Archive for October, 2014


I started to take notice of Cornelia Parker’s work with her exploding shed of the 1990s: COLD DARK MATTER: AN EXPLODED VIEW, 1991.

This was a simple wooden garden shed, exploded from the inside.
The explosion was carefully documented by film and camera; then the pieces collected (she used an Army demolition crew – they knew how to collect meticulously) and then arranged.
The sheer skill that went into all of this – in particular the arrangements – was outstanding. The shattered pieces were hung/suspended at various heights and distances. This was like a captured explosion, without the obscuring of smoke and detonation.

Each piece/fragment had to be relocated to its original position as near as identifiably possible, and its arranged position proportionally placed.

The end result was one of contained violence, suspended force: arrested destruction.

The work was then lit from the inside with a single source of light.
We had the suspension of materials, and we also had the shadow effect – an extra dimension of chiaroscuro that shifted the cognitive possibilities of the piece beyond metaphorical implication, beyond but including connotative implications.

Thinking entropically that arrested position is ours: in the cosmic entropy of our entire universe, we exist, our lives are lived, in what appears to us as a stable system; and yet how we see it is as a fractional moment in the movement of its great unwinding. We have the sun or big bang centre of the universe, and around it our solar system, and/or the current state of expansion, caught.

We also have here the fragility of our world, the penchant for destructiveness of its inhabitants, and a pointed reference to destructiveness of closed mind-sets.

Our experience of the work constantly shifts between interpretive models, visually arresting phenomena, awe, and appreciation of the technical accomplishment – this last engaging our mechanical and spatial aesthetic modes.

This exhibit not only depicts basic and stereotyped gender attitudes: destructive and creative attitudes, but goes beyond that to posit an energising creative-through-destructive approach to knowledge and experience.

OK, hyperbole over-load!

‘The Army was deeply unpopular at the time, she says, ‘and I was aware that this would feed into the perennial debate about whom you could or couldn’t accept as a sponsor for your art.’ Even more provocatively, she comments, ‘I needed to elicit the expertise of an explosives engineer. Perhaps I could use special-effects people, or a demolition crew, The IRA….’
As it was she used the Army School of Ammunition. And Semtex. What we have then, is a cross between the IRA, and the British Army.

‘The two parts of the title together sound like,’ she comments, ‘a forensic examination of an emotional state or a murder, an attempt to measure something you can’t measure…’ (all quotes from CORNELIA PARKER,  by Iwona Blazwick, Thames and Hudson, 2013).

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 by Cornelia Parker born 1956

Some ten years later she produced another exhibit – a re-visiting almost of an aspect of the exploding shed, in THE EXPLOSION DRAWINGS, 2001.
The exhibit consists of three glass sheets; and splattered centrally on one is a solution – charcoal on one; on another sulphur; and the last saltpetre. All are combined with fixing agent. How is your chemistry? Combined they constitute gunpowder.
They are held separate – three solutions held as three ingredients in one solution, as we see them superimposed on each other. And yet it is an arrested solute. It is a potential explosion.

The ‘exploded’ theme has also been revisited – for instance in HEART OF DARKNESS, 2004; and ANTI-MASS, 2005.
This last consists of ‘Suspended charcoal retrieved from a Kentucky church burnt by arsonists’ (ibid). Here I ask you to note the word play on Mass. She writes, ‘The aging black congregation had suffered years of intimidation…’ at the hands of a gang of bikers, ‘who made a sport out of racial harassment.’ What we see and what we interpret are disturbing: the social and racial evil is depicted as an anti-mass. In physics terms anti-mass, like anti-matter, is a negation of our positive state, destructive to it. And yet a part of its nature.

The former, HEART OF DATRKNESS, we are informed ‘uses the charred remains of a forest fire in Florida.’ It was a controlled burn whipped up by sudden winds. This particular fire caused a huge blaze which became known as ‘The Impassable One’. ‘At the time it seemed … an appropriate metaphor for the butterfly effect of political tinkering, from Florida’s hanging chads…’ the anomaly that meant George W Bush became elected President… ‘and the ongoing war in Iraq, to the cutting down of the rainforests to grow bio-fuels…’ (ibid).


What we see in all these examples are challenge, controversy, and great skill and craftsmanship.

