The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world… From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had so imperial a scope.
– Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977
Last days in Oxford, which always means a lot of packing and storage-related faff. This morning, I was putting everything into cardboard boxes as usual, but when I began dismantling my postcard-covered walls, I figured that I might as well do a photo-log of my sizeable ‘collection’.
White walls can be alienating, and the ones in my room have become even more so, now that my prized collages are no more.
I’m reminded of the first few lines in Wordsworth’s 1802 ‘Immortality Ode’ (there’s a reason he’s my main beau, you know):
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn whoeresoe’er I may
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (lines 6-9)
Here, he’s recalling the lost “meadows, groves, streams and trees” in the Lake District of his childhood. But I’m choosing to re-appropriate it in the context of my matchbox-like student room. It may seem a bit OTT to sentimentalise a bunch of inanimate objects, but I’ll weirdly miss the way some of the thinner postcards keep hanging off the wall for want of stronger Tack strength, even though this always ends up driving me up the wall. The force of my fingernails, it seems, can somehow never compensate for shit stickability/stubborn wallpaper. All those years of piano playing have been to little avail.
I’ve grouped everything into 4 sets, and together they chart my travels from July 2014 up to the present. Apart from postcards and posters, there’re also some flyers/leaflets I’ve picked up along the way.
So: Beijing (July 2014) – Germany (December 2014) – Ireland (January 2015) – Scotland (May – June 2015)
I guess, then, you could look at this post as a kind of ‘Year in Review’ montage, but also as an all-in-one, visual travelogue. I’ll consider this as making good on that Scotland post I promised earlier.
In a week’s time, I’ll be off to Lisbon for what will probably be my last solo adventure before stepping into adulthood (i.e bills, tax, work etc). After all of that Saxon and Germanic chill, getting a fix of the Mediterranean sun should be a nice change of scene. I hope. Or maybe it’ll just remind me of the tropical heatwave back home, which I’m not really looking forward to.
Anyway, here’s my final year wall in parts:
Beijing, July 2014
I think I got most of these from a street called Nan Luo Gu Xiang (南鑼鼓巷), which is a mock-ancient attraction spot that sells all kinds of cultural bits and bobs, some authentically ‘Pekingnese’, others just trinkets designed to fleece tourists who don’t know better. The postcard in the lower left corner features the sign of a ‘Hutong’ (胡同) – a type of alleyway commonly seen in northern Chinese cities, especially in Beijing. The three-tiered structure is called the Temple of Heaven, and the one directly below it is a classic shot of The Great Wall (from the ‘Badaling’ (八達嶺) end, I believe).
To my non-Chinese readers, “Good good study, day day up” is a transliteration of the Chinese characters next to the phrase. In this case, I think it’s an attempt at cross-linguistic parody, rather than a genuine grammatical blunder (not hard to find in China, tbh). This is why I’ve got mad pride for my mother tongue, innit. This particular postcard has also been my Finals talisman, for obvious reasons.
Germany, December 2014
[Munich, Neuschwanstein, Nuremberg, Cologne, Rothenburg ob der Tauber]
Notice that there are quite a few tickets in this batch: they’re for the Museum Ludwig and the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg (Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände) and the famous Neuschwanstein Castle that’s basically a Disneyland for adults.
The three black-and-whites in the lower left corner are from a photography exhibit on expired films; the sketch landscape ones next to them are postcards from the Medieval Crime Museum (Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum) in this idyllic Bavarian town called Rotherburg ob der Tauber.
In general, Germany in December is all about Christmas markets, Lebkuchens, tinsels/baubles/your standard festive spiel. My experience of it was good, but then again I’m easily pleased when it comes to seeing new sights, as long as there’s no excessive sweating involved. In this part of the world, that appears to be the least of my worries.
Ireland, January 2015
Ahh Dublin, a place where I’ll always have a soft spot for. Cradle of so many literary gr8s, and home to one of the most spectacular libz in the world – my favourite things, in a nutshell. Also, James Joyce. So, ’nuff said.
I guess my Ireland collection is more of a scattered rag-bag of places/things I visited and saw, since it was a relatively short trip (3 1/2 days). You can see the flyers I picked up from the Abbey Theatre, where I saw a brilliant, hilarious production of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (be warned though: histrionics abound, so bring earplugs).
The centre piece is a photograph of officers and men of the Free State Army standing outside Kilmainham Goal, taken in 1923 towards the end of the Irish Civil War. The four-piece ensemble next to the Dublin skyline postcard is the Book of Kells, which is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four New Testament gospels, currently housed in the Trinity College Library. When I saw it the book was placed in a dim display cabinet, so visibility-wise the presentation isn’t ideal, but the thing itself is still quite a sight.
