Another sultry night in France in 2015, and this time I was working in the bamboo and bramble tunnel running between the old French house and the Widow’s house. It can take the summoning of a bit of courage to work in the night, laughing off the residual fear of the dark – almost. When I look at these specific images, I recall very clearly the indignation of the Screech owl perched somewhere above me, who was unhappy at my long-exposure exertions.
What I particularly enjoy about these images is the way the pillars of light connect with the leaf litter, helping me vouch for the ‘in-cameraness’ of the image-making – no Photoshop tomfoolery here, thank you very much. I should say too these images spooked me; there’s something sentient about these manifestations…
I can’t be completely sure when I wrote this song, but you can add it to the pile of similar stuff written following my slow and self-sabotaging exit from one particular relationship. I’m calling these efforts ‘songs’, though there is scant evidence of an actual chorus here, and they’re certainly not poetry. All I can say about this Friday’s example (and the others like it) is, whatever I was feeling at the time, I was feeling it vividly enough to sit down and write something by way of a response, be it a song, or so much dirge, or even a tiny capture of something true.
holding the phone
so, you’re phoning again, after all this time? a bolt from these blues like a neon sign i’m being real nice like I didn’t even bleed but you ringing me, it’s like you’re ringing me between those gentle hands no longer touching me
2 so, you’ll talk about the rain, ‘ain’t this weather grey?’ as just the sound of your voice chases clouds away but i’m being real cool, like I never felt the heat because hearing you, nowhere near to you makes this day more grey even as your warmth comes through.
3 you want to hear how I’ve been? well, yeah I’ve been fine you want to know what I do these days to pass the time? I think you want me to lie, well that’s fine by me as you won’t see these eyes, won’t detect this trace won’t read the need imprinted on this face
4 i’m asking ‘how about you?’ ‘I can’t complain’ you say, now isn’t that just great? you and me, we’re doing okay anyone might mistake there’s nothing left here to break our conversation clean and our chit-chat bored my air supply cut by this telephone cord
5 I know it’s nearing the end as our pauses grow just these few moments from now you’ll say you have to go I have to go too, i’ve all these things I must do like disconnect from you and repair the line unplug this phone and that neon sign
6 we’ve been saying nothing much for nearly half an hour I decide to say goodbye, my remaining power you don’t seem phased at all me ending your call so why ring me now? why ring today? is there something more you want to say?
7 now this line has gone dead, I say out loud ‘i’m glad’ that’s over and done, and I’m sure, not sad and in no time you’ll see I’ll no longer be just sitting here, alone at home me crying like this, me holding this phone and in no time you’ll see I’ll no longer be just sitting here, alone at home me crying like this, me holding this phone
I think this is probably an instance wherein the methodology behind the images is ultimately more arresting than the outcome itself, but having tasked myself with the challenge of trying to recreate the silent surface of the moon in response to the Kick-About No.29, I ended up working with some very earth-bound materials – principally, eight bags of plain flour, a plastic spatula for contouring, and three big glass paperweights.
That said, I must admit to a rush of fond filmic recollections, enjoying the way such humdrum materials could be turned into other-worldly vistas. One of my great excitements as a kid was learning how film-makers produced their special effects, kit-bashing spaceships from bits of Airfix models, or lining the corridors of futuristic sets with cheap plastic food containers bought in bulk and glue-gunned to the wall.
That I was able to recreate a lunar landscape on my dining room table, using the simplest means, reminds me of the power of imagination and the importance of play.
The ‘surface of the moon’ as it manifested in reality – a large plastic seed-tray filled with flour!
Our last Kick-About together was inspired by the lunar-like landscape of Dungeness beach and Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. This week’s creative run-around-between-friends is inspired by the actual moon, or rather by Haruki Murakami’s evocative description of its silent, watchful orbit…
“I won’t over explain this, so it is what it is: the human need to control the natural world, and the eye in the sky bearing witness. (Moths were already dead)”. Moon and pinned moths. 2’ X 2’. Graphite, oil paint and pinned Moths on Gesso.
“It is usually thought of that our humble moon is essentially a big dead rock in floating in space, but I have always liked how Murakami imbues the objects and places in the lives of his characters with surrealistic life or uses them to communicate something from other strange and unseen worlds. Perhaps in our world, the moon might just appear to be a a big dead rock in floating in space, but in Murakami’s world things are always saying something, even if they are silent.”
“I used Yupo paper and acrylic oils to produce the marbled background for this picture. For the earth and moon I used tissue paper and water colours. Really not much more to say except I am intrigued by 1Q84 and feel I must make an effort to read it, although 3 volumes is a bit of a tall order for me!”
“Inspiring prompt, this Murakami extract about the moon, so much could be done. Here, I wanted to catch the stillness of the moon, beautifully conveyed in the novel, with the perpetual action and energy of the cosmos around it, and particularly on Earth. The painting started originally as a “calligraphy”, expression humanity and history, then all the movement and happenings over time as creative chaos. The “moon” with her round shape, so self-contained and seemingly detached.”
