Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Heart of darkness - the back of beyond

We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs forever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, “followed the sea” with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of darkness (1902)
This powerful section of Heart of darkness was alluded to by Frank Watson in his conversation with Dr Eugenie Shinkle on the 10th of November at London Gallery West. This event was to discuss Frank Watson’s current exhibition entitled The Back of Beyond at the Harrow gallery, bringing together work from three projects: The Hush House: Cold War Sites in England; Soundings from the Estuary and Isles of Grain.

Ideas of history, time – and crucially – events that never happened or have not yet happened and their relationship to the landscape were discussed.

The military encampments are ‘monuments to things that never happened’ and ‘symbols of the American military colonisation of the English landscape.’

There is a passage in Heart of darkness on the Romans, Frank told us;  and reading this later was fascinating in the context of reading some of the photographs in the exhibition: 
They were conquerors, and for that you only want brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.
‘Was this a political project?’ he was asked.

‘Yes’ was the straightforward answer – ‘driven by ideological concerns’ and the fears of the cold war, manifest, for example, in the films of the era – Dr Strangelove, The Ipcress Files, and even the James Bond films. The demonstrations at Greenham Common were also cited (and cited too in the essay accompanying the book The Hush House).

However, a move from overtly political to more allegorical and ambiguous work was noted.  It was also suggested that the fears of the nuclear showdown that were prominent during the Cold War have largely been replaced by fears of environmental Armageddon.  This is reflected in the ongoing project Soundings from the Estuary.

Ideas of impermanence and a sense of the tenuousness of the relationship between building and landscape were also discussed. Robert Adams’ photographs of Colorado, and the work of other ‘New Topographics’ photographers were mentioned in this context.

David Campany, in the audience, suggested that ‘photographs were representations of a landscape quite unlike being in that landscape’ and that they were ‘a way of renegotiating one’s relationship with [the landscape]'

One might also argue that they are a way of renegotiating one's relationship to the past.  The landscape of the Thames estuary is one that is familiar to Watson from childhood and although resistant to the idea of the project having an autobiographical spur, he did, I think, concede the possibility. Ideas of the uncanny or un-homely were discussed in this context. The repetitive visits to these places were a way of revisiting the past – a way of quelling a sense of unease or paradoxically of amplifying it...

In the end, though, Watson’s concern was with the future and if I have understood correctly, the potentiality of the landscape. Not that this is necessarily an optimistic stance, but one that could be ominous.  Here we go back, one final time, to Heart of darkness. With deep irony, Conrad puts the following words into the mouth of Marlow:
The conquest of the earth...is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice too...”

The exhibition is on until the 10th January 2011.

Further reading

Adams, R. (2009), Summer nights, walking : along the Colorado front range, 1976-1982, New York : Aperture ; New Haven, CT : Yale University Art Gallery.

Apocalypse now redux (2009), Directed by Francis Ford Coppola [DVD].  Great Britain: Buena Vista Home Entertainment [a contemporary interpretation of Heart of darkness].

Barthes, R. (1982), Camera lucida : reflections on photography, London : Cape.

Campany, D. (2003).  'Safety in Numbness. Some Remarks on Problems of 'Late Photography'', in: Campany, D. (ed.), The Cinematic, Cambridge/Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007, p. 185-194.

Conrad, J. (1902), Heart of darkness, Harmondsworth : Penguin.

Isles of grain (2009), Frank Watson and Dave Lawrence [DVD], Great Britain.

New topographics, 2009, Göttingen : Steidl.

Watson, F. (2004), Frank Watson : the hush house : Cold War sites in England, London : Hush House Publishers.


Soundings from the Estuary
The Hush House


Frank Watson was interviewed by Malcolm Hopkins on Resonance FM on 16th December.  A podcast of the interview can be found here.