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Light Readings: Glithero and the Matter of Fire

28 Feb

The bedroom ceiling streams like the surface – or depth – of a spring river running, in those moments when it is hard to tell whether it is water or light that fills the bed of the tributary. Phenomenal in all meanings, the room is suddenly and dramatically informed by its position in the cosmos in the most delicate and sensually direct way possible. The sun has, with John Donne’s poem in recollection, arrived at this chamber across the vast voyaging reaches of the galaxy.

from the film 'Mirror' by Andrei Tarkovsky

Light makes it of course, all of it. The world is enlightened before it is anything else. The being-ness of the material universe (from Heidegger to Terrence Malick via Andrei Tarkovsky) is so bought home to us – and in the process makes us ‘at home’ – via the dancing interrelation of elements.

So it is with this morning’s revelation and its beautiful fact of being, The solar shaping of the space that would take place regardless of the brightness or not of the day is enabled towards grace by the simple intervention of an impromptu curtain – a handmade, patchwork blanket hooked onto nails above the pane, and stirring slowly in the breakfasting breeze. Its shifting suspension – fabric meeting the bright and wind – has enabled the ceiling to dance, and in doing so has visualised, of course, the core reality of all matter, its anti-stillness, its subatomic constellations of particles and great space, great tracts of nothing at all, held in place by forces barely appreciated still.

from the film 'The Tree of Life' by Terrence Malick

Glithero’s work understands this inherently, this further heightening of daily miracles through a conscious intervention in their process of becoming something else; or rather, in their process of waiting to become other. Designers in primary media (here, flame and its passage), the creative duo are in the lasting analysis designing processes, the products of which are essentially evidence, that at a particular moment something happened.

By Glithero

As mentioned previously, their installation here sits in a pleasurably ambiguous adjacency to Tracey Rowledge’s Surface. Playing with the cycling of darkness and light (the initial night of the wall drawing revealing itself as a gleam carrier), their take proposes fire and ash simultaneously – the residue wallworks (mandalas and symmetries of flame-crafted charcoal paths) minding us towards the inevitable outcome of the bright passage caught on the looping film of the venture.

The thing and its image… the bedrocks of art. But what is the thing and what is the image here; not talking about the film and its ‘painted’ tracework but rather of the fire and its burn…

By Glithero, Jerwood Space View

Time and space… the bedrocks of existence. Time possible because it can manifest in space, or space only viable because it has duration in which to be and to become…

Work of the elements raises such elemental questions. Perhaps there is no answer to enquiries that in themselves can barely be named. Maybe observation of the awareness that things cannot be fixed – these relationships, between matter and mark, between process and representation, between the idea and the impact – is enough.

Maybe Thomas Mann is right…

“What was life? No one knew… It was warmth, the warmth generated by a form-preserving instability, a fever of matter, which accompanied the process of ceaseless decay and repair… it was not matter and it was not spirit, but something between the two, a phenomenon conveyed by matter, like the rainbow on the waterfall, and like the flame.” (from The Magic Mountain).

He undoubtedly is.

Clay motions: the far from still lives of Phoebe Cummings

26 Feb

Original things and their implications… and what matter in the poetic of the psyche comes before clay? Mud people, we are made and walk and sometimes talk. Clay in its wordness is a word as solid and building block as it is stuff. And yet… back to etymology and in Latin, it is ‘glue’, in the Greek, ‘sticky oil’. That is to say, it is not matter as firm but again as process, fluid. Binding rather than bound. A procedure with durational and finite imperatives, in one form at least…

See, we think we know the story of clay. Soon we’ll be back in the earth from which… and so on. Or in air, its tiny flocks of ash, but still returned; retrieved. But what if clay does not reclaim but rather transforms itself, permanently manifesting form; formed thoughts made active as worlds, topographies of unsettlement, too restless to be any one thing for too long. Moving on just at the point when it is noticed and named.

And not just bodies becoming humus, trees and other creatures (our beloved in the willow and the warble and the wind) but clay becoming other things of clay. Say the word enough and like all words it loses meaning and becomes a sound again. Then, at that point perhaps, it might be ready, prepared to become urgent afresh (to be as all words are at their first point of sounding, becoming something genuinely new in the mouth, out of a need, a need to be shared).

Phoebe Cummings is a site maker. That is, she makes on site and she makes site in her work. Formed but unfired clay is both an artefact and architecture, of ideas constantly in flux, of morphing forms. In this, the artist in Cummings operates more as an enabler, an interlocutor, rather than a maker sealed off and authoritative

Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Transparent Things, spoke of ‘the dream life of debris’. W.G.Sebald wandered the ever-restless Suffolk coast for his English pilgrimage The Rings of Saturn and marvelled at the particularity (specific and fragmenting) of the geography, the land in constant erosion as the tides reclaimed it.

