Plotting the Cosmos

There is a basic pleasure in the act of ordering, in mapping the chaos of our minds, and the metaphysical worlds that lie beyond thinking and knowing. In departing from representational (and especially figurative) languages, abstraction permits the artist to explore the unconscious and express the inexpressible. Not simply an invention of Modernity, abstract patterns take on a universal legibility in their linearity, sequences and fields of colour. They appeal to the eye as well as an intrinsic need for order.

The abstract works of Hilma af Klint (1862-1954), currently on show at the Serpentine Gallery, are a revelation in early 20th-century ‘cosmological abstraction’. She produced nearly two hundred abstract paintings between 1906 and 1915, many of them on a monumental scale, but insisted that they not be exhibited until 20 years after her death (and wouldn’t be shown until 1986). Her substantial oeuvre has been absent from male-dominated narratives of modern art, but as her solo retrospective would suggest, the tides have turned. It seems the world is ready for Klint’s unusual style and approach to painting, which predates and in many ways anticipates the spiritual abstraction of Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian, not to mention the automatic drawings of the Surrealists.


Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, Group IV, 1907

I was immediately struck by the confidence of af Klint’s large scale canvases, and the way she playfully manipulates pure line and colour within her arrangements. Her abstract works show extreme restraint on the one hand and exuberance on the other. Some are simply, well, weird. Stylistically, she is difficult to pin down, her works range from expressionistic to sparsely minimal, and some incorporate figurative elements. There is an unnerving honesty and directness to them, perhaps because they are not striving to achieve or perfect a particular style.

In the series ‘The Ten Largest’ af Klint develops a controlled organicism based on plants stems and snail shells (she was a skilled botanical illustrator), while the later ‘Swan’ series exhibits a geometric economy and precision that might belong to an entirely different sensibility, or indeed, art historical period. But this is because her abstract works are tied to a spiritual project, one that af Klint pursued privately alongside her commercial painting career. Birgit Pelzer tells us that ‘the goal of these sequences seems to be to experiment with different levels of intimacy with matter, with the spirit that animates the living, with that which penetrates and acts inside bodies and in their molecules, their cells, their organisms’.


Hilma af Klint, Svanen (The Swan) No. 17, Group IX, Series SUW, October 1914 – March 1915

According to Elizabeth Finch, who challenges a comparison of af Klint with her abstract contemporaries, her work ‘incorporated and organised each artistic action and reaction into a cumulative visual system’, rather than paring things down a la Mondrian. Af Klint’s works idealise an infinite and complex inwardness, drawing on a repertoire of forms and colours found within and outside the visible, natural world. The intersection of the micro and the macro in nature is a recurring visual theme, with the underlying geometry of plant grown patterns and cell structures, reflecting her belief that nature is an earthly echo of the divine order (based on the theosophical work of Helena P. Blavatsky).


Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 3, Youth, Group IV, 1907

When I encountered af Klint’s work at the Serpentine, I was reminded of the illuminations of 12th-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Whilst separated by eight centuries, both women artists were earmarked ‘ahead of their time’ and employed abstraction to represent the interaction between physical and divine realms. Moreover, they both found inspiration for their work through visions. Von Bingen received hers directly from God, in what she called ‘The Shade of the Living Light’ (and what many have since interpreted as her experience of migraines), visions that she found painful but which she eventually described in a series of volumes of visionary theology. Near the end of her life she commissioned and oversaw a richly illuminated manuscript of the first volume, Scivias or Know the Ways, in which her visions are depicted in all their abstract glory. The original, also called the Rupertsberg Codex, was lost during WWII, but its images are preserved in a hand-painted facsimile dating from the 1920s.


Hildegard of Bingen, Six Days of Creation, Scivias (Know the Ways) 1142-1151

Similarly compelled to engage with a higher power through abstract forms, sometimes through the micro and macro languages of nature, Af Klint developed a style of painting which was entirely her own. She initiated a group of women called ‘the Five’, who held regular séances to communicate with the spiritual realm through images. The group was influenced by contemporary spiritual movements of the early 20th century, including spiritism (the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits and their relation with the corporeal world), theosophy (divine wisdom), and anthroposophy (human wisdom). In particular, The Five drew upon and interpreted anthroposophy, through the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, a mystic strain of Christianity that placed an emphasis on personal or individual agency (via Goethe).

