Looking back at May 2018 visit to Southampton. ArtfulScribe Writer in Residency at John Hansard Gallery

After spending the last ten days in Southampton on my writing residency at John Hansard Gallery, I have a lot to look back on.

The Gerhard Richter exhibition provoked a lot of thought in me. In particular, an installation that caught my imagination more than I had anticipated when I read about it was 48 Portraits (1971–1991). It’s a subtly effective work that, although it uses the techniques of other Richter paintings, floats layers of potential relations between 48 individual portraits of notable men from the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th century in ways that insinuate lead a long way from the questions of image surface and relationship to subject that preoccupied me with other works in the exhibition. (I’m thinking of the Abstract Paintings Skin, Silicate and Grey made from images of surfaces of milk showing vibration patterns, and that I’m currently visually noting the similarities of to the top surfaces of clouds that I’m flying above on my way back to Edinburgh.) Maybe the deepening of engagement with 48 Portraits happened because I (and others I talked to) already had strong imaginative connections with some of the 48 men depicted, and no conscious connections at all with some of the others; it made for a bumpy and changing reading as I looked among the faces that gave or resisted my recognition.

I picked out the composers amongst the line-up first, familiar with some of the very same images that Richter had gleaned, from my own childhood readings of music encyclopedias – Anton Bruckner photographed with his seemingly taken aback expression has always mentally illustrated for me the stories about him being the more country cousin to the sophisticated Wagner, though now I wonder how much of that was in any sense true and how much snobbery. With their names displayed beneath each Richter-reproduced image, there were occasional shocks as you got close to read a name and realised this was the face of someone you knew about but hadn’t seen represented.

Paul Claudel, one of 48 men represented by Gerhard Richter in 48 Portraits (1971–1991). Image from John Hansard Gallery, May 2018.

Paul Claudel was one such for me – I knew about him from a mention in (one version of) Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats. It was peculiar to see him looking so modern in his sciencey spectacles, having thought of him as already far back from the himself dated-seeming, mannered, young Auden. With all these men’s heads and gazes suspended indefinitely, you could daydream about the connections between them all and how their world shaped the time that followed.

I write about my thinking around this work in my poem-text written this visit. It’s turned out to be a long poem, and takes in my April visit (when the installation of the Richter exhibition had begun) and then the day before the exhibition opening, and the preview itself, ending with the writing drawn from the 48 Portraits. Incidentally, the portraits are also incredibly beautifully installed in the Barker-Mill gallery, a self-contained and well-proportioned space in the centre of John Hansard’s new set-up. The presentation really brings you close, into an audience with these faces. I can’t imagine a better way to see and think with this work. Please travel to see the show if you can before it closes on the 18 August.

Jane Birkin and Iain Morrison at the staff club, Highfield Campus, May 2018.

On my visit I was also able to have a much looked forward to lunch with writer and artist Jane Birkin, who works in the archives at Southampton University and whose presentation I had very much enjoyed at the Immediacy! Research Day I’d taken part in back in January. She had shown a very successful work there that used moving image footage of details of a still photograph and drew on the craft of carefully-neutral archival image descriptions to curate an encounter with the image in a faceted way.

There seemed a fruitful discussion to be had given the ways we both in our work started from the point of records/traces. The differences seemed fascinating to me, with Jane’s starting point being images collected and deposited by others and held in a structured system, and my note-taking and filming being more obviously subjective, yet still trying to keep a broad lens on the systems that supported what I was investigating: the public and slightly private life of John Hansard Gallery and its audiences.

Jane and I got onto a good track about the status of description within writing, and its categorisation, often, as an inferior tool to discuss, something that Jane I think challenges. I was interested in how observation (which I felt was a word to describe what I was doing during my residency) differed from description. I came to think of it as being something about intention. But then maybe Jane’s approach in her work is to observe the description? It’s all so interesting. I like the word ‘observation’ partly because it seems so mid-twentieth century with echoes of the faith in science that I associate with that space-race time. The Mass Observation project is also something thing I’m connecting in my head, the ongoing systematic recording of the similarities and different trajectories of human subjects in Britain over a long period of time. And this in turn brings me back to think about the Richter portraits, which feel a related way of taking a spread-out snapshot of a generation or two.

