Monday, 14 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 4

Zig Zag, Clarissa Upchurch

Budapest is a city I am love with and this piece is to some degree a love poem addressed to her vision of the place. I want to praise the vision because of its power and sadness, because of its sense of lost narrative, a narrative of lost people and lost histories. I want to praise it for its distance and fear, and for the way in which it implies narrative of a cinematic nature but without imposing any melodramatic narrative structure on its design. Its subjects, whether these are windows, balconies, doorways, fleeting human figures or moving cars, occupy the same post-Baudelairean terrain as the work of the story-boardists.  Like the flâneur-turned-detective she catches things in flight - one set of early drawings traced a flight path round a particular apartment block – and sets a distance between them and us, so that our engagement with them remains intriguing and conjectural, as with a highly wrought story-board of a story of guesses and traces. In the meantime the pictures shimmer like Morandi’s still-lives, in a kind of metaphysical heat-haze. Things refuse to settle.

King Vidor’s crowds have disappeared from Upchurch’s work, but not without scent or trace. They made the city then retreated, some into rooms, some into the earth as the dead, and some into statuary as monuments and emblems. A few of the vulnerable living are seen hurrying or watching cars hurry down steep vistas. In other picture statues heave and pose under construction workers’ drapery. They are trying to assert their own place in this busy emptiness. Domes and towers in her ‘Icons’ series seem to revert to nature, like a mixture of tree, fire and face. The staircases are continually echoing to feet descending into cellars or rising into attics. The courtyards swim in their own deep reflections, and men in swimming pools stare towards us from the echoey water. Echo is the natural speech of the region because echo is what remains. The craft virtues of Upchurch’s work lie in draughtsmanship and painterliness. In this respect they are perfectly traditional, albeit in the broad clothes of Neo-Expressionism with Kiefer, and even Baselitz somewhere in the background. Her work is contiguous to theirs and overlaps a touch. But its positioning – quiet yet obsessive – is original and occupies a peculiar yet perfectly contemporary hinterland. It is in one of those places, on that shifting ground, where the endangered species of painters may prosper and survive. For that alone it is worth praising despite the fact that it seems to lie outside the range of debate about contemporary art, in that it is neither outwardly ironic nor specifically intellectual in its visual argument. I would want to place it closer to the centre by virtue of what it takes from and what it gives to the scope of cinematic narrative. I want to read it in terms of cinema as much as of painting because that way I can explain what I feel to be its relevance.

In one of the ‘Film’ series, ‘Film V’ a figure with its back to us is about to cross a narrow street, against a line of smeary cars, towards a solid wall of tenement blocks with deep arched doorways and thrusting balconies. Light and shadow between them have eaten parts of the buildings away. The full anthropomorphic palette of eyes and open mouths animates the street. There is a kind of hunger in the tall pedimented windows, in the overhanging brow of the eaves. We know we are in a big city, which might be as much in Italy as in Kafka land. The political history of the inhabitants is hidden yet evident in the clip of the implied movie where the man crosses the street, enters the arch and disappears, while the cars move forward or stop and our detective hero steps out into the very streets where Liberty might once have straddled the barricades. The politics of the pre-1989 world intrudes into the present in the form of half-remembered film. The very fact that one is tempted to construct fictions that partake both of romance and realism, of fantasy, history and of distance, suggest a literary context, but the literature is elsewhere. It is in the unmade movie for which this section of story-board is a functional underpinning. It is lodged precisely in that gap where irony finds it hard to reach, if only because the films have never ceased to haunt us and it is hard being ironic about something that will not stay still.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 3

Stealth, Clarissa Upchurch 2004

A sense of foreboding is to be expected in a story about crime, but the language it deploys need not necessarily be gothic. In 1928, King Vidor made a silent film called The Crowd. It is a tragedy of ordinariness, with a central character but without heroes. Its very lack of speech (in the year after the issue of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer) shielded it from sentimentality and its panoramic views and partly documentary style (“No picture is perfect, but this comes as near to reproducing reality as anything you have ever witnessed,’ declared Photoplay)  implied that the city itself was as much the subject as the individual whose life provided the linear narrative for it. Vidor constantly reminds us of the dramatic personality of the city. Like Fritz Lang in ‘M’ in 1931 he casts it as the locus for melodrama and social disintegration.  It was as well that ‘The Crowd’ was silent for it is hard to imagine dialogue enhancing it. Once dialogue becomes possible narrative exerts far greater pressure. Shades of thought and feeling may be conveyed with sophisticated accuracy. A state of mind must be accounted for and has consequences. Dialogues and detectives shift the scene to Chicago or Vienna. Enter the Mob and the KGB; enter the Bay City cops, Naked City and NYPD Blue. So we discover the hard Realisms of Chinatown, the New York of Dead End and the Newcastle of Get Carter. The negotiation between realism and Proyas’s Dark City is a complex but natural one, one follows the other as night follows day.

