Wednesday, 12 August 2009

dwelling

for derek jarman (1)
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'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

Love'

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References

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

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