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‘Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History!’ (Nottingham Contemporary documentation by Andy Keate, 2016)

5 May
Salome (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Salome (1953)

Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу!, 1973, is a book of collages by Robert Holcombe, a fictional British artist. Presenting evidence from a range of hidden, fabricated and authentic Cold War histories, the exhibition documented here takes its overall title from this work. The specific copy of the book used has its provenance in the library of Sir Frederick William (‘Bill’) Deakin (1913 – 2005), a former literary adviser to Churchill and active British liason officer with the Partisans of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia between May and December 1943. While the image captions of Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! remain legible, allowing ghosts of the source material’s original purpose to show through, the historical content of the photographs themselves is cancelled by layers of advertising, technological and erotic imagery. The display, commissioned for the Small Collections Room at Nottingham Contemporary between January 16 and April 17 2016, was made in response to both Pablo Bronstein’s room design, featuring four antique cabinets, and themes suggested by Monuments Should Not Be Trusted, an exhibition of artworks and objects from Communist Yugoslavia curated by Lina Džuverović in the main galleries.

Cabinet 1: Works from the Robert Holcombe Archive

This cabinet presents a selection of works by Robert Holcombe (1923 – 2003). The display includes a selection from his series Krakow: pour Alina Szapocznikow, 1964, and The Holcombe Family Bible, 1967, alongside Study for Performing the Curtain Ritual, 1966, and the book work Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу!. The cabinet also includes a number of undated photographic studies, such as Triceratops and Skegness Comet. Although undated, these studies were probably made at various times between 1951-63.

Cabinet 2: Works, Ephemera and Archive Materials

This cabinet includes source materials and other ephemera from the Holcombe archive alongside smaller works by Holcombe: Mask, c. 1952; The Lawn, 1966; and Argentina, 1976. A deck of Holcombe designed Tarot cards and their 1953 precursor, A Summary Of Contemporary Knowledge About Life And Its Possibilities, also feature. Archive materials include publications such as Youth in the GDR, scientific book club editions of The Drama of the Atom and LSD in Action, a set of 1940s film-star cigarette cards, a 1960 book of speculations by eminent Soviet Scientists on Life in the Twenty-First Century, and an eccentric hand-coloured photograph of a nuclear family.

Cabinet 3: 723 Variations on the Same Theme

The 723 found texts layered inside the drawers of this cabinet are cut from a wide range of consumer, technical and other publications from the 1940s to early 1980s. These cut outs are intended as both a typographic survey and an exploration of the everyday presence of propaganda in Western printed media during the Cold War period. They focus particularly on texts revealing prevailing insecurities and aspirations. The arbitrary number 723, which determines the size of the collection, was originally fixed by the addition to the series of a 1964 strap-line advertising a range of Hasselblad cameras.

Cabinet 4: Eastern Bloc Songs

This cabinet gathers a selection of 7” and 10” record sleeves produced between 1964 and 1981 by official state labels in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to give a brief visual introduction to the prolific and politically complex popular music cultures of European communist states during the Cold War period. The display is accompanied by a looped audio soundtrack featuring 11 songs by some of the artists featured, including Filipinki, Klan, Marta Kubišová, Czesław Niemen, Hana Zagorová, Sarolta Zalatnay, Olympic, Petr Ulrych, Josipa Lisac, Tadeusz Woźniak and Izabela Trojanowska. A small sampler publication introducing loose English translations of these 11 songs is also available.

Wall: Other Works by Robert Holcombe

Above Cabinet 1: Salome, 1953
Above Cabinet 2: Triptych (Marine Geology, The Sandstorm, The Brocken Spectre), 1955
Above Cabinets 3 & 4: The Modern Interior I & II, 1967

Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan to 17 April 2016)

6 Jan

Eastern Bloc Songs Sampler

Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (Small Collections Room, Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016 – 17 Apr 2016)

Drawing together strands from a number of ongoing projects, including 723 Variations On The Same Theme, Eastern Bloc Songs and the fictional archives of the British artist Robert Holcombe, Wayne Burrows presents a display spanning both sides of the Cold War. Curated by Irene Aristizábal, Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! takes in typographic consumer propaganda, erased partisan histories, fabricated Independent Group artworks and artifacts from the histories of popular music in Communist Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Eastern Bloc Songs: A Sampler, introducing loose English translations from the Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Croatian lyrics of 11 songs featured in the exhibition – all recorded between 1964 and 1981 by Filipinki, Klan, Marta Kubišová, Czesław Niemen, Hana Zagorová, Sarolta Zalatnay, Olympic, Hana & Petr Ulrychovi, Josipa Lisac, Tadeusz Woźniak and Izabela Trojanowska – is published by Nottingham Contemporary to accompany and contextualise the display and will be available at the gallery shop and elsewhere from January 15th.