The ‘hashtag’ felt-tip marking on the ‘Guinness Sold Here’ postcard is my own addition: It says “#ironek” (I purposely spelt it like that because my friends used to tease me for nasalising the end vowel of ‘ironic’). What’s so ‘ironek’, you ask? Well, I don’t drink Guinness and am always sober. But somehow this postcard is tacked to the front of my door. Yeah, I tend to amuse myself like that. Don’t ask.
Scotland, May-June 2015
What I have on show really doesn’t do the diversity of my Scotland experience justice, but I guess that’s because a lot of it was done outdoors (pictures of which are in my Facebook photo album). Still, there’s some well interesting stuff going on here.
In the top right corner is Robert Burns’ ‘Ode to a Haggis’ in Scottish Gaelic, which I’ve translated into modern English below:
Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.
(This is only the 1st stanza of the poem)
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.]
I’m a proud herbivore, so I find the idea of “stomach, tripe, or intestine” as testaments to national pride quite unsavoury. But I will say that I’ve tried vegetarian haggis, which is well peng. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants the Scottish culinary experience, but would still prefer to give lamb offal and mutton fat a pass.
The ‘compass-in-hand’ one is a flyer that I picked up from Trongate 103 in Glasgow, and it’s one of the exhibition pieces by two street photographers Ida Arentoft & Simon McAuley, titled ‘On the same latitude’. It seems to imply a desire to search for direction in the face of an amorphous unknown – so, quite an apt reflection of where I’m (and a lot of others are) now at in life, I guess.
The painting next to it is by William Blake, one of the ‘Big Six’ in the English Romanticist pantheon. I got it from the Modern Art Gallery in Dean Village, Edinburgh. It’s supposed to be a surrealist work, titled ‘The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy’ (1795) with clear influences of Greek mythology and oneirology (the study of dreams). I’ve always thought Blake to be too elusive for my taste, but finding out that continental surrealists like André Breton and Salvador Dali were inspired by him was a pleasant surprise.
Then there are these 3 posters. The collage with cut-up facial parts is from Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, which I got as a promotional freebie from Nicolas Party’s ‘Boys and Pastel’ exhibition. Party is an installation artist from Switzerland, and to me, his influences derive mainly from Abstract Expressionism, Cubism and 17th-century Flemish painting. Granted, his style is more understated in tone and more modern in subject, often featuring pastel shades and domestic, ‘still life’ objects.
The ‘Rhyme or Reason’ flyer is interesting – according to the blurb on its back, it claims to be:
“A five-day intensive programme that will investigate the role of notation, improvisation and score across the visual arts and other disciplines including music, writing and geography.”
I don’t quite know what all that means, and the whole thing costs about a hundred quid to join. I think I only kept it because ‘rhyme or reason’ reminded me of Philip Sidney’s 1579 Defence of Poesy, in which he warns poets against the vice of “rhyming without reason”. This is a message that John Milton echoes in his 1668 Preface to Paradise Lost, as part of his ‘campaign’ for the replacement of rhyme with blank verse in English poetry:
…The measure is English heroic verse without rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin—rime being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre.
(‘The Verse’, Preface to the 2nd Edition of Paradise Lost, 1668)
So basically, it was because of Sidney and Milton that this futuristic-sounding programme caught my eye. A moment of trans-historical intersection. Beautiful.
The last one on the right is a fold-up poster from the Glasgow Women’s Library. I think it’s great that the Scots have a library specifically dedicated to the study of feminism, women’s history and gender issues. There’s loads of Suffragette and bluestocking memorabilia on display at the place, as well as rare seventies Scottish Woman’s Liberation pamphlets that anyone can borrow. Virginia Woolf would be proud.
This is a portrait of Vita Sackville-West, darling of the early 20th-century Bloomsbury intelligentsia, one of Woolf’s lesbian lovers and the inspiration behind her 1928 novel Orlando. It’s by William Strang, and is currently on display at the Hunterian Art Gallery in the University of Glasgow. Sackville-West is wearing my favourite colour combo – rocking the Christmas palette like a lady boss even when it was summertime when she posed for the Scottish painter.
Those are my nails, by the way.
In his 1931 satirical poem The Georgiad (the title is an allusive nod to Alexander Pope’s mock-epic The Dunciad), the South African poet Roy Campbell characterises the Vita-Virginia affair in rather scathing terms:
Too gaunt and bony to attract a man
But proud in love to scavenge what she can,
Among her peers will set some cult in fashion
Where pedantry may masquerade as passion.
“Where pedantry may masquerade as passion” – Hmph, like I haven’t heard that one before.
Sounds like Campbell might be having a go at me as well, then. Whatever, he can’t even do rhyme right, trying to ape Pope’s heroic couplet, only to completely lose the poetic rhythm with the awkward, hypermetric lines ending in ‘fashion/passion’ (I say that because the first two lines contain 10 syllables, but the latter two, 11).
I reckon Sidney and Milton wouldn’t approve of him anyway. It’s all good then: I’ve got the time-tested greats on my side.
[I’ll continue with Part 2 of the ‘Why I write the way I write’ series next time.]