Flying over Bloomsbury

September 23, 2014

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Maureen Duffy has recently written Songs for Sappho, a cycle of love-poems charting the changing seasons and weathers of a passionate love between two women, from longing in absence to delight in the joys of being together – ‘the myriad faces of love’. These intensely personal texts explore many themes: her own gay identity (Can you love the both of me/ the yearning boy, the woman who’d wipe your tears?), desire (That moment when you open/ your arms and I come in…), pain and uncertainty (I booze on love, on pain, on wine…), and hope for the future (So maybe after all/ a summer of honey and petals/ will break at last…).

On first reading the Songs, lettering artist Liz Mathews was inspired to make a major work: a flying installation that would become an unending artist’s book. She envisaged the poems as flying messages like smoke signals or paper darts, or slung high from an unbreakable line connecting two points and mapping the distance between them, as the words are lifted into the breeze like the beneficent mantras of prayer-flags.

She set each of the 55 poems on a large page of handmade paper, lettering the text in her trademark style, and using unconventional tools – driftwood sticks from the Thames, a goosefeather quill, a reed pen, and wooden clothespegs. She mixed her paint with blood, honey, snowmelt, earth or wine as the text demanded, to make an artwork that reflects both the grit and the eroticism of the song cycle and inhabits the poems rather than illustrates them.

This joint project is Paper Wings, an installation at Enitharmon Press’s gallery in Bloomsbury, which opened yesterday, with the pages slung fluttering overhead like washing on a line with a touch of fairground bunting. The effect of colour, image, and word in fluent combination has transformed the cool gallery space, giving the sensation of walking within the poems themselves.

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)  Artwork and photo Liz Mathews

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Wall-hung artist’s books and paperworks continue the airy theme, with texts by other writers associated with Enitharmon Press and Bloomsbury, including Jeremy Hooker, William Blake and Virginia Woolf. (All these works are also exhibited on Enitharmon’s website.)

After the exhibition, the individual pages will be constructed into an artist’s book in concertina form. There’s also a limited edition of 100 digitally printed half-size facsimile reproductions, signed by poet and artist, showing each poem/page in full colour, and including elements of both installation and artist’s book.  This is the first publication of these poems.

Paper Wings limited edition book and DVD

The printmaker David Mitchell, one of the guests at the private view, wrote to me afterwards ‘It was a very impressive occasion; Maureen Duffy read beautifully, with such directness and modesty, and the walls and ceiling were echoing and accompanying so sensitively…’  And in the artist’s film Paper Wings the poet speaks the words while the camera explores the pages. Duffy reads her powerful poems with utter honesty and conviction; her lived-in voice moves between weariness and laughter, vulnerability and power, making for a deeply moving reading. The one-take live vocal recording is layered into a textured soundscape of wind and weather, blackbirds and buses, London streets and gardens, aeroplanes and seagulls, evoking the physical context of the poems.

Visually, the camera focuses closely on each page, revelling in the rich palette of colour, the exuberance of the handling of paint, and the freehand flow of the lettering. It takes time to explore the physical qualities of the paper – its textures, weight, light-bearing transparency or opacity. And it reveals the vivid detail of the images that contain the poems in all their dazzling diversity, with the jewel-like intimacy of an illuminated manuscript.

The camera’s close engagement involves the viewer as a reader following the movement of the text, accompanying Duffy on the voyage through the cycle. As the pages turn, their cumulative effect draws the viewer into a personal odyssey in collaboration with poet and artist. The apparently simple film-making (with shifting sequences of ‘still’ images animated by the reader’s moving eye) paradoxically results in a genuinely cinematic experience – moving pictures with sound.

Both the book and the dvd are available from Enitharmon Press, and the exhibition continues there until 15th October.

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews & Frances Bingham (photo by Peter Target)

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews, Frances Bingham at the launch of Paper Wings at Enitharmon Press (photo by Peter Target)






One Response to “Flying over Bloomsbury”

  1. […]  The film was made here in the studio at Potters’ Yard by me and my partner the writer Frances Bingham, and is released by Potters’ Yard Arts, also on 22nd September.  Both are available from […]

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