003 (3)

Eastern Bloc Disco with UrBororo (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016, 8.30pm to 11pm, free).

To celebrate the opening weekend of Monuments Should Not Be Trusted and expand on the display of Eastern Bloc 7” records in his exhibition in the Small Collections Room, Wayne Burrows will be playing soul, rock, psychedelia, pop, folk and jazz, all drawn from the surprisingly diverse output of the official state record labels of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and the USSR between the 1960s and early 1980s.

The session will also include a live set from UrBororo, Pil & Galia Kollectiv’s new venture into “skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening” – an “objectively boring” band whose songs are made from an unlikely merger between the sounds of surf, grunge and punk and whose lyrics are all borrowed from a 1970s Management Self-Help guide.

“UrBororo are objectively boring. They also view themselves as boring. UrBororo actually refer to themselves with typically irritating self-deprecation as ‘The People Who You Wouldn’t Like to be Cornered by at a Party’. They regard most of what they do as a waste of time. Based on a managerial help book, the songs they play propose a skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening.”Pil & Galia Kollectiv (2015)


Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Launch at New Art Exchange, July 10, 2015)

20 Jun

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions will be out on July 10th, via Shoestring Press for the print publication, and as a full length album, also titled Exotica Suite, on CD from July and as a vinyl LP in 2016. The recordings feature some of the written texts sampled, remixed, re-edited and performed with music by Paul Isherwood, best known for four acclaimed albums made with The Soundcarriers, most recently Entropicalia (Ghost Box, 2014). The launch will also premiere a cycle of related short films to which the recordings act as soundtracks. It’s all scheduled to take place at at New Art Exchange on July 10, between 6 – 9pm, free but booking via Eventbrite is strongly recommended.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions


Exotica Suite begins with an Easter Island creation chant in the style of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell and an imaginary Polynesian colony in England in the 1780s then takes in a series of tall tales featuring Hawaiian musicians. Other Fictions fabricates occult histories in Nottingham caves and embarks on a labyrinthine sea voyage with the body of a late Hawaiian King. Now gathered in one place for the first time, the various forgeries, stories, false lectures, misleading anecdotes and other writings in Exotica Suite & Other Fictions are the flip-side to Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, also published by Shoestring.

Exotica Suite simultaneously exists as a vinyl LP and audio CD made in collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood, best known for his work with The Soundcarriers.

“…spins a web that oscillates between the fictional and non fictional and encourages us to reflect on how we navigate the past and how this could affect all our futures.”

Katherine Wood on Marine (2013)

Book Contents:

Part One: Exotica Suite:
A Creation Fragment from Easter Island
An Account of the Hawaiian Colony in England (1790)
The Kumulipo Variations
Four Hula Songs for the Goddess Laka
The Sorceress
An Imaginary History of Musical Polynesia
(i) The First Musician
(ii) Joseph Kekuku Between Two Worlds
(iii) Sol Hoopii Finds A Sack Of Souls
(iv) Arthur Lyman’s Marimba Calms Pele’s Rage
(v) Shell-Ears And Tin-Ears
Invocation to Sun Ra (1914 – 1993)

Part Two: Other Fictions
Marine: A Story in Eight Objects
A Marriage of Styles
The Disappearances
The Peel Street Codex
The Nottingham Medlars
An Edible Alphabet
Fabricated Archives
Spirit Wrappings: Some Notes on the Rashleigh Jackson Family Collection
A Mandinka Song: Theme & Variations
The Enigma of Robert Holcombe
Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture
Twelve Non-Specific Sites

The Sorceress (1955) Latino Graphics E

Exotica Suite LP/CD Tracklist:

Side 1:
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad I
Creation Fragment
Altar Prayer For Laka
A Hula for Laka (For Link Wray)
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad II
The Sorceress

Side 2:
Ankle Bracelet
Flute Interlude
Kumulipo Variation
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad III
Subliminal (Invocation to Sun Ra)

Robert Holcombe as Fiction at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (October 6th, 2014)