Cornelia Parker’s parentage intrudes on occasion – describing her video animation from 2010, DOUBTFUL SOUND, she says, ‘… Like a waking nightmare, this is the unheimlich – the ‘unhomely’ or uncanny space.’ German mother and English father, Cheshire farm background. This dislocation from the English heartland, from central location in full English culture and tradition, have perhaps helped develop a unique slant on culture in general. Hence we have SUBCONSCIOUS OF A MONUMENT, 2001-5, which uses ‘Earth excavated from underneath the Leaning Tower of Pisa…’. There are many such instances.

What is pertinent here is that each piece is not the Duchampian thing-of-itself, but derives its meaning, impact, resonance from its context, its wider perspective. The works are apart from and yet still remain part of the world. We see the uniqueness of for example the chalk dust micro-photograph of Einstein’s working on his blackboard, the rubbed-off tarnish from James Bowie’s Soup Spoon, but these objects are also invoked as part only of the matrix of their relevance in time, meaning, and space.


Author Ian Crockatt has just published these translations of Norse Skaldic verse, with Ark Publications.

CRIMSONING THE EAGLE’S CLAW is a new translation of the Norse poems of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney.
Rognvaldr Kali was nephew of Earl Magnus of Orkney. Both were Norwegian by birth, and inherited the titles of Earl and the lands of Orkney, incorporating Shetland, and parts of Sutherland. Both also became saints. Rognvaldr Kali established St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, where both he and Magnus were interred.

Rognvaldr Kali’s exploits were recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga.


Rognvaldr Kali has been translated before; we have versions in ‘THE TRIUMPH TREE, Scotland’s Earliest Poetry, 550-1350’. The collection is edited by Thomas Owen Clancy, and published by Canongate Classics, 1998.
There is also another version of translations, available online at the Skaldic Project:

What is special about Ian Crockatt’s book, a lovely production by Arc complete with illustrations by the author’s accomplished partner Wenna Crockatt, is that these translations have been made using the actual Skaldic metres and verse forms.

Ian Crockatt has divided Rognvaldr Kali’s oeuvre into nine sections: Early Poems; Incidents in the Earl’s Daily Life; Shetland Shipwreck; The Lady Ermingerd; Seafaring and Piracy; Jerusalem; Sailing to Byzantium; Illness, Loss; In Praise of Rognvaldr (this last is a collection of poems by other skalds in praise of Rognvaldr Kali).


The verse form is, the Introduction notes, ‘defined entirely by sound pattern and rhythm’. It has not been possible to use the exact rhyme forms, or reproduce the actual authentic sound of the originals (although for cognoscenti originals in old Norse are printed here per poem) so compromises have been sought. Crockatt has been scrupulous in this; he has not deviated from the original forms of metre, rhyming scheme or line length.

To give an example of the strict measures he reproduces Crockatt gives us this example:

Muck, slime, mud. We waded
for five mired weeks, reeking,
silt-fouled bilge-boards souring
in Grimsby bay. Nimbly
now, our proud-prowed, Bergen-
bound Sea-Elk pounds over
wave-paved auk-moors, locks horns
with foam-crests, bows booming.

(reproduced with permission of author)

He keeps this level of patterning and beat throughout each of the forty-one poems he has translated here. This is surely a tremendously skillful feat!

The poems are written as couplets, stitched together as a unit and as a quatrain, with sound, metre and image. It can be seen that the eight line poems break into two, not always exact, halves. In the above example we have predicament/description, followed by resolution. In general the poems act as subject address/ rumination/ open statement, and personal response.

One distinctive element of the poems is the use of the lacuna/intercalation; most poems incorporate an aside, comment, apostrophising of the subject of the verse, that is interpolated mid sentence.

There are one or two problems in such concentrated forms: no poem is longer than eight six-syllable lines, the poem construction follows strict rules of rhyme, alliteration, half-rhyme, internal rhyme and trochaic ending per line.
Such concision depends upon kennings to communicate fully. Ian Crockatt lists the one’s used at the end of the book eg foam-stallions for ships etc.
The book title Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is taken from a kenning used by Rognvaldr Kali. To crimson the claws comes from providing corpses for the eagle’s to feed on, that is, the killing of enemies.
Can we ask Why eagles, and not crows, or ravens even? Is it eagles because the enemies slain were another king’s favourite warriors? Or were eagles more plentiful on the battlefield than the crow family? Might it be a reflection back on the prowess and status of the victor himself, that whomever he kills is made up to better status by his act?
I suspect it is the latter: the poems are in essence boasting poems.

