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Notes From A Hospital (19 – 23 June, 2016)

8 Aug


This place asserts itself first as a very ordinary space, as though it’s been purposefully designed to seem mundane, to take the edge off its real function with a veneer of domesticity, something between a dated suburban show-home and a school dining hall lined with beds. I try to pinpoint where the dread I’m feeling comes from. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of this mustard yellow stripe crossing the grey linoleum floor tiles, or the slightly discoloured white panels of this suspended ceiling, where small swarms of black pin-holes prick through to varied depths, each taking its arbitrary place in the beige constellation. A cobweb strains and slackens like a parachute canopy, a delicate diaphragm of white glowing thread where a steel window-frame opens to the blue sky outside. A cloud the shape of a gigantic wolf’s head drifts over the low-rise rooftops of the hospital buildings across the visible courtyard. Florescent tube lights glare inside glazed plastic boxes, blue marble-patterned curtains trembling against the partly opened windows… Mainly, the dread lies in the medical machinery that returns repeatedly to the ward, measuring blood pressure, squeezing the upper arm like a velcro python. The machines attached to these needles and drips flood us with antibiotics, painkillers and saline solutions, extract blood samples. These machines test us, seek dark shadows in our lungs, root out the signs and patterns of destruction in our own cells.


Inside A&E I see my own blood collect inside syringes, glimpse scans of my own ribs, examine the stock market graphs of EEGs and pulse readings as I’m assessed and reassessed then run through further tests, just to be sure. I’m given painkillers and injections, laid on a trolley and wheeled out into the cavernous bay where our ailments align like vehicles taking spaces in a supermarket car park. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning. An elderly man with the visible bruising and dried blood traces of a head injury is asking for food with an incongruously posh accent, as though making announcements on the BBC in 1966. A youth, who it seems had collapsed in the street, is surrounded by a retinue of drunk friends whose red eyes startle in the stark florescent light. There is the intimacy of an elderly husband and wife acting as though they are in a private space, as though this might be almost routine, as though they might switch places on the gurneys night after night. A wall-mounted TV scrolls adverts and a scarlet ticker-tape of rolling bad news. There is a coffee machine somewhere, though it’s not clear where. And where else would one stranger approach another with the words “I need to take some of your blood” so regularly and with such bluntly pragmatic intent to see the action through? Extraction might be coded into this space. Does the PFI that rebuilt it once now draw rents from these aluminum and white plastic fittings, these oxygen canisters and uniforms, leased-back strip-lights and polished concrete floors, wooden desks and blue curtains?


In this refrigerated room the machine hums quietly among the pipes and platforms, the windows of the observation chambers. Always seems strange when the operators of a system clear the space before it operates, leaving you alone inside it. This is the CT-scanner with its turquoise floored, aquatic waiting room, its looped TV channel discussing accidents – a man trapped under a car ploughed into him by a double decker bus, a surfer in collision with a jet-ski on a rolling wave, collusions of random chance and sheer misfortune followed by miraculous recoveries. When I’m wheeled along the corridor with its peculiar scent into the presence of the monolith – like the central pierced stone of Men-an-Tol – I’m conscious of the solstice, of the fact that I’d planned to be elsewhere, at a solstice celebration, and instead lie here, my back pressed in its thin gown against a cold metal slide, my arms stretched back above my head as I listen for the voice that emerges from the white machine telling me to breathe in, hold breath, breathe normally, its magnets whirring inside the white casing like the drum of a washing machine, circling my upper body, scanning everything, from chin to groin, slice by slice, till somewhere, on a screen behind those black glass windows, I’m reconstituted, replicated in a three dimensional matrix. This might be the altar of some alien pagan cult, exploring the limitless recesses of the body’s interior.


Everything tastes of this one solution but I don’t know what this taste is, how to begin to describe it. Everything smells of it but I don’t know exactly how I’m taking in the scent, what the components of this fragrance are, only that in the combination of taste and scent it blends a sickly sweetness with a metallic edge – is something complex, alien and impossible to place on any previous axis of sensory experience. Mercury and over-sweetened rhubarb? Silicone in custard? A compound of artificial sweeteners and metal shavings? Copper coins sucked through a soft cloth steeped in pine fragranced shampoo? The contrast – for this is what they call that weird solution here – is intravenously administered. I’m told that I’ll experience the illusion of wetting myself, that a soft warmth will seem to spread from my groin to my knees and waist. The woman beside the machine is reassuring, has told me already that this isn’t real, but it will, she insists, feel very real in the moment it happens. This is standard procedure, to be expected, she says, and it will pass once the moment does, be entirely gone and half forgotten even by the time I leave this room. It is not, she insists, anything to be concerned about.


