Conversation between Jackie Chettur, Matthew Richardson and Gerbrand Burger around work and ideas in the exhinition ‘Adaptation’, Transition Gallery 3 - 25 June 2016
Text published in Garageland issue 20, 2016 'Remake Remodel'
JC: Thomas Hardy resurrected the ancient kingdom of Wessex for his characters to wander through. People mistakenly believe Wessex to be purely an invention by the author. I decided to continue this ambiguity by searching for the landscape from Tess of the D’Urberville’s far away from Hardy’s ‘Wessex’. My prints depict real places in other parts of England and Wales and correspond to my perception of the terrain described in the book. Matthew, I’m interested in your search for the landscape of JG Ballard’s Concrete Island using Google Street View, potentially the ‘ultimate’ way of exploring the world from our own current location. Do you feel you have you located it?
MR: I’m not at all sure I have located it! I was interested in the idea that we travel through and ‘know’ a place via Google Street View and that the journey and route is ‘given’ to us – so almost already a fictional way of ‘being’ in a place. I wanted to use Google maps as a way of rootling around in an idea of the ‘subconscious’ - perhaps screen based technology has become our ‘subconscious’, memory, sense of place, individuality? I wonder why Hardy resurrected Wessex? As well as protecting real individuals, maybe the shifting of somewhere into a fictional place turns the people and places into archetypes? In my project I was interested in the fact that Concrete Island is Ballard’s re-scripting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. So this idea of an ‘already’ told story interested me, in as much as a certain structure might remain, even while almost everything changes. The idea that a story might shift and be adapted over time, through different technologies, different cultures is interesting to me. I guess this is the idea of myth? The idea of an ‘island’ as a place, and metaphor was also something I wanted to play with - hence looking at Defoe’s original and Ballard’s re-invention. There is a tension between a sort of yearned for fictional desert island and the reality of isolation and survival, making do and mending, escaping (or not escaping). These are all fairly seductive impulses for using this narrative as a beginning – the place might almost be a metaphor of imaginative fiction.
JC: Gerbrand, I know that in a previous work you have also merged elements from the setting of an Argentine novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares with a more familiar landscape of the Dutch Polders. For this exhibition you show drawings of books which maybe speak about the potential inherent in books and our expectations in reading them. I know you have even drawn some unread books.
GB: The promise of unread books, or the hidden aspect of closed books in a shelf, speak to the dreamy side of me. I enjoy the anticipation of reading certain books, or to start reading certain writers, already knowing, or pretending to know, that the text will make sense for my own work somehow. With Roberto Arlt for example, who’s relatively small oeuvre I’m reading at the moment, I was convinced beforehand that I would be able to use his writing as a background or inspiration for new work, that it would resonate in a way that works for me. Arlt produced his work during the 1920’s and 1930’s in Argentina and Uruguay, and his writing was at the very beginning of the modern novel, or the nueva novela. Like some other South American writers he makes a rare and unique combination of absurdism, thriller, philosophy and political critique (and more), with a very good sense of form. The text is constructed very well, but you can never really seem to grasp what it is you are reading, it’s too outlandish and strange, and I like that very much. The way I read is not so much studying a text or analyzing how a novel is written, it’s more like I put myself under the influence of a text.
I enjoy taking the liberty to make things and combinations of things that are hard to grasp, or that don’t make sense in a direct way. As a rational and practical man I am well aware that you cannot consume and absorb the contents of a book by looking at its cover, let alone by looking at a pencil drawing of its cover. But as an artist I don’t have to count those objections; it’s an enjoyable mind game, a playful mental exercise.
JC: My jumping off points and reading material are very different, but like you I find it pleasurable to take liberties with existing novels. My attraction to specific books and desire to re-work them is an attempt to preserve and make visible my own reading experiences. Ideas and impressions which remain and seem somehow precious. I anticipate re-reading certain books to see if my overriding idea of them still holds true. I wonder if this activity is connected to being a slow reader and an anxiety at only having a finite number of novels available to me.
I have worked with the texts of three classic novels: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and I’m currently working on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Adapting and reducing the texts through my own schemes, my aim is to reveal just one memorable theme. The writing styles across the novels are diverse but in common they are tense, unbearably tragic, insistent and poetic. They are stories about ordinary folk, the decisions they make and the social and political backdrop in which their lives are played out. None of these novels would have you believe that you can achieve everything that you desire, by simply working hard, or by possessing a talent. Sorrow runs liberally through, as fate and social conditions takes a toll on the central characters. In the novella Ethan Frome, the character’s name is melancholically repeated throughout and had somehow lodged within me as the sum of the book. My distilled version was intended to reflect this and it now reads as a kind of poem of Ethan with only traces of the ongoing drama. More optimistic themes also run parallel to these harrowing plots lines and I think maybe it is these which make the books unique and memorable. For example, with Steinbeck the importance of family permeates the narrative. In Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight the small everyday pleasures of a depressed women make the book bearable. In Wharton’s Ethan Frome finding true love is a central theme. Hardy writes poetically about the natural world. For this exhibition I have distilled Hardy’s tragic text to leave only Tess’s forward movement through his exquisitely drawn landscape.
