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.

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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’.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

 

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Giant Geometry

Long before machine production, humans marvelled at nature’s ability to produce streamlined, seemingly manufactured forms. Traditionally (at least in the Western world), organic, curvilinear and irregular features are seen as characteristic of nature’s work, whilst geometry remains its unseen, underlying logic. As late as the 19th century, John Ruskin felt compelled to explain ‘the straight lined’ (as exhibited by rocks, minerals and crystals) as an unfinished, crude phase of natural expression, best left concealed beneath the earth’s surface. Geometry on a smaller scale is somehow less spectacular (perhaps because the detail of snowflakes or cell structures remain invisible to the naked eye), but something about seeing it writ large on the landscape evokes fascination, unease, and even scepticism. What is it about big geometry that seems so unnatural?

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Polygonal basalt columns, Giant’s Causeway, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway on Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast is famous for its geometric rock formations. Over 40,000 polygonal basalt columns (between 4 and 7 sides, though most are hexagonal), appear to be slotted together seamlessly, as if by some great, careful hand. Geologists have since discovered that the columns did not grow cumulatively (like crystals), but were formed collectively as lava flows cooled and gradually shrank, with starlike cracks forming across a large surface and extending vertically down into the earth. Recent studies have demonstrated that the slower the lava cools, the bigger the basalt formations [1]. Over a longer period of cooling the vertical columns broke into shorter sections, each break neatly fitted with a ball and socket join.

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Konrad Gesner, ‘De omni rerum fossilium genere’, Zurich: excudebat Iacobus Gesnerus, 1565.

Before their geological origins were confirmed, many believed the columns were either enormous crystals or the fossilised remains of giant sea creatures. The latter must have evoked sublime and terrible visions of beasts with tentacles, teeth or vertebrae caught in animated suspension. In 1816, Edward Jenner wrote that fossils are ‘monuments to departed worlds’. At one time the Giant’s Causeway might have held such dualities in tension: architecture and biology; earthly and extraterrestrial; naturally occurring and engineered. The natural philosophy of a pre-Enlightenment era allowed such contemplative spaces; even for mythology to merge with theories of the earth and its origins. For some, the feature continues to complicate an understanding of time and the way the earth was conceived and constructed. In 2012, controversy around the inclusion of a Creationist exhibition at the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre forced the National Trust to amend a learning display, a U-turn that highlighted the longstanding geological importance of the site and what it means for Earth’s history (scientific evidence places it some 60m years ago; Young Earth Creationists believe the earth is no more than 40,000 years old).

81a22b3b1eb9c602eae16c302836282fAs if to account for its fabricated quality, legend has it that the Causeway was built by an Irish Giant, Fionn MacCool, after picking a fight with the Scottish giant Benadonner. Upon catching a glimpse of Benadonner’s enormous figure crossing the sea, Fionn panicked and asked his wife disguise him as a baby so as to fool his adversary into thinking that proportionally, the infant’s father must be a giant among giants. The ruse was successful, and as Benadonner fled back to Scotland he destroyed the Causeway behind him, leaving only the remnants of a matching basalt formation on the Isle of Staffa, known as Fingal’s Cave. Unlike the Pillars of Hercules, the remains of this mythological feat of engineering are in evidence.

For hundreds of years the site has attracted scientists and tourists eager to see the spectacle of earth’s geometry on a macro scale. The shapes and variations are pleasingly refined, with edges almost machine-finished, and further smoothed by the elements. Standing upon them and looking down at their patterns, it’s easy to imagine that each was individually designed to fit together, like a giant jigsaw (or a bundle of pencil crayons, as sometimes observed). Visitors as early as the 18th century remarked upon the manmade character of the Causeway. Sir Robert Redding, first reporting his ‘discovery’ to the Royal Society in 1688, observed that ‘these Columns are so regularly ranged and fitted one to the other that it seems rather the work of art than nature’ [2]. There is something impossible or otherworldly about its precise formations, which continues to draw a healthy flow of tourists eager to traverse its polygons (and which was taken to its psychedelic conclusion in a 1973 Led Zeppelin album cover).