Meryon would have been a natural collaborator for Baudelaire, Baudelaire as the script-writer and Meryon as the designer of the new film about a phantasmal Paris. Movies do rely on designers and story-board artists to establish mood and syntax. Designs may be as fantastic and extravagant as the panoramic Miltonic landscapes of John Martin, as in Walter Hall’s designs for Intolerance in 1916 (his twelve elephant caryatids were cut down to three in the film as even D.W.Griffiths had a budget), or as claustrophobic as Henry Fuseli’s work, as in Ben Carré’s sketches for the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera.. Film designers borrow from painters as much as theatre designers do, that much is obvious.  But I am thinking here more of story-boardists than of designers; of William Carlos Menzies’s sketches for Gone with the Wind for instance. I am struck by their formal breadth and sense of anonymous action. Anonymous because, from Menzies’s point of view, it did not matter what Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable looked like. His story telling is a more distant affair, and though it is filled with action, his characters are anonymous, elsewhere. I am interested in the location of such language, and how it might provide a place of metamorphosis for hard-to-classify forms of depictive art.

The story board is a syntax provider. It is, like much of the art before the Renaissance, a functional, almost anonymous art, serving the movie instead of the church. Like the fresco cycle it is related to a firm narrative originating elsewhere, in a detailed text. In fact it positions itself somewhere between the fresco-cycle and the comic strip in its formal dramatic structure but keeps its distance from both. I think of the paintings of Hopper and Chirico, both, in their different ways, suggestive of narrative; both, in their different ways, refusing to satisfy it. Their handle on character is firmer than that of a story-boardist, but depend on diffusing character in the interest of narrative terrain.  We are aware of the characters only in action or in between actions and in so far as the actions are piecemeal and detached from the main body of some supposed narrative, we see them in suspense. They do not give themselves. Their identity has been transferred to their environment, their sphere of isolated action.

I suggest that this is the narrative reality our imaginations have grown up with. We live in a glimpsed world of cars, doorways, figures in doorways, on trains and buses, appearing at windows, round the corner of the street, and our meanings and expectations are created from our readings of them.

The works of Clarissa Upchurch inhabit this city of readings. Like the photographs they faintly resemble – by Kertész, Walker Evans, Atget, and Sudek – and the film-makers they seem to refer to like Wim Wenders or Proyas on the one hand and even Guy Ritchie on the other, they see the city as a narrative basin into which they can dip then leave. This narrative basin is as much filmic as graphic or painterly. They are further informed by a distinctly Eastern or Central  European sensibility. The films of the seventies and eighties Hungarian directors Peter Gothár, Márta Mészaros and András Jeles spring to mind. And this is scarcely surprising for her subject matter has been the same city for fifteen years: Budapest...

to be continued

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 2

Bowl, Clarissa Upchurch, 2009

Out of Poe and Baudelaire arise generations of gumshoes treading the mean streets of cities quoting, in Philip Marlowe’s case, T.S. Eliot, who, in turn, sees crowds undone by death flowing over city bridges recalling, as they do so, Dante’s vision of The Inferno. Chandler’s detective and Eliot’s more vulnerable, more disjunctive persona are two aspects of the same being. These complex, tough, world-weary detective figures shamble through the films noirs of the forties. With just a minor shift into the world of ideas they reappear in different guises to haunt the Gotham City of Batman and his ilk, the dystopic highs and lows of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and drift, confused, through the dissolving walls of Alex Proyas’s Dark City. Their adversaries, consisting of armies of masked and deformed criminals, secret service operatives, replicants and strangers, draw on both Baudelaire and Baudrillard for their sense of unease. They are the seven old men. They are also the simulacra that question the detective’s sense of place. The cities they inhabit lie under the edict of Dante’s remorseless God but  continually threaten to slip into further chaos, because their meanings can no longer support the narratives we demand of them. Such cities are, to return to Benjamin’s point, essentially hunting grounds whose fascination owes less to the logic of salvation or to the detective story where everything fits together and is apt for solution (murder of that sort belongs in the vicarage or the country-house library), than to that which is continually hinted at but remains unknown and incapable of being contained in a single heroic narrative.