11 Oct

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

On October 6th 2014 I was invited by NWS director Pippa Hennessy to deliver a short talk about the origins of the fictional artist Robert Holcombe, and the shift in my general approach to writing since around 2010, as part of the regular ‘social’ event held every month at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. As I’d got the notes already written down and the images gathered for the slides used on the night, it seemed worth preserving an outline of the talk here, if only because it might help to explain what it is I think I’m doing and how I ended up doing it…

Wood & Ink (Shoestring Press) (545x800)

At the start, writing poetry for the most part, I worked in the generally accepted way. That is, I mostly did things other than writing for a living (in my case, working in retail, picture framing and other similar trades) and sometimes got to write things in my spare time. I sent these things out to the magazines I knew about, who would sometimes publish them. At a certain point I had gathered a book’s worth of poetry that seemed both OK in itself, and gave an impression of coherence, so this was sent out to publishers. Marginalia appeared from Peterloo in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and developing projects like a sequence about genetics written for a dance company in 2005, a second short poetry collection, Emblems, emerged in 2009.

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)

It’s worth noting that I still work this way, though I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent about sending things to magazines since 2010, perhaps because I edited one, called Staple, between 2007 and 2011, and needed a very long break from the endless round of envelopes, stamps and emails by the time its natural life-span expired. Even so, a series of poems written in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon were included in the anthology Wood & Ink last year, and a body of new work, including the sequence A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, will feature in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Shoestring in March 2015. But there was also a turning point, where a new way of working became possible, and this was probably a 2010 commission to work with Neville Gabie on a project built around the redevelopment of Sneinton Square, a historic fruit and vegetable market on the Eastside of Nottingham.

Sneinton Square by Patel Taylor Architects

This project became known as Orchard  and my contribution to it was a book-length series of poems called The Apple Sequence, a 64 page publication distributed free to an audience not usually engaged with the arts, but with a stake in the future of the site: market traders and their customers, activists involved in urban food production on the many allotments and city farm nearby, tenants and residents of the Sneinton and St Ann’s areas more widely. The commission included money to cover production of an artwork, so I used this to create a book from scratch – designing, typesetting and writing it simultaneously, to a tight deadline and with a definite public purpose. This seemed a more interesting way of working than the standard literary and publishing industry model. More to the point, it seemed to work, with The Apple Sequence widely read by those we’d hoped to reach.

Robert Holcombe: Marine (1955)

Yet the fact that this book was directed not at the poetry world in the standard way, but addressed to a very different readership, seemed to mean that as far as conventional literary acknowledgement went The Apple Sequence barely existed. Perhaps this was partly delayed response: no reviews, for example, but one of the few literary events the Apple Sequence poems were presented at was a Nine Arches Press reading in Leicester soon after publication – so the apple-themed anthology that appeared from Nine Arches this year may not be entirely unrelated to the 2011 project. At any rate, The Apple Sequence proved liberating in terms of the control it allowed over the design, format and speed at which the book could appear, and for the readership it was able to find while by-passing the usual literary channels. It is probably not insignificant, either, that the work of writing poems was, for once, reasonably well paid upfront.


I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this way of working ever since, in poetry and various kinds of non-mainstream fiction, the resulting work mostly distributed outside the channels of traditional publishing. A couple of these later projects might include Spirit Wrappings (2012), which was produced as a short, beautifully designed fiction chapbook by Nottingham Contemporary, commissioned in response to an exhibition about a collector named Rashleigh Jackson by visual artist Simon Withers and curator Abi Spinks, and The Disappearances/The Peel Street Codex, commissioned by Jo Dacombe and Laura Jade Klee of Sidelong to be performed in caves, then made into booklets for A Box Of Things (2014), a limited edition publication documenting a project based on the myths and legends of Nottingham’s cave network.

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Les Chateaux de la Loire I) [1977]

The creation of Robert Holcombe, an alter-ego who could be put to many different uses, was almost accidental. He first appeared in a novel I’d been writing, Albany 6, which traced an alternative history of the late 20th century, where he was the author of a handful of pulp science-fiction stories that had shaped the obsessions of the book’s main protagonist, a Chicago musician named Thomas Satz, and grew from there. His public debut was as the subject of a fictional lecture during 2010, expanding on one of those pulp stories, Not smoking can seriously damage your health (1976). More fake lectures have been delivered since, among them a fabricated paper exploring the invented connections between Holcombe and the post-war Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, presented at a Nottingham Contemporary symposium on the meaning of disgust in November 2013.