In 1905, af Klint received a ‘commission’ from a deity they called ‘Amaliel’ and began a series of 193 predominantly abstract works called ‘The Paintings for the Temple’. Whilst she saw her images as impressions from an immaterial realm, she anticipated that her audiences were not yet ready for this kind of art. Not long after, Malevich, Kandinsky and others would associate abstract shapes with spiritual purity, paving the way for Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism later in the century. Yet af Klint and her visionary forebears remain outside this historiography; like von Bingen, her ambition was not fuelled by individualism or notoriety, but through the pursuit of divine inspiration, to access realms beyond consciousness and the material world. The mapping of these routes was the sole purpose of their abstraction, plotting the cosmos through the language of line, shape and colour.


Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece, No. 1, Group X, Altarpiece Series, 1915

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from 3 March to 15 May 2016.

Citations from 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Agnes Martin, eds. Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher (New York; New Haven: The Drawing Center; Yale University Press, 2005).


Ornament: a space between

Review of The Production of Ornament: Reassessing the Decorative in History and Practice, a 2-day conference hosted by Lara Eggleton and Richard Checketts at the University of Leeds, 21-22 March 2014

Last month my colleague Richard Checketts and I organised a conference in Leeds based loosely on our shared interest in how ornament might be ‘productive of its objects and sites’. Our call for papers attracted a large number of proposals from which we selected (no easy task) a diverse but complimentary selection of papers (see full programme here). These in turn prompted an equally rich series of discussions, which opened out beyond the limitations of period style or formal classification. By the close of the second day I was thoroughly convinced that not only is there a need to challenge pejorative associations with ornamentation (e.g. decadence, superfluity, corruption, deceit, etc.), but also for a more careful consideration of its multiple registers of meaning within histories and historiographies of art, design and architecture. How does the failure of terms such as ‘ornament’ and ‘decoration’ point to a liminal or even volatile intersection between form and function, one that creates a space in which to discuss material, context and process of making and consuming within networks of production?

'The Wayland scene' from the Leeds Cross, Leeds Minster, 10th c.

‘The Wayland scene’ from the Leeds Cross, Leeds Minster, 10th c.

Catherine Karkov started off the first day with her paper, ‘Entanglement, Enchantment, Stone: The materiality of ornament in tenth-century Leeds’, which explored the meaning of the interlace patterns found on the stone carvings of an Anglo-Saxon cross currently residing in Leeds Minster. The original function of such crosses relates to wider social practices of story telling and community cohesion at a time when religious and political identities were in rapid flux. Explaining that the Old English word for knotting or binding, ‘cnotta’, can also mean to ensnare, entrap or enchant, Karkov discussed the interlace in relation to the secular and sacred iconography found on the four faces of the cross. While the partial legibility of the heavily restored pictorial components deny a comprehensive analysis, Karkov’s focus on the function of intertwining lines and plaits as a form of social binding was compelling. Drawing the attention of the viewer through and between narrative scenes and contemplative abstractions, the ornament of the cross may have been designed to bring together apposite systems of Christian and pagan belief.

Lidded bowl, brass with silver inlay and 'arabesque' pattern, Damascus, 1500-1550

Lidded bowl, brass with silver inlay and ‘arabesque’ pattern, Damascus, 1500-1550, V&A

Soersha Dyon took us on a materially grounded journey through the Arabesque from its Islamic origins to its subsequent emergence via adaptation in Europe, predominantly through the portable objects produced in sixteenth-century Venice. In questioning to what extent these objects and their patterning were actually perceived by contemporary makers and consumers as ‘exotic’ (versus German wares, for example, which were considered at least equally unfamiliar), Dyon exposed the construction of our own historical perspective. If the arabesque was viewed by Venetian artisans and merchants as a domestic element, why do art historians continue to trace it back to ‘non-Western’ origins? Correspondingly, descriptive terms such as ‘damascene’ might refer to material, process and surface effect, rather than to an Oriental style as such. Primary sources can thus give important insight into how process and technique were concomitant with the development of pattern and motif, and how the development of style was subject to wider networks of production and trade.

