Saturday, 3 December 2011

Alison Watt and Don Paterson Hiding in Full View

'Hiding in Full View' is a response to Francesca Woodman's photographs by the painter, Alison Watt currently on show at the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. Last night I went to a poetry reading held there to launch a book coming out of a collaboration between the artist and the poet, Don Paterson, who responded to both Watt and Woodman. The result is exquisite.

Alison Watt's self-portraits are conveyed through paintings of folds and holes in white fabric. Don Paterson's sonnet is reproduced in large letters, one line at a time, on the wall by each painting. In the book, a painting and a line of poetry are facing pages.

Don Paterson's reading,standing in the semi-dark, echoing space of the Upper Gallery surrounded by Watt's paintings, was an atmospheric event and comprised a selection of new work and some well-known poems such as 'Rain'. The audience, as far as I could tell, were mostly art lovers, with only a few of the usual members of Edinburgh poetry audiences there. A pity. The new sonnet was stunning. Worth it to have gone just to hear the one poem.

In fact, in a way, I wish Don had just read the one poem and let us meditate on it whilst viewing the paintings. I suppose the organizers and probably Don felt he had to give the usual 20 minute slot that poetry readings consist of. A small cavil. I don't mind how many times I hear the wonderful 'Rain'.

I was aware of Francesa Woodman's photographs before. They speak very strongly to a (particularly) female fragility and lack of a sense of identity. It was devastating to learn that Francesca was only 22 when she committed suicide. The photographs do hint at this sad fate, her psychic distress is so evident.

But after such a quick visit, I don't feel I can write in more depth here. I will revisit the exhibition, meditate on the pictures and the text of the sonnet, in silence when the gallery is emptier. This is what both poem and paintings require: silence.

Both Alison and Don are drawn to a spiritual vision (not religious - as Don at least, I know has said of himself- I don't know of Alison's stance on this though one of her paintings hangs in Edinburgh's Old St Pauls' church in a side chapel and I often stand in front of it to meditate.)

Don and Alison have covered similar territory before such as a response to the painting of 'St Francis in Meditation' by Zurbaran which expresses metaphysical anguish in the face of mortality.
Don's rsponse to Zurbaron is in his latest collection 'Rain' and is the poem called'Phantom'(also i.m. Michael Donaghy) in which the third section is after Alison Watt's 'Breath'.

In this present collaboration 'Hiding in Full View' it is less overtly spiritual, more about existential identity maybe, what can be revealed and what must remain hidden. It is a very evocative title for what both painter and poet do, the power of the suggested, the oblique, what cannot be said, only apprehended.

The exhibition continues until January 2012

Friday, 25 November 2011

Body Bags, Simonides, Norman MacBeath and Robert Crawford

Body Bags installation at ECA, Edinburgh Festival, 2011

Body bags laid out in a row in a studio at Edinburgh Art School looked down on through the window by the grey walls of Edinburgh Castle, was an inspired, if grimly apt juxtaposition: the castle, we must not forget, was built for a military purpose, before it became just a tourist backdrop.

I found this the most moving of the art/poetry shows on offer at this year's Festival: a multi-media installation including sculpture, photographs, poetry and not least, body bags. These latter, of course, remind us of the (mainly) young soldiers, some as young as 18, who have lost their lives, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Libya...and continue to do so wherever the wars and their aftermath continues. As the mother of a young man in his early 20s, I found it almost unbearable to contemplate what the mothers of these lads (and sometimes lasses) must feel. This makes one think of British lives, and in Scotland, in particular of the Perthshire and other Scottish regiments deployed overseas, but of course, an exhibition such as this, has a world-wide resonance.

The Dying Gaul

Also, of course, a resonance throughout history as the plaster casts of Classical Greek heroes/warriors, most notably the famous Dying Gaul, from ECA's extensive collection placed strategically throughout the exhibition indicated, along with black and white photographs by Norman MacBeath, and translations into Scots of Simonides' fragments by Robert Crawford, poet and professor of Scottish Literature at St Andrew's university.

Ootlin, tell oor maisters this:/ We lig here deid/ We did as we were telt.

Stranger, tell our masters this: We lie here dead. We did as we were told.

This laconic, possibly ironic, text is typical of the terse, piercing translations by Robert Crawford. Interesting to learn that Simonides is considered to be the first poet who wrote poetry as text and that he wrote about war, terror, loss and anguish, best known for his epitaphs for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae and for friends killed in the Persian Wars (the territories now called Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan): a poet with resonance for our times then.

Simonides can also then be seen as a poet of memory: one of the functions of poetry. His poems are in a way, as Robert Crawford has said, like 'body bags'- containing the remains of a human life.

The pairing of photos and poems send associative resonances between them, at times dramatic, at others oblique and allusive: my favourite, the MacBeath's photo of the inside of a wooden boat and Crawford's Scots/English text:


The nummer o the swas...

The number of the waves...

To me, the curves of the wooden planks suggested waves, the Greeks rowing their way to war, modern day wars, the dead as numerous as waves... what not said, speaking loud.

There are other photos/poems not ostensibly about war, though maybe speaking of loss, the most striking the photo of a bust of a Greek female head laid on a garden bench, paired with:


...the lassie speikin wi her reid, reid mull...

...the girl speaking with her red, red mouth...

You can see this photo reproduced in Giles Sutherland's Times review, and also on his blog (below).

If you did not catch this installation at the Edb. Festival, then this is a must-see at StAnza in March, 2012.
A BBC4 programme can be heard Sunday 4th December or iplayer thereafter for a time.

Read more: