a film about Kurt Schwitters
Tuesday. After a really good few days on Hjertoya I took the weekend off and went to stay with an English/Norwegian man called Bertie Somme in Hustad on the north coast. I met him through couchsurfing. It was a much more remote place and I really liked being out in the wild country. Hot weather as well. Great food as Bertie fishes all the time. So arrived to halibut and then we went fishing the next day and caught a massive cod and a haddock which we also ate. There were some friends staying from Sweden – so it was nice to hang out with other people.
Yesterday (Monday) I went to the Romsdal Museum to meet Terje Thingvold who invited me to stay on Hjertoya island. He was on holiday last week. I was wrong about the art work inside the hut going to Oslo. It is staying in Molde and they are making a reproduction hytte to hold the work at the museum. This will open next year. Also the white card on an old box was actually protecting some collage work that is still in the hytte. I wondered if I would have asked to film it, had I known. But I would have to get permission from the Schwitters estate, as it is still in copyright. I have made a decision not to feature any of Schwitter’s work in my film as its not a documentary, I can’t do it without permission, and I am not sure I would get it as I am making an art work in its own right. I used to make arts programmes for TV so I do have some experience of this.
Meanwhile - Terje told me that next year’s Molde Jazz festival is going to have a Schwitters theme to coincide with the opening of the repro hytte. I really should have met the director of the Molde Jazz festival while in town. Wonder if there is still time? But for now I am stuck in heavy rain and cloud in Andalsnes after a night in the youth hostel. I’m on my way to the Djupvasshytte - a mountain lodge that Schwitters often went to, to paint his landscapes. But its so wet and cloudy you can’t see anything. I’m due in Oslo on Friday for a free improvised music festival…
I rented a car from Rent a Wreck in Molde. It is. Though it goes well enough it is very scratched and a bit dirty. All the info is in Norwegian and I can’t work out how to open the petrol cap! Its great to have a car though. Could not possibly have done this without one.(And it turned out to be very, very cheap though I never met a single human being in the transaction - just a key in a box and a code to open it by email.)
Amy Winehouse has died. I watch her parents on TV looking at the flowers and tributes to her and totally feel for them. But also know that they may well feel relieved now as watching someone commit slow suicide (which is effectively what she has done) is complete hell. And there is nothing you can do to stop it. What with the Oslo island massacre its been a weekend of lots of bereaved people on TV. Thinking that this is what got me walking again after being too ill to do it.
My best friend, and hugely erratic on and off lover, Nik Houghton committed suicide 5 years ago after a life of bipolar disorder made worse at the end by drug problems. He was one of the first people to write critically about artists’ video in the 80’s and he was very influential in my decision to go to art school after the road accident that damaged my health. He supported me so much creatively and I miss him like hell. In spite of the terrible depressions, he was the funniest, kindest, most supportive person I have ever known. But in the end I had about 5 years of dealing with hospitals and trying to stop him being sectioned (forcibly detained) and then trying to get him sectioned and failing. In between there was lots of crazy behavior which was sometimes also very creative. He was a performance artist known as John E. Cashmoney (a failed country and western star). Hilariously funny. Great singer.
But to commit suicide was his life’s ambition and he succeeded. He was totally calm and peaceful and looked beautiful when he left my house to ‘pick up his mail’. That afternoon he jumped from the 21st floor of his tower block.
After the numb adrenalin fuelled period of dealing with the police, the mortuary, his friends, his family, organising his funeral - I fell apart physically and emotionally. After a month at my Mum’s in Yorkshire, I managed to drag myself to a youth hostel in a little village in Crete called Plakias that I know very well. It’s a great place. I could be alone when I needed to be but never lonely. I was frightened to sleep alone and liked being in a dormitory with healthy, sane young people. Chris the hostel warden understood and let me cry for a week under his lemon tree in the lovely garden. Then one day I got up and walked and walked along the wild wind-swept coastline. Up to a little chapel about 5 miles away on a cliff overlooking the sea where I lit a candle and cried again. And then I walked back to the village – absolutely exhausted - with some kind of sanity and peace. I had a new tiny stills camera with a video setting (this was very new 5 years ago) and I discovered lots of great rhythms and textures like my paintings in the wild landscape there on my route.
I travel and, when up to it, also walk now as part of my art work. I had spent about 10 years just painting. But I was scared to paint now – its too solitary and I have to be outdoors. Last year I went to the Himalayas. But Nik is the person who first got me doing this. It keeps me sane and I like to think he is watching me. I hope all those other people who have been bereaved this weekend find some kind of peace eventually as well. Walking is a great healer.
Nik Houghton 1955-2006
Worked a bit too much last night on editing the images and on the blog (thank-you to the Langdale Country Club down the road for the wi-fi in the bar - very cosy) and woke up at 6.30 feeling truly terrible. Sore throat, swollen glands, headache, foggy brain. But it was raining very heavily anyway so decided to stay in bed. Then suddenly around 9am the sun came out and I saw a woodpecker outside the bedroom window pecking away at a large tree stump. I dashed to get the camera and managed to film about 3 seconds before it flew away!
Here’s the tree stump without the woodpecker.
I was using my bigger camera (Canon XM2) which I haven’t used for ages as its heavier, old and not HD. But its got a much better lens and can do really nice shots when I use progressive mode that enhances surfaces and textures in an abstract rather Schwitters collage type way – something I have used a lot in the past. I couldn’t quite remember how to use it. And I was worried that it hadn’t been checked over before I left. Fortunately I intend to shoot on lots of different cameras (including my mobile phone if that’s all I have at the time). This is totally in keeping with the collage aspect of Schwitter’s way of working. He used everything as an art material and improvised with what he had there in front of him. For a recovering perfectionist this is a really liberating philosophy. And yes I have forgotten the lead which transfers the footage to my computer – a good thing really as I would be editing all night.
