on being uncagey about john, uk tour of cage exhibition into 2011

John Cage Ryoanji 17 February 1988 -pencil on Japanese handmade paper (ph Guy Mannes-Abbott)

Every Day is a Good Day [just say it, try… ]

This complete show of John Cage’s paintings and drawings is one that you need to go see, be with in real time and place. It’s not only that it doesn’t reproduce well [despite there being a very good catalogue with excellent reproductions newly photographed in it here or here] or that I’ve badly scanned one of my favourite delicate drawings done -in place of meditation- with more than one pencil around stones that were special to Cage [the allusion is to the famous dry stone garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto] but that until you’ve journeyed to stand before them, share their space you haven’t actually seen them.

I loved this exhibition of works for their affective simplicity -openness, lack of guile- and transforming leap from the disciplined procedures that generated them to their qualities as visual art. Continue reading “on being uncagey about john, uk tour of cage exhibition into 2011”

12.09. from josephine foster to emily dickinson; writing back

Josephine Foster’s Little Life [a “prev. unreleased home recording”] was one of several big refreshing breaths on Devendra Banhart’s The Golden Apples of the Sun sampler which Arthur magazine gave away in 2004 [here]. For me it was the most mysteriously rackety track -amongst Diane Cluck, Coco Rosie, Joanna Newsom, Antony’s The Lake- while also sounding like running water. I loved it.

Subsequent releases confirmed that it’s her voice, in concentrated form and as unaccompanied as possible, that I like. I kept missing her perform live, most recently in Porto for the opening of the new Serralves Foundation’s Collection where she was playing in the related festival at exactly the same time as my flight. I finally caught up with her at Cafe Oto, London in December, singing with a fine band but a band nevertheless.

It confirmed that the voice was her own, but I was hoping to hear from her new CD -As Graphic as a Star- on which she sings 26 Emily Dickinson poems, accompanied by crickets. I might have been a bit sceptical about the project had I not been writing notes to ED from a fruit store myself. Writing back to Emily Dickinson’s letters, wondering why it felt necessary, noting unavoidable parallels and differences.

So although I’ve completed one novel and begun another, written critical pieces of varying length but not one email in the fruit store, the first real ‘notes’ are this series which will take many months to complete. I’m tempted to claim that they’re a form of warm up exercise, in the way that Harry Mathews so nicely pretended his 20 Lines a Day were. But no, what follows are completely sincere inky whisperings which I do alone in my solitary room on the second storey of a real fruit store…

11.09. two. from brecht to benjamin and back

Erdmut Wizisla is Director of both the Brecht and Benjamin archives in Berlin and the authority on their relationship. His book began as post-graduate work in the GDR and emerged finally in a brilliant English translation with an account of the controversy of Adorno’s role in editing the works of WB in German removed. For that story see here [Dead link 2020; scroll to NEWS 10 dec 08].

I reviewed Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht; the Story of a Friendship [Libris 2009] for The Independent and include the short text below. It mentions the National Theatre’s staging of Mother Courage and Her Children, which utilised all the technologies of our time within a confidently theatrical experience. It’s dependence upon theatrical effect was surely closer to Brechtian intention than the still-impressive if neutered, straight-to-movie Enron.

I hadn’t read Brecht for years and discovered here [and/or in Ronald Hayman’s biography from 1983, OUP] that he began writing Mother Courage on Lidingö island, Sweden in 1939-40 after fleeing Denmark. Lidingö is linked by road and rail bridge to Stockholm and provided Brecht with a refuge for about a year. I know it and the archipelago well; 1039s seconds is set there essentially, and revisited the quiet now suburban lane where Brecht holed up when I was there in chilly October.

Benjamin’s work has long been everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, or anyway partial, not fully present; often more badge than book. Reproductions of some of his extensive archive were published by Verso as Walter Benjamin’s Archive, which I also reviewed in The Independent here. His entire archive is being published across 40 volumes in German, edited in part by Wizisla, here.

The best short introduction in English is Esther Leslie’s here but the four volumes of Selected Writings here are essential, as is The Arcades Project here, which I reviewed too here (UPDATED Feb2010).Momme Brodersen wrote an honorable, well illustrated first-shot biography of WB here, which I wrote about in the New Statesman in 1996.

