Gaston Bachelard

The poetics of space

Tagged along this weekend on one of Paul Carey-Kent’s art walks – which are always exhaustive and exhausting (but in a good way) – on this occasion around some of the West End galleries. Paul’s encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary art and his personal Baedeker of London galleries ensure that his walks are full of surprises; there are always new artists to discover and secret galleries, often hole-in-the-wall locations without a sign or a window to the street, like the speakeasies of old.

I especially want to talk about two shows we visited which are currently on at Hauser & Wirth’s two London outposts, and which focus (very differently) on space. As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am a huge fan of Gaston Bachelard, whose theories of how to consider space in poetry, how to “read” a room, both emotionally and contextually, have influenced my ideas of how a poem should occupy the space of the page. I am currently working on a sequence of ‘concrete’ poems to accompany a new sequence of woodcuts by Linda Karshan; it’s the first time I have consciously tried to work the poem into a predetermined shape (which has been dictated by the size and scale of the woodcuts) so this issue is very much in my mind at the moment.

Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures occupy the whole of H&W’s Piccadilly site. I should mention that the building is one of my favourite art spaces in London because it was once the headquarters for a bank, and so it retains the ornate wood panelling, the elaborate plaster ceilings, and in the basement, the actual vault. It follows Bachelard’s theory that certain spaces retain their past, a “geometry of echoes”, as he puts it. There is something austere and old-fashioned about the space that effects the work that is shown there. When you walk through the door of the gallery, you are immediately confronted by a series of tall structures: styrofoam blocks covered with colourful fabrics, which give the impression of square flags, teetering on wooden stilts sunk into blobs of concrete. Strange totemic towers, which are formal (and therefore match the formality of their setting) yet appear to be constructed from junk (Barlow is famous for recycling her materials, using bits of other sculptures she has scrapped to make new ones). They look like objects which might have had some function or meaning, now lost in the passage of time. I found these structures moving; perhaps because they appear handmade, a bit precarious, as if they might topple any minute. I felt small surrounded by them; they crowded me, it was hard to navigate around them. Barlow talks about ‘sensations of physicality’, an effort to capture the urban experience ‘like something wild or feral.’ And all contained in that slightly stuffy , officious space. The other piece that really made an impression on me was in the (scary) basement, a grouping of plywood and cement hoops, like a crowd huddled in the doorway. Barlow’s sculptures are like three-dimensional versions of Prunella Clough’s paintings (full of the detritus of urban life). There is something poignant and intimate about all of us (city dwellers, that is) squeezed together into these man-made spaces.

Down the road at Hauser & Wirth’s Saville Row site, a huge pristine cube of a space, were Roni Horn’s new sculptures, ten discs of “solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces on all sides (fire-polished top)”. The media is a poem in itself. They are beautiful, inscrutable structures, like rounded blocks of ice, cold and perfect, apart from the scarred sides, which show the viewer the cast of their making. They are isolated, distanced from each other in the enormous empty room. Their glassy tops are pools, circles of nothing, still and impassive. Bending over one to find myself reflected in its surface, I was reminded of the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Mirror’:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful –

The eye of a little god …

But there is another literary association attached to the work which had us puzzled. Although the piece is untitled, its ‘subtitle’ is an excerpt from a letter (which may be from Anne?) relating the story of a “nasty-looking” comb that belonged to Emily Brontë. The comb accidently fell into the fire the moment Emily died and was retrieved by Charlotte: “There it is to this day, a bit burnt. One of the most horrible things I ever saw”. So how does this emotional, dramatic account relate to these cool, controlled sculptures? I’m still puzzled, but what strikes me is how those glass discs are ‘sealed’, solid, as if they are preserving something inside that we can’t see (only the reflection of ourselves on the surface). So maybe both the letter and the sculptures themselves tell us something about the act of preservation. I’m still trying to work through it.

One thing I do know is that both Barlow and Horn have a deep connection to poetry. Barlow is married to the poet Fabian Peake (their daughter Clover is also a poet). Horn is a fan of Dickinson and Stevens; both poets have been referenced in her work. A connection between them, and back, once again, to Bachelard.