(Perhaps I should say that before I got M.E. I used to be a TV director who made arts programmes. We had all sorts of technical “specs” we had to comply with. Though things have become more relaxed nowadays.)
My energy picked up after I had some breakfast and I had a great morning shooting quite abstract stuff of the surface of the river outside the sleeping barn.
I am so lucky staying here. I can make work outside the door when the fatigue is bad. And the solitude is great as I can really think. I can also rest whenever I need to and I have set up the living room for editing and resting. I’ve brought my radio so have Radio 4 on in the background all the time. Listening to “Woman’s Hour” while writing this. Again, massive thanks to the Littoral Trust for letting me stay here.
Filming all this landscape stuff made me think about an email I got from the art critic William Feavor last night. He was involved with getting the Merzbarn restored and knew Schwitters’ partner Edith Thomas (I also worked with him about 25 years ago, though I doubt he remembers). A chance comment from him in the email about my film relating to Schwitters liking to pick flowers made me realise I have to be very, very careful not to make something that is pretty and twee. I consider myself to be a hard-core modernist (which got me into all sorts of arguments when I went to Goldsmith’s to study fine art as a mature student and doggedly stuck to abstract painting. At that time – about 12 years ago - this was considered to be tantamount to supporting Hitler by some of the younger tutors and I was accused of being a reactionary.) Of course that’s why I like Schwitters’ work in its use of abstraction (though he is also considered to be a post-modernist as he used found objects and popular culture) This is also why I like the extremely experimental musicians who like him. I painted to John Cage and Morton Feldman - exploring the concepts of chance and improvisation - when I was at art school. The last thing I want to make is a pretty landscape film. Which of course if why I have just spent the morning filming the light on the river!
Those years refusing to work with cameras and exploring texture, surface, mark-making, erasure, traces, etc. in paint, wax, marble dust and other materials – totally informs what I am now doing now. I’m back again working with cameras, because I can’t stand being in a studio all the time and I love travelling - and I think at the end of the day my favourite medium is actually light. Of course - I now see that abstract painting is back in fashion.
Went back to the Merzbarn in the afternoon taking all my gear in the car. It had been raining really heavily during the night and my ancient car was full of water! Decided to sort it out later as needed to catch the light before it went. Had great time filming the walls and stones of the Merzbarn - and the holes in the ceiling - in very low light with very slow shutter speeds with the big old camera. Like an old friend. The bird was still singing its heart out but a construction crew were also working somewhere in the distance and the dumping truck kept reversing…
Might get up really early and come back to record sound before they start. Pain.
Went back to the sleeping barn and spent an hour baling the water out of my car with a bowl and a big sponge. Still feeling pretty rough. Hope tomorrow I’Il feel better.
Well its not really the beginning as I’ve been working on this project for about 6 months now since I fell in love with Kurt Schwitters’ work in the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany, last November. I make films with a group of experimental musicians called free improvisers, and I was invited to Hanover to show my work at a music festival. One of the musicians who came with me, percussionist Roger Turner, had introduced me to Schwitters’ work a couple of years earlier. I used to live in Cumbria and I knew about Kurt Schwitters coming to the U.K. from Hanover to escape the Nazi’s. He went to Norway first but ended up living in Ambleside - I had seen some of his work in the museum there - and in Tate Britain. I thought it was a interesting story but I wasn’t that impressed by his work to be honest. But the art work I saw in the Sprengel Museum in Hanover the day after the gig, was incredible. Schwitters not only made amazing collages and constructions from everyday things he found around him (his ‘Merz’ materials), but he was also a pioneer of installation and performance art. Here’s a link to more info on Schwitters on the Sprengel Museum Website.
I also make quite abstract films in the landscape which explore texture, rhythm, sound, chance events, light changes, etc. Schwitters’ work somehow seemed to be speaking the same language. You can see some of this work on my website link.
I am delighted that the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle have decided to commission me to make a film, my response as an artist, to Schwitter’s work - exploring the landscapes he visited, and the visual language he used. This film will be shown as a gallery installation in the room next to the Merzbarn wall (below) opening on June 28th 2012. This wall is the remains of an extraordinary installation Schwitters made in a disused Cumbrian barn in Elterwater, near Ambleside. Hatton Gallery website Merzbarn Wall website
I read the biography written by Gwendolin Webster about Schwitters and discovered that he had epilepsy. I know quite a few people who have it as well. They seem to have a tendency to being either over cautious and controlled in their lives or extremely devil may care and throw all caution to the wind. Schwitters seemed to have been both at the same time! I have M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome, which is hugely erratic - and how much I can and can’t control my life is something that informs my work as an artist. I wondered if the element of improvisation in Schwitter’s work results from the epilepsy? Is that why I respond to it so strongly? I will be addressing this question throughout the development of the project and report in this blog. The film will take me to Cumbria and to Norway and, as I won’t have much money, it will be a challenge in its own right for me to make this film.
Also reading the books about him and the poetry, it was obvious he loved the mountains. So do I. Here’s an extract from a poem he wrote -
Standing on a high mountain
I felt free
I danced to the music
the mountains make together.
Schwitters was also a fan of avant guard music and was a pioneer of sound poetry using abstract vocal sounds in his live performances. There will be experimental music and improvised sounds in the film, created by some of the free improvisation musicians. I run a monthly concert in London called Mopomoso with the guitarist John Russell at the Vortex Jazz Club. This gives me great opportunity to meet brilliant musicians. I have a Youtube site that is devoted to films I have made at these and other gigs. Helentonic on Youtube. There will be a concert in Newcastle of Schwitters inspired music when the exhibition opens in June 2012. More to follow.
I’m going to Cumbria next week to start filming.