Category Archives: poetry

Ian Hamilton Finlay, In Revolution Politics Become Nature (1980)

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A slogan is etched into a block of stone and the stone laid on a piece of red felt. There is something somewhat reverent about this inscription; the words carry weight and are to be handled with care.

You read the title off the block. And then you read it in a different way off the plaque on the wall. Just as you would read it in a different way again, if sprayed on brickwork. It’s unstable stone.

We all have our own reading. It’s the word nature which divides the audience. Is it human nature, as the Latinate letters imply? Or is it nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as suggested by the crimson felt?

Perhaps it is even ‘second’ nature. It is as if, after the revolution, it will become habitual to think in political terms. It is as if it would take a revolution, not an election, to wake us all up in that way.

Finlay was a poet before he was an artist. Hence the gift for ambiguity. But the plastic elements in this work only add to the secrecy of his meaning. The poet is washing his hands of your response.

But the classical lettering must tell us something. At the very least it tells us that Finlay intends for his words to be around for millennia. To a blogger such as myself, that’s frankly scary.

The five terse words have been cut by his frequent collaborator Nicholas Sloan. A classical typeface suggests classical values. Social revolution was surely never among the values of Rome.

But the line is broken in three places. The tablet can barely contain the message. And so the artist’s sentiment, be it warning or promise, threatens to break free. As do we all from time to time.

Felt is a curious choice of material, more associated with the Asiatic barbarians at the gate. Or with Jospeh Beuys, another sloganeer. Beuys made a great deal of the healing properties of felt.

So as to revolution? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, or even stones. But perhaps you can mop up the blood. And to say as much is as natural as it is political.

This piece can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.

Interview: Liliane Lijn

Black and white photo of the moon with word She written across it

Liliane Lijn is such a hands-on artist that, within two minutes of arriving at her North London studio, my own pair were enlisted to help lift a Poem Machine from the floor onto a well-worn work surface.

There was an issue with this kinetic, text-bearing sculpture. It creaked as it rotated, so Lijn and a more capable assistant than myself were examining the drum, sketching the mechanism and muttering things about radial bearings.

It is the last place you might expect an artist with a background in Surrealism and Beat poetry to be. The workshop smells like a hardware store. Tooling machinery lies dormant on all sides.

There was barely enough time to note the spools of wire on the shelves or identify the pieces of industrial machinery. Lijn’s latest technical challenge was too baffling.

“I find engineering interesting, yuh,” says the American émigré, with an accent that belies her teenage move to Europe.

“If you make something, you’ve got to get it to work. I’ve never been the kind of artist who says, ‘I’ve got this idea, now who’s around to get it to work for me?’.”

This even holds true of a scheme to project text onto the moon. Lijn and scientific advisor John Vallerga have considered lasers, kites and lately heliostats for a project called Moonmeme. For recent work Solar Hills, they have even developed spectroheliostats to beam colour distances of 5km around the earth, .

The physics goes over my head, but Lijn points out: “I’ve been working with prisms for years. So I’m used to thinking about colour, refraction, the spectrum, what that is and how to deal with it.”

Moments later she demonstrates a wound copper sculpture and this is a wonder. As it rotates, a point of light rides up and down the column, like watching a vertical oscilloscope.

“The spiral does something weird,” the artist points out, seeming as confused as me by the two-directional waves. But today the penny drops. “I’ve figured it out,” she says. “It’s the direction of rotation.”

“Everything has an explanation,” she concludes. As the interview progresses, more and more of her sculptures come to life as Lijn moves around the studio switching them on at the wall.

In addition to Poem Machines and the tube of copper wire, the less industrial end of her workshop is home to rotating cones which are hooped with neon and a column made of solvent barrels. This rumbles away in the background as she talks.

Holes are punched in the side of these drums to spell out five words which fans of William Burroughs may recognise from Naked Lunch: “Way out is way in”.

It should be noted that the impetus from this piece came from a meeting with the Beat author, who “intimated” Lijn might draw on his work for a kinetic piece. (It was years before the artist came to the task, so sadly we cannot know Burroughs’ response.)

Soon it becomes clear that Lijn is as happy to discuss poetry as engineering. “The only people who liked these [Poem Machines] in 1962 when I first exhibited them were artists and a few poets.

