Sterne obsequies

If the author, clergyman and abolitionist Laurence Sterne had managed to crawl through a cosmic wormhole defying both time and space to attend the special concert held recently in his honour at St George’s Hanover Square, London W1, he would probably have annoyed the contemporary musicians and audience members with his persistent tubercular coughing. The solemn evening marked the 250 years which have passed since his death aged 54 on 18th March 1768 at nearby 41 Old Bond Street, in lodgings above a silk bag and wig maker’s, an event witnessed only by Sterne’s nurse and John Macdonald, a visiting footman sent by a friend to enquire after his health. Organised by the Laurence Sterne Trust based at Shandy Hall in Yorkshire, Now it is Come! (allegedly the dying man’s last words) was a programme of readings and baroque music to mark Mr Yorick’s burial service on March 22nd 1768 in the very same church, then regarded as the most fashionable place of worship in London.

Little is know about this event save that it was a modest affair costing 16/6d, and occurred less than a month after the publication of his second great work, the two volume A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, 1768. There is a plangent entry on the Laurence Sterne Trust website

27 February, A Sentimental Journey published by Becket and Dehondt in February, in an edition of 2500, with a list of 281 names, subscribing for 334 copies, of which 132 on ‘Imperial Paper’, some copies also contain an advertisement in which Sterne acknowledges that there should be a further two volumes, which the subscribers have paid for, and promises to deliver them within the year.

So not only was Sterne’s life cut short, but his death arrived at the moment the fame hungry writer was the very talk of the town. Arrivals and departures though had characterised his wandering existence, the latter part of which had been a grand tour of a different kind, namely one defined by a manic quest for clean air, and remedies for pulmonary tuberculosis; hobnobbing with European monarchs and aristocracy very much a bonus.

After Handel’s See, the Conquering Hero Comes played at the organ by David Owen Norris, and readings by Patrick Wildgust, and the former Bronski Beat, Communard musician Rev’d Richard Coles, a rare and exquisite performance by the disbanded Hilliard Ensemble of “Time wastes too fast” (TS Vol9 Ch viii), and also Maria’s Urn, with words supposedly set to music by Sterne which revealed him to be quite the proto-romantic: Eros folded within Thanatos and vice versa…

Alas, Maria, what remains
Of thee this mournful Urn contains
O lovely Tree, thy boughs extend,
And with thy leaves this Urn defend.

Today there is a cubby-hole at Shandy Hall affectionately known as Maria’s Room.

Allegedly born in Mary Street, Clonmel, Ireland on the 24th November, 1713, it is fair to say that the Clonmel Tourist Board have failed to capitalise on the figure of Laurence Sterne as their biggest heritage asset. Yes there is a brass plaque, a hotel bar (now closed) that was named after him, and a sculpture once installed on Grubb’s Island in the River Suir, which was swept unfortunately away by floods in 2001, only to re-emerge broken into pieces! But Sterne’s importance is as an innovative writer, and extends far beyond a few lapidary facts. According to the bibliographer J.C.C. Mays in Fredson Bowers and the Irish Wolfhound, 2002,

Irish books and the way they ask to be understood break the rules that have evolved from the study of surrounding traditions.

Poised between “anglo-american methodology” largely based around William Shakespeare and the concept of the final clean version or uber text, and continental, manuscript friendly “genetic” practices, Sterne’s use in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman of black and marbled pages, of squiggles and other paratextual devices mark him out as being a gleeful other, his knowingly imperfect digressive masterpiece sandwiched between these editorial traditions. Such irregular graphic features have made Tristram Shandy one of the greatest open source prepostmodern, texts of all time, while Sentimental Journey‘s unfinished, slightly smutty finale was an immediate red rag to the “demoniack” John Hall-Stevenson, who wrote a forgettable continuation.

Latterly Tristram Shandy has been used as a starting point for spin offs and “hobbyhorsical” treatments. These include John Baldessari’s set of photo collages Shandy, 1988, Michael Winterbottom’s charming film A Cock and Bull Story, 2005, through to Visual Editions elegant 2011 reprint with red finger posts etc, while Director Patrick Wildgust has re-energised the Laurence Sterne Trust through various imaginative projects such as the boxed Emblem of My Work, 2013, containing work by a glittering pleiades of contemporary writers/painters/ cartoonists/film-makers ranging from Norman Ackroyd to Laetitia de Chazal, Margot Ecke to Andrew Kotting, Javier Marias to Leanne Shapton, Graham Swift to Jacqueline Yallop. The museum and garden too has grown in popularity since it cropped up as a tourist destination in Patrick Keiller’s travelogue film Robinson in Space, 1997; firmly on the northern literary heritage trail besides Brontë Parsonage, and Dove Cottage.

Inevitably the shenanigans of Sterne’s corporeal afterlife hovered in the background, a shaggy dog story in itself. His fresh corpse was interred off the Bayswater Road, before being illegally exhumed by body snatchers, only to turn up on a Cambridge University dissecting table, where it was recognised and duly reburied. Here the author’s celebrity status came to his rescue, saving him from being reduced to dismembered body parts in a surgeon’s waste bin; an early modern dance of death, but with self-fashioned iconography as in the emblematic engraving by Thomas Patch. Two hundred years later Laurence Sterne’s battered bones were finally moved north to St Michael’s Coxwold, despite him being in his own time a wrong’un within the Erastian church, who though utterly haunted by death in life was never morbid.