I understand that this machine reads my body better than I, who inhabit it, can. The machine is driven by electromagnetics and x-rays, sending its resonant frequencies through my cells and fibres, my soft organs and hard bones, slice by slice as I pass through its open circle. The body inside the machine, my body, is kept at the refrigerated temperature the machine requires. My nostrils and the back of my throat are filled with that indefinably synthetic alien substance, still to be properly named or described: silicone and rhubarb with saccharine, uncooked pastry in cleansed sump-oil, white truffle in volcanic sulphur, spinach steeped in phosphorus and copper sulphate. How do I even begin to describe this after-taste? I’m conscious that this is primal machinery, machinery geared to extract a fully illuminated body’s interior, an imprint or double lifted from my own flesh for remote examination. This is a revelation of the inner self: not those hypothetical coloured lights, the auras and chakras beloved of the New Age, but the true inner being of flesh and fluids, nerves and ribs, veins and arteries, alveoli and heart-muscles, in all of which life flows, a low-level electric charge like the static thickening in the warm air that precedes a thunderstorm. Where clouds gather inside any image produced, wherever new cells or growths appear, fear must always follow, to clot and accumulate among the relentlessly shortening hours and days…


When I return to the ward, when I’m pushed in a wheelchair towards the empty bed by an open window overlooking a small lawn where pigeons and blackbirds peck among the freshly-trimmed grass in a late evening sunshine I’d half forgotten was out there, I’m approached by a tall Jamaican-Nottingham girl with Nefertiti features and a crown of lilac-dyed braids tied up in a tight sphere on her head, like an Egyptian sun-disk. She wraps my arm in a velcro pressure gauge, takes a blood sample and pulse: unlike every other nurse I’ve so far encountered she follows the electronic reading with an old-school press of her fingers to my wrist, silently counting while looking at the small dial of a watch. She seems in charge right now, but tomorrow I’ll be chatting to her and discover she’s still two months from qualifying, and she’ll laugh when I tell her she seemed to be the authority on the ward in the first half-hour I spent on it. “I was just trying not to seem nervous”, she says. “Didn’t figure I was doing any kind of good job at it”. And there it is, our disconnection, me oblivious to her nerves, her oblivious to whatever I was feeling just then, swept into her presence on the medical process that had already led from ambulance to A&E, from there to a holding ward, and had now landed me here, on a specialist male respiratory ward in another hospital, her long fingers taking the pulse of the one wrist still unmarked by cannula needles. It’s 7pm already and she’ll soon disappear as the night shift drifts in, as new ranks of nurses, new cleaners and carriers, wipers, bathers, sometime wound-dressers and carers arrive, one after another: all those who’ll see us through till morning, one way or another.


He was a big man once, a hard man, most likely, judging by his talk at times, the kind of man who carried his own name – M.I.C.K – inked on the four finger-knuckles of his right hand, where it remains visible among the bruises and needle-punctures, the dressings and swellings. He’s lost 25 kilos these last 8 weeks, he’s said, and the medical staff have confirmed it – 25 kilos gone from his bruiser’s bulk while his features soften into vulnerability and panic under the brute force of whatever illness has its hold on him. When he’s angry, he verbalises his feelings in terms set by a physical aggression of which he’s no longer capable: “a crack on the nose”, “a punch in the mouth”, “a kick in the balls”. Right now, you can only imagine what he might have looked like ten or twelve weeks back, the big fella and hard-man he remains in his own head despite this new reality where he’s bent double, depleted, fighting for breath over a white plastic bed-table while his grey skin hangs, exposed and flabby, in the folds of his unbuttoned pyjamas. When noises come from him, gasps and wheezes and cries, nurses from Spain and Trinidad, Guyana, Sri Lanka and Slovakia surround him, hook up the nebuliser or IV drip, ameliorate his pain for a few more hours, but it’s clear that he resents this dependence, is reduced and rendered weak, yet knows there’s nothing to be done with this need but to accept the help and rail against how disgusted he feels with himself at needing it. The women, the nurses, too pragmatic and pressed to be fazed, get on with it and keep going, as the world always does in the face of our humiliations.


