Truth, Beauty, Honour: Ian Hamilton Finlay at The deCordova

9. Beehouses

“Truth, Beauty, Honour. It involves something basic to my whole conception of poetry—namely, that however imperfect we may be, we must still make the attempt to approach with honourable objectivity and good will, the world of fact. I see poetry as being precisely the manifestation of that good will.”–Ian Hamilton Finlay

Collected in Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann

1964-69

7. 4th floor gallery 2 detail

I recently wrote a review of Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann 1964-69 for the Burlington Magazine, which I cannot, for copyright reasons, post here.  However, I would urge those interested in Finlay or in artistic development in general, to read.

4. 3rd floor detail 2

I had the pleasure of attending the 2004 Idylls and Interventions exhibit at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London.  However, exhibits of Finlay’s work in the United States are unfortunately not a frequent occurrence.  So, I was quite excited to hear that on view May 16th –October 13th 2014 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum near Boston is Ian Hamilton Finlay: Arcadian Revolutionary and Avant-Gardener.  There are also events related to the exhibit, which include Poet Laureate Charles Simic, and landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, author of Nature Over Again: The Garden Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay—also recommended reading.  I hope to attend the John Dixon Hunt lecture on October 8th .  Perhaps I will see you there.

2. 3rd floor Install view

Design Research

Design-Research-Cover

Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes is a Chronicle Books publication about the Cambridge Massachusetts based housewares and design store founded by architect Ben Thompson.

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Thompson, a member, along with Walter Gropius, of The Architects Collaborative (TAC), encompassed all the passions in life in his pursuit to bring modern design to the American mainstream: from interior décor to housewares, and even starting the groundbreaking Harvard Square restaurant Harvest in back of the Design Research store on Brattle Street.

Along with other members of TAC, Thompson would also pioneer the Six Moon Hill housing development in Lexington Massachusetts.

Tindersticks

 

Formed from Asphalt Ribbons in Nottingham England, Tindersticks is a thoroughly original and underrated band.  I am not a follower of record sales, and I don’t really know (or care) if they have had a chart topper as it were, but as pop obscurity goes, they have fulfilled one goal—they are big in Portugal (as proxy for Japan).  Perhaps the Portuguese penchant for the heartbreak of Fado puts them on lead singer Stuart Staples’ wavelength.

By those who enjoy doing so, many will try to pigeonhole the band’s sound.  I will not justify that tendency by listing any particular genres from which to choose.  These are the same people who use the term “one-hit-wonder, “ because they cannot be bothered to check out the rest of any artists’ work beyond what is popularly sanctioned; which is really quite sad.

The above video was the announcement of their last year’s release The Something Rain, an instrumental titled Goodbye Joe.  I find it rather irresistible; and so should you.

Pitch Perfect Powell and Pressburger

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Can one aspire to make a masterpiece? Webster’s defines it as: a piece of work presented to a medieval guild as evidence of qualification for the rank of master; a work done with extraordinary skill; especially: a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement.  Even if we can agree on the possible definition of the term, beyond that of qualification within a trade, is it then left to the critic to define or time to reveal?  Can the work be flawed?  As Leonard Cohen insists, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”  Some flaws can accentuate the truth of a work, while others distract by the graceless use of technique.

Paul Gauguin lived just long enough to paint, Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?  He considered it his most accomplished painting.  In many regards, his artistic life had been a series of works to get to it.  Many artists’ careers can be interpreted as a single work or theme consisting of  a series of drafts.

A longtime admirer of Michael Powell and Emric Pressberger, filmmaker Martin Scorsese “reached the point of thinking there were no more masterpieces to discover until” he saw Powell and Pressberger’s I Know Where I’m GoingWhile not as ambitious technically as their previous film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, or thematically and psychologically compelling as Black Narcissus: both expensive and involved productions, I Know Where I’m Going was by contrast a very modest affair.  After the grandiose Technicolor and production costs of Blimp, Powell and Pressbuger’s production company The Archers was looking for something quick and cheap.  Shooting on location in black and white would be one solution.

In his essay on the film, scholar Ian Christie recounts how Pressburger  recalls the script almost writing itself.  By all accounts, the production was equally untroubled.  Can a masterpiece be this easy?  The story is simple enough.  The only irony being in the title: that life is often where we least expect, and that sometimes we talk ourselves into what we think should be, only to find out  we  did not recognize what was truly important we already possessed.  Like any good fable, the lesson learned is made more meaningful by the vain and arduous attempt to achieve what is not really meant for us.

