Friday, 14 August 2009

burning the house down

I have been reading Dylan on Dylan, a fine collection of interviews with Bob Dylan from the early 1960s until 2001. Dylan is intriguing throughout: always astute and thoughtful, mercurial, contradictory, sometimes grouchily deflective - and often genuinely hilarious. Sometimes he deals with inept interviewers' questions with playfully unravelling jazzy riffs that bust things right open. This is the only way to keep himself sane, it seems, in a culture that just won't let him be who he is becoming. Repeatedly it constructs the versions of 'Dylan' it needs, then expresses outrage at his having changed.

During a 1966 interview for Playboy with Nat Hentoff, for example, when asked 'What made you decide to go the rock'n'roll route?', Dylan replies:

- 'Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas "before and after" ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until the delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?'

- 'And that's how you became a rock'n'roll singer?'

- 'No, that's how I got tuberculosis'.


In the same interview, Hentoff asks Dylan whether 'jazz has lost much of its appeal to the younger generation', and off he goes on his own surreal, free-associatin', free-tootin', jive improvisation:

'I don't think jazz has ever appealed to the younger generation. Anyway, I don't really know who this younger generation is. I don't think they could get into a jazz club anyway. But jazz is hard to follow; I mean you actually have to like jazz to follow it; and my motto is, never follow anything. I don't know what the motto of the younger generation is, but I would think they would have to follow their parents. I mean, what would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a glass eye, a Charlie Mingus record and a pocketful of feathers? He'd say, "Who are you following?" And the poor kid would have to stand there with water in his shoes, a bow tie on his ear and soot pouring out of his belly button and say, "Jazz. Father, I've been following jazz". And his father would probably say, "Get a broom and clean up all that soot before you go to sleep". Then the kid's mother would tell her friends, "Our little Donald, he's part of the younger generation, you know"'.


Later Hentoff tells Dylan that one 'adult commentator' has referred to him as "self-consciously oddball and defiantly sloppy", then asks his thoughts about 'far-out hair styles'. After bad-mouthing the 'adult commentator', and then explaining that essentially long hair's about warmth ('People with short hair freeze easily'), Dylan's off again, his critical-poetic mind runaway:

'I guess if you figure it out, you realize that all of one's hair surrounds and lays on the brain inside your head. Mathematically speaking, the more of it you can get out of your head, the better. People who want free minds sometimes overlook the fact that you have to have an uncluttered brain. Obviously, if you get your hair on the outside of your head, your brain will be a little more free. But all this talk about long hair is just a trick. It's been thought up by men and women who look like cigars - the anti-happiness committee. They're all freeloaders and cops. You can tell who they are: they're always carrying calendars, guns or scissors. They're all trying to get into your quicksand ...'

Jonathan Cott (ed.) (2006). Dylan on Dylan, London: Hodder

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


for derek jarman (1)

'The more brilliant the light, the deeper the shadows'
(Leonardo da Vinci)

'If a garden isn't shaggy, forget it' (Derek Jarman)

A bright Sunday, the day after my brother's wedding, driving south through Kent from Maidstone across the Romney Marshes to the coast at Dungeness. A perfect langourous summer's day, all sky and heat haze and car bonnet glare, one of so few this summer. We go in search of Derek Jarman's house, Prospect Cottage, and its garden.

After ye oaste house and orchard gentility of much of Kent, Dungeness offers an unfamiliar landscape, profoundly un-English.
Jarman aptly called it 'otherworldly', and this is something to do with the conjunction of topography, texture and a particular quality of light. At this time of year, it's dry, blasted, salt burnt. Naked. Flayed by light and sky. A desiccated and flattened version of Tarkovsky's 'zone'.

Tiny bungalow dwellings with the edges of their gardens undifferentiated from the shingle and couch grass surroundings: no fences, so no way of knowing where they 'begin' and 'end'. Everything looks provisional, temporary in this exposed edge-land. On the sea side of the road opposite the houses, a scattering of old corrugated iron fishermen's sheds leaning at unlikely angles, barely standing, propped up - some roofless and shattered, all weathered and rusted. Makeshift make do.