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Album cover by Hipgnosis for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, 1973

Having recently visited the Causeway for the first time, I was swept away by its giant geometry. Couched within the varied beauty of the Antrim coastline, its ordered striations are indeed transfixing, though I struggle to explain exactly why. What is it about straight lines, regularity and pattern on a macro scale that leads us to think (even if we know better) that something, or someone, must have designed or created them? Why do we associate nature with irregularity, and manmade or artificial features with more balanced calculations? Susanna Drury’s illustration from 1768 shows Victorian figures surrounded by column fragments, so neatly described that they resemble bolts shaken loose from a great machine, or else the detritus of some future empire. Like the figures, we are made small by association, complex micro organisms that can relate to the formations through the delicate components of our biological systems, or the mechanical works of our own making.

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Engraving of Susanna Drury’s ‘A View of the Giant’s Causeway: East Prospect’, 1768

Perhaps it is the combination of monumentality and seemingly measured features that makes the Causeway so remarkable. It is as if an otherwise concealed blueprint has been exposed, the inner workings of the earth turned inside out. Ruskin’s observation has relevance here, for it is the subterranean world to which these columns belong. Their presence on the surface is interpreted as alien, misplaced. The Earth’s interior exists on a magnitude that is difficult for us to imagine or visualise without diagrams or the cruel cross sections of quarries and industrial scale mining. On the Antrim coast we see this underworld reveal itself naturally, short circuiting our spatial and proportional perspective. It is evidence of a natural design that, until fairly recently, was beyond our comprehension. Yet even with an understanding of the geological processes which produced it, the Causeway persists as a grand and peculiar site of natural artifice.

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[1] University of Toronto. (2008, December 25). ‘Mystery Of Hexagonal Column Formations Such As Giant’s Causeway Solved With Kitchen Materials’, ScienceDaily. Accessed 8 January, 2016: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081216104325.htm

[2] In Alasdair Kennedy, “In Search of the ‘True Prospect’: Making and Knowing the Giant’s Causeway as a Field Site in the Seventeenth Century.” British Society for the History of Science 10.10 (2007): 21-22.

Why the medieval past has presence

Lara Eggleton and David Steans in conversation

Lara Eggleton: Neomedievalism is anything but new. The reuse of medieval themes, narratives and motifs is a tradition within the arts that stretches back to the Gothic revival and neo-paganism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An interest in folklore, which goes hand in hand with revivalism, echoes within the visual and aural practices of many if not all cultures. As an art historian I’m interested in exploring the motivations behind the appropriation of the medieval past at various points in history. As an artist who borrows and incorporates medieval elements into your work, I’m wondering what for you is the basis of their symbolic and/or aesthetic appeal?

Army of Darkness promotional poster

Army of Darkness promotional poster

David Steans: I don’t know as much as I’d like to about medieval history, so I understand the medieval as the synthesis of these ongoing visitations of it. The Middle Ages are like an enduringly popular time-travel destination. If I talk of ‘the medieval’ I’m talking largely of my own subjective, aesthetic, perhaps quite mainstream understanding of it – more Army of Darkness [1] than Decameron. So with that disclaimer in mind…

I think the symbolic currency of the medieval – or what a contemporary reuse of a medieval past might symbolize – has something to do with the intellectual and spiritual ardour of medieval people. In them we see a wealth of ingenuity and imagination, and great endeavour. They fervently seek the world around and beyond them. They are beset on all sides by mysterious and often inimical forces, yet they systematise knowledge and pursue the irrational – which we imagine governs them completely – with a dogged methodical rationality. We’re also interested in the quotidian lives of medieval people, and are as fascinated by the medieval toilet as by the medieval church. For me it is this spectrum of the sacred and the profane, so vividly rendered in our medieval imaginary, that is its aesthetic currency. The medieval world is full of shit and piss and venereal diseases, at the same time as it is totally fantastic. When we think of the Black Death, we share the medieval plague-sufferer’s horror, both at God’s mighty wrath and the inadequate sanitation, both the imminent apocalypse and the failure of medicine.