Carol Bier continued this discussion of materials with a fascinating paper on the impact of mathematics on the development of architecture in Seljuk and pre-Mongol Iran. Underlining the etymological link between the Persian word for geometry (handasa) and the Arabic for engineer (mohandes), and returning to commentaries found in Arabic translations of Greek mathematical texts, Bier made a convincing case for seeing both number studies and theology as a fundamental part of Islamic architectural design and decoration in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Building plans, features and facades can similarly be aligned with innovations in engineering, logic and other forms of ‘number puzzling’ – products of a competitive court enterprise that turned complex mathematical formulae into powerful and evocative statements of erudition and progress.

The fourth speaker of the day, Steven Lauritano, unpacked the Überbleibsel (German for ‘remnant’), as a categorical holding place between the ruin and the fragment, a word that suggests a certain ‘staying power’ or lasting significance. In his early nineteenth-century descriptions of buildings that incorporated antique elements, architect-designer Karl Friedrich Schinkel utilised the term to denote the resonance of certain objects which held the attention and possessed a certain aura. Parallels with Walter Benjamin’s ‘loss of bloom’, the Überbleibsel problematizes a gestalt-oriented view of the ruin. Whilst the remnant may also be understood in terms of waste and decay – a leftover of history – it can also be given new life through its cycles of reception and appropriation. Precisely how a remnant is to be distinguished from a fragment, and their tenuous relationship to a perceived whole (the building it once was), tests the boundaries of the ornamental and the structural as predetermined categories.

The first of two speakers dealing with the production of cast iron, Jason Nguyen showed the ‘kit of parts’ that characterised architectural projects in seventeenth-century Paris. The division of labour that resulted from competing interests and financial speculation was such that the classically derived banisters and railings of the period came to reflect something of the legal and economic processes and interactions that both enabled and restricted their production. Nguyen demonstrated how the established relations between architects and wood and masonry workshops were upended with the emergence of ironworkers, the ‘obedient’ qualities of their materials requiring a new set of rules and subsequent hierarchies. As iron manufacturing entered into artisanal and patron networks, the value of labour and limits of autonomy were destabilised.

Viollet-le-Duc, 'Warwick armor', c. 1870

Viollet-le-Duc, ‘Warwick armor’, c. 1870

Our first keynote speaker Alina Payne introduced the body as a dominant feature of nineteenth and twentieth-century writings on ornament. Linking nineteenth-century thinkers such as Ernst Kapp and his theory of armour as an extension of the machine (a natural response to the machine replacing manual labour) to Viollet-le-Duc’s obsession with joinery, Gottfried Semper’s tectonic cladding, and Wolfflin’s psychology of architecture, Payne identified the body as a template or starting point for ornamental production within industrial architecture. In its ability to convey a sense of energy – an interior force pushing outwards – ornament can be likened to parts and dynamics of the body, something Le Corbusier would return to in the early twentieth century in his ‘machine for living’. Modernist ornament can thus be seen as growing organically and self-consciously from the mechanisms of the body, even in their ability to ‘swell, expand and contract’. To account for this shifting discourse surrounding ornament, Payne argues that ornament should be understood as a highly versatile and scaleless element, haptic in nature – the ‘nerve endings’ of architecture.

Day two commenced with a paper that explored empathy from an entirely different perspective. Our second keynote, Susanne Küchler, brought with her a wealth of anthropological knowledge, exploring inter-subjectivity in the maritime societies of the South Pacific as the basis for understanding ornamental production. Connecting the ‘logic of assemblage’ with patterning on bodies and objects, Küchler linked ornamental production to performance, repetition, imagination, and social interaction. Communities that share an unmediated experience of the everyday (unimaginable to citizens of post-industrial societies) produce ornament as an extension of their social worlds, imbedding understandings of spirituality and interpersonal links through making. The charting of these systems through acts of material production – whether collective stitching, assemblage or choreography – can be read as sets of societal inscriptions, yet another form of knotting or joining that becomes emblematic of societal bonds (indeed, the carful arrangement of three-dimensional objects used as a kind of legal contract can also be viewed as a form of heraldry). Evoking Barbara Maria Stafford’s ‘echo objects’, Küchler proposed that quilts and transactional objects produced by indigenous societies might be read as compressions of space and time, and as an index of behaviours and the ordering of human consciousness. Moreover, she provocatively suggests that such objects have the potential to communicate across cultural borders through their phenomenological and empathetic dimensions.