Most of the I Know Where I’m Going is Joan Webster’s attempt to get to her wedding on the Isle of Kiloran, currently leased by her industrialist fiancé Sir Robert from the laird of Kiloran, Naval Officer Torquil McNeil. We never see Sir Robert, but when he mistakes Torquil’s service affiliation to the Army, Joan cannot let the indignity pass, and is quick to defend Torquil by correcting Sir Robert.  It is a subtle beginning of love taking form.

 

I Know Where I’m Going is not a comedy of manners as much as a comedy of discovery.  As Joan discovers what is important, she also discovers herself, not to mention her love of the laird of Kiloran, Torquil.  The lesson is learned and protagonist and we are equal parts touched and thrilled.

9 Ash Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Before Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1947), there was his Harvard Graduate School of Design thesis project at 9 Ash Street (1942) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Not many graduate students actually produce their thesis beyond the blueprint stage, but then Johnson at thirty-five, having already served as co-curator of The International Style exhibit along with Henry-Russell Hitchcock at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was not your average graduate student.

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Both Ash Street and the Glass House reflect the International Style, particularly the Barcelona Pavilion (1929) by Johnson’s mentor Mies van der Rohe.  While Ash Street is a fully enclosed landscape and the Glass House is fully exposed, they are essentially a city and country version of similar aspirations: incorporating interior and exterior space.  While the Glass House is open to take advantage of the distant exterior landscape, it relies on the exclusive ownership of the   immediate landscape to retain its privacy.  The urban setting of Ash Street require its interior and exterior to be combined in one secluded space.  In both buildings the line between public and private are blurred.

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What I like about Ash Street is its modesty, if not its hospitality.  While it does not open itself to the community, it does not make claim to property beyond its borders, which by neighborhood standards are indeed modest.  Both buildings are for no more than two (intimate) residents, so each have a certain appealing hedonistic quality that is not a part of the traditional residential dwelling. I’m not sure if the strongest relationship could survive either house, so single dwelling might be more apt.  If Ash Street is self-indulgent, it is also Spartan in its accouterments.  Its only luxury is its exclusiveness.  It does not advertise itself and is only conspicuous by its bold exclusivity.

The nine-foot wall that encloses both home and garden on Ash Street– which is two feet over the restricted building code– resemble nothing else in the neighborhood.  Across Ash Street is the traditional ivy-coated brick of Radcliffe College.  On another corner is the home of the late detective novelist Robert Parker: a decidedly un-modern and rather colorful Victorian that would be more at home in San Francisco.  One block down, on the corner of Ash and Brattle Streets, is the Arts and Crafts Shingled H. H. Richardson’s Stoughton House (1883).  You could walk the streets of the neighborhood for years and appreciate these more traditional landmarks, but number 9 would always remain a mystery.  As a self-contained world for one, I can see why word has not gotten out.

With the exception of the Glass House, Johnson never achieved the simplicity and beauty of 9 Ash Street.

Holga D

And no, that is not my rap name.  That would be Co. Z, as in afternoon nap, if you need know.  The Holga D is a prototype developed by Industrial Designer Saikat Biswas.  It is a digital version of the Holga, and other plastic toy film cameras such as the LOMO (Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association) and Diana, prized by the Lomography community for its dreamy imperfections such as light leaks and focus irregularities.  While the LOMO movement might see a digital version as sacrilege to the spirit of analog, the Holga D, I would argue still respects the analog LOMO romanticism.

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 First, the Holga D design itself is an icon made physical; stating quietly, yet confidently, “ I am camera.”  Like the original Holga, its plastic lens also lends itself to romantic imperfection, and in keeping with the delayed gratification of film, the Holga D has no display, so until you up-load your files, your images remain a mystery.

Digital or analog?  I say, drop your banners; life is too short to be either/or.

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I still have one foot in the analog world, but would have to say it is the cost of film processing and not the delayed gratification that makes digital my everyday camera.  I still use my Argus Seventy-Five to shoot 620 film, but it is an increasing luxury.

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The best camera is the one you have, and like most today, that is my phone.  As I am more a camera than a phone person, the reality that my iPhone is often a better camera than phone works for me.  Most of the time.   My other digital camera is the Leica Digilux 1, which looks about as old school as the Holga D.  People think it’s analog until they see it up close. Then they just think it is cool.  By then, it is too late.  All is forgiven.

Something tells me some of those Lomographers are shooting digital as well.  They all have phones, right?

Happy shooting.

Remembering The Go-Betweens

Grant McLennan (the Go-Betweens) photographed by Bleddyn Butcher in 1997

Demon Days

For whatever reason, I find I have been listening to a fair amount of Australian musicians lately.  I just re-discovered The Bank Holidays, who’s harmonies can deliver you to a sun-drenched Southern California, or perhaps Brisbane, seen through the lens of a plastic camera circa 1972.