So, if Cummings speaks to larger hierarchies of belief, it is to this, to the philosophy of what happens. However, as known from the new Physics, matter is less destroyed than it is translated. Matter – and energy – cannot be unmade, but are instead reformed. Further, Jung, thinking on these things from the perspective of the (un)conscious and interior life, described matter as ‘spirit seen from without’ and described ideas, thoughts (formed and not) as matter also, and not simply because they are carried by material agents – the brain tissue and more. Ideas and emotions existing independently of their carriers, with the weight of presence; we know this of course to be true. Just because something cannot be seen or held in the open palm, it does not mean it is not.


'The Eye of Silence' by Max Ernst (1943)

That said, Cummings’ art, beyond the ideas and responses it provokes, undeniably is. Her worked masses, clumps, chains, mounds, tottering towers and stacks; her almost vulvic organisms at times, they all enter the realm of the organically active. They all feel as if at any moment they might breathe and shift, not just in dust collapse or implosion but as inhabited elements of a larger territory defined also by the component of their making.

Cappadocia, Turkey

This aspect challenges Cummings’ choice of installational title. Vanitas, with its connotations of transience, of existence ambered in key symbolic elements is complicated by this sense of ongoing aliveness in the clay zone made. The tradition of ‘still life’ Cummings references speaks of a (Latin) ‘emptiness’ in definition, portraying the drained vessels of earthly and human passage. Curiously, while aspects of her micro-geographies suggest settlements abandoned and overwhelmed, the larger imperative is of a pause, a sense of dormancy, not a dereliction; that occupants might re-appear at any moment.

There’s a strong literary, visual and cinematic lineage to this aesthetic; or rather, a reading or viewing of it that can be made in light of key makers. J.G.Ballard’s warped ecologies loom large, themselves lensed through the Surrealist landscapes of substantial alteration (Ernst and Dali especially), and these in their turn serving as the dream representatives of actually existing locations of luminous strangeness like Cappadocia. However, perhaps the most contemporary parallel can be found in Anselm Kiefer’s remarkable French ruin zone, as seen so strikingly in Sophie Fiennes’ witness documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

from 'Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow', film by Sophie Fiennes on the work of Anselm Kiefer

But the zones suggested are not only ‘other’. The human body is implicit and explicit here, as suggested above. David Cronenberg’s perennial fascination with warped anatomies and Louise Bourgeois’ darkly feminine sculptural assemblages helpfully provoke.

Works by Louise Bourgeois

The cumulative impact of this ‘end-room’ in the exhibition is great. Matter in fevered speculation of its own shift. Volcanic ash clouds climbing the Icelandic morning, Pompeiis in the waiting; great forces at work, themselves being worked on. The sometimes silent, sometimes crashing dance of geologies…

And all of it lit by lamps as an experiment in waiting. Sealed vitrines and suspension. This is how we live and pass. Mobile clay beneath a sky, that shelters us or maybe seals us in.

'Vanitas' by Phoebe Cummings

Dark Matters: Tracey Rowledge’s ‘Surface’

23 Feb

It’s always interesting when a work of art enters the consciousness in ways that cannot be predicted, informing the life it now partly occupies and providing richly associative ways of thinking about, and assessing, aspects of being seemingly far removed from its making, qualities and –  very likely – its origin impulse to exist and its intentions, once made.

Tracey Rowledge’s Surface has been exercising just such an effect recently. This ‘in residence’ report on Formed thoughts has been all too uninhabited in the last weeks, somewhat of a show house (in by no means the best sense) – the lights on but nobody apparently home – as certain ‘facts’ have run their course: child and adult illness, pressured and extended school half terms etc. etc.; he flotsam and jetsam of the mundane, but no less virulent or necessary for that.


Add to that, however, the altogether different urgency of an eleventh hour campaign to prevent a deportation from the notorious Campsfield House Immigrant Removal Centre (no doubt then from its naming about its priority or ‘balanced’ nature; this is the end of the road for you, in the UK at least, if you wake into the nightmare of finding yourself here), one that would almost definitely have seen immediate execution had the individual in question been returned ‘home’.

In such situations – no names for now as all is still in flux and far from permanently secure – then normal life becomes suspended, placed in a kind of waiting area, just as with serious medical conditions. And a focus ensues, that becomes the prerogative of the whole person and those around them. So it has been.