Elizabeth Athens followed with an equally rich paper that probed the intermediary space between ornament and natural history. Comparing William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753) with Carl Linnaeus’ botanical text Species Plantarum, published the same year, Athens explored the ‘reanimating of ornament in the service of natural history’ found in Hogarth’s elaborate inventory-style illustrations. Revealing the primary role of ornament in the development of both artistic and natural taxonomies, she explored recurring eighteenth-century debates around the ‘true outlines’ of nature versus the stylisations or abstractions that threatened to corrupt its ‘pure’ essence. Tracing the visual relationships between Hogarth’s natural and artificial objects, Athens considered the subversive and at times monstrous power of ornament to convey the dynamic interrelationships between the living and inanimate, between imagined and material worlds.

William Hogarth, illustration from The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1753

William Hogarth, illustration from The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1753

Continuing the themes of science and monstrosity, Frances Connelly treated us to a deeply engaging paper on the ‘boundary creature’ of the grotesque. Considered by Giambattista Vico in his 1725 New Science as the ‘original language’, grotesque ornament could bring together disparate elements and communicate complex, poetic ideas through its combinatory effects. In the intermixing of humans and beasts, and the natural with the unnatural, the grotesque has the power to debase, unsettle and torment, producing excess meaning that functions on multiple, metaphoric levels. At once primitive (essential) and highly articulate, the grotesque was a indication of of a society’s ability to reconcile disparate elements. Extending her historical scope to include an analysis of Yinka Shonabare’s recent installations, Connelly unearthed the terrifyingly productive force of ornament in contemporary art, both in its refusal to fit within established categories and its ‘insistence on speaking’.

Men's urinal in Mina Park, Walter McFarlane and Co., Bristol, 1886

Men’s urinal in Mina Park, Walter McFarlane and Co., Bristol, 1886

Paul Dobraszczyk took us from the grotesque to the obscene in the world of Victorian public toilets (not to be confused with Loos), in a fascinating paper that demonstrated the concealing power of ornament. The decorated cast iron structures that populated the streets of nineteenth-century Britain were explored as semi-private domains that were designed to be both chaste and unobtrusive. In the attempt to hide or disguise their ‘true’ function, manufacturers such as Walter McFarlane and Co. borrowed from Owen Jones’ Alambresque to produce Oriental patterns and mashrabiya-like screens as a way to defer or mask associations with obscenity and dangers associated with these enclosures. Dobraszczyk pointed out that the use of vegetal ornament and the placement of the urinals in green spaces was a further measure of this naturalisation or glamorisation process. The frivolity and humour of the Victorian toilet reveals both conservatism and playful reflexivity, its ornament mediating between the realms of public and private, and the exotic and the banal.

Sabrina Rahman gave a lively penultimate paper on the vernacular folk style produced in early twentieth-century Austria, unpacking the nuanced eclecticism of a surprisingly understudied period. The designs of Josef Frank and other members of the Austrian Werkbund display a unique blend of regional motifs and a range of influences from across the Hapsburg Empire that is simultaneously local and transnational in its composite vocabulary. Yet while these patterns appear minimal and streamlined, almost simple in their sharp primary palettes, they are also rendered indiscernible through their fusion of global styles – from Eastern European to Isnik – what Rahman identifies as a form of ‘diachronic modernity’. Touching for the third time on the universalism of Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, the polylingual Werkbund aesthetic appears to address everyone and no one simultaneously. In speaking, its multiple voices seem to cancel each other out.


Josef Frank, ‘Mirakel’, ca. 1830.