“Though not many,” she adds with a laugh, “because they didn’t like the idea you couldn’t read their poems.”

Lijn moved to Paris in the late 50s and, along with Burroughs, got to know Sinclair Beiles, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso. And whether they did or not, she still likes “that idea of words floating into your head and not being linear”.

If this is what she took from the beats, a crash course in automatic drawing was what Lijn came to through a meeting with the few remaining surrealists who André Breton had not expelled from the group.

“I’d done drawing at school and I never liked very much doing drawing from reality. So I started – which is probably a fault – doing drawings from my head.”

Now she says: “Drawing is very much about controlling the instrument that you’re using. It is, of course, an eye to hand thing, but it could be an inner eye to hand thing.

“You do have to control your hand and it’s very difficult; you find you’re thinking one thing and your hand is doing something completely different.”

As the many finished sculptures suggest, Lijn has got to grips with many instruments in her time. And as the odd creaking Poem Drum suggests, she may still not have total control, but practically speaking, she’s there.

Written for Culture24. Moonmene by Liliane Lijn can be seen in Republic of the Moon at FACT, Liverpool, until Feburary 26 2012. Read more about the artist’s work on her website.

Martin Creed, Work No. 117, All the sounds on a drum machine (1995), at The Poetry Library

Work No. 117 by Martin Creed is a jokey little number. It consists of an audio tape on which can be heard, as advertised, every noise on a drum machine played in sequence.

As it runs the gamut of automated sounds, it sounds like an ironic comment on the technology used. The machine sounds, well, mechanical, and the recording format is obsolete.

But now that it sits with the largest collection of modern poetry in Britain, its comic potential poses a problem for the serious business of verse.

Poetry is both rhythm and metaphor. So next to this piece every word of every line of every poem here, in around 100,000 books, becomes a permutation of a slightly crap machine.

Creed would not be the first to compare poetry with machines. In an introduction to a book of his essays, William Carlos Williams described the poem as a “machine made out of words”.

And poets are well aware of the limitations of language. In The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot already speaks of “a raid on the inarticulate/With shabby equipment always deteriorating”.

Having said that, Work No.117 could have you nodding along. It has an irrefutable logic. It works. Once you get over the format and the kit, it even makes a serviceable poem.

This artwork is one of three works by Martin Creed which have recently gone on display at The Southbank Centre Poetry Library, London.

Review: Billy Childish – Unknowable But Certain

Flags (in June's Pot) (2009). Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and L-13, London

Exhibition: Billy Childish – Unknowable But Certain, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, until May 2 2010

In a poem on the wall, we find that Billy Childish once wrote: “I am a desperate man who loves the simplicity of/painting/and hates gallarys [sic] and white walls.”

Now that his recent paintings hang on the white walls of the ICA, one wonders where Childish stands. For more than 30 years he has, after all, played the role of outsider.

The hallmark of his poetry, music and art has always been the rejection of fashion, so perhaps it was inevitable that a cutting-edge public institution should one day pick up on the results.

In painting, Childish is famed for sticking with tradition. His work is expressionistic and raw. He offers the viewer flowers in vases, landscapes and outdoor portraits but, this being him, two of the latter feature a dead man.
An oil painting of a dark figure walking up a snowy hill

The oils are laid on thick and, when it comes to colour, Childish favours the putrid end of the spectrum. Yet the palette can shift before your eyes. In Man on Snowy Street, bright shades of lime and blue override a first impression of sickly greens and greys.

Most of these brushstrokes carry the weight of long years of suffering, which are well documented in the copious poetry also found in this show. Chatham’s least favourite son still bears the scars of a brutal upbringing.

Childish also has dyslexia and will leave the misspellings in his written work. It gives to his poems a mixture of pathos and humour they might otherwise not have. When he writes of late night “kabbabs” instead of “kebabs”, it somehow seems fitting.

Music is perhaps this artist’s best-known art form, and one room is given over to his many recordings with about half a dozen band, including Pop Rivets, Thee Mighty Caesars and Thee Headcoates.

The sound never strays too far from garage rock – his bands are as rough around the edges as his art and his poetry. Call it the punk approach, but it translates better onto vinyl than canvas or the printed page.

Written for Culture24.