Harvard UP’s SWs accumulate a useful book-length chronological account of WB and his work, written by Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland. They are still at work on a full life; The Author as producer: A Critical Biography of WB [for HUP] which will be essential reading when it finally appears.

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, By Erdmut Wizisla trans Christine Shuttleworth

LIBRIS £30 (242pp)

Twin illuminations in dark times

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Friday, 27 November 2009

Bertolt Brecht is back at the National Theatre this season and Enron, Lucy Prebble’s hit, has been lauded as Brechtian epic theatre. Enron restages high capitalist folly in a compelling performance which merges YouTube, art installation and musical theatre. If “epic” in intention, its sheer spectacle proves inconsequential as political theatre.

But political consequence was crucial to the work of Walter Benjamin and Brecht, as Erdmut Wizisla’s extraordinarily potent “story of a friendship” underscores. Benjamin the “pure man of genius” as critic and philosopher, and the younger “unwashed” Brecht, were a controversial enough pairing to generate sneers about sexual submissiveness from their Berlin contemporaries. At last, here is an authoritative account of their “astonishing closeness”.

Wizisla oversees both the Benjamin and Brecht archives in Berlin and is editing the former’s Complete Works. His story began in scholarly research and emerged in German in 2004. It exists in dialogue with Gershom Scholem’s own “story of a friendship” with Benjamin, written from his own archives and published in 1975. The renowned scholar of mystical Judaism was horrified by the New Left’s embrace of Benjamin’s work on its appearance in English. Scholem responded by asserting Benjamin’s “true” religiosity. Wizisla recreates this crucial relationship with forensic precision, printing vital scraps for the first time, typically supplying three diverse examples to support conclusions. He traces a prehistory to the friendship before its explosive intimacy developed between 1929 and Benjamin’s death in 1940. Starting in 1930, Benjamin made eleven attempts to articulate the radicalism in Brecht’s work. Even after 1933, with Benjamin exiled to Paris and Brecht in Denmark, Wizisla calculates they spent almost a year working in close proximity.

Central to Wizisla’s story is the collaboration on an abortive journal called Krise und Kritik during 1930-1. Its aim was to be “active”, “interventionist” and “consequential” in the cultural and political arenas. Wizisla examines what was meant by these terms, cross-referencing manuscripts, unpublished minutes and complete texts. For Brecht, “criticism is to be understood in the sense that politics is its continuation by other means.” In “The Author as Producer”, Benjamin argued that “the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency”; a continuation of politics by other means. For both, “high artistic standards” were identical with “politically advanced ones”.

Benjamin admired Brecht’s timeliness; his was a theatre for the “scientific age”, an “apparatus” to effect change. Wizisla quotes Benjamin’s benchmark: “A total absence of illusion about the age and… an unlimited commitment to it.” Benjamin perceived Brecht as the poet “most at home in this century” according to Hannah Arendt. Benjamin’s remark contains potent ambiguity, as does our recognition of him as a key 20th-century figure.

While Benjamin’s celebration of Brecht is well known, Wizisla excavates for us Brecht’s admiration for Benjamin. Brecht promoted Benjamin’s work, commissioning it directly, begging for critical feedback. His writing bears Benjamin’s influence to the point of direct appropriation. Wizisla dismantles the legend of Brechtian “terror”, concluding that the pair were “like-minded people” whose intellectual sparring was “based on closeness, intimacy and accord”. Much of the exaggeration of conflict originated in Scholem. Repulsed by Marxism, he implied that Brecht was a knowing Stalinist, and Benjamin’s work in the 1930s was prostitution. Wizisla reprints Benjamin’s letter to Gretel Karplus which criticises Scholem, long settled in Palestine, for his “wretched” reaction to Brecht.*

Wizisla, like Stanley Mitchell before him, is drawn to Benjamin’s radically optimistic analysis of Brecht’s poetry, in particular a poem about enforced exile published in 1939 which Benjamin recited in French internment camps. The message of Brecht’s Lao-tzu poem is that the “soft water” of friendly unity “vanquishes in time the mighty stone”; “what is hard must yield.” Wizisla’s story of artistic and political radicalism in the darkest of times is a landmark publication. These two friends “inhabited” their times supremely well; their traces ought to inspire us in ours.