In talking of how I imagine ‘we’ imagine the medieval, I suppose I’m trying to underline what I understand by the neo-medieval. For me the neo-medieval is like a prosthetic, a strange proxy tool for using history.

LE: I can completely relate to your selective engagement with the medieval – I consider myself more of a ‘medievalismist’ than a bonafide scholar of the period. The other problem with studying monuments and artefacts that date from an age vaguely classified as ‘dark’ is that many scholars are focused on unearthing the ‘truth’ or filling in the missing pieces of its history. This can lead to a dangerous practice of speculation that is motivated by precisely what you’re talking about – our contemporary fascination with the experience of people who lived during this time. You’re right to point out the sacred/profane dichotomy as central to its allure, but I’m wondering about this idea of the fantastical and to what extent it is a product of a post-secular fetishisation of things like magic, ritual and superstition. Can we truly relate to the horrors of these societies, or their deeply religious experience of life, from the armchair of Western Modernity, or are we simply rummaging through history looking for things that appear fantastic to our own sensibilities? I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, but what can it tell us about what’s missing in our own lives?

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

DS: Of course, it is a fetishisation. What wouldn’t appear fantastic from your armchair?  I think it’s perhaps the more earthly aspects we relate to, or want to relate to. The quotidian medieval, as if it might accord with our own times, or the sense that modern civilisation somehow begins in the Middle Ages. This makes us feel closer to the fantastical, to the horrors, to the spiritual. The question of whether or not we can truly relate is not what’s at stake. Does ‘post-secular’ give the game away as to what’s missing (i.e., the comfort and allure of credulity, belief, rapture, passions, of feeling at the utter mercy of God, or being ignorant of the minor details of a supreme plan)?

I find the myriad forms of divination rites practised in the Middle Ages fascinating in this regard. They are elaborate, ingenious procedures engineered to elicit chance, random gestures or happenings. The engineer believes that if successfully facilitated, otherworldly forces will use these openings to communicate with him. The more elaborate, violent or obscure the method (scapulomancy, oculomancy, scatomancy or anthropomancy, for example) the more these practices can be put to service as metaphor for the human struggle to reconcile the rational with the irrational. If the metaphor is of any use, or even compels, I think it’s probably because trying to talk to God seems a more acceptable sort of scrabble for ‘immortality power’ than that of trying to acquire an inequitable personal material wealth [2].

LE: I like your reading of divination as metaphor as a way of understanding our fascination with the medieval. This idea of ‘accessing’ the divine or the magical is an interesting way of thinking about these practices, and how they appeal to a modern sensibility. Forms of engineering, or indeed, ‘form’ in general, operate at the interface of the material and the metaphysical – they give tangibility to that which is imperceptible. Early Christian icons, for example, are caught between being human constructions and being actual embodiments of holy figures, hence their venerable status. Art historian Hans Belting has subsequently argued that icons should not be considered art objects but as conduits for divinity, or as portals or windows to the sacred realm [3].

These portals can also lead to dark places, and I think it is the inheritance of paganism from Antiquity that makes Christian medieval symbolism so rich and layered. There is an internal tension between polytheism and monotheism, and between Jewish, Christian (and later Islamic) doctrine, that is inherent to imagery and other art forms of the early medieval period, especially in eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium. Iconoclasm emerges out of a fear of the power of the image, and of the sacrilege of idol worship. Do you think that returning to this age where art had such an affective and at times threatening role is a way of reinvigorating art within a secular context? Are artists today trying to recuperate some of this magic (dark or otherwise) within their own work?

Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, early 14th century Byzantine, probably Constantinople. Miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel with gold, multicolored stones, and gilded copper tesserae; some portions restored. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

DS: Artists want to be affective. But there’s also a fear of losing the particularity and reflexivity of contemporary art practice as artists look to entertainment, history, religion, literature, anthropology, and wherever else, for affective models.