And yet…And yet… Involuntarily, without conscious thought, I found the image, the sense or shifting mood of Surface rising constantly to mind, to the mind’s eye throughout. Why and how… now that a moment of calm, a threshold of possible reflection is laid, these are the questions. And, after all, what is ‘art’ writing if it is not the expression of an understanding that art writes itself into, and is written by, dialogue with the perennial world, its final frame and holding; in spatial, temporal and experiential terms.


Surface is, first and foremost, collaboration, in graphite; a drawing made directly onto the long street-aligned wall of the first Jerwood space gallery. It is itself; that is to say, it is a drawing of itself. Graphite is the drawing. The skin of the wall has gained an extra epidermal presence. In certain ways, the drawing now ‘stands in’ for the wall almost, but it has not become the wall, any more than the wall has become the drawing. The two remain distinct, despite both fundamentally requiring the other (this is as true for the wall as it is for the drawing; what use is a gallery wall without an exhibit it can present?).


That this work has been made by many voluntary hands is also important. It is collectively signed, literally, and this encodes the possibility of multiple readings within it before it has even been formally offered to the wider gaze. These readings are drawn into its surface by the script of the hands and all they have held. In this way, Surface, while appearing to be incapable of containment, is actually a vessel.


Stand next to it, very close, at one or other end and, at eye level, one’s body aligned like a vertical border, it can appear to sight (or rather, to what sight enables) that this piece is both present and absent, material and intangible atmospheric, surface and depth. These contradictions are encountered when the work is viewed face-on as a wall-mounted piece, but it is to be expected from that vantage point. It can still surprise from that conventional viewpoint, and will be revealed swiftly as a work of richness or a charlatan incursion in due course, but when it is witnessed as close as formerly, when one’s cheek could lie against its mark, then there is truly nowhere for it – and its content, or lack – to hide.

A luscious boudoir mirror to the active space it looks on, in yin-yang dance with its white cube home, Surface is an artwork where nothing happens. However, in the spirit of its already proven ability to contain and therefore transcend binaries, this nothing is tremendously eventful. The light ghosts inhabiting its textured darkness are the clearest inhabitants, but they are not alone.


In terms of Campsfield and its very public, very private horrors, Surface speaks now to both institutionalised forgetting and the trauma of imminent expulsion; of how to face the darkness of a very viable individual erasure. In this context, a few buildings in the Oxfordshire countryside (take the next turning or two and you’ll find yourself in the car park of Blenheim Palace) become a border which Surface envisages startlingly well – the space that is, and is not; there and yet unseen; the explicit in what it is hiding.


Give it time – and enough encounters – and it’s perfectly possible that Surface, like the void works of Anish Kapoor or the light installations and sky framings of James Turrell, could become one of those defining works of luminous limit and its containing endlessness. Like the monolith of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Surface contains all that we know we don’t know, as well as all that we do. Rumsfeldian only in its paradoxical logic, its silence (which hums with all the voices of its making, the chatter and conversation of its shared night) the symphony of a space that holds all sounds made on this earth, still voyaging to the edges and beyond, is as compelling as the linguistic labyrinth that pitches a spoken wisdom alongside a zen of plain, depthless in-sight; a space that takes sight in, so that it might dwell there, like light.

Think now too, for sure, of Rothko’s canvas immersions, of Richter’s ‘grey’ paintings, of the gallery’s white pillars as silver birches at the woodland fringes, looking onto Surface’s forest dark. Think of a sky of truly open space (both terms of it), the glitter of the dead star galaxies, only visible when the city and its glow are finally abandoned, the kind of darkness that sleeps over the sea when all the fisherman have gone and all the beacons are extinguished. Think of the viscous dark that spreads across the waves when a hull is holed and the earth’s fuel is spilled to seal wings and shorelines in its velvet dark embrace.


Like all the things that truly matter, Surface is both a beginning and an end. It is therefore neither, but rather a process that becomes a permanent state of becoming. And what is our response, what should we rise to do? The poet Thedore Roethke says it best. “In a dark time / the eye begins to see.”

First Thoughts on Formed thoughts

30 Jan

By Gareth Evans


Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,

Except for our own houses, huddled low

Beneath the arches and their spangled air,

Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire…

–          Wallace Stevens, from Evening without Angels









First thoughts are usually infirm, without shape; stutters towards description, let alone prescription or meaning (if they are, or appear to be, bold, with all the heady courage of ignorance, they are all too often as the wind; a loud vacancy). Like the hesitancies navigated as one veers, totters, plunges into affection. Or its idea, its wish. Always a yearning before ever a holding.