* He kindly leaves out Benjamin’s description of his Zionist friend as “cloaked in self-importance and secrecy.” [Correspondence 1930-1940 Gretel Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Polity Press 2008]

11.09. one. from cage to antin, cabinet to david

I realised I’d been taking John Cage for granted after finding him in many of the places I looked, listened or wandered in zero nine.

I stacked up his books, enjoyed again his critical acuity and the playful invention in much else, got hold of a copy of A Year From Monday [the volume which followed Silence] in which he mentions the collective building of the Hon at the Moderna Museet [which features in 1039 seconds with brief significance], clocked images of him with Merce Cunningham in the Moderna’s current re-hang, remembered Michael Clark resisting my description of him as an artist [mc is…], saying ‘Merce is an artist’ with affectingly humble respect [but blew it again with the triumphant ‘come, been and gone‘ during November 09], discovered that Tacita Dean filmed Cunningham just before he died for a piece called Stillness, listened again to Cage on Thoreau, etcetera, then was invited to a ‘talk’ by David Antin at Cabinet Gallery one November evening -his first ever performance in London…

Antin talks as he thinks as he performs as he writes as it were, the results being transcribed and published with unconventional conventionality. He’s a living link to the Great Days of an actual avant-garde, of Fluxists, Floating Bears, Something Else Press, a broader deeper bohemia strong enough to exist in opposition to/independent from a ‘culture’ identical with the market and a ‘doing what works’ establishment with its insulating self-congratulation and bottomless complacency.

Antin’s ‘talk’ was fascinating to witness; he ‘strolled’ through it determinedly, digressions cutting back and looping around, enacting a substantial argument for a particular kind of opening out; committed outwards movement, always. I was surprised by his unself-conscious use of the phrase ‘avant-garde writing/poetry’, the way he didn’t play to type -even if context is a great refresher. His London ‘talk’ would read well I think and Cabinet are hoping to be able to publish it. A large collection of his work is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.

An earlier selection of some texts –i never knew what time it was– is available from University of California Press; here.

Dalkey Archive Press have about half of the interview with Charles Bernstein later published as A Conversation with David Antin [Granary Books 2002], here.

Ubuweb have two short texts as to download here.

There are various audio files of him in recent years out there, but nothing equals presence; catch him if you can.

10.09. from gupta & harsha to london, now that’s what i call music

During the last year London finally began to notice the breadth and depth of subcontinental visual art. A form of catching up across loosely defined generations has been going on, symbolised in October 09 by Nasreen Mohamedi‘s ongoing retrospective at MKG, Subodh Gupta getting a showcase at Hauser & Wirth, NS Harsha with an installation at inIVA and a solo show at Victoria Miro, as well as another intriguing group show at Green Cardamom. As crude a notion as ‘catching up’ in this way is, it seems that London’s tokenistic effort to do this with the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway in December 08 just might also be the last of its kind.

Veil [detail] 2005 Aisha Khalid

In contrast to the Now That’s What I Call Music approach of group surveys, Tommaso Corvi-Mora has shown Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, two of the best artists from an established generation in Lahore, Pakistan, since 2001. A similarly smart curator could yet put together a show of Bhupen Khakhar’s pop art from the 1970s for example. Another could put together a retrospective of the influential late Lahori Ustad Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Perhaps ‘West End’ gallerists ought to be showcasing artists from the next wave, like Naeem Mohaiemen, Khadim Ali, or Mohammed Ali Talpur for example. That is; as well as rewinding and catching-up why not just press play?

I don’t mean to exaggerate London’s importance -it probably needs the subcontinent more than the subcontinent needs it- but it reveals an approach predicated on the take-out or the M&S spicey snack; diluted convenience over actual cuisine or anything else. The same is true in the world of books, where the UK prizes writing prepared in English at the same time as translating very nearly nothing.