Mark Crinson brought us further into the twentieth century with a focused exploration of New Brutalist wallpaper (what might at first glance appear to be an oxymoron). Asking us to look up, quite literally, from our notes, Crinson shed light on a little-known ceiling installation of an Eduardo Paolozzi wallpaper design. Its immersive surface upsets the typology of interior spaces both through the compositional logic of its pattern and the repositioning of the viewer’s gaze. Its overall surface remains an undifferentiated void while its details (including the insertions of paisley and other recognisable motifs) betray irregularities born of the creative process. Drawing parallels with scientific diagrams and airport landing strips, Crinson discussed the work in relation to technologies of vision and movement through space. Placed above our heads, the wallpaper was possibly meant to operate as what Anton Ehrenzweig called a ‘gestalt-free zone’, a product of the unconscious or that transformed the room into a kind of technical support for the inscription of Paolozzi’s mental acrobatics.

The themes that emerged across the two days were numerous; my own opening thoughts on the chimeric qualities of ornament coming full circle after a journey through through the hybrid and the interstitial; the monstrous, grotesque, the obscene; the contemplative and psychological. The human figure loomed large (along with biology more generally), whether through the design and production of ornament or its theorisation and channels of reception. The recurrence of particular motifs (interlace, paisley, arabesque, polygons, vegetal), materials (stone, wood, iron, textile, ceramic), and processes (engineering, performance, installation, reproduction, translation) demonstrated the breadth and depth of meaning produced through substance, site and context. Ornamental production also emerged as a generative and concretising force throughout history, offering ways to think about societal and cross-cultural relations, as well as a shared human tendency that binds us to these histories and contexts. What became increasingly clear is that there is a need within the discipline (particularly in Art/Architectural History) to redefine the insufficient and fraught category of ornament, and rethink its contingent or incidental relationship to art and architectural objects.

My sincere thanks goes out to all who participated in the Production of Ornament. Please feel free to add your thoughts or continue the conversation below.

Download full conference programme here: The Production of Ornament

An Indifferent Matter?

Marin R. Sullivan | Sculptural Things

This is a joint post by Dr. Lara Eggleton of Folly Matters and Dr. Marin R. Sullivan of Sculptural Things.

In the wake of the de-installation of Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (25 July – 20 October 2013), two friends and art historians decided to co-write a blog based on our own  conversations about the exhibition and on a casual interrogation of one of the show’s curators, Pavel Pyś (and the mineralogist consultant for the show, Mike Rumsey), over Japanese noodles. The exhibition made waves and rustled feathers, particularly evident through a public programme that included talks by Peter Osborne and Richard Checketts, often calling into account its curatorial motivations.

The controversy sprung mainly from the decision to showcase a number of objects that are clearly – and in some cases famously – designated as artworks alongside artefacts and things not commonly…

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‘Temple’: a temporary ruin

Matthew Crawley, 'Temple', 2013, MDF, wood, wood glue, screws, red devil Onetime filler, emulsion paint, gold spirit paint, white vinyl. Photo: Matthew Crawley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Temple’, 2013, MDF, wood, wood glue, screws, red devil Onetime filler, emulsion paint, gold spirit paint, white vinyl. Photo: Matthew Crawley

The exhibition, ‘Headless Body found in Topless Bar’, was held in June in the shared studio of Leeds Weirdo Club, and featured a single work by each of its three members, Matthew Crawley, Harry Meadley and David Steans (curated by Meadley). It provided a window onto their respective works-in-practice, which were fittingly framed by the artists’ bookshelves, work surfaces and meticulously arranged grid of hanging tools. Crawley’s contribution was a full-scale replica of a Leeds ‘Poster Drum’, the name given to the 100+ promotional monuments that are dotted throughout the city. Standing 325 cm (10’6”) high by 138.5 cm (4’5”) wide, Temple took up most of the basement workspace at Patrick Studios (also headquarters of East Street Arts). The work dominated with its formidable scale, while its surfaces – smoothly sanded and painted a matte stone grey – seemed to absorb the atmosphere around it. Towering like a monolith or obelisk, it appeared oversized and cramped in the space, acting as a playful and strangely magnetic obstruction during the preview.