Old fishing boats beached and abandoned, lolling on their sides, their wooden hulls sanded bare by the elements and the bitter easterlies that cut through this place in the winter. Some of these vessels have holes punched in their sides, or planks ripped off for other scavenger purposes. Jammed winches trailing fractured chains, petrol containers, a rusting boiler as if dropped from the sky. Sparse and surreal vegetation, with the extraordinarily intricate convolutions of the giant sea kale predominating, each plant bearing a spray of pea-like seeds. A vast shingle beach stretching away in both directions, the white cliffs no more than a tiny smudged line to the east; the ground slides and gives way with every step - one step takes two, three. Container ships ploughing the Channel on the horizon. Then there's the sky ...

The locals call it 'The Ness'.

It feels like a pioneer landscape, this 'nature reserve' on the lip of England: a place of adventurers, eccentrics, outcasts, borderline outlaws, fugitives. Tough. Last gasp. Out of time (or rather imbricated in a complex layering of different temporalities - as Tacita Dean writes, Dungeness feels '1970s and Dickensian, prehistoric and Elizabethan, second world war and futuristic'). You expect to stumble across the horns of a steer. Or Harry Dean Stanton, unshaven and shirtless in a crumpled suit and dusty cowboy boots, scouring the stones for something even he doesn't know. (Or Derek Jarman in a jellaba ...) Echoes of the dust bowl of depression era America, or of some Death Valley gold-panning settlement. More than a whiff of Steinbeck's Cannery Row here. Or maybe the desolate white trash dunes and fisherfolk-surfy-biker wastelands of Tim Winton's Lancelin, north of Perth in Western Australia. A scoured and bleached moonscape barely animated by the cries of gulls and the slurrrsshh of the sea.

It is terribly beautiful, like a muted, over-exposed apocalypse. Or, as Jarman puts it: 'This landscape is like the face you overlook, the face of an angel with a naughty smile. There is very little to interrupt you here, just the wind, which, like the mistral, can drive you slightly mad' (Garden).

Jarman's former home is unmistakeable: an exquisite pitch black structure with a corrugated roof and bright yellow window frames and front door - a minimalist aesthetic with maximalist impact. It looks both new born and ancient. Fragile and resilient. On its south-facing side wall, black metal lettering on a black-tarred clapboard surface from roof to knee height: the text appears mildly dyslexic to modern eyes. It is The Sunne Rising, a poem by John Donne:

Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motion lovers' seasons run?
Sawcy pedantique wretch, go chide
Late schoole boyes
and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time ...
Thou sunne art halfe as happy as wee,
In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy spheare.

The garden: at the front, a sea of Californian poppies on a bed of shingle, some elder, gorse and dog rose. Elsewhere, scattered amongst the sparse plants and the raised beds between wooden sleepers, a great deal of metal rusted a deep flaky ochre: chains, wires, abandoned bits of machinery and old busted tools. Sea-smoothed driftwood and lichened stone. Cork. Shell. Flint. Circles of dolmen-like wood, foliage, stone: some magic at work. Every pebble different, every one the same. Material imagination.

Everything here has been found, salvaged, re-cycled from this sea-edge place, and is both displaced and quite at home. A manifest testament to qualities of patience, economy, playful invention and a quiet contemplative thusness. For the garden stages a deep acceptance of being here in all modesty and attentiveness. Taking time to make space. Slow time, still moves. A bricoleur Picasso meets the Zen garden.

Jarman bought the house in 1986 for £750; he was scouting for bluebells with Tilda Swinton and Keith Collins for a film shoot. He called it his 'paradise at the fifth quarter', a place where he could walk in the 'Gethsemane and Eden' of his garden and 'hold the hands of dead friends' (Garden).

(Once, when my mother was very ill in hospital, she told me that her mother had just visited her, what a shame I'd missed her. She had knocked on the window, told her that she should 'come out into the garden', it was good out there, and it was time. Her mother had died more than ten years beforehand).


And all the while, rarely out of sight, rarely out of mind, the monolithic nuclear power station, Dungeness B. A mile or so away, just beyond the twin lighthouses, one black, one black and white. This Ness 'monster' hums silently, invisibly pumping vast quantities of electrical energy into the ranks of pylons arcing north across the plain. Another kind of sunne rising to warme the world. The triumph of the nookular in this temple of 20th century technology alongside the wreckage of earlier technologies, now redundant.