“I’m always photographing the moon. I decided to go through my archives and make some postcards from some of my pictures. The results proved to me, once again, that if you take enough photos, some are bound to look good. I then consulted with the collage box Oracle. The Oracle knows the moon well.”
“I think this is probably an instance wherein the methodology behind the images is ultimately more arresting than the outcome itself, but having tasked myself with the challenge of trying to recreate the silent surface of the moon under largely straightened circumstances, I ended up working with some very earth-bound materials – principally, eight bags of plain flour, a plastic spatula for contouring, and three big glass paperweights!”
“I feel like with the words of Murakami, the moon has an element of ominous brooding and a spark of stoicism at remembering what used to be. The light I am capturing with these long exposure shots, which rim the highlights of ornate wood panelling and makes the hard wood floor sing with colour, makes me wonder who used to reside in this old house previously? Who wandered through the hallways? Who ran their fingers along the wood panels? Who tended to the rose gardens? Who hung up all the photos that still have a small circular imprint on the ancient stained walls? I imagine the original family in black and white or faded sepia, posed on an old chaise lounge, looking dapper but serious. This old creaky house with its not so glamorous leaks and constantly breaking faucets still has so much charm to it, bursting with history as high as its ceilings. The mammoth floors above us are now converted into flats, but one wonders how it all looked in its original form? How would the moon have shone into those vast rooms above me? I can only fantasise.”
“Once again I appreciated Gary’s KA topic. Very evocative. I made a quick sketch as soon as I read the passage, but it has been quite a long process evolving this into a submittable form. I created several moons with face and/or textures before finding Nasa’s library of images and finally trying to recreate a moon in Illustrator (why didn’t I just use the original photo I ask myself – well I try and justify it with ‘it better fits stylistically with the rest of the image’.) The Earth (temptation) was originally going to be a simple arc containing temptations. It evolved with more Nasa pics, before it was abandoned for type and amorphous shapes with tangled line work set in a frame that pulls/clutches at the moon, and the sheer curtain acting as a barrier to the earth’s attraction. In amongst this, one sunny morning, I spotted some very attractive light and shadows on my glass-topped table around a full moon-shaped ring of water, which probably fitted the text better – anyway they are both here.“
“As soon as I think of the distant moon, I think of this one moment, which changed my way of thinking, so I thought I’d share it.”
“Moons have appeared often in my work, usually over a landscape scene. I’m drawn to the more transformative atmosphere of twilight and moonlight; the appearances of things change, shadows thicken, possibilities open up as less detail is described, and the mysteries of night hold sway. This is a collage I made earlier in the year that seemed to fit the brief this week. A huge full moon hangs in the sky, illuminating a couple who are toiling their way up a path to a lighthouse – to what end we’ll never know…”
“Warm Italian summer evenings, with a moon-filled sky, a handful of Peroni, a couple of friends and that simple pleasure of stripping off. Memory is a fine thing yet, with the weather improving, temptation is at it again so, may not be long before it’s time to escape the constraints.” Oil on prepared paper 50×57 cm.
A further selection of images from my late afternoon at the edge of a large field of slightly weary rapeseed, playing about with focus, and courting the bleaching effects of the sunshine. I was enjoying all the dry-looking clouds of gold, as if applied to the landscape by the rough end of a yellow pastel.
More chalky puffs of yellow from the rapeseed field by Bysing Wood. I always imagine these images as huge, perfectly matte prints behind non-reflective glass on large white walls in big, softly-lit spaces – as opposed to postage stamps on a mobile phone. I’d love to see them ‘life-size’, standing in front of them, as I originally stood at the edge of the field itself. Until that lottery win materialises, I’ll go on sharing them on here.
Back in 2012, I went to a conference in Florida. It was an academic sort of affair, but there was a little time on either side to do some sightseeing, include a road trip to the Gulf Coast and a visit to Universal Studios. It was difficult not to think hyperreal filmic thoughts as we drank coffee in roadside diners and walked around movie lots, harder still to resist taking hyperreal filmic snaps.
Bottles (1936), a Happy Harmonies animated short, directed by Hugh Harman, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Tellingly, when my husband looked over my shoulder and saw me watching this very grainy upload of Bottles, in preparation for writing this, he said fondly, ‘Oh, that one.’ For the next ten minutes, we watched the animation together, suitably transfixed. Afterwards, my husband said, ‘Yep, still scary’, and, happily, I agreed.
As a child, whenever an old-style cartoon came on the television, Bottles was the one I was hoping for. The story, such as it is, begins with an old apothecarist falling asleep one suitably stormy night, initiating a musical dream sequence in which the bottles on the surrounding shelves come to life to perform in a series of variety-style skits. Even as a nipper, I detected that Scooby-Do, Captain Caveman and their like were ‘cheap’ animations. Something about their flat colour and all the labour-saving devices of their locked, unmoving poses told me corners were being cut. I enjoyed these cartoons, of course – better those than Grange Hill, or worse, The Littlest Hobo, but for me they were the equivalent of those packets of Swizzel’s Rainbow Drops – puffed rice dyed colorfully; a bit cheap, a bit thin, a bit light, and always a bit disappointing. Not a proper sweet, only the semblance of one.
