more generally, that explains a recent return of The Apple Sequence’s material to public view after a long hiatus, with five of the book’s poems reconfigured as Five Apple Songs, a 13m sequence of short films for By The Way, an exhibition at the Bohunk Institute themed around wastelands and edgelands, and a further extract, ‘The Apple Migrations’, finding its way into a new publication, The Apple Anthology, edited by George Ttoouli and Yvonne Reddick for Nine Arches Press. The exhibition will remain on show until October 31 and the anthology is available from Nine Arches.

Five Apple Songs can be viewed here.

Mark Goodwin reading at Bohunk Institute (24 October 2013)

Mark Goodwin reading at Bohunk Institute (24 October 2013)

Rosie Garner reading at Bohunk Institute (24 October 2013)

Rosie Garner reading at Bohunk Institute (24 October 2013)

Disturbances II: Excerpts from the Journals of Robert Dennis Holcombe (1944 – 2002)

29 Sep

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Australia) [1976]

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Australia) [1976]

On Thursday evening, two new exhibitions opened at QUAD Gallery in Derby, with Monocular4, Lindsay Seers’ intense filmed meditation on identity, separation, memory, genetics and recent history, occupying a corrugated tin construction in the main gallery, and Event Horizon, a group show on themes of black holes, portals and time-travel curated by Michael Sargeant and Kylie Benjamin, scattered around the rest of the building. Four of Robert Holcombe’s Biological Camouflage images are among the exhibits, and five short extracts from a series of Holcombe’s journals, spanning the years between 1944 and 2002, are presented alongside them both as wall texts, in places ranging from stairwells to the QUAD lift, and audio, available via QR code download or web link using mobile phone inside the QUAD building. Although framed by Holcombe’s account of an unexplained disturbance witnessed in Malaya in 1944, elsewhere the meaning of time travel itself is questioned, as in this brief reflection from one of Holcombe’s final notebooks, noted down in Exeter the year before his death in 2003.

IV: Exeter, January 2nd 2002. 11.15pm.

“When I consider the age where I grew up, walls were dark with soot, smoke filled the air, men hung aimlessly around the streets for lack of work, poverty flourished like buddleia in a broken wall and prospects reached a vanishing point as distance from some chance birth-right of wealth and opportunity increased. After the first disturbance, that charged space in the air I saw in Malaya as the war wound down, then glimpsed again from time to time later, in a market square or glass tower-block’s wall, on entering a sunlit garden which darkened as though in anticipation of a thunderstorm, or among the clouds as I looked out over a view of green hills and new housing estates, over hospitals and schools, playing fields and public parks… those disturbances like water swirling, where normal vision melted under some unseen intense white heat…I was assured that change was possible. Yet when I consider the present, those disturbances long ceased, litter piled in squares and behind the railings of flower beds in padlocked car parks, in front of the decayed sills and boarded windows of abandoned houses, men hanging aimlessly around or sleeping in bus shelters and doorways for lack of work, poverty once again flourishing like buddleia in a broken wall, prospects diminished to vanishing points as distance from chance birth-rights of wealth and opportunity increase… it is as though the direction of time has reversed, a black oil leaching into the tight weave of some white linen cloth, turning every thread unfathomably dark.”

The five sections run in a non-linear sequence and relate obliquely to the four collages, as well as being a kind of first sequel to the 2010 film Disturbances. Both the Lindsay Seers exhibition and Event Horizon (also featuring new work by Richard Birkin, Christopher Boote, Jesc Bunyard, Joseph Carr & Caroline McNally, Sonia D’Argenzio, Nick Hersey, Tim Shore and Darn Thorn) run until December 1st at QUAD Gallery, Derby.

Early Works by Robert Holcombe: Coronation Feast and Garden Foliage (1953)

21 Aug

Robert Holcombe: Foliage (1953)

These three images, two of which show gardens constructed from internal organs, the third a somewhat vitriolic response to the Coronation, with its Buckingham Palace state room occupied by a digestive system*, are among the earliest known works in the Robert Holcombe archive. The backgrounds appear to have been sourced from Stoddard’s Portfolio, a collection of photographs of “famous scenes, cities and paintings prepared under the supervision of the distinguished lecturer and traveller, John L. Stoddard” and published in a mass market edition by The Werner Company of Chicago and London in 1893. The foreground material is drawn from a variety of medical and surgical publications, mainly 1930s and 40s editions of works containing etchings and illustrations produced much earlier. A fascination with internal forms and the ways these could be mapped onto and made to disrupt generic landscape conventions would remain a key thread in Holcombe’s output over the next three decades.

* “If the State or Nation is a body, as many insist, then the place where all its wealth and produce ends up after the other organs have done their work should not be considered the head, as is commonly suggested, but the arse…” [Unpublished letter from Robert Holcombe to Cy Albertine, August 1962]

Alan Dixon: Two Personages (Woodcut on Paper)

19 Aug

At the end of 2012, John Lucas of Shoestring Press contacted me about writing some poems in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon, whose 73 Woodcuts had appeared the previous year. The images, made in the spirit of early 20th century models like Die Brucke and Dadaism, provoked a variety of responses, ranging from a new nursery rhyme (‘Procession’) to an odd little study of ‘Two Heads’ forming some new but yet-to-be-named thought at a Swiss cabaret and a ‘Complicated Figure’ whose disjointed body anticipates “a coming disorder”. There are ‘Inquisitors’, a ‘Nocturne’ and – my personal favourites – versions of two songs from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Cocu that merge the cheerful obscenity of Viz Comic with the violence and gore of b-movies like Cannibal Holocaust: just having an excuse to take a crack at those made the whole exercise worthwhile, and Dixon’s portraits of King Ubu himself, and a non-canonical but very Ubu-esque character named ‘Big Mouth’, were a chance that wasn’t going to come again anytime soon. The book, now titled Wood & Ink, includes responses to Dixon’s work by Andrew Sant, Paul McLaughlin, Jo Shapcott & John Hartley Williams and others. It goes to press today and will be launched next month, but until then here’s one of the poems from my series that didn’t make the final cut, owing to its link to a colour plate. Consider its appearance here a kind of taster or bonus track in anticipation of the finished publication in September. There’s also a very informative interview with Alan Dixon on Helena Nelson’s Sphinx.

Alan Dixon - Two Personages

Two Personages

What is understood when we stand together
like the two planes of a fairground mirror
on either side of the darkness in this tight room
is that we are only alike to small degrees.

Your breast is rounded, my ribs a knife,
my arms are lowered, your hand upraised.
On my back I carry this entirely useless roof
you no longer want to build a life beneath.

Two Personages by Alan Dixon appears in 73 Woodcuts (Shoestring Press, 2011) [p.80]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers