Alistair Noon, Antoine Watteau, Aristotle, art, Cesare Lombroso, childhood, depression, Emma Bolland, John Berger, Longbarrow Press, Phaedrus, Plato, Pushkin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Romanticism, Sandra Gilbert, Socrates, Susan Gubar, Théodore Géricault, The Bronze Horseman, The Madwoman in the Attic
For an audio version of Unearthing #2 click the Soundcloud bar below: (recorded and edited by Brian Lewis).
‘The chariots of the gods in even poise, obeying the rein, glide rapidly; but the others labour, for the vicious steed goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained:-and this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul.‘ from ‘Phaedrus‘. Plato circa 360 BCE
I wrote in Unearthing #1 of the rediscovery of forgotten works, buried in memory sticks and external hard-drives. Park, the piece discussed therein is large and labour intensive – around 100 square feet of coloured drawing – but the work I address here can be disappeared in a trice.
Black Pony comprises a herd of white horses cut from paper card, a corresponding number of clear plastic map pins, and the blue light cast from an unloaded data projector. At the time of its making much of my work, either consciously or unconsciously, had been drawing upon the world of my rural childhood: the sharp contrast between the illusory idyll of the countryside, and the actuality of an experienced geographical and societal isolation, and a disconnection with the accepted entertainments and aspirations of such a society. Festivals and fetes, sadness and madness. May Queens garlanded, hedgerows uprooted.
Central to the lives of many small girls (whether or not they possessed one) was the pony. A preparatory erotic, a prepubescent love. A repository of detail that rivalled any boy’s mental catalogue of strikers and strips. I can intone the litany of breeds and tack even now. Appaloosa, Palomino, Percheron and Shire; Kimberwick, Snaffle and Gag. The narrative of ‘pony books’, whether fiction or ‘true life’ offered up an uncomplicated world of a seemingly classless triumph over adversity; the child as powerful, independent, strong and fulfilled. ‘Jump For Joy’, ‘Jill’s Gymkhana’, ‘My Friend Flicka’, ‘Rosettes For Jill’ – the titles tell their own tale. The reality could be horribly different. Snobbery and humiliation, the staring coats of neglected nags. I longed to be part of the glossy haunched circle of beribboned success (I failed), yet the idea of also it left me alienated and dissatisfied. I learned to draw by copying the pictures in the Observer Pocket Book Of Horses And Ponies, yet I needed something other than the thing I yearned for.
I was dogged by childhood depression. Melancholia, a work made in 2005 was an overt expression of those experiences, a nod to both the existence of an abstract sadness, an unresolved grieving for the intangible, and for the necessity of a degree of such emotions in order to be a complex, layered human being. Its form is a mockery of the bright rosettes that adorned the anointed at the gymkhanas and village fetes of my youth. In a roundabout way, the work connects with my gravitation towards those canonical artists who dealt with the shadows in the pleasure garden; exemplified, for me, in works such as Embarkation To Cythera (1717), and Pierrot (also know as Gilles) (1718 – 19), both by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721). John Berger, in his essays on drawing, points out that ‘although he mostly painted clowns, harlequins, fêtes and what we would now call fancy-dress balls, his was […] the theme of mortality.’ Silks and satins were the fragile cloak of a corrupt, narcissistic, oppressive and doomed regime. (By 1789 the guillotines would be falling, and the bloody journey towards a problematic republic begun).
Some time after the making of Melancholia, against a backdrop of severe depression, a reassessment of psychoanalytical thinking as something more nuanced than I had previously considered it to be, and an interest in the pervasiveness of Romantic artistic and literary narratives of the criminal, the abject and the mad, (from the sublime to the ridiculous, see Théodore Géricault‘s portraits of the insane, Cesare Lombroso‘s pseudo-scientific physiognomcal theories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s excellent The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination), in short, the histories and possibilities, both empathic and intelligent, and reductive and discriminatory, for thinking about psychic complexity, for thinking about struggle; I came across Plato’s Phaedrus.
Phaedrus is everything I should hate. Classical, rhetorical, knowing, overly authorial, yet its simple metaphor for the human soul (however one chooses to interpret the word) is to me, whilst problematic, both brilliant and rich. Plato visualises the soul as tripartite. A man holds the reins of a chariot with two horses, the biddable and the unruly, sometimes translated as the white and the black. (There is an obvious, if partial correlation in Freud’s imagining of the Ego, Superego and Id). The biddable horse kept a steady course, whilst the ‘vicious steed’ bolted and bucked, dragging the chariot from the road, refusing the commands of the rein and the whip. Plato articulates the white and the black, though harnessed together, as separate entities – good and bad, noble and ignoble – but I saw them as irrevocably entwined, harnessed or no, fluid, permeable beings.
The little horses were carefully cut from thin white card, their forms taken from a ‘How To Draw Horses’ book. All the movements and silhouettes of the childhood imagination were to be found in its pages: galloping, prancing, jumping; the graceful palfrey and the buckaroo. I remember sitting at my work desk, unwell, the fog of melancholy heavy in the air. The work was fiddly, painstaking; here and there a leg was crumpled, a head sliced off by a slipping scalpel. A sore red ridge formed on my finger from the constant pressing down of the blade. When they were done I delivered them to the gallery, the curator wondering where the large wall work that I had proposed was, bemused when I fetched it from my pocket. They were pinned to the wall with map pins (the yokes that would bind them to their shadow) and the blue light of a data projector illuminated their dark other. I loved the black ponies. I love my black pony. It too deserves care.
(Postscript: About a month ago the Berlin based poet Alistair Noon stayed at my house whilst in the UK for some readings. Alistair’s allergies meant that I had to thoroughly clean the house. As a result of this endeavour, like Park, in Unearthing #1, Black Pony has been found, the little paper horses discovered corralled into an envelope at the bottom of a long sealed box at the back of the studio. Somewhat appositely, Alistair is a translator of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, published by Longbarrow Press)