This city is the conscious antithesis of the ideal modernist city of Le Corbusier. Corbu’s vision is a rational and classical one. It is at one with Plato’s Republic from which the irrationals, the poets, have been dismissed. There is only the one poetry here and it is absolute, the poetry of the ville radieuse of reason and towers. Such ideal cities, earthly and rational, have a long double history. One type is depicted in the trecento in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco, ‘The Effects of Good Government in Town and Country’, where orderly spheres of life are brought together in bustling streets of economic activity and tilled fields outside city walls. The other extends the same vision into the abstract, into the severe and unrelentingly mathematical realm of Piero della Francesca’s ’Ideal City’, a townscape of perfect proportions without people, a place where blind angels walk with the aid of heavenly music and which ordinary mortals have to be educated to enter. This city is one of harsh Apollonian light. In its intensity it partakes of the visionary and divine, offering a synthesis between the Apollonian and the Biblical, for the New Jerusalem of Revelations is just as geometric, glittering like a gem-stone, having twelve foundation stones and twelve gates, the plan of the city perfectly square. It is in fact a form of crystal. Geometry, reason and mystical significance are central to the thinking of the time.

The City of God and numbers constantly interpenetrates the city of man and cash, and continues to do so well into and beyond the Age of Reason. The disjunctions of  Mannerists, such as Bronzino , or the eighteenth century maverick, Piranesi, sometimes subvert the drive towards stability and rational space, but even among the inns, brothels, cellars and hovels of the Flemish and Dutch, just as in the engravings of William Hogarth, there remains a notion of clarity as implied antithesis. This vision animates Modernism and the ville radieuse in particular but never succeeds in achieving stability or hegemony over the other. 

Baudelaire and Charles Meryon were born in the same year, 1821 and died within a few months of each other. Meryon’s version of gothic, according to Benjamin, consists of an “interpenetration between classical antiquity and modernism”. This is echoed in Baudelaire’s passage on Meryon: “…those spires pointing fingers to the sky; the obelisks of industry vomiting a legion of smoke against the heavens”. Meryon showed tiny figures toiling by bridges, in the shadow of the morgue, caught in the skeleton of a Gothic city of judgment but wearing the rags of post-rational urban expansion. He showed, in short, a dramatic contradiction. Meryon’s vision is neither melodramatic nor grandiloquent. His range is too restrictive for that. He deals in black and white only.  He is – almost – a topographer, a topographer of the anonymous and the fragmentary. He is a poet of foreboding without the burden of Victorian rhetoric.

to be continued

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 1

Ghost (detail) Clarissa Upchurch 2002

Clarissa's exhibition is going up tomorrow in Cambridge University Library, It will be up for some months. This is therefore a good time to put up the essay I wrote for our joint book Budapest: Image, Poem, Film (Corvina, 2006) The original is 5pp long, so I will divide it into sections. This is the first.


Endangered species survive and sometimes prosper by adapting and shifting ground. They can also interbreed, creating new, peculiar, sometimes highly effective and energetic hybrids. The first death of painting supposedly took place when one of its roles, that of recording appearances, seemed to be appropriated by photography, especially, later, by cheap, mass-market photography.  There have been many deaths since. To some degree the camera did free artists from overt assumptions of objectivity and allowed them to explore questions of pure form as well as more subjective areas with greater confidence.

But the notion of objectivity under the general heading ‘truth to nature’ (and all that that entailed socially) though much extolled by writers, had hardly been proved in the breach by painters in any case. One has only to try shifting the figures from one artist’s work to meet the figures in another’s to see how relative such objectivities were even before the period still referred to as the Renaissance. For all the similarities in technique by period and school or even studio, we know and have always known that artists are workers of the imagination inhabiting contiguous, sometimes overlapping but never congruent worlds.