So it is, and more so, when the sought cannot be held. Yes, the lover, but not the love. Yes, the artwork, but not the encounter. So, voyagers on the sea of unknowing, a search for anchors. Some words, some definitions; they might be rocks or quaysides. Without sailing, no idea which.

Here’s one: craft – suitably marine of course; and skill, and trade, and the grouping of both; and a fashioning by hand; and… skill in deception and trickery; guile, cunning… unexpected, that last. Let’s keep it in mind.

And here’s another: applied – related to, or put to practical use; from its verb; being relevant, useful, appropriate; referring; coming into contact with; and to devote (oneself, one’s efforts) with diligence

Care and concern and sleight of hand…

The dig into the etymology of words is the sourcing of the matter by which to make meaning. Words exist because they need to. So it is with art, or anything worth the name. And naming itself is a craft, a vessel, a provisional vehicle which might at any point be overtaken by events, by larger forces or by redundancy.

A name is a gift, yes, a frame granting priority but also a constriction, an inevitable exclusion of so much that the name is not.

In this way language is both tentative product but more a permanent process; the naming inherent in language’s corral of meaning can only ever be temporary. Like a meeting that might be the first or the last, or only one of many. Like a journey in the process of an element through its varied embodiments of being; like space as it operates within time; or time as it blossoms in space, a scent whose flower is always other things.

Tracey Rowledge, Surface (detail) installation view, 2012. Photo Tomas Rydin

In light of the digressions above, what is nevertheless most immediately affecting about the artists and installation of Formed thoughts is a quality of precision that generates a form of inevitability; its own. That is to say, the chance encoded in all of the making has determined its own willed outcome.

Think first of the works themselves, here recorded in only the briefest comments (to be expanded in the weeks to come). We enter off the street,Union Street, a sense of conjunction, of purposeful assembly. To do so, we pass the Headquarters of the London Fire Brigade (such juxtapositions matter). Primary energies.

In the milky nave of the entrance(d) gallery, a wall that could be fire-blackened. That could be evidence. That could prove that something happened here… and it is the after-effect. Like standing ash, like the turkey feathers of burnt wood so tightly packed they become a sheer, hanging night. The wall its own sky, its generative darkness. Surface, Tracey Rowledge’s directly rendered solid graphite drawing, is anything but. Its title is a zen provocation – this is gathered depth, presented as a curtain opening only on itself, and everything. Surface offers either the original dark, or the cancelling that comes after all has breathed out finally.

Glithero, Fire drawings (detail), installation view, 2012. Photo Tomas Rydin

In this way, it has birthed or benefited from the Burn Burn Burn paintings of Glithero, suspended in the adjacent room, framed or looping in perpetual execution. Here, fire runs like a rumour that becomes fact. What’s first, the police or the riot; the riot or the police? The agency of a flame, undoing paint’s hope to mark as an accumulation of surface. Here the hot secret within matter – its red squirrel of energy running – scours into the wood the very opposite of the paint it has trailed to realise itself. Again we are presented with a tension between ‘skin’ and ‘flesh’ that amplifies the debate initiated within Surface.

Phoebe Cummings, Vanitas (detail), installation view, 2012. Photo Tomas Rydin

In the final space, this dialectic collapses completely into the matter itself, which is by now (of) the world. The wrestle here is between clay as earth and clay as earth’s far dream, of its own self-reflexive expression as matter in flux, in the cycle of form and unforming that is the nature of nature. Yes, there is a refrain of Surface, in the issue of which it might make greater claim to, impulse or arrival, but the tone and malleable intent is very different. In Vanitas, Phoebe Cummings’ equally site-shaped installation, unfired clay posits landscapes, organisms, procedures and purposes that are beyond any singular proscribing, stirring clear of title or label into fecund, hybrid embrace of their own unravelling. The matter of clay is its thought, and similarly its process is its product, not as an idea, but again as matter. Just as Glithero’s burnt mandalas chase their own nascent erasure, and Surface’s veneer swallows the light necessary to register it, so Vanitas, startlingly distinct (in its mirrored entropic pride), declares its own disappearance as an active and imminent event in the room.


These words were written when the hours were late, or early (depending on where you were); with Beethoven loud, a peat whisky or two and the metronome breath of the child dream-sleeping in the next room; and all of it too far from the beloved. These the elements and the means of this assembly.

So we edge from first towards formed. We make and are made by making. Rain on the canal, and a single birch, a sapling, waiting, learning to become itself.