Temple is a facsimile of the 1994 version of the poster drums, which are co-managed by the company Street Sites and Leeds City Council. By way of invoking of this earlier model the work might be considered as a folly (those who have been following my blog will have noticed that my definition of ‘folly’ is very flexible!), as it represents an attempt to bring the recent past into the present. Crawley’s choice to replicate an older version of the drums is interesting, for it highlights the fact that they have a history in the city, the slight adjustments to their appearance a reflection of different stages in their evolution. It shares with its urban counterpart its light grey colour and the twin gold stripes that run along the edge of the upper octagonal rim, or turret. Upon four of these surfaces the company’s name and telephone number are printed in white. In the context of the artist-studio-turned-exhibition-space, this information serves only an aesthetic or conceptual purpose. Through this, and its conspicuous lack of posters, Temple can be understood as a non-functioning object, or architectural sham.

'Poster Drum', Street Sites/ Leeds City Council (with original 1994 livery). Photo: Matthew Crawley

‘Poster Drum’, Street Sites/ Leeds City Council (with original 1994 livery). Photo: Matthew Crawley

Most Leodites will pass by a number of very similar structures every day, but the blank, monochrome surfaces of Temple delay recognition. Here is the absence of a thick accumulated skin of posters that typically cover the drums’ tall midsections, which signpost a steady flow of music gigs, concerts, operas, festivals, exhibitions and other events in and around Leeds. The omission of this advert-pastiche is key, for instead of deflecting the viewer’s attention through so many beams of promotional information, the smooth surfaces draw it inwards, towards the object, which all the time lies below these competing layers of signification. This gives the work a kind of gravitational pull that supersedes and cancels out its commercial function. Moreover, in contrast to the permanent installations in the city, Temple is temporary, its ungainly dimensions requiring it to be rebuilt each time it is shown. Crawley sees this as an essential part the work, explaining that following de-installation the piece is ‘destroyed and less than a ruin’. It is also site-specific, as different exhibition spaces require adjustments and changes to the design: in this case its pyramid roof was clipped to fit the height of the studio ceiling.

Another distinguishing feature of Temple is that it is painstakingly constructed by hand using wood, an inversion of the pre-fab, steel drums found on the streets of Leeds. While its measurements are reproduced with careful precision and its edges seamlessly finished, there is something about the work that gives away its handcrafted origins; it possesses a certain quality that manufactured objects lack. The flat, even coating of paint further works to unify its volumes and surfaces, emancipating the drum from its commercial fetters and elevating it to the status of art (and/or architectural) object.

Matthew Crawley, 'Temple' (detail), 2013. Photo: Matthew Crawley

Matthew Crawley, ‘Temple’ (detail), 2013. Photo: Matthew Crawley

I am always struck by the artist’s ability to lift ordinary and ubiquitous objects to a realm of contemplation, and to encourage an appreciation, or even admiration, of form. Rather ironically, it is the absence of the loud and busy imagery of promotional materials that make the shape and volume of Crawley’s drum so eye-catching.

Temple is a quotidian object captured and transformed, which seems to almost hum with its own resonance. Its clean, unadorned faces soothe our over-saturated senses, offering a reprieve from the countless adverts and flyers that we encounter on our day-to-day journeys. And yet Crawley’s work doesn’t let us forget the template and inspiration for Temple. The multisided structure was designed to project messages on behalf of paying venues and companies; it is a monument to civic marketing, and nothing more. The power of Crawley’s Temple, I think, is that it urges us to take notice of these urban monuments; to encounter them with a new set of references and an apprehension of their form.

Faking It

In challenging times it helps me to think about the doomed plight of Donald Crowhurst. A down-on-his-luck businessman, aspiring inventor, husband and father of 4, he set out on the 1968 Golden Globe Round the World Yachts Race in a flimsy trimaran. An amateur yachtsman who hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of debt, and having borrowed significantly to fund the endeavour, be became the centre of an international media campaign as Britain’s favourite underdog. After a few embarrassing false starts he set out across the Atlantic, only to discover within days that his hastily constructed boat was fast disintegrating and that he had little hope of finishing the race – let alone winning it.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting. Instead of turning back (if he forfeited he would bankrupt his family), Crowhurst resolved to cut off all radio contact with his team and to keep a record of fake co-ordinates, plotting his would-be trip around the world. As he drifted for months around the South Atlantic, he approximated an idealised journey alongside his competitors. His plan was to fall in stride with the fleet as it rounded the southern tip of the continent and, as his ambitions grew, to win the £5,000 for the fastest time. Sadly, or perhaps inevitably, things did not work out according to plan. After 11 weeks he sent a cryptic radio message stating that he had broken all speed records and was in the final stretch. At this point his wife Clare, relieved to finally hear from him, sent a telegram informing him that all but one of his competitors had dropped out and that he – amazingly – had a solid chance of winning. Realising that his logbooks and calculations would be carefully scrutinised and his ruse exposed, Crowhurst began to mentally unravel.