Paul Carey-Kent's blog:

Hauser and Wirth:

Outside the box



A weekend of books, but not just any books. First, to the Research Group for Artists Publications Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall, where international presses displayed their wares: pamphlets, prints, cards; as well as books, bound in board or leather or fabric, hand-sewn or stitched, or loose-leaved, or accordioned, some which popped from their boxes like springs, some which scattered their disparate pages like an attic of mementos. What these publishers and artists and poets have in common is the desire to prioritise the book, so that it becomes not just a container for words and images, but an object in its own right, as important and as memorable as what it says and shows. These are books which make themselves awkward, which do not sit vertically on shelves, which ask to be displayed like sculptures, to be opened from different vantage points. They force the reader to do more than ‘read’; they are about participation, working out how ‘word’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘gesture’ and ‘vision’ are linked, are indivisible.

And then to the Poetry Library’s open day, to see poets working in a diversity of strategies and ideas: computer poetry, concrete poetry, Oulipo techniques, patterned poetry, collaboration, chance operation, etc. And again, the idea that the book should not be secondary to its contents. Here are a few thoughts from Ulises Carrion, from his essay on The New Art of Making Books, originally printed in Kontexts no. 6- 7, 1975:

A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – a book is also a sequence of moments.
A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.

And this from Rick Myers, who talks about the concept of the ‘portable museum’:

I have been exploring the book as a format for this portability, for words and images, and when the contents of the pages have spilled over into three dimensions it has been necessary for the container to do the same … A box is a perimeter for space, for isolation of content, accumulated, often lying in darkness waiting to be revealed and considered …

It was the boxed editions which I found most exciting: lifting the lid on the unknown, a world in an enclosed space, like a walled garden. It takes me back to Bachelard, once again, the idea of the house as a receptacle for memory, the place where our memories are housed. ‘Intimacy needs the heart of a nest,’ he says. The book is like a nest that we crawl into …

As a poet, the idea that the poem can fly beyond the boundaries of the page is liberating; to know that there is a world of poets and artists making objects which are books, but also go beyond the confines of what we understand as a book, gives me hope. In an age when we are constantly being told that the book is dead, isn’t this an ethos for its revitalisation and renewal?

The image is a work by the book artist Georgia Russell.




The pleasure of ruins

Someone came up to me after a reading once and said you’re obsessed with abandoned buildings. Until then, I’d never thought about the disturbing number of poems set in ruined or desolate structures, but once it had been pointed out, I decided to explore the reasons. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a recurring dream of returning to my childhood home, in the dream in ruins, although I know the layout of the rooms intimately, as if the map of the house is ingrained in my feet. Gaston Bachelard writes about ‘the land of Motionless Childhood’, contained in the house we grew up in, which is 'physically inscribed in us … each one of its nooks and corners a resting-place for daydreaming.’ I suppose I didn’t start having the dream until I was well into being an adult, until the house was long-closed to me. The house is still standing, but much altered, and I suppose I wouldn’t really like to go back. As Bachelard says, 'the first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows’. And besides, the house stands in another country far away, a country I hardly visit these days, a country I haven’t lived in for over twenty years. A country which is foreign to me. So the fact the house is a ruin in my dream may have to do with the old cliché of 'burning bridges’, the brutally true statement of Thomas Wolfe’s: you can’t go home again. But Bachelard says you can, through dream and memory, the way we carry aspects and angles, scents and shapes with us always (for Bachelard, it’s a deep cupboard which retains 'the odour of raisins drying on a wicker tray’). Also, there is no denying that the poet has hit middle age, with all its threats and petty gripes; if the circus animals haven’t deserted me yet, sometimes they seem to be just visible through the haze, bobbing up and down on the merry-go-round in Asbury Park that I used to ride on as a child.

Asbury Park was already crumbling when I was little, once a thriving seaside resort which eventually fell out of favour and was left to decay. Although it was in no way romantic or imposing, like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, I loved the air of somewhere forgotten, somewhere that was hard to love. That may be why I like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of ancient storage silos and water towers (as a child, I was also obsessed by water towers, the old-fashioned wooden ones you used to find near barns or atop buildings, the kind that Rachel Whiteread recently immortalised in New York), always in black and white, suggesting an industry which had been superseded. Asbury Park was always a sad place, even when the sun was shining. And that sadness was extremely attractive.

I’ll return to this subject, obsession that it is for me, very soon … in the meantime, links to sites which feature the work of the photographer Camilo José Vergara, whose book American Ruins is one of my favourites:

photo credit of 'Tillie’, on the side of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park:       Andrew Mills/ The Star-Ledger