Monday, 16 September 2013

Alec Finlay's Propagator (the artwork I have seen recently that I liked the most)

Propagator, a work by Alec Finlay that highlights the poetic nature of art, life and sculpture, sits unobtrusively next to the high, curved brick lines of a walled garden at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Contemplating a willow tree, the work is housed in a greenhouse overlooking a lawn that stretches towards the undulating hills of the West Yorkshire countryside, striped with wavy lines as though someone has drawn a comb across them.
In the greenhouse – a place designed to concentrate light and warmth where time and its effects take on a different, accelerated quality – sit a series of artworks based around the art form of mesoteric poems. This way of writing takes its inspiration from a basic structure of nature, the tree, with the poem's name comprising the stem or trunk and words extending outwards like branches. Named after plants, and thereby reducing the essential nature of plants to poetry, Finlay's poems are succinct enough to fit on plaques similar to those used to distinguish between seedlings in cottage gardens: easy to miss but warranting a closer look.
Propagator was undertaken during Finlay's residency 'Avant-garde English landscape' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and offers a new take on his work in the field of publishing, where he explores ways of finding and communicating meaning. In Propagator meaning is both textual and visual, threaded through the stem and around the name of each poem to conjure a recognisable sense of the plant and its context from the combination of constituent letters which make up its title. Plants are both described literally and by their metaphoric qualities, with the poems taking on the characteristics of the plants they are describing. In the neat conciseness of Tansy, no letter is out of place: 'Threads And buttoNs Sewn neatlY'. Others are humorous, as in the knowing onomatopoeia of wheat, 'Where tHe aliEns leAve signaTures'; humour is also used to great effect when Hop is described as 'Heads cOuld drooP'. Sometimes the plant's natural qualities are united with manmade, common experience. Sea kale is visually linked with 'dereK jArman's shingLe gardEn', a place of pilgrimage for fans of Jarman's art and films, and the soporific properties of Valeriana gain a new association with bedtime listening and the unobtrusive background company of 'Vague rAdio pLays'.
Finlay's mesoteric poems also exhort gentle suggestions and instructions about how these flowers can be encountered and experienced, subverting our expectations and casting these common plants in a new light. The reader is told that 'WinDs cArry the cottoN threaDs' of dandelions, making the viewer turn their head to the sky in the hope that they can 'pIck One Now'. Lichen, it is suggested, 'greyLy Clings Hold thE skyliNe', a poetic juxtaposition which elevates the plant from its lowly reputation. Propagator is a humble installation, but one that fits closely with its environment and effectively brings out the simple beauty and meaning in what is around it, and around us, every day.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Review: On Landguard Point

How do you map a place, and go beyond its surface area to chart its movement through time, space and history? On Landguard Point attempts to do this for the flatlands of East Anglia, taking a pair of scissors to the conventional map of the coastline and inviting us to disregard what we previously thought we knew of the area's topography, starting and ending as a place in which our senses are submerged by the sea that's all around and by the earth below. Out on a limb, bordered by water on three sides, this is a landscape which over centuries has grown and receded with the sea; it has long been a site of conflict and battle, both among man and with the elements. Languard Point was an island before the expanse of shingle crept back towards the mainland, and the film introduces us to those who are “trying to maintain a sense of fixture in this ever-shifting landscape”. Our experience of the Great British weather, as well as of sound, is at its most extreme by the sea and the film sums up the coastal experience in a palette that is limited to various shades of grey and green, soundtracked by amplifications of the creaking of a flag pole, the churning of the sea, the swirling of the sky, the rumble of boats rising massive from the horizon, fog horns and, of course, the omnipresent gulls, over which rove and probe the compositions of Michael Nyman. The film plays with the way in which our understanding of place is shaped through drawing, painting, writing, folklore, music, and even food, inviting us to read a narrative over the shoulder of a typewriter, literally holding a mirror up to the land's diversity of flora and fauna and reducing the area's essence to neon announcements in a surreal piece of installation art. Local landmarks are recreated as grandiose cakes – slice of Wisbech Castle, anyone? It's an absurdist yet affectionate vision of this little corner of Britain, where truth is stranger than fiction, told through a deadpan, gentle, poetic voiceover. Made as the East of England's contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, the cultural counterweight to the Olympic Games, On Landguard Point presents a series of tableaux with a distinctly-English cast of brass bands, Morris men, historical reenactments, metal detectors, treasure hunters, archaeologists, majorettes (pom-poms-a-rustle) and the ubiquitous seaside donkey. It's an apt but uneasy depiction of a desolate but beautiful place and above all, it's a film about home and the things we do to belong: the seaside is performed, ritualised and observed, shaped by us and what we make of it.

On Landguard Point was shown at the Cornerhouse on Sunday 8 September. For more information about the project visit