Tacita Dean, 'Teignmouth Electron' from the series Disappearance at Sea, 1999

Tacita Dean, ‘Teignmouth Electron’ from the series Disappearance at Sea, 1999

At some point after his last journal entry on the 1st of July 1969 Crowhurst either fell or threw himself overboard. His body was never recovered and the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned west of the Azores. Having been ‘duped’ by this outrageous facade the British public was less than forgiving, and decades would pass before he was reborn in the cultural imagination as a tragic hero. Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst was found amongst the belongings of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who died at sea during his own Atlantic crossing, part of the work In Search of the Miraculous (1975). Crowhurst’s story was sensitively retold in the 2006 documentary Deep Water and commemorated in the animated video ‘The Deception‘ by Leeds-based band iLiKETRAiNS. Inspiring numerous books and artworks, and a strange diagrammatic interpretation, his legacy was perhaps most poignantly captured in two video works by Tacita Dean from 1999. When Dean encountered the wreck of the Teignmouth Electron on the Caribbean island Cayman Brac, it reminded her of something out of a JG Ballard novel. She sent a photograph to the author and asked what he thought of it. Ballard responded by saying that he had no particular interest in Crowhurst, and dismissed him as a foolish man (though he likened the moored boat to the remains of downed WWII aircrafts still found in on Pacific islands).

For many Crowhurst is still a hoaxster who deliberately fooled the nation and the world for personal gain. Yet the most fascinating thing about Crowhurst’s tale is the determination that allowed him to continue on an imaginary journey around the world and toward victory, even as the the seams of his illusion began to show. That is, what keeps us returning to his story was the man’s ability to ‘fake it’ in a truly epic fashion. His elaborate fiction suspended his dreams and allowed him to survive, if only for a brief time, isolated and in increasingly desperate circumstances. As part of his efforts to create a convincing alternate reality, he tape-recorded fictional sightings and filmed the Faulklands coastline as he would have encountered it on the ‘home stretch’. In his logbooks and notes, amassing around 25,000 words, he constructed a plausible voyage alongside pseudo-philosophical writings about the human condition, a complex manifesto which became increasingly less coherent (those who have written a thesis might relate to this!). His false log entries were possibly his greatest achievement (one of his commercially failed inventions was ironically a navigational device); he was able to calculate convincing celestial co-ordinates that not only put him in the race but saw him breaking records. Together these documents represent a legitimate realm of experience based in Crowhurst’s fantasies and hopes, and his fundamental need to keep them, quite literally, afloat.

Crowhurst on the Teignmouth Electron, from Deep Water, 2006

Crowhurst on the Teignmouth Electron, from the film Deep Water, 2006

I marvel at our immense capacity to suspend disbelief as a way of coping with circumstances that do not suit our purposes or fulfil our needs. The negotiation of the real in relation to the ideal is at the heart of folly, but rewriting the present in the image of the past or an imagined future is not always a whimsical or playful impulse. In the case of Crowhurst, it was a matter of survival. Artifice gives shape and form to our fantasies and  provides us with essential nourishment. Of course, the taller the tale the harder it falls, and monuments made of myth are destined to topple.

Despite the tragic end to Crowhurst’s tale, I feel that we continue to learn from it. It makes me wonder what might be gained from an understanding of fakery on more positive terms, seeing beyond associations with trickery and deceit. The little boy who adds a few extra flourishes to his account of an ordinary day at school, or the dad who caught a fish THIS BIG. Harmless elaboration, surely, and doubtless more interesting than the truth. Reality lets us down too often, and the ratio of dreams to the bleaker aspects of life sometimes requires that we take matters into our own hands. The folly, much like Crowhurst’s logbook, is a relic of the imagination. It contains the overflow of dreams when experience comes up short, and makes tangible the desired worlds that lie just out of reach.