A large party of Chinese people are picnicking and swimming on the shore below the power station's beach-side perimeter wall. Seems a strange place to set up barbecues, and an even stranger place to swim. Perhaps they work at the power station, and it's just part of the everyday, its awe and mysteries and fears long since annulled by familiarity and habit. Perhaps the water's warmer there, flushed by some steaming subaquatic outlet ...

On the road back across the gravel-pit flatlands towards Lydd and Rye, off to the right you can just see the 'sound mirrors' at Denge that Tacita Dean has described and filmed. Huge curved concrete walls, listening devices built in the wake of World War 1 for the acoustic detection of possible aerial invaders from Europe. A kind of lo-tech early warning system, wholly inadequate to the task; they picked up wind and birds and passing trawlers, and were soon abandoned to be replaced by radar. As Dean suggests, they were left there and linger still, 'solemnly eavesdropping on the sounds of Dungeness into the next century'.


I have been reading Adrian Heathfield & Tehching Hsieh's Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (LADA/MIT Press, 2009), a wonderful new book about Taiwanese-American artist Hsieh's extraordinary year-long performances from the late 1970s to the end of the 1990s. Alongside superb documentation of Hsieh's body of work, and quite brilliant texts by Adrian Heathfield, Tim Etchells and others, there's an exquisite sequence of open letters to Hsieh by Peggy Phelan. Entitled 'Dwelling', these letters weave together memories of a fleeting encounter with Hsieh with meditations on history, war, intimacy and dwelling. Phelan first met him during his year-long 'Outside' project, when he was living rough on the streets of New York - a work in which she says he 'measured unenclosure as the concept of radical freedom'.

At that time she had no idea he was an artist. She bought him a cup of coffee.

Three short passages in Phelan's texts made me think of Derek Jarman during his final years of life at Prospect Cottage, and of the unaccommodated and provisional 'outside' that is the Ness. Hsieh and Jarman are such different artists, almost polar opposites in some ways - and yet both move me profoundly in the clarity of their purpose, their integrity, and the questions they ask about art and life:

Here's the first fragment from Phelan:

All history is moody ... No wonder it is so difficult to dwell only within the borders of fact when the seeping event we call History pours into us, again and again. It is exhausting ...

Yes we want to be protected from some aspects of the outside, but we also want, at times, to test ourselves against these same conditions, even to be undone by them. Mountain climbers, hurricane stalkers, tornado fanatics, deep-sea divers, and astronauts remind us that we also desire to be free of shelter and to dwell, even momentarily, beyond our habitual habitations. How much of this adventuring is based on the desire to live to tell how we survived that parting of the sea, the opening of the oozing seam between life and death? The act and the tale of the act are linked in ways that give shelter to each other' (343).

Secondly, in response to Heidegger's essay 'Building, Dwelling, Thinking':

'Dwelling-in is part of our plight, for we are called from our essential homelessness to the foundational force of our mortality ceaselessly ... The Red Sea parted and we were suspended between water and land, from the footing we dream our homes will give us, and the floods that gather whether we move out or if we stay in. To embrace requires both a reaching out and a burrowing in. I handed you the coffee; you drank. And in the steam, we found our dwelling ... What is our plight? To be fully alive requires that we risk dwelling in an architecture of steam. Weather, air, the inconsistency of those who cross our paths, the enigmatic nature of our own hearts, the thoughts that will not settle into prose, the rhythm of our exhausting vulnerability. Of course we cannot sustain all this, and so we approach life, and the live, in bits and pieces. Here and there, we fall alone, although we hope we are together, through the clouds of our densest dreams. You took the cup, cracked the lid; the steam escaped and enveloped us'.