That Striped Sunlight Sound was how Grant McLennan and Robert Forster described The Go-Between’s sound.  Formed from friendship, the band tempered the off-handed melodies of McLennan with the more angular self-consciousness of Forster distilled through the pop sensibilities of The Monkees and the literate musings of Bob Dylan.

I met McLennan briefly backstage in Boston in the mid-1990’s after a performance as part of a benefit for National Public Radio.  I thanked him for a performance of a few years earlier, when he and Robert opened for Lloyd Cole.  They took the stage unannounced, with no dimming of house lights, forty minutes before the announced program time and began playing for the dozen or so early attendees.  It was the most intimate of sets and a testament to their friendship.  It was also very un-rock-and-roll.

With the untimely death of McLennan in 2006, Forster carried on, recording The Evangelist, in which he paid tribute to his partner of thirty years by singing one of Grant’s last unrecorded songs Demon Days.  As a music journalist for the Australian periodical The Monthly, Forster would write a remembrance of McLennan untitled: A True Hipster.  I include it here:

On 6 May, on a Saturday afternoon while preparing a housewarming party, Grant McLennan, a friend and working partner of mine for 30 years, died of a heart attack. He was 48 years old. This is a remembrance.

Grant and I started the Brisbane band The Go-Betweens in January 1978. We’d met two years earlier in the drama department at the University of Queensland, where we were both doing Bachelor of Arts degrees centred mainly on English literature. Most of the drama subjects were taught at a small off-campus theatre called the Avalon. It was a jostling atmosphere in which Grant and I felt immediately at home, and our friendship began and blossomed here, amid the costume trunks, the works of Beckett, Genet and Ionesco (perfect for a pop band), and a genial professor, an Englishman by the name of Harry Garlick. It was action, and fun, and good learning, and it’s where The Go-Betweens started.

Grant was a whiz-kid when I first met him. His passion was film. He was either going to be a director or the greatest film critic this country had ever seen. At 18, he was writing reviews for a publication called Cinema Papers, while working at the Schonell, the campus cinema where he assisted with the programming. At 19, he’d done his BA. It was as if he’d raced so hard, and with such brilliance, that he’d got slightly ahead of himself. His application for the film and television school in Sydney was turned down on the grounds that he was too young. Which is where I came in, to fill a gap that was to be merely a year or two, before further adventures took us elsewhere.

While Grant had been pouring himself into film, I’d been falling into music. My academic record at university was patchy beside his. I never finished the degree. The electric guitar and stirrings overseas sighted in the music press were starting to consume me. Grant knew I had a band with a university friend and a drummer, and this intrigued him. The band, which went under two names, The Mosquitoes (taken from Gilligan’s Island) and The Godots (from Beckett), only did three shows over two years, of which Grant saw the last two. At the final show, we played the first good song I thought I’d written. It was called ‘Karen’.

The similarities between us were strong. We were both private-school boys who’d done well academically but come out of the system with no idea of a career. We were both looking for something that bohemian-free Brisbane couldn’t offer, except in the traditional safety of an Arts degree. And we were both uneasy and difficult, having emerged from families who looked on somewhat bewildered at the eldest sons they had produced. When Grant and I met, we didn’t know it but we’d found each other. Rough mirror-images. And when the friendship that had begun in classes grew to the point where I visited his house and saw his bedroom stacked with film books, novels and posters, I realised his “thing”, film, wasn’t just an enthusiasm; it was an obsession. And I knew that was exactly how I felt about music.

We began a slow exchange. He told me about French new wave cinema and film noir. I told him about the greatness of the Velvet Underground. He told me about auteur theory and the genius of Preston Sturges. I told him about Dylan in the mid-’60s. He mentioned Godard and Truffaut. We became Godard and Truffaut. Brisbane didn’t know it at the time, but there were two 19-year-olds driving around in a car who thought they were French film directors.

So we started the band when he accepted my offer to teach him bass guitar. But it was more than that. It was the decision to pool our ambitions and resources and go for something greater than ourselves, and in this we were aided by one piece of luck: Grant was musical. He could have remained a film student who played the bass, but instead he quickly became a musician. He had a fantastic singing voice and a perfect melodic knack, unknown when I asked him to start the group. What I did know was that, given his obvious creative tendencies, he would write songs. That it took only six weeks surprised me. But after such a short time, he showed me a bass riff, I wrote a chorus, and it became the first Forster–McLennan composition. It was called ‘Big Sleeping City’, and we played it for a year.