Postcode lottery

His work is informed by the capturing of somaesthetic experiences in a notebook; as well as the appropriation of ideas from literature & philosophy.

Conceived as a part of a live project, Edward Hadfield’s third year BA dissertation extensively interrogates, paraphrases and broadens the reach of his artists’ book WC1R (2014), an A5 landscape publication, soft covers divided into black and white panels, with the severity of chess ‘squares’, its pages conveying what at first glance appear to be extracts from a hand-written diary or manuscript, lipstick red and white writing on a black background antiphonally offset by red and black on a white one, the fluid cursive text by turns lucid then entangled, the discourse problematised by overwriting. What Hadfield characterises as associative/negative leaves are executed in a Sharpie permanent fine point, the integrative/positive on the other hand drawn with a Tombow ABT dual brush pen, setting up a dialectical conversation that raises questions about the motivation required to turn such personal stuff into an art object.

Hadfield has declared the indexical trace to be crucial to his practice, and these running words do hover between the iconic and symbolic, neither abstract marks nor monumental inscriptions. But what are we to make of the title WC1R? Not an incompletely addressed letter so much as direct bio-rhythmic ouput from a particular London postcode, an automatic sample of the author’s momentary physiological and intellectual trance state expressed as performance, then digitized by Photoshop and InDesign and circulated; the lushness of the fluid lettering serving too as a reminder that calligraphy is a dying art lest it be worked at, writing still a joyous activity when liberated from its merely administrative or journalistic function; for we are all typographers now.

So in WC1R the reader gets faced with the immediate evidence of Hadfield’s preoccupations, and the playing out of tension. In an apparent parody of DWP terminology Hadfield’s intervention at the Whitechapel Art Book fair, 2014, was entitled ‘Work Placement’, which he quickly re-conceived as a full-time multi-tasking job comprising author, editor, producer, curator and live performer. Featuring conscious destruction of the negative landscapes in the booklet as an act of clearance prior to transmission of the positive scenes, and their deployment in public forums as the basis for affable group chat, he has revealed -in a nod to Ed Ruscha- it had always been intended to scale the book back onto canvas, his ambition for the work extending beyond the genre specific.

The double landscape format also worked particularly well for scaling to canvas as a triptych. For me, my art practice operates using words in a field, whether that field is a page, a wall or a canvas. (Email 8 Oct, 2014)

He might well have added postcard too, as he has taken to distributing the positive pages as A5 cards with personal contact details on the back in his own hood, a performative bias which gives his expanded practice genuine social value and pzazz way beyond the mute selfishness that typifies so much of today’s hegemonic commodity fetishism, the submissive gallery showbiz of corporate capitalism. And therefore despite being a slim volume WC1R succeeds as a means and mode of transaction and exchange, an unconventional reading experience, and mediated platform rather than end in itself; seismographically charged with a painterly beauty, as a user-friendly token it puts you under its spell in a ‘kindly’ (a favourite Hadfield term) way whilst possessing the courage of its own cool unintelligibility, graphic traces pulsing beyond the limits of the normal printed page. Hadfield is on his way to re-energising the poet/painter/performer tradition as represented so well by the unbridled activities of art school stalwarts such as the late Jeff Nuttall, Bob Cobbing and Adrian Henri.

Sarah Jacobs’ data traps: a bibliography 1996-2017

  • 2017 An Accumulation of Fictions vols 1-288 ISBN 978-0-9568575-4-5
  • 2016 An Accumulation of Fictions vols 289-384 ISBN 978-0-9568575-3-8
  • 2014 After Nature: Highlights ISBN 978-0-9568575-2-1
  • 2013 Intersecting Words ISBN 978-0-9568575-1-4
  • 2011 Drawn from the Inventory: The Notebooks of Elisabeth Faulhaber ISBN 978-0-9568575-0-7 (Colebrooke Publications in association with the Prinzhorn Institute, Heidelberg)
  • 2011 Atrocious Books (with supplement by A. Singer) ISBN 978-0-9568575-0-5
  • 2005 Deciphering Human Chromosome 16: from Fugu to Human ISBN 978-0-9568575-8-0
  • 2003 Luxuriant Beauty Bears Witness: We are not Barbarians ISBN 978-0-9568575-5-9
  • 2002 The Unknown Masterpiece Drawing Book ISBN 978-0-9568575-4-2
  • 2001 After the Years of Misrule: Three variations on Nostromo ISBN 978-0-9568575-3-1
  • 1998 A WA[Y]FARER ISBN 978-0-9568575-1-1
  • 1996 Drawn from the Work in Progress ISBN 978-0-9568575-0-4

Metacognitive Artefacts

Both Christina Mitrenstse (Greece) and Emmanuel Dundic (Belgium), whose work forms the exhibition ‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ installed on two floors of Galerie Nadine Feront, Brussels, have opted inter alia to display book sculptures either shot by an air rifle, in the case of Mitrentse’s Wounded Book series, 2013, or perforated fastidiously as in Dundic’s pieces. To be confronted by the hard evidence of such unethical treatment serves as a reminder that the contemporary art gallery can be an unnerving post studio space closely related to the library, office and even department store, but one that allows a freer visualisation of ideas, functioning as an outpost of individual practice, sometimes generating a frisson of strange beauty. In short by granting Mitrentse and Dundic a kind of poetic licence in its smart town house interiors, Galerie Nadine Feront verifies its credentials as a risk taker, or promoter of “norm-defying artists”.