And finally, she signs off her last letter to Hsieh as follows:

'Every embrace is both a reaching out, Tehching, and a burrowing in, Mr Hsieh. Encircled still by that billowing ring of steam, I sign this with profound thanks and admiration. And I yield again to the gap, and fend off the flood with the merest of whispers: the lullaby we hum with wordless




Dean, Tacita (2000). 'Sound Mirrors', in Tacita Dean, Barcelona: ACTAR

Heathfield, Adrian & Tehching Hsieh (2009). Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, London: LADA/MIT Press

Jarman, Derek (1995). Chroma: A Book of Colour, June '93, London: Vintage

----- (1995). Derek Jarman's Garden, with photos by Howard Sooley, London: Thames & Hudson

Tehching Hsieh's DVD-Rom is available from Hsieh's 'One Year Performance' website here; or through the Live Art Development Agency's online 'Unbound' bookshop here

gold into my black

for derek jarman (2)

'A colour shines in its surroundings. Just as eyes only shine in a face'
(Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour)

Oh oh the yellow windows.

In his penultimate book Chroma, in a section called 'Shadow is the queen of colour', Jarman writes about Aristotle's On Colour:

"He observes flowers, fruits, the roots of plants and the changing colours of the seasons. The green leaves turning yellow. Plants are penetrated by moisture which washes the colours into them. This is fixed by sunlight and warmth, just as occurs in dyeing. All growing things become yellow at the end. 'As the black grows steadily weaker, the colour changes gradually to green and at last becomes yellow. Other plants become red as they ripen'' (Chroma, p. 26).

In 'The Perils of Yellow', in which he ponders the ambiguities and multiplicities of yellow, Jarman writes:

"The fetid breath of diseased Yellowbelly scorches the hanging tree yellow with ague. Betrayal is the oxygen of his devilry [...]

Here comes the yellow dog, Dingo, chasing a brimstone butterfly on a sharp April morning.

Daffodil yellow. Primrose yellow. The Yellow Rose of Texas. Canary bird.

Rape and rattle. Yellow hot as mustard.

Ultraviolet reflects yellow strongly, so insects fall over themselves and hallucinate [...]

The executioner in Spain was dressed and painted in yellow.

For every yellow Primrose that commemorates Disraeli there is a Yellow Star. These are the stars extinguished in the gas chamber. (Old as the ghetto). Jews were wearing yellow hats in the Middle Ages. They were condemned to yellow like thieves and robbers who were coloured yellow and taken to the gallows.

Park benches were painted yellow. Aryans sat apart, yellow with terror. An evil vision jaundiced by colour, mark of Judas. Yellow plague cross.

We sail with the yellow plague flag on a ship into the bladder-wracked waters of the Sargasso [...]

Black and yellow sends a warning! DANGER, I am a wasp - keep your distance. The wasps circle the Burger King, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, fast convenience food lettered in livid 'Jump At You' typography - black and yellow red and yellow [...]

Yellow excites a warm and agreeable impression. If you look through a yellow glass at a landscape the eye is gladdened. In many of the shots I took at Dungeness for The Garden I used a yellow sky filter on my Super 8. It produced autumnal effects.

A golden colour appears when what is yellow and sunny gleams.

The nimbus of the saints, haloes and auras. These are the yellows of hope.

The joys of black and yellow Prospect Cottage. Black as pitch with bright yellow windows, it welcomes you [...]

This morning I met a friend on the corner of Oxford Street. He was wearing a beautiful yellow coat. I remarked on it. He had bought it in Tokyo and he said that it was sold to him as green.

The caged canary sings sweetest" (Chroma, 89-94).


On black, in 'The Black Arts: O Mia Anima Nera', Jarman writes:

"Black could be humorous. Could be modern. Coco Chanel's little black dress for all occasions.

But black was also the Inquisition [...]

I painted the gold into my black paintings (melanosis), the philosophic egg. The scarlet fire of the furnace, not as reproduction. This was the Quest, not a parody - the Quest that could end with a burning in the Field of Flowers - like Bruno who described the Universe as numerous worlds sparkling like dust in a shaft of sunlight. You could get more than your fingers burnt for that thought"
(Chroma, 141).


Black and yellow. Alchemical colours, both:

"BLACK: The base material was the Prima Materia, a chaos like the dark waters of the deep.

WHITE: The cleansing calcined albido.

YELLOW: Another stage, xanthosis.

PURPLE: Iosis, the colour of kingship" (Chroma, 76).


'The darkness comes in with the tide ... I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave' (Chroma, 124).