Being in a band and releasing our first single – ‘Lee Remick / Karen’, in September 1978 – gave us a certain instant notoriety, which we both enjoyed. For Grant it gave him things at 20 that a film career mightn’t have handed him until he was 30: recognition, creative adventure, the instant smell that we were going places. The journey had begun. The first vial of our friendship was put aside and we became The Go-Betweens. And from then on we set off on the crusade, with the band as first priority in our lives. We travelled, recorded, added and lost members, and built up the best body of work we could until we crashed 11 years later. Occasionally, through these years, Grant and I would catch each other’s eye – as we flew into New York, or played a big Danish rock festival, or went on a French TV show – and think, this is what we did it for, these pop moment milestones that both of us had dreamed of back in Brisbane, at the beginning.

Through all of this we stayed good friends. There was something special about our friendship that we could take deep into our work, making crucial creative decisions along the way and never flaring up or tearing at each other. We operated on two rules: each was to have the same number of songs on every album, and we both had to agree on something before we did it. Our confidence in what we could do was amazing. It was as if being in The Go-Betweens gave us an invisible shield, allowing us to believe that nothing could knock us out. Grant was central to this. Every album was “our best so far”, and any time I dipped in confidence he was there to pick me up. He was a great working partner. Not only the songs – ‘Cattle and Cane’, ‘Bachelor Kisses’, ‘Bye Bye Pride’, ‘Streets of Your Town’, ‘Finding You’, ‘Boundary Rider’ – but also as an up-close inspirational artist in my life.

This is what he was like. I’d drive over to his place to play guitar and he’d be lying on a bed reading a book. Grant never felt guilt about this. The world turned and worked; he read. That was the first message. He’d offer to make coffee, and I knew – and here’s one of the great luxuries of my life – I knew I could ask him anything, on any artistic frontier, and he’d have an answer. He had an encyclopaedic mind of the arts, with his own personal twist. So, as he worked on the coffee, I could toss in anything I liked – something that had popped up in my life that I needed his angle on. I’d say, “Tell me about Goya,” or, “What do you know about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry?” or, “Is the Youth Group CD any good?” And, his head over the kitchen table, he’d arch an eyebrow just to ascertain that I was serious, which I always was. Then he’d start. Erudite, logical, authoritative and never condescending – not one ounce of superiority came with the dispensing of his opinion. God. I’m going to miss that. And of all the holes his departing has left, this for me is the biggest: the person you can go to who is so much on your wavelength, stocked with shared experience, whom you don’t ask for life advice – Grant would be one of the last people there! – but who, as a fellow artist, you can go toe to toe with and always come away totally inspired by. Well, that’s a great thing.

And it wasn’t only me. Since his death, his role as inspirer and informer has come out strongly in remembrance. An old friend, Steve Haddon, says, “Meeting Grant in 1976 was like getting an education.” Another friend, Andrew Wilson, writes, “Thank you for playing ‘Johnny Jewel’, Blonde on Blonde, and Jane Birkin to me in a wooden Spring Hill room.” Of the 1500 responses that quickly sprung up on the internet, many spoke of a meeting with Grant, in a bar, a café, somewhere in the world, when he told them something of someone – made an inspired artistic connection, a tip that these people carried with them. His place here is as a true hipster, in the 1940s and ’50s sense of the word. Someone perched on the streets, in the saloons, on the lower side of life, possessing razor-sharp and deep knowledge of the cultural front – but never lording it in the traditional manner. Half jokingly, I once suggested he return to academia. He laughed the idea off, preferring to be the secret holder of wisdom “on a barstool throne”.

The break-up of the band in 1989 was savage and abrupt. Grant and I had had enough. We’d written six lauded albums and the band was broke. In the end, we were doing Sydney pub gigs to pay ourselves wages. It was a nasty treadmill. Grant and I had planned to go on as a duo and do an acoustic album, but this got blown sky-high when his girlfriend left him on the day he told her that the band was over. The next weeks were chaos. Grant was destroyed. I stayed, consoling him and trying to make sense of the mess that we had brought on by trying to gain our freedom. But then I had to follow my own heart and return to Germany, where I’d found the beginnings of a new life over the last six months. The duo idea hit the rocks when Grant informed the record company he wanted a solo career. The fact that he told them before me hurt. But he had a girlfriend to try and win back, and this coloured many of his decisions over the next years.

For the remainder of the decade we had fulfilling solo careers. It was great to work alone and grow. There were letters and calls between us, uneasy given the differences between our new worlds – him in the cauldron, me in the Bavarian countryside. We both felt happy to have the band behind us, immensely proud of the work we’d done, but drained from all that it had taken out of us. When my first solo album, Danger In The Past, came out I didn’t even want to leave the house. There was only one show in Australia: in Sydney, where Grant joined me. Professionally, that’s what we did together for the remainder of the decade; every eighteen months or so, an offer would come in from some part of the world, attractive enough for Grant and I to do a one-off acoustic show together, catch up, and then go back to our own lives.