As for recuperating magical properties, I think the dynamism of magical process definitely appeals. I think artists would like their work to operate in that way, or operate that well, but with different ends in mind. For the sake of discussion let’s follow Belting, and refuse to consider images that function – as embodiments, conduits, portals, as anything – as art. Artists want to make art, predominately. If you produce an icon, you lose the modern ontological basis for it being art, and for you being an artist. It could be argued that there is no ontological basis for art. But my supposition would still hold. If art has no ontological basis then that becomes the basis for its definition. Therefore, if your art starts to be something else then it’s no longer art, and the artist ceases to be an artist.

LE: I’m glad you brought up the idea of fictions in relation to (contemporary) art making. I think this is relevant to all periods of artistic production, including those that Belting might not accept as part of art history, as least in a Western sense. The fictions and narratives that are produced and perpetuated through icon painting are highly codified, but their variation through individual interpretation arguably puts them in the realm of art, if not a very sophisticated form of craft. The medieval icon painter was expected to anonymously produce icons in a workshop, often with the aid of handbooks or templates, and absolve himself of a sense of personal achievement or authorship. But in this way the painter himself became a conduit for spiritual meaning, creating individually nuanced versions of established tropes.

Belting’s theory breaks down at the point of artifice: for the history of art is ultimately grounded in the construction of fictions (material or otherwise) that help us to make sense of, or reflect upon, the world around us. The problematic nature of man-made devotional imagery is reflected in the emergence of ‘acheiropoieta’, holy images that were purportedly produced through direct contact with holy figures, such as Turin’s Shroud or Veronica’s Veil. But is it possible to separate meaning from the production of an object, at any point in history? I think that what allows art to transcend our immediate sphere of reference is what happens through the process of making, how an object comes into being through the artist’s unique sensibility and world view, an alchemic translation of the (imagined) immaterial through the language of the material. Perhaps there’s some magic in that?

DS: I like to think of art making as akin to magic making. In the past I’ve likened artworks, art exhibitions and creative acts in general to ‘glamouries’ – a glamourie being a Celtic spell in which a lowly or mundane place or thing takes on the appearance of something far grander. I think this is a nice way of thinking about what it is we actually do as artists, or what we have the potential to do. I agree that it is alchemical. I also agree that much of what we’ve been talking about is relevant to all periods of artistic production, within and without art history. So what of the neo-medieval? What do you understand to be the meaning of this term?

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

LE: Yes, I suppose I am interested in how artists appropriate historical periods within their work more generally, but I think what we’ve been discussing here – the use of medieval themes and tropes – is quite specific. The schism between the sacred and profane, and the potential for material objects to have metaphysical properties, for example, seems to strongly resonate with many artists working today. As you’ve pointed out, medieval life continues to attract and hold our attention precisely because it is underpinned by such fecund dichotomies.

A final question: in your view does this reuse of the medieval past – a practice we might loosely define in terms of the post-medieval – simply entail a ‘glamorising’ of the mundane?

DS: I don’t think it’s simply about glamorising the mundane, but certainly there is, as you’ve pointed out, always a fetishistic dimension to artists’ plundering of the past (or of anything else for that matter). However I think there is a socio-political bent to our contemporary interest in the medieval. We can locate things there that enable a certain purchase on our own epoch and its predicaments. It also enables us to understand ourselves as belonging to a continuum. The neo- or post-medieval is perhaps a means of gaining perspective on that.

[1] Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, Dir. Sam Raimi, 1992.

[2] Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975).

[3] Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

***

Dr Lara Eggleton is a Visiting Research Fellow and part-time Lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Her current research focuses on Victorian encounters with Islamic art of the Medieval Mediterranean. She is also the author of Folly Matters.

David Steans is an artist currently based in Leeds. He is currently working on an anthology of original short horror stories that go on to inspire related artworks. In March 2013 Steans won the VANTAGE Art Prize, and throughout 2013 is participating in The School of the Damned, a free MA project in London. He is also, along with artists Matthew Crawley and Harry Meadley, co-founder of the Leeds Weirdo Club.