Then there is the beauty of this woman with her attentive expressions, working to understand the post-stroke broken language of a 64 year old man with close-cropped ginger hair, a man returned to a kind of meta-childhood, whose wife and sole carer died a year or two ago, clearly aware of the chasms constantly opening between his movements, words and the thoughts behind both. He gets up often, paces, performs a kind of dance to re-learn the co-ordination of his limbs and extremities, placing his feet in a grid pattern that he repeats, over and over, on the chessboard of grey and mustard coloured linoleum tiles on the ward floor. In conversation, when he can’t find a word, knows but can’t retrieve it from his blighted vocabulary, there’s a laminated book of prompts he shuffles through in his big hands until something clicks and the conversation continues, like a car being repeatedly jump-started on a driveway. This woman, her features falcon-sharp, her fringe cut on a ruler’s edge across a forehead framed by tousled brunette and blond-highlighted hair, is listening to him. On her wrist is a playing card tattoo: the six of clubs, a grid of clenched black fists, its significance to her entirely unknown to me, perhaps anyone. She has the air of someone who’s been through more than one life, that who she is now is only the latest draft of a work in progress, which seems to be all she has in common with the man she’s talking to. Whatever he was before this, before the stroke hit him and his wife’s death cut him adrift, neither of us can know.


It is my final day here, though I don’t know this quite yet. Right now, I am viewing a range of potential futures, measuring my current difficulties against the struggles of others – who have no reliable address, whose health is free-falling far beyond any depth reached by mine, touch wood and so far. Men whose lives are in some sense already mostly lived, what highlights there were securely fixed in the territory of the past. Who, then, is more or less fortunate here, and is this, or anything, even measurable or, at least, measurable in these terms? Let us imagine that the dividing line between this world of hospitals and medical procedures, this world where control is relinquished, half in terror, half in relief, this world of quietly dealt-with deaths behind curtains, of being woken from restless sleep at 3am to be plugged into an antibiotic drip, to wake and sleep among all the humiliations a body can inflict on the spirit inhabiting it…the line between that world and another, a world that is none of these things, a world where the illusion of control is granted…that division seems fragile as the tissue in an exposed lung. One here is well enough to leave but waits on the availability of sheltered housing; another aged 87, reads the Daily Mail in bed, having fallen through a table a few days ago to end up here, immobilised. Yet another is tethered to his bed by a plastic oxygen tube, alternately pacing out the limits of his leash and flipping through the sports pages of The Sun. For a few hours more we are all here, on this respiratory ward, distracting ourselves with the thought that there might be more years ahead, or some purpose to those that have gone already, taking all our breaths and heartbeats, our best efforts and worst errors, and dragging them all out to sea with us, as a tide gathers stones on its long withdrawal from a pebble beach.

Men an Tol

Shorts and Found Footage with Crate Diggin’: Fridays at Rough Trade (Dec 19 – Jan 16)

20 Dec


Some short films and related found footage will be showing alongside the Truth & Lies nights upstairs at Rough Trade, Nottingham, over the next few weeks. The first selection, themed around the Cold War, screened on Friday 19th Dec, the second – films linked by an interest in Exotica – is on Jan 9th, and the final set of films, built around Disturbances and Design – plays on Jan 16. Crate Diggin‘ is a regular slot hosted by Joff & Ex-Friendly at Rough Trade and covers soul, funk, jazz and anything else the DJs feel like spinning from 7 – 11pm every Friday. The following post offers a few comments on the material selected (note that films are screened at Crate Diggin’ without sound, for obvious reasons, so I will add links to versions with their original scores and soundtracks intact to this post after each event).

Moscow 1972 (Kino)

Part 1: The Serendipity Loops and the Cold War (19 December 2014)

The Serendipity Loops (Wayne Burrows, 2012)

This film runs in six sections, made up entirely of still images, and draws on a large archive of print material produced on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War period, sequencing Western and Eastern Bloc material in ways that emphasise their essential similarities. Each section is edited to accompany a piece of music, ranging from Tom Dissevelt’s ‘Whirling’ and Dick Mills’ ‘Purple Space & White Coronas’, early experiments in sequenced and atmospheric electronic music; to the late Graham Dalley’s ‘Pacifico’ and ‘Surf Ride’ (both from his privately pressed 1966 LP ‘Graham Dalley At The Barn Restaurant, Solihull’); ‘Elusive’, a Studio G production for an Avon marketing flexi-disc narrated by Patrick Allen (who also did voice-overs for the British Government’s notorious ‘Protect and Survive’ series of 1970s Nuclear fall-out public information films); and the anonymously produced Radiophonic Workshop alien invasion scenario of The Cimex Corporations’s advertising 7” extolling the value of their industrial cleaning services. The introductory sequence, built around machine-like heartbeats and Andre Bazin’s 1946 comment about cinema returning to its origins, reflects this film’s own status as a kind of digital magic-lantern slideshow.

