Reading – December 2018

It occurs to me that during this development period I should attempt to build some good habits, and I am certain that a habit of many successful artists is wide reading. Books have a big influence on my creative work. Heck, in 2018 I published my first novel (also boat related), and the original Title for my work BOAT was a quote from Robert Frost – Substance Lapsing Unsubstantial. The curators of the festival rightly saw that title for the pretension signal that it was, though I am still fond of it in my heart.

The themes of my work are influenced by my favourite works of literature (for example- Paradise lost, since always and increasingly Moby dick), much of my prior practice has employed text and prose heavily. And yet, I am a slow reader. I do not read as much as I’d like, nor dare admit to you. So I will endeavour to change that. Cormac McCarthy said in an interview once,

“The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.”

Without ingesting works, literature, art, culture, you starve your furnace of its own creative fuel. To that end I have already begun to ramp up my reading and will offer some brief thoughts on two books I’ve read recently and what they might propose for my practice.

1. Voices Of The Old Sea – Norman Lewis

This book accounts Lewis’ experience having settled in a rural Spanish fishing town after the war, he described the last threatened remnants of a generations old fishing tradition and culture. He describes everything from the almost religious superstitions about the waves and the machismo driven comradery on deck, to the matriarchal benign dictatorship of the town’s land based affairs.

I picked up the book for its relation to boats and promise of a connection to history. The lyricism of Lewis’ immaculate writing was distracting however and as far as he tried to draw us fully into the world I felt always on the outside – kept on the far side of the veneer of that lyricism. But he too always seemed like an outsider and was always treated like a foreigner by the locals and so perhaps it is fitting.

The fading fishing livelihoods put me in mind of my own locale of Folkestone, as it is a place wrestling with the shape of its current identity in the wake of the decline of our sea based industries, and that includes fishing. Our fishermen working in the harbour today have their own superstitions and history dating back seemingly to the mythic past.

I am caused to wonder how much my own relationship to boats and the water is shaped by my environment, and for all the romanticism I feel toward it, am I too outside? After all, I was born and raised inland.

Lewis’ book is staggering in the mastery over the prose but I was kind of frustrated that Lewis’ own nostalgia and romanticism for a tradition and time he was never really a part of inflected his writing. I learned more about his affection for the tales of fishermen than I did about the fishing. In the end it was almost as if it lacked something substantive at the core.

This hints a problem I’ve found in my desire to reconnect with our history through building boats as artwork, part of me wants to be like some kind of practical anthropologist and connect with our ancestors by following their techniques and interacting with the world as they did, navigating it as they did. But theirs is a different world, and I am an outsider. To give an example, the oldest boats in Britain are dugout canoes. But if I were to make a dugout according to the pattern of some 4000 years ago, I would be like Lewis playing at being a fisherman. I would not understand what it was like, the tradition wouldn’t be living through me, I’d be attempting to re-excavate a tradition from which I am cut off.

I live in a different world, a tree to me is a very different thing than it once was, once abundant and free resources, suitable trees are now much more rare and precious. And that difference in value means that my canoe would be wholly other to the boats it reached back to, even if by some miracle I were to make it perfectly as they would have. I’m intrigued by the impossibility of that task and poking at what it really means to attempt to be authentic and give ourselves to the past.

I am reminded of what poet Robert Pinsky said during a lecture on modernism and memory (I think it was at the key west literary seminar). He said that in passing on the knowledge we get from the old ones, ‘it’s necessary that we change it, else were betraying it.’ In order to illustrate his point he gave the example of Keat’s poem the Ode to The Nightingale.

“If as a thought experiment you said I am going to try to simply give myself to Keats; you would damage The Ode to The Nightingale, you would desecate it, you would destroy it. Because the treasure that a generation gives to the next generation can only be properly cared for if it’s transformed.”

From the perspective of historical preservation this sounds absurd, but as an inheritor of culture it makes sense. If I try to make a dug out canoe in the same way as my ancient ancestors it would become farce, it would become parody, it’d become a gross appropriation of something the original spirit of which I am disconnected.

Instead of romanticising the past it makes more sense to me to look to what was before and apply that to the world we find ourselves today, to become a descendant of the spirit of what was before, making something that does for today’s world what the dug-out did then. It’s like how the modernists retained a sense of musicality in their poetry whilst bending and twisting the conventions of rhyme and meter.

This sounds nebulous, but in my head I’m already starting to make it concrete in the way I am planning to treat the material in my work. But I won’t detail that here, let’s stick to the books… the boats will come.

2. The Library of Ice – Nancy Campbell

Talk about a change it tone! Written much more recently (its a new book) I am very aware that this is a much more contemporary writing style. I’m now certain that the English of the last book had as much to do with the more rigorous conventions of writing in the ’50s than it did anything else. Campbell succeeds where Lewis failed to bring her reader along with her on her journey, even as it skirts on similar themes.

However, despite this much more casual and not-to-mention humorous style I found it harder to persist with this one. This isn’t Campbell’s fault, I am a very bad reader. It was at an awkward straddle point between prose and poetry that turned out a bit travelogue and a little too unfocussed for my poor ruined attention span. Ice is perhaps too blank a canvas.

I was however interested by the opening in which Campbell describes a residency at a museum in Greenland and how the culture there did not seem to value the written word as highly as it does artefacts. Something that seems pretty alien to European cultures. Artists that stayed at the museum were encouraged to leave something behind, writers were required to take their writing away.

This re-enforced the things I’ve been feeling about the tactile communication inherent in crafted artworks, and craft is something I want to focus on. Previously my work has always been about the words, and about consciously trying to reduce ideas to their purest essence through written language. Now I realise that there are ideas that language struggles to carry, that hands might not. When I first started looking at the craft in my work rather than concentrating on its conceptual elements I felt I was becoming a bit woolly, but perhaps rather than being romantic, and esoteric, the ideas carried through objects are in a sense purer as they do not require the medium of language to arrange and make sense of them… or something. I do not have the words to quite express what I mean here.

Well that’s my reading assignment done for this month! I hope that you enjoyed reading and that in the coming months as I start making things, you’ll begin to see what I meant by some of this, and how my the inputs I’m taking on might effect the work. It’ll be fun!

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