Spaced out flat on tables, the injured paperbacks in Wounded Books have the solemn air of bibliographic relics, ex-books laid to rest after their absolute removal from circulation, codexes whose yellowing pages support content that has become epistemologically outmoded and fossilised. Here a bullet hole is as telling as an ISBN or shelfmark. Their ‘deaths’ also indicate that the book be it fact or fiction, stitched or hot glued is a foot soldier in the never ending war of ideas by means of which humanity evolves. Such work certainly presents a challenge both in terms of content and scope. Indeed Wounded Books themselves have become the battleground for a critical skirmish between bloggers Anna McNay (art-corpus) who conceived the bullet holes as “stigmata”, and Stephen Alexander (Torpedo the Ark) who ridiculed this analysis, but likewise fell into the trap of anthropomorphising books, referring to them as “mortal things”, “as complicit with evil as any other assemblage of power-knowledge”. This is to grant too much influence to the printed page, for as discerning readers we can take or leave books, similarly choose when we do indulge to keep a distance from their intellectual content. So shooting holes in paperbacks under licensed conditions is just an off-hand way of registering this detachment, and freedom from any type of symbolic authority residing in books.

The other pieces in Mitrentse’s suite of works at Nadine Feront certainly provide any newcomer to her polymathic practice with a useful index as the installation features the building-blocks of her repertoire: drawing, screen print, book modification, skoob sculpture, and the trademark Googlespeak ‘Add To My Library’. Standing alone in a room all by itself Skoob Tower after John Latham, 2013, is a 200cm tall construction built entirely from books, dictionaries and maps that evokes British born artist John Latham’s guerilla towers from the mid 1960s. Mitrentse in effect is providing a variation on the theme of the original book hypocausts, perhaps lamenting our present day authoritarian culture of health & safety that would make Latham’s ceremonies at the Law Courts or Senate House, University of London hard to carry out, since there is little unregulated public space left in cities, or great appetite for literal re-enactments. Here her Skoob tower has an elegaic quality: a mobile, temporary structure.

Other elements in the subtly lit para library at Nadine Feront are the drawings on paper Palais de Tokyo, 2013, and Contemporary Brussels Museum, 2013, both of which employ pencil, graphite, and gold pastel. The former utilises the book cover strategically, in a way that only R. B. Kitaj in his In Our Time series has really done before now. The imagery derives from carefully selected jackets that add an interrogative gloss to the meaning of contemporary power house visitor attractions such as Palais de Tokyo, Stonehenge or Tate Modern (the latter being examples of from the same series). In Palais de Tokyo the Mona Lisa stares out from the cover of André Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire on one wing as if an anime witness to Bernini’s St Teresa off the front of Georges Bataille’s El Erotismo on the other, the former’s make-up free face slyly bemused by her baroque counterpart’s intense orgasmic state. Graphic quotation narrates a fresh enigma, suggesting that the art palace as a site is less a given than a subjectively constructed ziggurat of knowledge, and how here ‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ as the catalogue succinctly puts it achieves “a reflection on the forms of knowledge and the re-configuration of its modes of transmission”. This trope is continued in Contemporary Brussels Museum, 2013, a grimmer Le Corbusier type structure that acts as a reminder of the way museums are hubs of instrumental rationality, a state of affairs Mitrentse is trying hard to unsettle through esoteric research methods and a species of transgressive ‘librarianship’.

Bibliophile I & II, 2013, return us to the quieter waters of the scholar in their study, an emblem dating back to Jan van Eyck’s 15th century oil painting of St Jerome. With its gimmicky dog-eared corners the collage Bibliophile II references pre-Gutenberg manuscript culture, a historical epoch when there was still a premium attached to close reading, and the explosive impact of the printed word was yet to occur. This emblem has been adopted for the exhibition’s invite card, implying a parallel between the unstable logistics of both scriptorium and internet, where copying errors were and can be transmitted virally. For nearly 600 years in between though, the hallowed physical book has reigned supreme, monopolising academic and popular culture, only now assuming a different sort of role in response to digital literature. As if in response to the challenge of cyberspace, the history of the book has also emerged as a new discipline, the beginnings of a specialised and hugely fertile archival recapitulation of the phylum.

‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ as the catalogue asserts, is a visual arts platform by which “books suddenly appear in all their alterity”.

‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ was at Galerie Nadine Feront, Brussels, Belgium, 5 December 2013- 1 February 2014