There was one other thing, though: the film script. This was a crazy dream dating back to the late ’70s. When Grant and I started working together, The Go-Betweens was to be the calling card, the most visible and instantly attractive thing we did. Behind it, we had a number of other ideas we were going to unleash upon the world once the band was famous, which our 20-year-old minds figured would be in about three years. It was the Orson Welles theory: get famous at one thing, and then bring on everything else you can do. So there was a film and a book in the wings. The film was a jewel-heist caper set on the Gold Coast and then Sydney, a vehicle aimed at our favourite American actor of the time, James Garner. The book was going to be a microscopic dissection and ode to our favourite pop-star of all time, Bob Dylan, and it was going to be called ‘The Death of Modern America: Bob Dylan 1964–66’ (which still rings like a great line to me).

Neither got beyond rough fragments, though the wish to write a film together stayed. So, in 1995, with both of us back in Brisbane, we spent three months in the bowels of the Dendy cinema in George Street writing a film called ‘Sydney Creeps’. It was wonderful being in a room together working on something other than music, though the script is not as good as it should be. The wrestling over each line and plot twist robbed it of flow and a strong voice. Still, it was done, and there it was: a thick notebook written in longhand, many lines crossed out and written over, lying in a trunk of Grant’s last possessions.

We reconvened the band in 2000. Over the next six years we recorded three albums, toured, and took the whole thing, to our great pleasure, up another level. We were on the cusp of something. It’s strange to say that about a band that had existed for 17 years, but with Adele and Glenn, our bass player and drummer, by our side, all doors still felt open. We were still up for the championship, and we had a growing audience willing us on to bigger and better things. And we had new songs: Grant had a fantastic batch for an album we were going to do next year. I said to him that all my writing up until the recording would just be catching up to what he had. Album number ten was going to be something special.

Yet he wasn’t happy. He was proud of the band’s recent success, and his private life, after a long bumpy ride, was settled. He was in love, and the most content and up I’d seen him in a long time. But deep down there remained a trouble, a missing piece that he was always trying to find but never did. Family, a loving girlfriend, a circle of friends: all could count for so much, and it was a hell of a lot, but it could never cover over a particular hurt. When Grant was four, his father died. Perhaps it stemmed from this. The missing father, the anchor that would have kept him in friendlier waters and, maybe, on narrower paths through his life. He cut a lonely figure. He was sad. Sometimes I would visit him and it would take me an hour to pull him out. Twice in his life I was with him when he was totally shattered. And there were many years I missed when we weren’t in the same city.

I can remember being hit by the lyrics he put to his first songs. I was shocked by their melancholy and the struggle for joy. I’d known the happy-go-lucky university student. As soon as he wrote, there it was. Any appreciation or remembrance of Grant has to take this into account. He didn’t parade it, but it’s all over his work, and it was in his eye.

His refuge was art and a romantic nature that made him very lovable, even if he did take it to ridiculous degrees. Here was a man who, in 2006, didn’t drive; who owned no wallet or watch, no credit card, no computer. He would only have to hand in his mobile phone and bankcard to be able to step back into the gas-lit Paris of 1875, his natural home. I admired this side of him a great deal, and it came to be part of the dynamic of our pairing. He called me “the strategist”. He was the dreamer. We both realised, and came to relish, the perversity of the fact that this was an exact reversal of the perception people had of us as artists and personalities in the band – that I was the flamboyant man out of time and Grant the sensible rock. In reality, the opposite was true.

The last time I saw him was about two weeks before he died. The circumstances of the visit were the same as they’d been for almost 30 years: to play guitar together and do the catch-up with an old friend. He had a two-storey granny flat at the back of the house he lived in, and we played on a small deck there. A railroad track runs behind the house, and occasionally trains passed through the songs. We took breaks from the playing, and talked; we had such fun together. Talking. Always talking and gossiping – silly stuff we’d go round and round on.

After four hours I left. He was standing on the front veranda as I walked down to the front gate. In the mailbox was a wrapped copy of the New York Review of Books. I took it out and looked at the cover. I called to him, saying I didn’t know he got this. He told me he had a subscription, and if I wanted to I could borrow back-issues. I thanked him, said I would and then said goodbye. As I walked to the car and got in, I wondered how many singer-songwriters or rock stars in the world got the New York Review of Books delivered on subscription. Not many, I thought. Maybe just one.