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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

BOOK PUBLICATION CONTENTS & BLURB:

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
Disturbances
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)

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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.

WayneBurrows_Robert_Holcombe_The_Modernists_Diptych_I_(Primal)_[1972]_(2014)

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.

XeroKline&Coma

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.

Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Jack Bilbo: “A Modernist Fighter for Humanity” (1948)

3 May
Jack Bilbo's One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s autobiography, very lavishly published by his own imprint, The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, in 1948, carries a subtitle that sums up the man and his life: “Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo: The first forty years of the complete and intimate life-story of an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity”. As self declarations go this takes some beating, and the autobiography itself (the resemblance of much of which to adventure fiction is probably not entirely coincidental) is nothing if not readable. Whether all or even much of it is true is a question that crops up continually while you read it, but even if only a small fraction of its material closely matches what might be called an authentic account of the real Jack Bilbo’s life and times – Jack Bilbo being, anyway, a persona that had been created by Jack Bilbo himself in order to escape his original identity as a German Jew born Hugo Cyrill Kulp Baruch in 1907, the son of the owner of a successful theatrical props and costumes empire in Berlin – you’d still have to admit that the man led a pretty remarkable existence.

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

The 1948 autobiography certainly has its share of exaggerations, but the parts that are actually documented seem extraordinary enough. Bilbo travelled a lot, was involved with anti-fascist organisations through the 1930s, ran a bar in Sitges, Spain, aiding Republicans during the Civil War, and wound up in charge of one of the few Modern Art Galleries to remain active in war-time London, where he gave Kurt Schwitters his most comprehensive and significant exhibition in England, much of which was back on view in Tate’s Schwitters in Britain exhibition during 2013. Whether, between these escapades, he was also touring China with revolutionaries, working with smugglers in Mallorca, found his way to his father’s house in a ‘White’ district of Berlin during the Spartacist uprising with an escort of Red Army soldiers, whose lives he’d saved, got involved in an assassination attempt, met Sigmund Freud after a suicide attempt at the age of 18, or lost his virginity to and very nearly married a 21 year-old mixed race woman in the American South while en route to Hollywood when he was only 14 (but passing as 19 to get work on the ships that took him to America in the first place) is all possibly (or possibly not) more questionable.

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

At times, Jack Bilbo’s memoir reads more like Hemingway on steroids than any kind of factual account (or, perhaps more accurately, Jack London, his admiration for whose writings was, by his own account, the source of the ‘Jack’ in ‘Jack Bilbo’). But Bilbo himself is disarmingly open about his own tendency to distort the record when it suits him. During the 1930s, finding himself back in Berlin from America and desperate for money, he wrote a pulp crime book that his memoir explains was initially intended as a money-making fiction (he called it I Carried a Gun For Al Capone) but found it more marketable when chance misunderstandings with a German newspaper led to its serialisation as a factual account, which was later picked up by a British publisher. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bilbo seems to have shrugged and played the part required of him, acting out the role of an ex-gangster for anyone who fancied listening. A notable raconteur and charismatic storyteller, his 1946 collection of short stories, published under the deliberately double-edged title Out Of My Mind, apparently resulted from nights he put on at his gallery in London where guests listened to Bilbo’s grisly, strange and unlikely tales and had to guess which were true, which false, and which neither, because even Bilbo himself wasn’t entirely sure.

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

He seems, in short, to have treated his own life as a fiction, to be rewritten as he went along on whatever terms he liked: a kind of archetypal Modernist position if ever there was one. You could say that he often seems to have operated as a paradoxically honest confidence trickster, with interesting results. There’s no evidence whatsoever that he had any interest in art, or any training in it, before his arrival in London in 1939, but at some point after that arrival he appears to have decided to become an artist, working furiously to create a series of 34 canvases, which he then touted around galleries. According to his memoir, having been laughed at and refused an exhibition everywhere, he simply set up his own: The Modern Art Gallery, which eventually settled at 24 Charles II Street. His German nationality led to a period of internment, where he met many other Jewish and Leftist intellectuals, collectors and artists forced to flee the Nazi regime, including Kurt Schwitters, so on his eventual release found he had a ready-made stable of contacts with internationally important figures who were not only available but in need of his help to continue their own work. By 1942 he was a genuine artist, curator and dealer, showing Picasso at his own gallery and his own curious works with David Zwemmer, among others. By 1944 he was a feature on Pathé newsreels.

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Were his paintings good? Not by most standard measures, for which Bilbo himself had nothing but contempt anyway, but they have something that is hard to dismiss, at least at their best (he is not, shall we say, a very consistent painter). An uncensored strangeness, an ahead-of-its-time absurdist black humour, a makeshift aesthetic that transcends Bilbo’s own technical limitations more often than it plausibly should, all allied with an imagination that paints whatever passes through it, disregarding most conventional criteria of taste and aesthetics. It’s no wonder that he struck up a quick rapport with Schwitters. Perhaps the best way to think about Bilbo’s own artworks is as those of a ‘bad’ painter with an inconsistent, largely accidental originality, but an originality nonetheless. He’s not a deliberate ‘bad’ painter like Picabia, not an innocent like Henri Rousseau, and clearly not an ‘outsider artist’ in any meaningful sense either. It turns out that he may have been weirdly, if subliminally, influential, too: many of his paintings look disconcertingly current, with a sensibility more common in 2014 than in the 1940s. If so, this must have been mediated in indirect ways. For example: some of Bilbo’s paintings (and certainly the concrete garden sculptures he made in Weybridge after 1945, which are no longer extant) seem to have been reference points for Tony Hancock and his writers when they devised their feature-length art world satire The Rebel (1960).

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

More intriguingly, especially from the perspective of the Robert Holcombe project, Jack Bilbo’s memoir has a physical but slightly phantom presence in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bunk! series of collages, projected at the ICA in 1952 and later made into a series of prints at the time of Paolozzi’s Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1971 (it also transpires that the story of the Bunk! collages may itself be as fabricated as anything in Bilbo’s memoir, but that’s another story). For whatever reason, the image that contains the Bunk! of the Bunk! series is properly known by one of Bilbo’s titles, built as it is on the page containing Evadne In Green Dimension (1945) as a tipped-in colour plate in the 1948 autobiography. That Bilbo was also present in London and Weybridge until 1949, the year after Holcombe arrived at the Slade (where he also, fictionally, met Eduardo Paolozzi) therefore positions Hugo Baruch, aka Jack Bilbo himself, a man deeply enamoured of self-fictionalisation, at the epicentre of Holcombe’s own formative fictional milieu, which opens up some interesting possibilities. Besides, Bilbo retains his own presence, his estate now represented by England & Co gallery, with whom the artist Aaron Angell recently collaborated to put his own work alongside some of Bilbo’s drawings. He has also made several cameo appearances in the convoluted narrative of Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden‘s ongoing series of noir-inspired historical drawings. In the face of all this, if Bilbo was a fantasist, as seems at least partly the case, he was a fantasist with an uncanny knack of bringing his fabrications into reality.

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

All images are scanned from the pages of Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo (The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, London, 1948). The book is currently out of print.

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.