But from the opening moments of Bottles you know it’s different; there’s the aliveness of the rain, and the painterly expression of light, and the parallax of the different layers of scenery pulling you filmically into the frame. This is what a labour of love looks like, the art and graft of animated storytelling.
Narratively, Bottles has an exhausting ‘and then, and then, and then’ structure, which I enjoy guiltily, in so much as it forgoes the necessity of character development or other expectations of the craft. My own first forays into creative writing were comic book-style adventures committed to the pages of blue exercise books, in which a spaceman in a smart red suit encountered peril after peril, page after page – and then, and then, and then!
When I watch Bottles I am reminded of my own direct-to-the-page instinctiveness, telling stories with all the boring bits cut out; not for me the moments when the spaceman in the smart red suit had to eat, sleep or urinate; not for me, any long episodes of walking, or talking, or arriving or leaving. Instead, bring on the battalions of robo-spiders, the purple space-krakens and the erupting volcanoes; and then, and then, and then!
As a lecturer in story for animation, I always had to speak to the importance of the ‘three act structure’, and all the other established systems for organising narrative for audiences effectively. All good and useful stuff, but secretly, I loved it more when students worked instinctively and less rationally. When I think about the imaginative forces regulating Bottles, it’s not some careful calibration of narrative structures, but rather the primality of a fever dream.
That inanimate objects come to life when we sleep is one of those knowledges that all children share. That we both love and fear this idea is captured in Harmon’s animation. In Bottles, anthropomorphism is like a contagion, moving along the shelves of the apothecary, imparting rampant squash and stretch to anything it touches. What I especially enjoy about Bottles is its no-holds barred horror, which doesn’t simply reside in the animation’s more obvious macabre set-pieces. There is something uncanny itself about the style of the animation, no matter its subject-matter, disturbing in the same way as those incessant, arm-waving inflatable ‘tube-men’ outside car dealerships. It’s the failure of stillness and the absence of pause, the gangly, boneless, grabbiness of everything.
But it is the poison bottle-come-skeleton everyone remembers about this cartoon, if not its more innocuous-sounding title. This guy is truly the Halloween loadstar; from this cackling character every plastic skeleton in every joke shop, from this character, every plastic mask, and He-Man’s Skeletor, but all of them pale imitations. ‘Death walks the night!’ the skeleton croaks, before unstoppering its own head and administering the droplet of shrinking potion that begins the apothecarist’s surrealistic adventure at the outset of the cartoon. There’s a witch in the mix too, rubber-faced, grotesque, terrifying, and a trio of ghosts – the spirits of ammonia. For this little boy who liked his entertainment served with a hearty helping of morbidity, Bottles managed that most satisfying of combinations: cosy horror, feelings of comfort in a subtle blend with sensations of peril and fright.
In tone and in spectacle, Bottles reminds me strongly of The Mascot (1933) a remarkable black and white stop-motion film by Ladislas Starevich. This too is a tour-de-force of animism, and likewise shares with Bottles its scene-stealing evil character, in Starevich’s film, a yakking devil presiding over a bizarre night-spot popular with gurning turnip-people and ambulating detritus. Another thing the two animations share is their racist cultural stereotypes; The Mascot features a minor black character with exaggerated lips and Mohican-style hair, while Bottles treats us to the ‘dance of the Golliwog Perfume bottles’, accompanied, natch, by the beating of drums. I hardly need put the necessary caveats around this moment in the animation, or rather my discomfort about it as an adult viewer, but as the rest of the cartoon’s featured bottles pertain to real brands, I was curious to understand if ‘Golliwog Perfume’ was an incidence of a racial stereotype created specially for the cartoon’s roster of vaudeville routines. I was amazed to find Le Golliwogg was an actual real-world perfume, launched in 1919 in France, and in 1925 in USA, and that its bottle featured a particularly grotesque example of the golliwog character, designed by Michel de Brunoff and his brother-in-law Lucien Vogel, both of whom where editors of the French Vogue. And there was me thinking the skeleton was the most disturbing thing about Harman’s animated short.
It’s only when I re-watched Bottles that I understood how conspicuously it haunts some of my own stuff, not least the Chimera stories, which imagines a world in which all inanimate objects are capable of life. But Chimera owes more than a nod to the pitch of Bottles too, by which I mean its headlongness, and likewise my resistance to de-fanging some of the books’ more intense scenes, and so ensuring I leave in the bits I suspect will linger for longest in the impressionable minds of my younger readers. Looks like I have carried that skeleton around in my imagination for forty-plus years. Of course, I’m rather glad of it. “Death walks the night!”