Gupta and Harsha are Indian artists with global reputations, about whom London had very little to say, at least critically. I came across the former in Delhi in 2002 and had too much to say about the recent work to post my notes here, but in summary:

Subodh Gupta Common Man Hauser & Wirth 1-31 October 09

The proportions of Gupta’s first major exhibition in London were peculiar. Its occasion was part introduction, part retrospective, its character declarative and incantatory. It spilled across two sites in Mayfair, imploding with a self-consciously wide range of forms, tongues and bases with pointless talismans [Wall] and point-scoring appropriations [Et Tu, Duchamp?]. The solid core were subtle variations on now familiar stainless steel sculptures [Everyday, I Believe You, A Penny for Belief II] here on marble plinths; offerings and monuments both quotidian and sincere. The most interesting work [Spooning, Black and White] showed a further refining and abstracting of his own sculptural language  which augurs well. Gupta is an artist unafraid of thinking big in the best sense, making art that is powerfully symbolic of everyday life experience. Art from nothing and everything, for the ‘common man’ of lore and life itself.

Here are my abridged notes on Harsha’s show at Victoria Miro 10th October-14th November 09.

NS Harsha Picking Through the Rubble

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

NS Harsha has been here on his way around the world before now but this exhibition at Victoria Miro is his formal introduction in the UK. Harsha is primarily an artist of paint. A painter who uses various vernacular mediums of Indian life and art to adorn almost anything, anywhere. His works have been miniatures ‘quoting’ from Company paintings to comment on colonial legacies with great wit. They’ve been murals painted on to walls, deriving from the village arts and crafts found across India, and bringing the everyday to life in site specific works across the world. Victoria Miro is showing large mural-inspired paintings of his delicate kind which are, incidentally, his most saleable work yet.

The ground floor gallery shows off a set of five large canvases with thinly applied acrylic in soft hues. All are 5 feet high and 12 feet long; the Imperial measurements somehow appropriate and one of few unselfconscious markers present. Harsha has lifted his art off the walls to join in on an art market that requires it to hang independently. As his international reputation has grown, his site specific works have magnified too. The upstairs gallery here contains one such pointlessly scaled installation; a made-for-Museum piece called Either Side of the Path of Enlightenment. Hidden away nearby is Eclips; a modestly sized canvas of Harsha at his best; elliptical, mysterious, warmly human, wittily questioning.

Harsha’s large scale murals share qualities of pattern and looseness from the wall-mural tradition, overlaid with his trademark specificity of person, face, moment. Spot an innocent civilian and Thought pickers especially, but also In musth, could pass as wall paper with their repeated motifs. Harsha wants us to look more closely at things we think we know or recognise. At his best this process is a witty but also sharp political commentary, veering on the philosophical. This is the quality that distinguishes Thought pickers, an Untitled canvas as well as Eclips but it’s precisely this that amplification for the market’s sake threatens.

Harsha’s ‘innocent civilians’ are rendered with a halo like effect around individuated heads. To the right of the canvas and in its midst is an exploding suicide bomber taking out those nearest her in an acrobatic display of painterly gesture. Her halo is less crisply rendered but I think it’s still there; Harsha is no reducer of sense. A decade ago he painted a series of miniature sized pictures which played with the same ambiguities of language to similar effect. One of those, Native Intrigue, also took a phrase from the dominant ideological lexicon and inverted it to reveal and softly ridicule its limits.

In the War On Terror we’re all innocent civilians as well as all-knowing and complicit. Harsha is reminding us that if we perceived ourselves as global citizens, we could no longer stand by while crimes against humanity, war crimes, murderous sieges and mass murder in the guise of democracy are perpetrated in the ‘defence’ of our ‘values’. So we’re the opposite of innocent. Perhaps the least invested in our shared guilt is the suicide bomber in this mural who is at least protesting. Whose guilt is confined to small-scale, handmade outrages.

Untitled 2009 [detail] N.S. Harsha

Untitled is Harsha at his best; a broad philosophical insistence rendered as gently as possible and more characteristic of his body of work. This huge mural on canvas divides in half; on the left are a mass of painterly gestures, scraps of colourful fabric, unordered or unformed, individual, intensely vibrant. On the right they’ve been woven together into something strong, useful, evidence of human presence. Rendered at many angles in the muddied middle are busy human beings turning the scraps into thread. Collecting, gathering, weaving, moulding, working up the disparate into something with collective strength. Something formed. This is enough; there’s no manifesto delimiting what that collectivity, strength, humanity or purpose ought to be but no baulking at the absolute necessity for it.

