Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Liebestod Eggs

A glimpse of one of the works on show at Sex and Death, GutsforGarters and Fox&Squirrel, Earlham St, London, till 5th June:


Monday, 7 May 2012

Against ponderous carriages attempting a passage

Out for a walk as a family today in rural Hertfordshire, we came across this wonderful notice on the side of a bridge:

Take note that this bridge is insufficient to carry a weight beyond the ordinary traffic of the district and that owners and all persons in charge of locomotives and all other ponderous carriages are warned against attempting the passage of the bridge. By order, etc.
The notice is dated 23rd October 1899.

I admired the way the language combined gravity and clarity, old-fashioned perhaps, but conveying so much: trust in readers to make a judgement based on their own observations of what the ‘ordinary traffic of the district’ might be; trust in readers to act on a warning rather than a prohibition; and an implication in the phrase ‘attempting the passage’ that this would be no more than an ‘attempt’, without certainty of success. I also enjoy ‘Take note that’, which is a statement of much greater tact than ‘Do not’; ‘warned against’ rather than ‘warned not to’, for its elegance; and ‘ponderous carriages’, which uses less space than ‘slow and heavy carriages’. 

Is it too Latinate and pedantic? I do not accept any argument against ‘locomotives’, a common term then for what are now usually called ‘traction engines’ (all three words deriving from Latin), ‘ponderous’, a fine word in use in English for more than 600 years, or ‘warning against’, which is good simple usage. This leaves us with the phrase ‘attempting the passage of the bridge’. I would argue that this is no more odd than, for example, ‘attempting an assault on Everest’ or ‘attempting an immediate return to the Premier League’. ‘Attempting the passage of’ some awful clich√©-ridden writing or some banal celebrity-focused journalism might not be so good, but for a physical crossing of a bridge I see no problem, no archaism, and no reason not to enjoy its use.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Deliberate Mistake

Looking through some work from three years ago reawakened my interest in the deliberate mistake. I’ve long thought that the deliberate mistake is a way of approaching art that makes me think about how I think. Mr & Mrs Walker have moved (Anne Eggebert and myself, 1998), for example, where we moved into Kettles Yard, as it were pretending that we didn’t know it was a museum, or laying aside the group knowledge that this is what it is. Or feeling the surface of the painting in Touch (2000), which broke through a barrier of comfort, blurring the line between representation and real – in this case the group portrait of the Lee family painted by Joseph Highmore in the eighteenth century (the painting is in Wolverhampton City Art Gallery.

The obvious point about the deliberate mistake is that it is instantly recognisable, and highlights the correctness of the correct. But I am becoming more interested in the mistake, and the possibilities that it opens up; the fact that it asks why, and that there may be no simple answer.

Monday, 30 April 2012


The oldest portable writing known dates from 60,000 years ago, and is on ostrich eggshell fragments. So I feel it is fairly reasonable to be writing the names of instances of love/sex and death on this kind of ground - quails' eggs in this case, since this trope is fairly old. I could not say what the earliest instance is, but Adam and Eve is a good one to start with in European culture. The skull and heart design is a decal, a memento mori, and a devil of a job to work with.

There's also some similarity between the shape of an egg and that of a human skull seen from above.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Mr Write

It doesn’t make for much spontaneity or impetuousness, this way of working. All the risks have to come at the beginning.

I think with this one I was taken with the idea of what the letter/character does, sometimes functioning as a metonym (part of the whole standing for the whole) and sometimes not. I think you have to know the language, and know what the use of the language implies, just as you would have to know that the original sampler, probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century, was intended to show that the maker had acquired digital craft skills. It’s a sort of code message saying ‘I can do this’. Maybe that proposes a sampler that says just that – Look I can do this, with my name, age, and the information that it hurts my eyes (like some Roman inscription).

This one is called, for now at any rate: Mr Write.

There is, of course, a direct reference to the age and gender difference between myself and the (supposed, projected, imagined) first maker, and to ideas of exploitation, abuse, power, control, insertion, authority and the nature of language. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


On the way to the British Library to lead a workshop on Exploring English with West Hatch High School I was thinking about words that seem to be lacking in English, since there are situations for which we need to string together a not very satisfactory sentence. For example, when two people are walking towards each other, change direction to avoid bumping into each other, realise that they are set on a new collision course, smile, get flustered, and make placatory gestures. Somewhere in the back of my mind there is an idea that some European languages have one word for this.

I came across a website which posts a few of these missing words: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/20-awesomely-untranslatable-words-from-around-the-world/ It has some nice examples. The one that has remained with me is ‘l’appel du vide’, French for ‘the call of the void’, the desire to leap, to one’s doom, into empty spaces – for which I thought ‘vertigo’ filled the bill. But checking on ‘vertigo’ in the OED I find that it actually means the state of giddiness in one’s head. And thinking further about it I realised that I had been assuming that ‘vertigo’ meant both ‘fear of voids’ and ‘the lure of the void’, which are essentially opposites – the desire to move from the void, and the desire move towards the void.

‘Vertiginous’ does at least mean ‘capable of inducing vertigo’, so a favourite phrase ‘vertiginous heights’ is still OK. Alternatively I can assume that the meaning of vertigo has effectively changed to what I thought it meant; this would be taking the ‘Humpty Dumpty defence’, that a word means what I want it to mean. As HD, of course, knew a thing or two about vertigo, I feel I am on safe ground here. Or not.