There are painters who are romanced by narrative in an expressly filmic sense. I say romanced because the position taken, while complex, is not primarily intellectual or ironic, though it does not preclude either irony or intelligence. In a period of ever more convincing virtual images the position does not succumb to psychosis but believes – rightly, I think – that it can distinguish between  experience and its representation while instinctively understanding the two to be contiguous and overlapping. It is the way in which it itself understands and represents, the way it slips between the fingers, that interests me here and, in particular, how it moves around images of the city.

The experience of the city is one we associate with the rise of modernism: images of urban pace and space, of urban repetition and urban difference, of the city’s aspiration and decay, are so deeply ingrained in our memory that, taken together, they seem to approximate to our feelings about memory itself, becoming almost an analogy of memory, of the act of remembering; remembering, specifically, the moment of modernism, and of what preceded it.

‘Fourmillante cité, cité plein de rêves’, begins Baudelaire’s ‘Les Sept Vieillards’, a poem about an ants’ nest of a city, a hallucinatory terrain through which stalk the ghosts of seven hideous old men. Walter Benjamin, in his study of Baudelaire, talks of the phantasmagoria of Parisian life, at the point at which the new city, the post-Haussman Paris of arcades and wide boulevards, begins to create versions of its own nature.  He quotes early physiologues, such as Paris la nuit, Paris á table, Paris dans l’eau, Paris á cheval and so on, regarding them as pictures drawn primarily for bourgeois comfort and reassurance. These, he says, give way to the city of the flâneur, which he also associates with the invention of the camera and of the detective story as pioneered by Poe but translated by Baudelaire. The flâneur is turned, says Benjamin, into “an unwilling detective” who develops “forms of reaction that are in keeping with the pace of a big city. He catches things in flight”. The whole city, he argues, is a locus for the hidden, for crime, which does not at first glorify the criminal, though it does glorify his adversaries and, above all, the hunting-grounds where they pursue him.


Friday, 4 April 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Mangalesh Dabral

As I wrote earlier the Indian poets fell into two major groups that one might call the cosmic and the humane. I wouldn't want to push those terms too far as the two are not necessarily antithetical, nor is each particular poet an embodiment of one to the exclusion of the other.

But Mangalesh Dabral is certainly on the side of the humane. What does this mean? In part it means that he talks as himself, or rather as a self we believe in. In other words he addresses us without overt ceremony, without references to forces beyond the immediate concerns of the poem. The poems present us with a singular voice, not facing particularly singular problems, often more generic ones, but there is a tenderness and suppleness in the voice, communicated particulary through pace.

I was touched by all the poems Mangalesh Dabral read. His poems are in Hindi, this one, taken from his collection  translated into English by another very fine and well known poet, Sudeep Sen

This Number Does Not Exist

This number does not exist.
Wherever I go whichever number I dial
At the other end a strange voice says
This number does not exist yeh number maujood nahin hai
Not too long ago at the number I used to reach people
Who said: of course we recognise you
There is space for you in this universe

But now this number does not exist it is some old number.
At these old addresses very few people are left
Where at the sound of footsteps doors would be opened
Now one has to ring the bell and wait in apprehension
And finally when one appears
It is possible he might have changed
Or he might say I am not the one you used to talk to
This is not the number where we would hear out your grief

Wherever I go numbers maps faces seem to be changed
Old diaries are strewn in gutters
Their names slow-fading in the water
Now other numbers are available more than ever with and without wires
But a different kind of conversation on them
Only business only transactions buy-and-sell voices like strangers
Whenever I go I desperately dial a number
And ask for the voice that used to say
The door is open you can stay here
Come along for a while just for the sake of it any time in this universe.

Eliot called The Waste Land a grumble against the universe. This poem too is a grumble but it builds to much more than that. It is a poem of humility in that, though the voice in it is complaining against universals such as ageing, change and loss, it does not assume a special status for itself. Its universality is quiet, graceful, consonant with the persona. The technique is derived from a mature low-profile modernism that needs little punctuation and eschews conspicuous formality of presentation on the one hand and a display for the more burdensome aspects of tradition on the other.

These at least are my impressions and guesses. I know next to nothing about Hindi poetry. Whatever is traditional here has moved directly in the bones. I can imagine this voice anywhere in the world. That is its internationalism: one hardly even thinks about it. That is its grace and its lightness of touch. And much credit for that goes to Sudeep Sen too.