Also, if we take into consideration that poetry was considered Odin’s mead, and that Odin appeared at times in the guise of an eagle… then we have the eagle providing the inspiration, and the skald providing the corpses for the eagle: the poems as the remnants of that inspiration. These poems by Rognvaldr Kali are those corpses.

This gives an example of how complex a keening can be. What we read into, behind, beside, each poem is a wealth of back-story. If we read the Ermingerde poems in this way, do we begin to glimpse the woman herself, the woman in relation of the northern warrior, an Earl maybe, yet one from a different climate/world ?

On one occasion this concision and kenning does trouble the translation. How are we to read the poem His first encounter with the monks on Westray (page 32)?

The Skaldic Project gives us:

I have seen sixteen [women] all at once, denuded of {the old age {of the ground of {the serpent-field}}} [GOLD > WOMAN > BEARD], and [they had] a fringe on their forehead, walking together. We bore witness to the fact that, here in the west, most maidens are bald; that island lies out in the direction of storms.

The Triumph Tree:

I’ve seen sixteen women1
at once with
forelock on forehead1,
stripped of the old age2 of the land3
the serpent-field4, walk together.
We bear witness
that most girls here —
this isle lies against the storms
out west — are

1 Religious clothing, and Celtic tonsure
2 clean shaven
4 gold on which dragon’s lie
5 tonsured

Tonally it all hinges on the last few lines: Ian Crockatt has:

…… We skaldsmen
guffaw — gales of laughter
goad them west — Shaven! Blessed!

The versions shift between bewildered acceptance, outright scorn, and mockery that borders on acceptance.

It is hard for us now to imagine a world where for each man to go out killing on such a scale, of barely met others, was accepted and expected. What must this have done to their sensibilities?
The scale of grief and grieving must have been deafening to any with ears to hear it.
Here we begin to detect the challenge to sensibilities in the meeting with the monks. Of the need for the monks also, to begin to approach a sense of solace, perhaps.

In France – Ermingerde’s home – it was the time of amour courtois, of the Troubadours and Trouveres already well established when Rangnvaldr Kali came on the scene. It is also the period of a flowering of Arabic and Jewish poetry, philosophy and music.

I think the music of Ragnvaldr Kali’s poetry can now, thanks to Ian Crockatt, take its place amongst them.



Ned:  I want adventure. I want romance.

Bill:  Ned, there is no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.

Ned:  Trouble and desire.

Bill:   That’s right. And the funny thing is, when you desire something you immediately get into trouble. And when you’re in trouble you don’t desire anything at all.

Ned:   I see.

Bill:    It’s impossible.

Ned:   It’s ironic.

Bill:    It’s a fucking tragedy is what it is, Ned.

(from Simple Men, 1991)

Scenes in Hartley’s films act as condensates of emotional reasoning, parabolas of the whole. We are given bytes of the life of the piece, its honesty to form and intention. They are epigrammatic; Hartley expertly manipulates the lead-up and the punch line.

Some scenes are very self consciously stagey, assertions of power, or depict obvious transferences of power between characters. Craft, and the mechanics of craft are very much to the fore; his pact with his audiences is based on savvy, knowledge.

‘“Distributors always wonder, Who’s going to see this movie?” says Hartley. “Earlier in my career I used to think, Well, people who are sort of like me. Probably college-educated people, who like art.”(Logan Hill).  But since 1997’s Henry Fool the connect seems to have fallen away. A later film, The Girl From Monday, was reviewed as ‘…a barely contained rant…’.  He thought it might bring back audiences: “When we were shooting, we thought People are going to love this. This is hip and cool. And when we finished… we looked at it and thought, This is really dense. We have a serious art house film here.

Audiences didn’t take to it; nor was it taken as a serious art house film. Could it be he could no longer define the audience in his own image?

Let’s not forget beauty. One commentator says: “He marries stylish aestheticism and beauty with fringe and art.” His sense of beauty is both filmic and textual. And stylish! The early Surviving Desire (1991) references Audrey Hepburn in the gamine look-a-like Rebecca Nelson, in Funny Face (complete with dance sequence). In this short we also find James Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Modish style points in cinematic history. The film opens with a scene-take out of the other classic The Blackboard Jungle.