----- (1995). Chroma: A Book of Colour, June '93, London: Vintage

----- (1995). Derek Jarman's Garden, with photos by Howard Sooley, London: Thames & Hudson


for derek jarman (3)

At school in the 1970s one of my favorite teachers was Robin Noscoe, who taught art. He was anomalous in that environment: generous, enthusiastic about enabling creativity and encouraging expressive individuality, unapologetically eccentric - a godsend. Derek Jarman writes brilliantly about Robin - and about the school - in his book Dancing Ledge; for Jarman was at the same school, he left ten years before I arrived.

His critique of the English public school model of education in the late 1950s - akin to what James Hillman has called education as 'adult-eration' - is precise and withering:

'At fourteen, I paint in self-defence. The school is bleak and soulless, dominated by bells, prayers, bullying, and everything that brings a chill; a huge shadow cast over life, distilled into a distressing muscular Christianity. We dress in grey suits with stiff starched collars which cut into your neck; we polish our black shoes, and polish them again and parade past prefects twice a day. On Wednesday we change into prickly khaki uniforms and march up and down and on the spot. A subtle terror rules, thoughtfully preparing us for the outside world'.

In the ten years between Jarman's leaving and my arrival - effectively the 1960s - the school had changed significantly. Although a tradition of surreptitious bullying was resilient, fagging had disappeared altogether, and the military cadet 'training' (ha!) had softened massively to become a cartoon of itself. I was part of the 'naval cadets', ridiculous and comical in our matelot outfits, and utterly incompetent as sailors. We tended to spend quite a lot of Wednesday afternoons rowing up river to smoke cigarettes under the overhanging trees. Sometimes we went as far as the local town, where there was a cafe and a record shop; we hid the boat along the river bank and changed our clothes. It was hard to take this activity at all seriously, in part because it seemed to be locked in some dim distant past (the childhoods of the cast of Dad's Army?), in part because of the dumb sanctions that were imposed on those with scuffed shoes and inadequate haircuts and imprecise creases ironed into their thick woolen trousers (7 creases for the 7 ocean of the world). By the 1970s, it was fatuous bollocks, and we all knew it.

One thing that hadn't changed at all, it seems, was the refuge that the art school represented within such an anachronistic and uncreative regime. For Jarman in the late 50s, this was characterised by a 'vicious fraudulent gentility that masks a system of bullying and repression, coupled with a deliberate philistine aggression towards learning and intelligence ... A systematic destruction of the creative mind, called 'education', is under way. This has one aim: to awe you into impotence under the guise of teaching you judgement'.

Over in the art school, Robin Noscoe, with his tousled grey hair and runaway goatee, his paint-and-clay-splashed trousers and easy smile, was a combination of delightfully chaotic and a highly astute bricoleur-pragmatist. He got stuff done with incredible resourcefulness: painting, furniture, sculpture, ceramics, a lot of scavenging, trips 'out'. Even hanging out and not-doing-much was affirmed as productive, a Good Thing - which must have been a seditious thought for many of Robin's stiffer-lipped colleagues in this rural laboratory of the protestant work ethic coupled with an obsessive conviction that 'healthiness of mind' was surely synonymous with an ability to kick/throw/run/jump/pull/punch/hit. Above all, Robin demythologised and made available the processes of making, including getting lost and fucking up. He involved the students in constructing his house, an outdoor theatre and other structures, both provisional and more enduring. Art was a thing you did: a social and creative practice at the heart of the being in 'human being'.

Jarman remembers:

'It was from Robin that I learned that an artist was practical, whatever his outward eccentricity. Robin was mentor rather than teacher, he ignored the gulf that separated master and pupil and embraced you as a collaborator and equal ... In the art school he was a potter and every two weeks or so the great brick kiln we had built would be fired with wood scavenged from the grounds, and the pottery with its fine ash glazes would be scattered through the building and used as brush pots and crockery. As the kiln was unpacked, Robin would stand by, stroking his grey beard, his face wreathed in a delightful boyish enthusiasm. For a fourteen-year-old it was remarkable to see a grown-up so openly enthusiastic and in love with his work. For the boys he taught, Robin was an inspiration. Art was never mentioned in an academic context, but was a part of living in which anyone, whatever their natural ability or talent, could share'.

Jarman, Derek (1984). Dancing Ledge, London: Quartet Books