Jane also introduced me to the artist Walter van Rijn who is making an epic work for Hansard’s next show called Unconsumable Global Luxury Dispersion, which is working with the titles of every single work shown in the old John Hansard Gallery site. For a look at how he’s organising and shaping that enormous data-set, look at his instagram for the project here. I think there are going to be interesting connection between our projects to talk about over my remaining visits.

And finally, because it’s definitely part of the pleasure of the residency for a weathered Scot like myself, here’s a picture of my writing station on Sunday, in a beer garden in Winchester just up the road from Southampton. My body doesn’t know what to do with all this vitamin D!

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Lead-up to opening for real! Southampton ArtfulScribe residency at John Hansard Gallery

In my last post I wrote about the Sampler week at John Hansard Gallery in February. I next visited in April, and the Gallery was in a funny in-between state, having been open to the public temporarily, but now closed again in preparation for the official ‘proper’ opening of its spaces in May. There was exhilaration in February at having got the doors open. Now in April, there was a sense of taking pains through the detail work with a last chance to get things absolutely nailed down, in some cases literally, before the building was permanently opened.

The installation of the launch exhibition, ARTIST ROOMS: Gerhard Richter, was underway. The work wasn’t on the walls yet, but everywhere the technical team were measuring and making the place ready. I was able to do some writing around the spaces, with the ghosting works of Sampler still visible in some places so that it reminded me of my initial visit to the old John Hansard site on the Highfield campus. Then vinyl from previous shows was redundantly continuing its indication on the wall. This visit though, a site was turning round, rather than winding up.

There was a public reading this visit, with Nazneen Ahmed and Dinos Aristidou, who are the writers-in-residence respectively at Southampton libraries and the Mayflower Theatre. Matt, who as ArtfulScribe is overseeing and facilitating all of our loosely-linked residencies, organised a lunch for the four of us to get together and share experiences. This was really welcome, as we’d been active at slightly different times, and knew about each other’s activities despite not having met. Our reading, that evening at Mettricks, was chaired by Carole Burns, head of the Creative Writing department at Southampton Uni.

Iain Morrison, Nazneen Ahmed, Matt West & Dinos Aristidou

In these and other connections that the residency is allowing me to make, I am grateful for the shared perspectives, whether it’s on practical matters such as good residency programmes and potential funders, or different approaches to the way our work engages with personal narratives. Always interesting to stop and think about your own progress with people who understand the commitments and ambitions you might be balancing as someone making your way as a professional writer.

When I returned to Southampton for my current visit – I’m here now – the mood had lightened. It was the day before the Richter previews, and everything seemed in place, or close enough to in place not to be panic-inducing. It was lovely to see the staff all who had worked so hard towards this moment, all taken complex and personal personal routes to this point, celebrating together and enjoying the attention of  interested and supportive parties like Arts Council England, the University, local politicians, artists and press.

I had my camera out for the previews, recording some footage from peculiar angles for my film poems. As ever I was trying to pull back from the art and the individuals, and capture some of the social feel and the paraphenalia of the event.

still from footage for film-poem in the making

Writing through public speeches was a subtly different prospect from previous note-taking that I’d done; the language being used was so measured and a lot of necessary ritual included. I’m seeing what comes together out of that captured and remixed language in the poem-text I’m putting together to encompass this whole period from the April visit through to this climax point.

On this visit, longer than previous ones, I’ve more time for this nuts and bolts aspects of the writing job. I’ve gathered all my finished and in-progress material to date, and I think the overall structure of the final text is clear. It will start from the December visits to the old gallery, sweep through Sampler and the Richter opening, and end with a final piece of writing from Stephen Foster, the former director’s valedictory show, which opens in September. It will be a palindrome of sorts, or maybe more a mobius band, taking us back to the same place, but somehow on the other side of the page.