In September I attended an interesting lecture by historical and cultural geographer Dr. Briony McDonagh, during the British Science Festival at University of Hull. The lecture traced the histories of settlements on the River Humber, beginning with an examination of the intercommoned wetland marshes of Wallingfen which resisted drainage and agricultural development until the eighteenth century and parliamentary enclosure, working along to the mouth of the river via the remote Sunk Island in Holderness, all of which was also waterlogged until the Middle Ages, and has more in common geologically with the Netherlands than other parts of Yorkshire. I am much more familiar with Sunk Island, living nearby and aware of it’s strange, fractured and lonely beauty, and did not previously know of the existence of Wallingfen, but figments of the soft Holderness clay and the way I visualised the Norfolk Fens in my reading of Graham Swift’s Waterland came to mind, which is probably quite an obvious and reductive reference to make at first. Incidentally, a couple of years ago I traced my mother’s family back a few generations to living in Norfolk. One of the reasons for them moving north and settling in Holderness might have been connected to a more widespread migration of labourers from Norfolk to Yorkshire in the early 1800s as the result of an excess of agricultural workers in a region feeling the effects of increased mechanisation. Nonetheless, it made me consider the winding rural psychogeography Swift developed; the drenched landscape an active witness slowly shifting and churning the past into the shared present, reshaped - reclaimed, and present back beneath, eventually out to the river and lost into the sea. “That's the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here.”
Collapsed WWII gun emplacements exposed as the cliffs wear away at Kilnsea.
A few weeks ago at Tate Liverpool, I rediscovered my teenage fascination with Salvador Dali. When I was 17, I obsessively dedicated my A Level Personal Investigation to exploring his twisting, turning, melting and shape-shifting personal myth-narrative in relation to psychoanalysis, hooked on his use of symbolism, and I attempted to keep a dream diary (though this was unsuccessful, because I couldn’t and still can barely ever remember any of my dreams). I also remember watching a documentary entitled ‘The Dali Dimension’ which examined the numerous scientific influences on Dali’s process and preoccupation, and this fed into my interest in wider subjects of belief, relativity and forms of knowledge which continue. Dali’s malleable appropriation of ideas with a scientific basis into poetic or suggestive questions less concerned (although I imagine he might have argued differently) with empirical evidence, challenging percieved rationality, provided me with an exciting platform for pushing my very general understandings of, possibly of the interdisciplinary scope of, art, as a young adult, and I realise now that this was the real beginning of my dedication to a practice as I moved past A Level into my BA. Dali disappeared however.
Since being surprised by the mollases-laden painting ‘Mountain Lake’ a few weeks ago, a few interesting things have occurred to me, in my remembering the bits of Dali’s life and work that stood out to me as a teenager, and I have discovered something I was (I think) unaware of: Sigmund Freud’s fascination with archaeology as a metaphor for uncovering hidden experiences, and his topographic theory of the mind.
‘Mountain Lake’ retraces the footsteps of Dali’s parents, who visited the lake after the death of his brother, also named Salvador, who died almost nine months to the day before Dali was born. The artist grew to believe that he was either his older brother’s living reincarnation, or that his brother was still existent in the form of a spectre over his life. As Tate describes, the painting combined personal and public references, with the disconnected telephone in the foreground alluding to imminent war - to be specific perhaps the negotiations between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler over the annexation of the Sudetenland in September 1938. This combination of personal past and political present seems intentionally ‘muddy’ and loaded with a kind of subconscious tension; the slippery fish-lake of memory and ebbing lucidity separating the visual or physical structures of the past, and representation of a stratified mental landscape, and foreboding communications, the tension in the onset of the unknown, in the present. A summary of ‘Freud and Archaeology’ on the Freud Museum website explains that “In clinical work, Freud was engaged in an archaeology of his own, digging into minds to uncover hidden experiences, fragments of the past that he tried to put again into a living context.”. Expounding on this, a fascinating essay from Julian Thomas (2009), available here, suggests that “Archaeology encapsulates a series of evocative themes: of repression, of loss and concealment, of discovery and revelation.”, and explains how “Freud thus sees the mind as built up through a temporal process of sedimentation, with the deeper layers being the most ancient, as in a geological formation. Yet the deepest layers of all effectively transcend time altogether, and approach the condition of being archetypal or universal.”
Dali’s methodology was clearly much influenced by this, and this returns me to considering my own practice and methodology - mining the past to point towards a future, personal narrative/past and wider ‘political’ future. ‘Mountain Lake’ is a geo-archaeological poem and a timely reminder of where I have been, in the early development of my practice a long time ago, and of how some of the concerns I had are still elements I am unravelling.