Out Of This World (General Motors, 1964)

A beautifully made commercial film produced by the Frigidaire division of General Motors and based on their exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York – a piece of corporate Cold War marketing that seems to echo the identical tendency in the Soviet Union at the same moment to promise a utopian future. Its vision is – as such visions usually are – both seductive and slightly terrifying.

Village Sunday (Stewart Wilensky, 1961)

In contrast to General Motors’ corporate and technological vision of the future, another strand of the Cold War narrative is seen in an early form here, as Jean Shepherd narrates a whimsical portrait of New York’s Greenwich Village, just on the cusp of its decisive transformation into a counter-cultural byword. Painters, small theatres, musicians, beatniks and drop-outs – all ending with some great footage of the Beatnik/Surrealist poet Ted Joans giving a recital with free improvised jazz-flute accompaniment at a Greenwich Village artists’ hang-out.

Biological Camouflage (New Zealand) [1978]

Part 2: Entropicalia and Exotica (09 Jan 2015)

Biological Camouflage: Entropicalia (Wayne Burrows/The Soundcarriers, 2013)

Something of an experiment, this film is made up of still collages from various iterations of the ‘Biological Camouflage’ series, made by fictional British artist Robert Holcombe between 1974 and 1978, set to music by The Soundcarriers, then punctuated with a short, repeated animated photo-sequence of a sleeping woman. The song – to whose propulsive rhythm the images are cut – is ‘Entropicalia’ from ‘The Other World of The Soundcarriers’, issued on The Great Pop Supplement during 2013 (a vocal version is available as the title track on the band’s first release on the Ghost Box label, released in May 2014).

Afro Mood (Unknown Director, c.1947)

A short burlesque film in which the dancer Amalia Aguilar pulls some incredible moves to some hot Afro-Cuban jazz. ‘Afro Mood’ is one of two numbers that she also performed in a movie entitled ‘A Night at the Follies’ (1947) which perhaps helps to date this particular clip, which was produced as part of an ‘exotic’ series, ‘Joe Bonica presents the Movie of the Month’, possibly intended for viewing as individual segments on reels sold for private entertainment and parties.

Exotica Fragment (Wayne Burrows/Paul Isherwood, 2014)

A very short loop of re-edited footage from a variety of public domain sources, ranging from a 1920s adaptation of The Lost World to undersea documentaries, Cheerios commercials, burlesque films, a study of ants and an advertisement for a wall street consultancy. The score includes an incantation from an Egyptian son-et-lumiere recording of the 1960s and an early sketch of a track made by Paul Isherwood for a forthcoming project, Exotica Suite, set to be released as a book, vinyl LP and series of films in late June 2015, financially supported by New Art Exchange and Arts Council England.

Disturbances (still) [2010]

Disturbances and Design (16 January 2015)

Disturbances (Wayne Burrows/Jon Brooks, 2010)

‘Disturbances’ is a short film compiled from found 35mm slides and it was originally screened with a recorded score made for the purpose by Jon Brooks, then narrated with a live voice-over as part of an Annexinema event at a disused cinema. Brooks is best known for his work with Ghost Box records, under the identity The Advisory Circle, though he has also released two LPs – ‘Shapwick’ and ‘52’ – on Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe imprint under his own name.

Design For Dreaming (General Motors, 1956)

A visually incredible long-form musical commercial advertising the General Motors Motorama of 1956, presenting consumerism as a fabulous dream world. It’s likely that this was exactly the kind of film that inspired the early days of British pop and youth culture, as seen in exhibitions like the Independent Group’s ‘This Is Tomorrow’, staged at the Whitechapel Gallery the same year.

Film Strip: 1966 (Wayne Burrows, 2012)

A digital reconstruction of a sequence of still images compiled in a concertina book by the fictional British artist Robert Holcombe in 1966, with a score by British electronics pioneer F.C. Castle.