A couple of canvases –In musth and Absurd blossoms– feel forced to me in exactly the way that Harsha’s best work is not. Thought pickers makes the point; being typical of this set of new works but as natural and easy as the witty precision of layered intent it contains. Again we have repeated motifs; individual bent backed figures regularly placed on the canvas. Each has a collection of brightly coloured rags, paint strokes, petals on their backs. The colours are the thoughts, the figures are pickers, collectors, bringers-in of the thoughts used to sustain life.

Harsha’s figures are modelled on urban rag pickers and rural twig and stick pickers; gracers of subcontinental back streets and rural tracks, gatherers of subsistence. This should give us thought, not least about the way this apparently impoverished existence is also sustainable. Thought pickers renders a kind of inhuman abjection and yet it comments on our thoughtless acquisitive purgatory in ways that are unique in their lightness of touch and softness of voice.

Upstairs, Eclips is more of this; a beautiful puzzle of an image, easily missed in the corner and set apart from the rather cumbersome ‘Path’ installation. Eclips is a divine droplet of Indian thought, containing a press of distinct human beings, falling through time and space, going nowhere, but underpinned with a mystifying carrot. Mysterious but not pointless; the carrot here might as well stand for the rewards of focusing on our shared humanity; those vulnerably massed group of people who share a single fate as they come in to splash down and begin life on earth. It’s a carrot in a world of sticks.

Harsha is an interesting artist who works political wit and philosophical incisiveness into a highly refined practice that is also essentially vernacular. As his reputation has grown, as London has finally realised the health and vigorous breadths of subcontinental art, his work has expanded in scale to meet the curatorial market. Thus size becomes a key demand, alongside concern about portentousness.

Harsha’s best work is the obverse of this; an irritant of the portentous, able to stimulate large and productive thoughts in us with the slightest of means and on the smallest of scales. These modesties are bound up tightly with the source, inspirations and languages of his art practice. The global artworld -certainly as manifest in London- struggles to understand or even recognise the modest scale of these subtleties and so forces even an artist of the wit and precision of NS Harsha into its mould.

Picking through the rubble here, there’s enough left to remind us of the real value in Harsha’s work. It’s also a happy day when someone of his particular set of skills breaks through to International recognition. The moment must be celebrated even if attended with sadness and regret when it reduces the singularity of the work in question. Hasten along to Victoria Miro and catch NS Harsha while he is still making his own work and while that work is still Harsha’s to make.

09.09. from baroda to bahrain and milton keynes; nasreen mohamedi

Arabic Letraset lettering from Nasreen’s studio memorabilia Ph Guy Mannes-Abbott

In September the fullest retrospective (Jan19link) so far of the work of the late Nasreen Mohamedi arrived at Milton Keynes Gallery. Nine years earlier, the curators of this travelling show, Grant Watson and Suman Gopinath, had asked me to write a catalogue essay for their ‘Drawing Space Contemporary Indian Drawing(Jan19link)  in London -which also featured Sheela Gowda and NS Harsha.

In 2000 NM’s work was almost unknown outside India and closely treasured within. It mesmerised me and became another of the endless roads that drew me to Gujarat. There I met her friends, as well as colleagues from Baroda’s Fine Art School where she taught for many years, most memorably the brilliant and beautiful Bhupen Khakhar who died in 2003. Before his death our friendship was sealed by witnessing the state-sponsored pogroms of 2002 [in which Muslims were burnt out and slaughtered across the state of Gujarat] trapped together in his car between burning road blocks and the main road where armed police gave cover to a well-organised ‘mob’.

Extreme close-up NM artwork: grid-ungrid-diagonal-to-curve Ph Guy Mannes-Abbott

MKG drew together two sets of drawings [from her family and the Glenbarra Museum, Japan], the broadest range of photographs yet shown, some diary pages, early collages and several vitrines of memorabilia and working materials. One of these contained photographs of her with family and friends, some of which were taken at Bhupen’s studio-home. One shows her with another artist-friend, Krishen Khanna, long the owner of my great grandfather’s colonial bungala in Simla, where his studio is ‘cut’ in to the mountainside.

NM’s reputation has continued to grow since 2000, especially after she was ‘discovered’ at Documenta 12 in 2007! I expected MKG’s comprehensive exhibition to trigger proper recognition as well as consolidate her art historical place. While the latter is an ongoing process, it was disappointing to see that she remains just a little bit too much to take on board for incurious British minds yet.