Crumbling Facades

A story made international headlines last week about the ‘Potemkin-style’ facelift currently underway in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, in anticipation of the G8 summit in June. Over 100 empty shop fronts in the area have been spruced up and given a special ‘window treatment’ that creates a photorealistic illusion of their being open for business. In one particularly striking example in the town of Belcoo, a 2-D tableau presents warm interiors full of stocked shelves and hanging produce, an idealised echo of the butcher shop that had once operated there. It’s even depicted with its door propped open, as if to invite customers inside. I imagined a government official attempting to enter a fake newsagents for a packet of crisps, and thought what a great photo it would make. Although the irony is surely lost on the planning team, this is a blatant if completely inadvertent mockery of policy (as fellow art historian Janet Tyson observed).

fake window display in former butcher shop, Belcoo (Northern Ireland)

fake window display in former butcher shop, Belcoo (Northern Ireland)

While the initiative has been singled out as a disingenuous gesture on the part of the coalition government (estimated at over £300,000 and initiated by the Foreign Office in London), it isn’t the first time British high streets have been made to appear bustling, whilst underneath many resemble gaping toothless grins. In 2010 a similar effort was made in Tyneside to encourage business, modelling imaginary shops to attract potential entrepreneurs (as if they couldn’t imagine it themselves). The patronising and desperate tone of these stickered store fronts beggars belief. By recreating an image of commerce in happier times (were they ever that happy?), they conversely draw attention their true function – that is, to plaster over embarrassing symptoms of economic decay. By adopting the glossy language of corporate signage they do little to reassure the passer-by. Their warmly lit interiors show us the goods but fail to deliver: the simulacrum is where the buck stops.

New 'deli' occupies empty storefront in Whitley Bay

New ‘deli’ occupies empty storefront in Whitley Bay

As I pondered over the sad predicament of British high streets (a perennial wound recently reopened with the failure of the Mary Portas scheme), my mind wandered to more interesting and convincing efforts to lift spirits in difficult times. Take, for example, the ‘frontier facades’ that came to characterise pioneer towns in America. The false fronts hinted at a grandness that was to arrive much later, temporarily masking the squat, barn-like structures that lined the main streets. This was an inheritance of the Victorian period, during which a range of architectural solutions were introduced to make the humble appear imposing. These took on took on a sculptural life of their own, and have proved a source of inspiration for artists such as Reece Terris, whose 2010 installation, ‘The Western Front: Another false front’, adopts and subverts the language of colonial architecture.

ffront2But while these earlier examples of ‘puffing up’ commerce in the face of austerity measures might appear to us charming, the case of Northern Ireland has evoked anger and shock at the government’s crass, ill conceived initiative. The bottled optimism of the flimsy window stickers falls flat, a cruel slap in the face for the failed business owners who formerly occupied these shops. As if it weren’t bad enough that the conservative government has slashed public spending to ribbons, it’s now using the cuttings to reassemble a myth of progress on the streets of its flagging cities. There is something cheap about the whole endeavour, not least of all because it lacks style. If Cameron wanted to make an impression on world leaders, he should have done it will a bit more flare – maybe even with an ironic nod to historical precedents.

Reece Terris, ‘The Western Front: Another false front’, 2010

What makes a facade clever, as opposed to just plain condescending? Perhaps it’s down to reflexivity: that it knows itself to be fake; that it can laugh at its own joke. The elegance and ingenuity of a design goes a long way toward its being effective. The last thing the British public needs is a pithy reminder that it was once a booming nation of shopkeepers (a phrase attributed to Adam Smith but famously used by Napoleon to describe Britain’s penchant for retail), rather, it could use a good old fashioned folly to lighten the mood. Instead of instilling a sense of loss for what once was, a successful facade should inspire possibilities. It should be boldly ambitious and wildly imaginative, even if it is propped up against tough odds and empty promises. Its delusions, at the very least, should be grand.

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.

Why build a folly?

