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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