Close-up NM photograph of sea water, foam and lines in the sand Ph Guy Mannes-Abbott

However I was happy to be asked by Bidoun to review the exhibition and although it’s only a short piece, no less delighted to see it in the current issue Noise [Winter 09/10] which you can rush out and buy! I’ll post it here eventually but meanwhile here are some other links;

The Drawing Space catalogue remains the best introduction to NM, reproduces some drawings, extracts from her uniquely worked diaries -including a reproduction- and a photograph of her minimal studio. Copies of the elegant little book [which is as good on Gowda and Harsha] are still available for £7 at inIVA here, or Cornerhouse here.

Norway’s OCA originated a smaller version of ‘NM: Notes – Reflections on Indian Modernism [Pt 1]’. Their site has a page linking to a pdf [8.51mb] of a booklet with some reproductions and a text by Grant Watson. A version of Grant’s text is also in Afterall magazine’s Summer 09 Issue, No. 21 here. That issue of Afterall contains the best reproductions of NM’s notoriously difficult to reproduce work currently available.

In NY The Drawing Center produced a good publication for their ‘Lines among lines‘ show in 2005, including Geeta Kapur’s revised essay on her friend, which I once thought eulogistic but now find increasingly resonant. Talwar Gallery in NY has an artist’s page of drawings and the photographic ‘sketches’ which she never intended to show but which are fascinating.

Until a properly thorough monograph exists with suitably high quality reproductions of the work, the best source remains Nasreen in Retrospect Ashraf Mohamedi Trust Bombay 1995.

08.09. from makiya to bidoun, within without

Mohamed Makiya is a huge figure. There are partial accounts of him and his work in three books in English, two of them by his son and former colleague Kanan. Start with KM’s Post-Islamic Classicism, a Visual Essay published by Saqi, 2001. Then there is a curious and fascinating essay in Lawrence Weschler’s Calamities of Exile; Three Non-fiction Novellas, Chicago UP 1998. Lastly KM’s The Monument; Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, California UP 1991 is a vital read and provides a variant approach to his father. Two other books in Arabic, one on MM’s early years, the other devoted to Baghdad, are helpful -the latter a glimpse at Makiya’s legendary archives on Baghdad and the region.

I knew some of his work and its context before I began, notably his brilliant and significant reconfiguration of the Khulafa or Suq al-Ghazal Mosque in central Baghdad and the massive Kuwait State Mosque. Nothing quite prepared me for the complex man, extraordinarily rich work and life that emerged from our conversations. My piece appeared in August and doesn’t resolve this or make up for the absence of a full monograph but it does present a rather different portrait than anything else in print.

Makiya’s life is part of the unwritten 20th Century, his work a monument to it -as well as many previous ones. I hope our conversation in Bidoun might provoke an attempt to show and tell the story of his work and life in full.

Meanwhile I’m posting some scans, including of Bidoun’s Contents page because it has so much in it that I really think you should buy a copy and/or subscribe.

Deeply Baghdadi

MOHAMED MAKIYA INTERVIEWED BY GUY MANNES-ABBOTT

07.09. from holbein to ford madox ford via zizek

In July an essay of mine appeared in Ford Madox Ford and Visual Culture (Mar2018 out of stock), edited by Laura Colombino [Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York]. It’s the 8th volume in a wider series dedicated to Ford, the series editor for which is his critical biographer, Max Saunders.

FMF & VC is a pricey scholarly volume for which an abstract of my contribution was required and included below. It meant revisiting Slavoj Zizek’s phrase “imbecilic contingent intrusions” which I borrowed for a subseries of e.things. ici2 remains a favourite of my own and is archived in my old website, as is its exhibition with Cerith Wyn Evans’ ‘Mobius Strip’ at Robert Prime, London.

Ford wrote his books on London and Holbein in a hurry but I’ve long admired The Soul of London (Mar2018 Also no longer available, this links to archive.org) and valued his Hans Holbein the Younger as much for what it reveals about Ford as about his declared subject. In ‘Fording Holbein’ in FMF & VC, Martin Stannard [whose well-judged, fond and economically rendered biography of Muriel Spark appeared in 09] defends Ford’s Holbein as “a crucial statement about  his conception of history and aesthetics” and “the forge” of ideas later embodied in The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. “The thumbprint of his nascent impressionism and modernism is left in the paint of this portrait of a world both ancient and immediately contemporary.”