Bonus Programme: the Beats, Smoke & Pickles New Year’s Eve party at Rough Trade, Nottingham, will involve a further set of films, 35mm transparencies and more screenings alongside music from Truth & Lies, Dealmaker & Can’t Stop Won’t Stop DJs and street food by Kimberley Bell (Small Food Bakery). All free, from 8pm till 2.30am.

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 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.

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.

Telekinesis I & II: The Playground (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 early 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 fabricated images appearing to show evidence of Telekinetic phenomena, and this group later appears to evolve into (and to a large extent merge 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)


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.

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.

Marine: A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle)

23 Jul

“The oceans are a great swirl of changeable currents. In this element, where serendipity governs all, nothing can be guaranteed or truly possessed for more than an instant. Rules are installed by force to bring certainties to the volatile flows of trade; laws are carried to new lands so that an investor can consider his paper certificates absolute proof of ownership of some place he has never seen, or some mountain of goods he will never use, only buy and sell then buy again. In a walnut bureau near Fleet Street or St Paul’s, all the opium of Bengal, the coffee of Jamaica, the tobacco harvests of Virginia, might still be held captive by an ivory lock and brass key any child could break. Stocks and monopolies, gunships, conscripts and lawyers: these direct the circulation of all things in the interests of that mysterious substance, money, which is itself alike to an ocean, though an ocean that neither exists, nor truly serves any man subject to its brute operations in the world. Despite all this, and sooner than we think, all our histories, all our symbols and artifacts, must slide inexorably into footnotes then disappear, like sea-molluscs from the smooth chambers of their shells.”

Sir Henry Whitehorn: Journals (1836)*

Marine (Nottingham Castle, 2013)

There’s definitely been something very wet in the air this weekend, and I don’t mean the massive and impressive thunderstorm that’s just passed over Nottingham. Rather, I mean that on Friday night a new exhibition curated by Deborah Dean and Yasmin Canvin, Make Believe: Re-imagining History & Landscape, opened at Nottingham Castle, and included the launch of a new publication, film and installation under the title Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, in which the sea looms large. The same night, Aquatopia, an exhibition stuffed full of oceanic images, artifacts and sounds, opened at Nottingham Contemporary.

The reason for the coincidence is obvious, given the importance of the sea in trade and human history, but it’s odd that it hadn’t occurred to me at all during several weeks of writing, recording and editing material for the Castle exhibition and only hit home when walking into the Contemporary’s galleries on the night of the opening. Whatever the reason for this sudden appearance of the ocean all over Nottingham (there’s a fake beach in Market Square at the moment as well) the resulting publication (designed by Joff + Ollie) is available from the Castle, and the film remix of that text can be seen installed alongside the eight objects that inspired it, and a related collage work, Biological Camouflage: New Zealand (1978), by the fictional artist Robert Holcombe.

Make Believe also includes work by Susan Collis, Alan Kane, Debbie Lawson, Mark Dixon, Shane Waltener and Jason Singh, and it runs at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery until September 29, 2013. Here’s a bit of information from the gallery information panel:

Marine takes its cues from items displayed in the Every Object Tells a Story gallery of decorative arts and crafts. The objects in question are: an American Plains Indian bear-claw bag; a Lambeth Delft bleeding bowl; a majolica plate; a gaming set carved from bone by a French prisoner of war; two wooden panels showing fish; a miners’ guild ceremonial axe; a Victorian porcelain plate showing butterflies and beetles; and a sample packet of Hawaiian bark papers brought back from the islands by the botanist Andrew Bloxam in the 1820s. Sometimes, the objects themselves appear in the publication and film. More often, the places, times and historical forces that made them guide the material. Sometimes, the text is fiction: sometimes it is non-fiction.

The central thread, concerning the deaths of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamâmalu of Hawaii in London in 1824, and the voyage of HMS Blonde to take their bodies home under the captaincy of George Anson Byron, successor to the title of Lord Byron from the poet himself, are genuine historical events: the facts are real but their re-telling should not be taken as entirely reliable. What really connects these objects is the sea and the circulation of goods and people around its surface; and perhaps there’s also a feeling I wanted to explore that the history we think we know is not carved like an epitaph on a gravestone, but is a fiction constantly remade from the jigsaw puzzle of facts and objects it has left behind for us. I like to believe there’s something liberating in this.

*FOOTNOTE: Unlike most of the facts and stories on which the published text and the approximately 13m looped film that make up Marine are based, the quotation above, which claims to be from the 1836 Journal of Sir Henry Whitehorn, is entirely fictional. Neither he nor his journal exist.