There is more information and more work by Mangalesh Dabral at the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival site here where he reads a number of poems aloud.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Richard Gwyn


I loved Richard Gwyn's understated reading in Delhi. The poems he read came from somewhere inside him rather than being picked out of the air. Both procedures are fine, but there was a sense of some almost bottomless deep blue sea there. The tread was delicate and the balance precise, but it wasn't about delicacy or even precision in the end, but about a state of being. I read his memoir The Vagabond's Breakfast on the plane home and was gripped and moved by it.


Absolutely nothing or nobody can help you now. You are on your own. Outside a gale blows. There is a beggar lying on the porch bt you cannot let him in. He will bring pestilence, disease and chaos. His name, you have been informed, is unpronouncable except to those who speak the dialect of a part of the country you have never visited. A beggar then, whose name you cannot speak, whose needs can never be satisfied, and whose gift is turmoil. But you need to pass him if you are to leave the house. So you assume a disguise, open the front door, step onto the pavement. The beggar appears to be asleep. You ring your bell, clutching your hood tight around you face. 'Unclean,' you say, voice quaking: 'unclean.' The beggar whose name you cannot say lifts his head. His eyes are bloodshot. He smiles upat you and from deep inside his coat produces a black snake. He holds it above his face for an instant, then drops it into his upturned mouth. The tail enters last, thrashing from side to side. He belches, wipes his lips and lies down again, turning his back to you. The depth of his breathing tells you he has fallen straight back to sleep.

Richard read just one prose poem in Delhi I think, one shorter than this, titled Dust which I liked very much but that isn't in my book. I could just as easily have picked the excellent verse love poem Dissolving that was printed in the full programme of the festival (and I might return to it) but I have chosen this because it is a prose poem and for its unremitting encounter with something altogether more sinister. The you in the poem is one possible variant on the first person singular as distanced into dreamlike automatic state. The beggar might be a figure from nightmare or conjured from memory but he certainly enters nightmare with the appearance of the black snake. Despite this there is no panic, no melodrama, no cheap gothic, only the steadiness of survival, a survival in which the we believe because we know this is no fancy. This too is understated. The prose is what keeps us in the world of reported event. It comes from his collection of prose poems, Sad Giraffe Cafe (2010)

Richard also blogs as Ricardo Blanco

Monday, 31 March 2014

Some poems from Delhi: Ranjit Hoskote

Ranjit Hoskote has already had a remarkable career as poet, translator, theorist and curator. His work is published by Penguin (India). He is a very fine poet in a way that an internationally minded reader would immediately recognise. He writes in English for a start and his sensibility has been formed as much by his reading and wide culture as by his specific location. His imagery is sharp and the intelligence and sensitivity behind the images is subtle and moving without ever looking as though it has designs on the reader. The poem below comes from Vanishing Acts, his New and Selected Poems, 2006

Poste Restante

Instead of addresses the postman finds
a child pumping a thirsty hydrant,
and a barber's throne twisted by fire,
marooned in a side-street;
to the north, a dented milk churn
sits across the road from an upset pannier,
buns scattered; past the traffic island,
a leather suitcase, handle wrenched off;
to the south, a public library,
stack on stack of carbon ghosts.
The letters fall from his hands
like homeless prayers.

The terror that has overtaken the place in the poem is comprehensive, There has been a great fire, and maybe more judging by that dented milk churn. And it is not so long ago either. There are buns spilled from an upset pannier. Perhaps it was a military attack or a riot. The library has been burned out. There is just a child with a useless hydrant.

The poem addresses these details with a calm that amplifies the desolation. The tone is measured. The very title and the word pannier alert you to a knowledge whose realm extends beyond the specifics of place. The eye is like a video camera panning the scene. The voice stands at roughly the same angle to its subject as does Derek Mahon's in A Disused Shed in County Wexford. But this doesn't look to build history and echo into the scene, it lets the scene resonate with itself. It is, after all shock, not archaeology.  That most normalising of figures, the postman who introduces us to the poem, ends it with the one symbolic gesture required, still underplayed and all the stronger for that.

The poem goes about its business quietly without any attempt to raise the stakes. The scene is the stakes. The history is in the control.