One important ingredient of his films is setting, environment. Simple Men is very much the product of its Long Island setting. “Long Island is a terminal moraine.” we keep hearing, “it is the dirt left over from a glacier.” We find this short stop from New York is also another world: the pastel colours, the empty spaces, the potato fields, woods. Even the characters are idiosyncratic: Kate the café owner as a recent divorcee is living in this limbo, as she expects her divorced husbands’ return; the sheriff is tangled and tormented in an emotional turmoil of his own. It is almost a Dantean vision. Which of the two brothers, the philosophy tutor or the petty crook, is Virgil? Each takes it in turn.

Moments of prescience: the brother’s seventy year old father, ex baseball player and now professional anarchist, is asked if he did bomb the Pentagon in’68. No, he says. Then why has been in hiding since? Because he’s good at it, he says.

Explaining his working method on Flirt he says: “…I let the characters of… cities and… cultures inform how I … interpret it.” The film uses stories from New York, Berlin, Japan: “…three different places… told in three different themes…

We need to mention the intellectual games. That opening quotation from Simple Men is a direct reference to Schopenhauer; Jude’s friend in Surviving Desire quotes from the Bible and classics, making them sound contemporary, relevant; Jude himself obsesses on a passage from Dostoyevsky. It encapsulates everything for him; so much so he cannot move on. Here Hartley dialectically reverses the opening scene from The Blackboard Jungle so that the dysfunctional tutor is forced by his students into educating them.

In Simple Men the issue of Ned’s taking on the law is contrasted with their father’s taking on the government: the legitimacy of a government made by law, of law subject to government, is tossed around like a hot potato. But nobody eats it. ‘Knowing Is Not Enough”, Jude scrawls on the board at the end of Surviving Desire. “There is nothing more I can say.” he says.


His characters are intellectual drifters; Bob McCabe Says: “… a few years ago they may well have… become yuppies, but… they have nowhere left to go.”

Are these middle class slackers, as he suggests, direct descendents of “James Dean-led angst-ridden youthful rebels of 1950’s cinema”?

The short, aphoristic scenes comment on our states of knowledge, how we acquire, utilise and in the end dispense with what we know: knowledge is not enough, not in isolation.

Hartley is not concerned with finding answers, so much as finding better questions.



2004 should have been the year of Germany’s industrial music pioneers Einsturzende Neubauten.
It was the year their trailblazing album Perpetuum Mobile was released. So what went wrong?

History got in the way. Or rather, their history.

Their history stakes their claim on dissonance, on stadium stage-wrecking concerts using road drills, industrial machinery and off cuts, on clanging, banging, headache sounds.

But anyone who heard 1980’s STAHLVERSION, a live recording of rhythmic beats and drumming on the metal casing of an autobahn overpass, will attest to greater things to come.

Ok, it took a long time to come: things had to be done first. But in 2004 the fruits of those earlier plantings bloomed, and bloomed wonderfully. This was a classic album, in every sense of the word.
And not so unprepared for: the earlier two albums, Ende Neu of 2001, and Silence Is Sexy of 2003, lay out new, more generally accessible areas of harmonics and melodies to be explored.
Perpetuum Mobile is at some levels a collaboration between the band and fans: pieces were put out on net pages for dedicated fans to respond to, suggest what worked, what could happen next.
This resulted in a still industry-heavy sound, but one capable of greater subtlety and harmony.

The title-piece is an extended exploration of our continually more mobile lifestyle, and its changes and effects on the ways we live and view the world. It is still utilising industrial machinery: air compressors, plastic tubes, amplified steel wire; but also coming to the fore is greater use of electronic loops, standard guitar and organ.
The piece goes through a number of dramatic tonal shifts, sustained by the same driving/’travelling’ rhythm throughout.

Boreas is an ethereally breathy piece, evocative of the strange brittle brilliance of the aurora. Surprised? Oh, yes: greater subtlety, see?

And the more accessible Dead Friends (Around the corner), although no doubt alienating some of the band’s older fans, could not have done better to win more mainstream airplay.
The overall tone is experiment tempered by maturity: industry and melody. And it works.