This question, which has doubtless crossed the mind of many a patron over the centuries, has no obvious or straightforward answer. Follies (especially the ruined kind) rarely serve a practical purpose, apart from acting as a visually pleasing addition to the landscape, or occasionally providing a setting in which to entertain guests. Rather, a false Greek temple or a crumbling grotto ‘completed’ a view in the nineteenth century in a way that seems utterly superfluous today.

Whether as conversation pieces or as dramatic props that evoked the past within the present, the frequency of folly building during the Romantic period suggests that they were deemed in some way necessary, at least in the eyes of aristocrats and antiquarians. On rare occasions, they were even built in the name of philanthropy: William Danby paid Yorkshire locals one shilling a day to build the Druids Temple in a private forest near Masham, a project which most likely left the builders bemused but no less grateful for the paid work. That said, this is the only example I’ve come across whereby a folly emerged through an economy-stimulating exercise (I’d be interested to hear of others!).

'The Druids Temple' (1830), near Masham, North Yorkshire

‘The Druids Temple’ (1830), near Masham, North Yorkshire. photo: Ben Cowburn

Follies are by their very nature pointless, and yet they continue to be cherished by outdoor enthusiasts and historians alike, and are restored by heritage and conservation authorities at significant cost. Their histories (distinct from the ancient or medieval monuments that they mimic) are a reflection of the eccentricities of patrons and designers, a fascinating history in itself, but which ultimately leads no further back than the modern age. In pretending be old, antique, exotic, nostalgic or melancholic, the folly is a foible, a quirk: it japes at much older and well-respected architectural traditions.

The folly architect/designer must have at some point questioned the value in ‘forging’ antique or historical monuments in the present. Or perhaps, this remaking of the past was recognised as having an important role provoking historical interest, or in reflecting the erudition of the patron and his family. At least to some degree, follies provided a supplementary version of the past that was in some way more pleasant, familiar, accessible. There was then, as there is now, a desire to bend history to one’s will and to reconfigure events and objects in conformance with individual sensibilities and tastes. Folly building offered possibilities for re-writing history (quite literally in stone), to which newly generated myths and legends could attributed. Not only were their histories bespoke, but follies could also be custom designed for the landscapes they inhabited, optimally positioned to ensure the most optimal picturesque view. Ideal!

But how does the mythology that grows up around follies problematise actual narratives of place, and form another, parallel history? What are follies if not a material extension of the imagination – relics of a past that never truly existed outside of people’s minds? Does the fact that they are ‘fakes’ lessen their cultural or historical value? I’m interested in exploring the ways in which the architectural folly differs from the buildings and monuments that are deemed ‘authentic’, ones that are seen to have ‘real’ histories and narratives. For example, why is the Druids Temple at Masham considered to be a ‘fake’ while Stonehenge represents the authentic ‘original’ when the latter monument is equally steeped in mystery and historical speculation? (It is rumoured that Danby paid a man to live as a hermit in the temple at Masham for seven years, though he mysteriously vanished at some point during his tenancy… ). The obvious answer lies in their provenance – we know that these rock formations were arranged at different points in time – but what makes the stories and mythologies attached to each site any more or less authentic or believable? With a fresh coating of snow, it’s hard to tell a prehistoric ruin from a mock-Druid temple…

'Druids Temple', Masham

‘Druids Temple’, Masham. photo: Ben Cowburn

Stonehenge, c. 2600 BC, Wiltshire, England

Stonehenge, c. 2600 BC, Wiltshire, England

As most art and architectural historians will admit, there are few events or objects that we know absolutely everything, unequivocally, about. In fact, the opposite is often true, with many a case study caught adrift in a sea of fragmented facts, partial (subjective) descriptions and scraps of material evidence. What, then, makes a folly’s history any less legitimate or convincing, at least in terms of what the history books would have us believe? Indeed, it is often the case that the popularity of historical sites is based on how little is known about them, which allows visitors to make up their own stories as they go along. In this sense, the folly acts as a receptacle or a catalyst for new variations of history, and for the personal narratives from which they are generated. If this can be understood as a ‘function’, then perhaps the folly is not so superfluous after all.