The Modernists: Portal (1967)

So who is Robert Holcombe? An exhibition hand-out written in early 2014 gives the basic facts of his fictional biography:

“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  and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in Leeds. 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 usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excess, inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors, and unsettling disturbances of ordinary space”.

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Apocrypha - The Appearing of Three Angels to Abraham] (1967)

Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibitionThe Family Bible & Other Fables: Works From The Holcombe Collection 1948 – 1978, staged at Syson Gallery in January 2014. This outlined links between the fabricated collages on the gallery walls and their literary sources, some fictional, like Holcombe’s own pulp SF writings and letters, others, like Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr Hoffmann and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, very real. A quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition perhaps gives a flavour of the literary origins of Robert Holcombe: “These mental polaroids form a large part of our library of affections”, writes Ballard. “Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.”  

Marine - A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle, 2013) Cover design by Joff + Ollie.

The first time all of these literary, historical and visual threads had come together in a single place was in Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, commissioned by Nottingham Castle and Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to be part of Make Believe, a series of interventions in the collections and grounds of Nottingham Castle during 2013. The exhibition explored the blurring of fact and fiction in the site’s real and legendary histories and Marine combined a 30-page print publication, tracing the actual and imaginary resonances of a sea voyage from England to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde in 1824; a film remix setting fragments of that published text to 1950s ‘exotica’ music and sequences of still visual images; and an installation featuring a Holcombe work inside a high security case (another collage appeared as the book’s frontispiece and the opening image of the film).

Make believe -7560

The Marine film and publication were also presented at two venues during the inaugural Pilot Festival in Brightlingsea, suggesting that they did not depend on the site specific context they were devised for. Site specificity could also arise by accident: with Holcombe having been at least partly inspired by JG Ballard, it seemed a good omen that the second fictional retrospective – Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior: 1955 – 1975 – was shown at a London gallery named (by the curators, Pil & Galia Kollectiv) after three ‘psychic projections’, Xero, Kline & Coma, who appear in several of Ballard’s books. Even more pertinently, the exhibition accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and Hannah Hoch’s work just down the road at the Whitechapel, both of which added a certain additional resonance to the work on display.


Holcombe’s Performing The Curtain Rituals series, supposedly made in 1966, directly referenced work by both these neighbouring artists, a fact that earned the show a small place in a dissertation on the politics of parafictional art published by Keren Goldberg at the RCA in summer 2014. This seems apt, as chance meanings were the subject of The Holcombe Tarot, a series of 78 collages made between 2011 and 2014 in which a few classic Tarot symbols, like Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Priestess, were vastly outnumbered by such oblique images as The Mirage (some banknotes hovering above a glacier), The Source (a gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the late Vietnam War context in which the cards were made) and The Nest (a classical column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining open-ended, the curious thing is how the drawing of one of these cards can still feel significant.

Tarot Series (The Mirage)

These cards were first shown (as a selection of 12 collages) at Xero, Kline & Coma and have since been prototyped as a working Tarot pack and launched on Kickstarter, so a limited edition of 100 packs of The Holcombe Tarot will be produced in November 2014. The Holcombe Tarot also, I suppose, works as a kind of mutated poetry collection: a gathering of images that seem to relate to one another, can be ‘read’ in sequence or dipped into at will, each card freestanding but dependent on the others. Perhaps this is the thread connecting these bodies of written and visual work. Collage and poetry, after all, both operate through the selection and recombination of images and details from multiple sources. In a poem it might be a written recollection or voicing where a view of an apple orchard merges with a memory of factory machinery; in a collage it might be some photographic combination or overlay of the two things. The effect, either way, is similar.

GBX020 CD 800

A project currently in its early stages of development is Exotica Suite, a collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood (look up The Soundcarriers’ back catalogue for some examples of his work). At this point Exotica Suite is not planned as a Holcombe project but a sequence of new texts exploring identity as something constructed, both for us, socially, and by us, in response to assumptions made by others. Inspirations are figures like Sun Ra, Yma Sumac and Jack Bilbo, who each in some way refused or complicated authenticity and rebuilt reality around themselves (as Holcombe notes in a 1984 letter: “We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves.”). Where all this will lead is not yet known, but the results will be released as a vinyl LP and download and a print publication. There will be events at New Art Exchange to introduce the ideas and influences behind the project and discuss the issues it raises. I think it is going to be interesting.

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.

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 pubic 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.