MR: I am also drawn to narratives that are tense and poetic. I like the promise of a book too, the sense of anticipation. It is often the opening sentences, the very beginnings that intrigue me most. JG Ballard’s ‘Concrete Island’ begins like this: “Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre”. I was immediately drawn in by the precise description of person, place, time and speed - and my impulse was to use Google Street View to find the site of the crash. In trying to connect this fictional moment with a virtually real space, I wondered what this strange place was, in a crossover somewhere between fiction and reality, past and present. It felt as if there was enough ‘space’ in the novel to allow me to take off and develop work without planning a route. The short animation / film I made wasn’t storyboarded, it grew and evolved and became its own ‘work’. Probably what drew me to Ballard’s mid-1970s stories was the description of heightened reality in the everyday. Ballard talked about using urban liminal spaces as metaphors for the subconscious, what he called ‘inner space’ (as opposed to Sci-Fi ‘outer space’). I was interested in how I might make this idea of a subconscious visible and what the landscape of this mysterious geography might look like. It is amazing to me - the capacity for words to describe a place, to totally engage our minds, to absorb us in a way that is different than a visual form. Gerbrand, you have drawn specific versions of particular books. Is that significant? I’d be interested to know a bit more about the books as objects.
GB: Maybe Ballard’s 'inner space’ relates to the way I’m looking at books as objects. A closed book provides an enormous space for fantasy and projection. Whilst preparing for Adaptation I picked up a book by Rilke, The notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I opened it randomly and even though I had read the book several times before, I hadn’t really noted this passage.
“Last night my thoughts turned again to the little green book that must have been in my possession at one time when I was a boy; and I don't know why I imagine that it had originally belonged to Mathilde Brahe. It didn't interest me when I first got it and I didn't read it until several years later at Ulsgaard one holiday time, I think. But it was important to me from the first moment I saw it. It was filled with references through and through, including its covers. The green of its binding denoted something and you immediately understood that what was written inside had to be as it was.”
The passage shows how objects took on meaning for Rilke, in a very personal and imaginative way: and this touches on the sensation that made me start the book drawings.
MR: Yes it is interesting how the form of a book, the annotations, the age, the fact of whether it is pristine or used has a bearing on how it is experienced. I spend a lot of time in secondhand book shops, and I’m drawn to and the signs of use and scribbles and notes made by previous owners, and what I might find inside - like a kind of ‘second story’ within the book itself. I am interested in finding different ways into a narrative. The material book might stimulate an idea as much as the text inside. In finding, using, and maybe adapting a text, I am interested in the way a story is lost, distorted, fragmented and re-made as it moves across forms – written word, spoken word, sound, drawing, print, photograph and object. In thinking about a visual form for this narrative, I was interested that Ballard talked about his writing in cinematic terms - and to quote him: “I wanted to suggest a sort of mythological stratum… it's rather like a film, (…), where the action is suddenly overlaid by another image, just briefly, and one's conscious of a different system of time, perhaps a more dream-like atmosphere, something that touches another level of the mind.”
The landscape of Concrete Island, slowly reveals the ruined sites of past technologies beneath the undergrowth - a derelict printing works, the cellar of a cinema. I am interested in a historic progression - in the way we adapt to shifting and overlapping media technologies - books, phones, film, radio, television, computers and how it affects what it feels (and means) to be human. I have been reading about the idea of the ‘Technological Uncanny’ – the idea that new technology is experienced at first as magical, before it disappears into the everyday, yet aspects of the past technology still break through in ways that might disturb, jolt and surprise. The work in this show sort of plays with this idea - it makes fictional, the digital fabric of Google Street View, and also plays havoc with the idea of Victorian science - and turns it into fictional ‘bigger and better’ versions of magic Lantern slides. Jackie, I wonder if there is anything about the techniques of print and photography you are using that specifically relates to the text or the way the work is shown?
JC: The point that you make about new technologies having magical qualities is interesting. Maybe this goes full circle, as old technologies take on something more than the purely utilitarian. Renewed interest in film photography, and for example collecting vinyl records, might be connected to our desire to possess physical objects again. Technically I cover a lot of ground to create the prints for this exhibition. Moving between analogue to digital and back to analogue and the hand made. Starting with a large format film camera, my images are eventually printed from inked printing plates and printed using an etching press. I'm pleased with the in-betweenness of the final images. These photopolymer gravures sit somewhere between a photograph and an etching. They transform real places that I know in Bedfordshire, London, Wales and Gloucestershire into my imagined setting of the novel. Hardy positions both his characters and his readers out of doors immersed in the elements and so physically seeking out paths and tracks puts me very much in the feeling of the novel. Hardy is said to have written in a cinematic way, even before the invention of film. His poetic descriptions of light falling on landscapes make for a wonderful link with photography - as drama or inertness in the sky above you affects how a landscape is brought into focus or not. I like this unexpected link, which follows through when exposing a film to light to produce the printing plates. This in turn creates its own terrain on the surface of the plate. Depths and shallows create wells for ink to gather dictating darker and lighter areas on surface of the paper.
Gerbrand, you have made a cabinet as part of our ‘Adaptation’ exhibition. I know that you have a real love of making and crafting and like me you go to great lengths in pursuit of an idea. Can you say something about the ideas and process of creating the cabinet?
GB. The design of the cabinet is one of my recent attempts to create objects that might have been Erdosain’s pseudo-inventions. Erdosain is the stressed and fatalistic main character of Arlt’s two-part novel The seven madmen / The Flamethrowers. The objects I make combine references to furniture, machines and architecture, while posing as abstract sculptures. This idea of Erdosain’s inventions helped me to start making. So I’m remodelling fragments of the novel in my own way, with my own concerns and intuitions.
A few months ago I started working on some sculptural pieces, hollow box-like volumes, with a thin skin of veneer, constructed from cheap wood and plywood, figuring out the final shape as I go. On the outside they look clean and crisp, but on the inside they’re fiddly and messy. The idea for the book cabinet is an offshoot from these experiments. In my mind the cabinet is both a model for a sculpture that can hold some books as well.
MR: The ambiguity of this object-model-cabinet is a great ‘container’ for the show. It seems to hold a residue of many of the elements we are exploring - of character, of place, of form. The sculptural idea of a messy interior and a polished exterior also seems fitting – like a book, like the process of adapting and finishing.
Projects shown in ‘Adaptation’