Diary Extract - ‘Figures of Speech’ Series, 1983-2015 (ongoing).
The repeated profile gesture in the ‘Figures of Speech Series’ may have originated in 1973-74, from a photograph of a seated figure leaning forward, reaching down to do up a shoe lace. This original mundane pose echoes the classical high relief ‘Goddess of Victory’ from around 408BC, still reaching for its sandal. Another seated figure from the Tomb of Higeso (420BC) is similar to early Christian images of Saints leaning forward writing the gospels, though they are either more upright or strangely casual and relaxed. They lean no further forward than the Greek vase figures of Achilles and Ajax playing draughts. One of Pisano’s Gothic reliefs of a sculptor at work comes closer to the position of this series. The Sistine ceiling that frames major biblical narratives, contains seated figures having a similar energy and tightness, yet they all overly writhe like Indian temple sculptures, twisting uncomfortably, and so exclude any symbolic/Archaic simplicity. The gesture in this series is more strenuous and fixated, labouring and having a deeper connection with even Millet’s ‘Gleaners’, Leonardo’s St Anne reaching for the Christ child, or even Tom Robert’s stooping shearing figures. These particular references and many more suggest something about the figure used, but no art image known to me gives a clear echo. Others include many of the moving figures of Mybridge, especially the seated figures, those series reaching to pick something up and those walking on all fours.
A Pre-Raphaelite work by William Waterhouse, ‘Sirene’ 1900, shows the same with less compression. Works by Degas such as ‘Awaiting the Cue’, (this one is viewed from above, making the feet and legs splay out) and ‘After the Bath’ and ‘Woman bathing in a shallow tub’, depict in both cases a more extreme bowing from the waist. Hans Bellmer’s linear bodily qualities are also clearly evident, while William Blake’s anatomical and humbled ‘Newton’, 1795, is even much closer, in its anatomical / political / medical / illogical / mythological / biblical / embryological / rhythmical / hermeneutical / poetical / theological / theatrical / ironical preoccupation.
Having had a developmental connection with Godwin Bradbeer since college days, his large black figure drawings that ironically resemble in part quasi-religious, X-ray photography and Sabatier effects, have exerted their own influence and were as often as familiar to me as my own work. In Francis Bacon’s figures there are transparent forms and ever present revolving bodily flaps that share some connection. Other recent examples are Mapplethorpe’s ‘Thomas in a Circle’, 1987 and the bound tightness in much of Nancy Grossman’s drawings. A more recent echo can be seen in some of Marlene Dumas’s works, such as ‘Measuring your own Grave’, 2003 and ‘How low can you go’, 2000. Other visual domains that could be said to have been influential are areas of Medical photography, Satellite/Landsat photography, Yoga, Gymnastics, Classical ballet and Contemporary dance and the best position adopted in air crashes.
This single gesture from which the many configurations derive, represents four physical experiences that are fundamental to living in the body and are associated with four primary acts – Excretion, Copulation, Parturition and Prostration. These four acts are suggested in one or more of the rotating positions that each single figure adopts.
Excretion is limited to the upright seated or squatting position, unless it is considered as an infant having its nappy changed, on its back with legs pushed back.
Copulation can be imaginatively related to the whole cycle of positions or couplings, which yet remain stylised and symbolic.
Birthing positions apply exclusively to the female. These versions and the appropriate gesture depends on the custom or cultural practice in the present or any distant past. The profile view excludes the intrusive reality while the act stands in for a particular view of art making.
Prostration is evident in the knee bound position and is meant to carry this and the subjection of all experiences to it. It is also meant to infer spiritual possibilities that give the ultimately negative experience a victorious edge. In this context, supplication or contrition are intended to take on the same naturalness of all other bodily acts.
The Series in this way introduces the body as a divine writing system, an alphabetical progression of secret signs. The body code or language represents mouthed sounds from beyond this world where the scribe of the human is also seated with quill raised. Each figure, shown as a single gesture suggests single letters with the same letter shape inverted to make a new letter. (b/p, u/n, w/m, d/b) This connects the figure and its gestures to impenetrable and indecipherable letter/language/characters, making ordinary bodily existence/experience take on the possibility of being a living, sacred yet temporal hieroglyph.
Each single script, located among the billions written, keeps on writing until it comes to a halt (death) and the meaning of the text written by and in our own bodies never writes again with that pen. Such continuous speech dictates both the fatal and the flawless in the language of condemnation/glorification written in the body by both writers, the possessed and the possessor. One hand holds our meaning in order to declare it in the body as written indelible ink. All bodies participate, every gesture is penned so at the consummation of all things, the lived in body (the secret text) will finally be returned to its rightful owner (the writer). Only the unknown author reads the unpublished text. At and in every temporal moment, finite readers are read and examined by the infinite inexhaustible Name. The eternal Word is wrapped and folded, coming and retreating, surfacing and submerging, contracting and flourishing in each and every bodily squiggle, every convolution or clumsy scrawl. Yet the ambiguity remains, the body that moved and performed, loved and lived, was driven and directed, ever willed on by each lonely and responsible soul that inhabited it.
This folded figure curls, bows and kneels and in so doing accepts all the associations that arrive in the mind. Each position, along with the primary nature of the four acts depicted, take on connections with a wider knowledge / experience of dread, defeat, defecation, submission, consent, willingness, sufferance and paying homage. It can be seen as compromised sexually and socially, literally disarmed or prostrate before either an authority of cruel desire, or fallen under the spell of silence or a vision of holiness. Here the foetal form becomes the body’s only true form, a form of waiting to be evacuated into a new world order and filled again with horror or glory.