ABSTRACT

Skull/Brain Drain Stain [The Ambassadors]

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Ford identified Holbein as ‘the first painter of modern life’. This essay argues that Holbein’s painting of The Ambassadors exemplifies what Ford meant by such a claim. Holbein’s courtly ‘display’ portrait is a quintessentially Fordian rendering of the human in all its messy actuality, despite Ford’s disclaimers about it. Holbein’s famous painting is now routinely looked at awry, but this essay faces it hard on to explore its peculiarly potent instability. In particular, it focuses on the skull and its associated contents; the brain, stain or spillage, human mess and matter in the foreground of the painting. It’s this vomiting up of the real that Ford finds and celebrates in Holbein – and beyond in the ‘modern life of men and cities’. With reference to Mark Cousin’s notion of the ‘ugly object’ and Slavoj Zizek’s ‘imbecilic contingent intrusions’, the essay suggests that Holbein’s portrait achieves vitality, individuality and distinction through its potential negation: the profaning blob. Holbein’s rendering of abysmal human actuality enacts Ford’s critical Impressionism which, he wrote, exists to ‘render those queer effects of real life’. In the second part of the essay, the effects of life’s contingency are extended to the city of London, images of war and leisure, and situated by what Zizek describes as the ultimate ‘speculative mystery’. Just as Ford celebrates Holbein’s vulgarity for its ‘blood’ and ‘hope’, the essay finds philosophical potency in his pukey mass.

06.09. from elias khoury a novel voice

Elias Khoury is a venerable Beiruti. His latest novel in English, Yalo, appeared in two separate translations in the same year; odd given the English-speaking world’s pitiful record in translating from Arabic. In June I reviewed the British Yalo for The Independent, and have posted the short text below. I also interviewed Khoury around publication of Gate of the Sun [Bab al-Shams] in 2005, a first which appeared in The Independent too [see Archipelago Books’ resourceful author pages]. These are notably good as well as important works of fiction which give rare voice to the actual terrors of our world and times; we should have all his work, especially his critical essays, in English.

The Independent

Yalo, by Elias Khoury

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Elias Khoury’s 11th novel starts in the middle of a series of forced confessions, which spiral in unending variation until the eponymous Yalo concludes that “no one can write life”. Yalo is a thief and rapist, a security guard turned “hunter” in the forested hills above Beirut. Not only has he inverted his job, but he’s fallen in love with one of his victims. The novel begins as Shireen denounces Yalo before his interrogators, setting in motion his desperate attempts at “singing” his story.

Khoury has described how he starts each novel in the middle of the story. In the middle of his last novel, Gate of the Sun, he wrote that words and language have been circular from the first; “No matter how hard we try to break its circles, we find ourselves falling into new ones.” Yalo exemplifies this in ways that may appear dispiriting in a confessional novel but are mesmerising in their execution -as readers of Gate know.

Daniel Jalao/Habeel Abyad, aka Yalo, is a 30-year-old Assyrian and veteran of 10 years’ fighting in Lebanon’s civil war of the 1980s. As he circles back through his lives, Yalo revisits those years as a war-dog in that many-sided conflict. Finally sickening of it, he accompanies a friend to Paris after robbing the safe at their barracks, only to be left alone and begging at Montparnasse métro station. He’s rescued from destitution by a Lebanese arms dealer who needs a guard.

Yalo’s grandfather was a refugee from Ottoman massacres of Assyrians. He looms in a mystical guise throughout the novel as patriarch and priest of the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church in Beirut. When Yalo heads for Paris, his grandfather counsels that “emigration killed a man’s soul”. This is why he had “learned to read what had been erased”, he says. “We are a people whose story has been rubbed out.”

Yalo’s difficulty with words; his smattering of a “dead” Syriac tongue; his ambivalence towards Arabic and struggle to narrate, begin here. Khoury leads us towards his displacement brilliantly, but it’s only one of the big ideas to which he gives vivid life. Yalo the disaffected fugitive is part Everyman, part Lebanese Underground Man, and part the refugee as coming global citizen. Altogether he’s a brilliantly individuated character who, despite constantly shifting versions and ecstatic visions of himself, is as urgently affecting as the brutal torture techniques recreated here with scrupulous exactitude.

