Posts Tagged ‘Liz Mathews’

True Remembering

May 26, 2015
Lucky Weather (paperwork by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

Lucky Weather (paperwork by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

This year of grace 2015 is almost confusingly crowded with war anniversaries: Waterloo, Gallipoli, Dunkirk, VE Day, and more.  One famous victory with its commemorative station, a notorious and costly disaster, a ‘glorious retreat’ which became a matter of national pride, peace at last.  One hundred years between the great battles of 1815 and 1915 compares with the relatively brief timespan separating ’15 from ’40 – a mere twenty-five years.

The problem with these anniversaries is that they can be the opportunity for essential human rememberings, dredgings of collective memory which come up with treasure, deep contemplations of history – or crass appeals to nationalism, in the worst sense, and the glorification of war.

In 2014, at the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, No Glory – the group of artists, actors and writers including Carol Ann Duffy – expressed their concern that memorial events would be exploited to promote militarism and celebrate the powers of destruction, rather than to honour the dead and acknowledge the personal sacrifices of all involved in such conflicts (which, in terms of WW2, we’re still living with, in a long aftermath).  They hoped to encourage cultural events which would ‘mark the courage’ of those involved but also remember ‘the almost unimaginable devastation’ and ‘ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’

It’s important for us to find ways in which to make an act of remembrance which fully acknowledges courage and honour, suffering and endurance, the many different modes of resistance to the forces of darkness – and yet doesn’t degenerate into a festival of militarism, or an unquestioning acceptance of war as a ‘necessary evil’.

The way in which the First World War is perceived has been drastically influenced by its portrayal in art – in the work of war poets, especially those like Wilfrid Owen who wanted to ‘make it stop’, the wartime art of Paul Nash or Stanley Spencer, haunting memoirs like Vera Brittain’s filmed and re-filmed Testament of Youth, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End or Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (both also filmed), the elegaic music of Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries (and later, Britten’s War Requiem), and of course Joan Littlewood’s subversive classic Oh What a Lovely War – to name merely a few of the best known.  All these are powerful memorials, in diverse ways, but it would be difficult to interpret any of them as pro-war.

Such works of art make it possible for us to commemorate, protest, explore, lament, re-examine, imagine, narrate, compare, question, and above all perceive such events in all their diverse complexity, light and shade, humour and drama, tragedy and unexpectedness.  The development of narrative history projects also creates a complementary mosaic of remembered fragments which change and enrich our understanding of the past, and many artists work with these sources to make new kinds of art.

The anniversaries of WWII are even more complex; the armies march nearer to us in time, there are still many survivors, eye-witnesses, close relations involved.  The motives for war were so different that even pacifists of the previous war accepted the need to arm.  But that makes the need still greater for memorials which ‘ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’

I believe that one such is The Dunkirk Project, set up by Liz Mathews five years ago on the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, which developed from research for her monumental artist’s book, Thames to Dunkirk.  The project combines art and poetry about that extraordinary moment with individual stories of the event from many different contributors.  For 2015 the project is being relaunched, with live coverage of the evacuation as it takes place day-by-day, from 26th May to 6th June, and new additional material.

There’s now a page of Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack (grandson of BG Bonallack whose poem Retreat from Dunkirk was lettered by Liz Mathews on Thames to Dunkirk, with Virginia Woolf’s words), updated and revised contributions, new stories, more poems, more images – to make an even more vivid panorama of the Dunkirk story.

As the poet Jeremy Hooker wrote in response to it: ‘This is a wonderful project.  True remembering is essential to our humanity.’

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)






The word is given a body…

May 2, 2011

The river’s mercy  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews (detail, text by Frances Bingham) – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us then take for our starting point the statement that words are not useful.  This happily needs little proving, for we are all aware of it.  When we travel on the Tube, for example, when we wait on the platform for a train, there, hung up in front of us, on an illuminated signboard, are the words ‘Passing Russell Square’.  We look at those words; we repeat them; we try to impress that useful fact upon our minds; the next train will pass Russell Square.  We say over and over again as we pace, ‘Passing Russell Square, passing Russell Square’.  And then as we say them, the words shuffle and change, and we find ourselves saying ‘Passing away, saith the world, passing away… The leaves decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground.  Man comes….’  And then we wake up and find ourselves at King’s Cross.


And it is the nature of words to mean many things… The word ‘passing’ suggested the transciency of things, the passing of time and changes of human life.  Then the word ‘Russell’ suggested the rustling of leaves and the skirt on the polished floor; also the ducal house of Bedford and half the history of England.  Finally the word ‘Square’ brings in the sight, the shape, of an actual square combined with some visual suggestion of the stark angularity of stucco.  Thus one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear – all combine in reading it.

Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

(reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, ed. Stuart. N. Clarke)

This response to words – their associations, the freight they carry, their powers of suggestion – is that of a very great reader, to whom words themselves are possessed of the strongest magic.  As a writer, Virginia Woolf was sometimes able to recreate this almost hallucinatory experience of the completed possibility of all words, in a far more subtle but even more intense fusion of imagination, memory and the senses.  As a traveller on the tube, her response to these ‘very rudimentary words’ evidently gave her a complexity of lived experience that few fellow-travellers can have enjoyed (or been inconvenienced by).

The act of reading had already become everyday; the rune, hieroglyph, alphabet – whatever form of letter transubstantiates into the word – no longer a mystery.  This was the inevitable side-effect of universal literacy (or the still-unachieved ideal of it), but Virgina Woolf did not expect this familiarity to bring with it a loss of wonder for other passengers, a lessening of the ‘diabolical power that words possess when… they come fresh from a human brain’.

(Nowadays, it is perhaps more difficult to retain this openness, in the  face of what Kathleen Raine decried as ‘a daily flood of words put to mean uses… words are worn thin with trivial use, emptied of meanings unknown to our materialist society…’  But the words themselves remain in their essential state, to be claimed by the determined reader, used by the imaginative writer.)

Virginia Woolf once wrote, of the speaking of Shakespeare, ‘the word is given a body as well as a soul’, and the making of words visible – written, in print, illuminated manuscript,  ancient calligraphy, contemporary artist’s book, or whatever strange mark-making process by which words are formed – is another re-creation, a kind of embodiment of the process wherein the word reaches from one to another mind, and transforms it, awakening memory, imagination, and the senses.

Every writer knows that their work can be enhanced by its presentation, or marred by it; emphasised by the open space around it, or lost in a babel of misprint and bad type.  Just occasionally we are lucky enough to see our words transfigured, not changed but released into their fullest potential, made visible in a work of art which is both a visual and intellectual reading, given bodies to match their souls.  When the words are reinvested with their original power in this way, it’s impossible not to read them with that creative intensity which carries one on to King’s Cross and far beyond.

Some of my work has, over the years, been honoured like this by Liz Mathews, whose artist’s books and other forms of lettered artwork give the words body and expose their soul.  Her forthcoming exhibition Watermark is at the Ice House Gallery in Holland Park, Kensington, from 7th-22nd May, 11am-7pm daily; it has some works in it based on my texts, as well as those of Virginia Woolf and other writers.