Slippery EyesRichard Wentworth
When we were students we would all gather in smokey dark spaces where we would watch a cone of light propel images onto the screen before us. We called this ‘art history’. All manner of pictures would elide, creating a marvelous evanescent compost in our minds.
Years later many of them still float to the top of consciousness, just like the slippery transfers we boys employed to politicize our model aeroplanes. On the slides, I remember so well the scratches and splits, often enhancing the image, like a spider caught in the gate.
Facteur Cheval was a mysterious name to me and was often cited. I had no idea that ‘Facteur’ was almost an honorary title (like the Douanier in Rousseau). Only now do I understand that it was a term of modernity- a postman, a ‘communicator’, somebody charged and trusted with delivering the post in a village near Lyon.
I remember being told that he was acquisitive and would pick up discarded scallop shells from café waste piles as well as pebbles along the route of his daily deliveries.
I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few meters away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well... I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn't thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it. My foot tripped on a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was... It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on the spot and was overcome with delight... It's a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature.
I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture"
Humans are gatherers, they encounter each other and congregate. Human lives are often described by material things, which flavour their daily existence.
Artists are often prodigiously acquisitive and their collections are sometimes memorialised as museums in their own right.
Without this predisposition we would have no Wunderkammer, no cabinets of curiosities.
‘Curiosity’, strangely, is nourished by ignorance.
Not knowing something, but being hungry to find out more is the engine of curiosity.
On a journey with a friend in provincial Spain in the late summer of 2016, I recognised something, which had escaped me for nearly seven decades.
To travel in a car with somebody else requires elementary trust. I am a driver so it is unusual for me to become the passenger. In truth this Spanish driver does not really know his English passenger, and vice-versa. There is, however, exactly the right amount of mutual trust and inquisitiveness, and an understanding of shared common ground.
When driving, the common ground is the road. It’s the cinematic energy of the landscape which the travellers share.
They also share the weather, the time of day, the fall of light and cultural habits involving the pleasures of food and drink.
The braided energies of moving along a highway emphasise our shared modernity. I say ‘moving’ because the compelling sense of propulsion reminds us how much ‘driving’ has changed. We sweep along like well managed water in a conduit. We talk about the contouring of the roadway and the arcs of history. We amuse each other with the idea that the opposing lanes of traffic are streaming out of our future,and off into our past.
We talk about pace and witnessing, we try to imagine a world witnessed from horseback, the angles of perception generated by hundreds of years of hooves and pathmaking. We clumsily imagine the development of algorithms to manage points of view at speed, the management of a once liquid ribbon of concrete into the set geometries of the carretera. Suddenly we realise that here is a word which itself originates from …., a cart.
The traffic itself alerts us to the speeding complexities of our modernity, number plates affirming ‘nations, vehicles made of a multiplicity of materials, managed and moulded in unknowable parts of the world. We talk about the movement of goods, the clothes we are wearing, the food we eat, the music we hear.
We wonder if there are thresholds as much as there are prohibitions. We find ourselves laughing scornfully at the idea of Randolph Hearst sending out scouts to scour Iberia for suitable buildings to transport to the once upon a time Spanish state of California.
The conversationalists are both wearing jeans. They have no clue where they were made.
For the most part, the English, have a poor sense of the Church of Rome and mostly have to make do with rough fragments of historical knowledge, often suspended beneath banal banners ‘the expulsion of the Moors’, ‘the Spanish Inquisition’, ‘ the Counter Reformation’, ‘the Peninsular War’, ‘the Civil War’. We know all sorts of trivia (marvellously, that a word derived from the meeting of roads – the place where the hubcap falls off).
We know that Castille has often been a contested territory, we even know it has been a ‘theatre’ interchangeable with many others in which to set Spaghetti Westerns.
The ghosts are countless, Colon, Goya, Napoleon, Wellington, Orwell, Hemingway, Laurie Lee, Lorca, Buñuel. This Englishman, who read Lorca as a schoolboy, is haunted by all the English forays into Iberia.
I recognise in myself a yearning for difference, that I might understand things better by the way they don’t conform.
I am writing at a time when the character of so many experiences is normalised. Cars are almost interchangeable, the regulations of their production has created a remarkable uniformity. The roads on which they run are governed by international codes and agreements. Wherever possible the scale of the landscape is managed by machines which employ matching systems of division and calibration.
Our eyes, then, are drawn to old things. To ancient trees on truculent hillsides or wilful water courses which obey the terrain but show little regard for human settlement. We talk about buildings and how they fit. Sometimes we are talking about nearly invisible inscriptions. We go on to rehearse how bodegas were made, and how their imaginative form gained authority.
We talk about tilling and the harvest and the cooporative energy evolved with threshing and the storage of grain.
We talk about hand tools and beasts of burden. Throughout we realise we are discussing the organisation of power. We recognise that, broadly, we are retrieving the past, a past which dwindled in my lifetime, and disappeared during my companion’s adolescence. The unmaking of landscape.
It restores us, though, talking openly and often ignorantly. Our innocence befriends us. We want to know more, but we cannot go back. We imagine the production of barrels and the need to move them and store them and their contents in a world without highways, in a world without vapour trails in the sky.
The more we concentrate on the way the world was made the more we understand how little we know about how it is made now. Planes pass overhead as we get better at reading the landscape. We are drawn to the bigger and older impositions on the landscape. We are quick to pick out hill towns, confident old bridges which seem to speak Latin. Pieces of fortification remind us that peace was always constructed.
Postcards have died, they lasted for one hundred years.
It is no longer possible to ‘learn a place’ by examining a postcard stand. We two, of course, have heard of notable sites. We would find them anyway because of the total confidence that they express in the way that they sit and command the landscape. They are like magnets. We are iron filings.
Although our conversation is peppered with politics, the church, the accumulation of wealth, marriages and liaisons, we talk constantly about form and shape. We are amazed at the anonymity of so much that we admire, the masons and the carpenters and the planters of trees have no name. We talk about them as if they do. They populate our conversation.
Our vigilance for all this fabric becomes quite obsessive. We start to inspect eaves and cornices, ramps and steps, corridors and thresholds.
Roof details and the engineering of chimneys as much as the secret pacts between joinery and masonry fill our heads.
We are looking as we walk, and as we walk, we talk. We are drawn into conversations with people for whom these structures are commonplace, their daily place of work.
We are like children, remarking on this and that. They smile back knowingly.
We arrive at their library, ‘the oldest in the world’ we are told.
Many of the books precede the invention of printing, and some are the oldest example of their very own technological revolution.
The way the books are stored means that they remain ‘secrets’. It is only at the moment of withdrawing them from their shelves that they start to spill their contents. I marvel at their physical characteristics, their bindings, their varieties of ‘paper’, their type and their illumination. I gaze and admire. I read occasional words. I understand little.