Yalo succeeds in capturing the equivocity of things while it also bristles and breaths with unmistakable authenticity. The key to Khoury’s writing is its rhythmic and arrhythmic repetitions; from scales that are formal and philosophical through events, memories and sentences to words themselves, which can constellate across whole pages. For every fracture and fragment there is a riffing repetition and return which accumulates force until this exasperatingly unsympathetic man steps right out of the book and you want to offer him a chair at your table.

Yalo is a highly compelling performance, presented in beautifully crafted, often lilting prose, a tribute to Khoury’s authorship in Arabic as well as to Humphrey Davies’ translation. This novel is about a corrupted individual in a corrupting time, but it speaks of and to us all.

MACLEHOSE PRESS, £17.99. ORDER FOR £16.19 (FREE P&P) FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 08430 600 030

05.09. from me to roni horn, back and back again

Roni Horn’s retrospective began at Tate Modern before travelling westwards. I found myself going again and again, spending minutes and sometimes hours there, wishing it were a permanent fixture in London. I needed to write something and in the end the only way I could find the words for it was in the form of an e.thing.

Were 4, 2002 Roni Horn

still [two]

I went to see the Roni Horn again today. Before it goes, before it ends. And it was still there. Still. It was still, there, and that’s why I wanted to go again. To see the stillness and be amongst it; have the experience in my day and life. This particular stillness. And I did and it was and they were. All four of the Weres are still there, causing me to marvel again. In the stillness. All too precisely embodying what Roni admires and retrieves from Emily Dickinson’s singular wordings. A writing that doesn’t take you anywhere but confirms, insists upon, reveals and so celebrates the here, now, what is. Here, in the stillness. In the stillness of it all. This is what Roni does; what the Weres do. What they did, very precisely this. They require my presence in order to send me away with my hereness affirmed, confirmed. Sure that I know where it is, what it is, that it is. Once again. In the stillness of it all. So I went again today, for the sixth time. Perhaps the seventh. And the Weres are still there, though not for long. And they still stilled me. It’s astonishing this; round and around, again and again. And still, every time. In the stillness of it all they deliver up my self in its here and now. Contingent, incomplete, durable. Here, now. Present, still, in silent dialogue. A confirmation that I am, in the nothing that is. So what will happen when the Weres are gone? Never to be seen in destructive daylight again. Where will the stillness go? Will it still exist? In the stillness of it all, what is? Roni loves, gives and attends to me now; enraptures, engages, entices, embraces whoever I bring to the page. Specifically; the paper. In the stillness of it all. What is? In the stillness the paper moves; bowing, buckling; going somewhere and nowhere. So moving? In the stillness, I’m struck wordless; dumb. Entrapped in abstract seduction; a non-delivery of the very something I need and desire. Iterations of my stillness, my here and there, my continuing to be. Were 4. Were 11 and 12, even lime green and stubbed-on 13, but not these alone. I can’t keep away from their complex, frenetic, screeching silent stillness. And that wrestling; the sheer abysmal press and perfected stilling of all the movement in me. A movement towards stillness, draws me back, still. In the stillness of it all what is so moving about? Moving about. Still. There, but not for long; soon the Weres will be gone. They will be ex-Weres and my claim to keep them all still in my mind -indelible, unforgettable- tested. It won’t be long before I doubt my memory, undermine the necessity that has moved me to return so often this spring as it sliced up early summer and rearranged itself. I won’t believe it. The stillness, the goneness will defeat me. I know I’ll need to return again and the stillness won’t be there. It will be memory, remembrance, something else. Unstill, staged. Something which annuls it all, takes away the stillness, obscures, even destroys it. Memory. Destroys. Stillness. Without being able to go to the battleground it’s returned to wishful desire, to less than the nothing it so brilliantly enacts. In my presence, stilled, in the stillness. It’s a question that will survive the Weres -when they’re gone. Roni so precisely offers up the stilling of a particular busy stillness that when it’s gone, when she’s gone, when she’s removed the Musts, Theres, Throughs and Weres -all of Emily’s metaphysics of prairie and bee- I’ll be left asking the question. About the still. The stillness. The stilled. In the stillness of it all, what is so moving about?

18.v.2009