Vast works of other ages encumber

Stse is an almost-island, separated from the mainland of the great south continent by marshes and tidal bogs, where millions of wading birds gather to mate and nest.  Ruins of an enormous bridge are visible on the landward side, and another half-sunk fragment of ruin is the basis of the town’s pier and breakwater. Vast works of other ages encumber all Hain, and are no more and no less venerable or interesting to the Hainish than the rest of the landscape.

Ursula K le Guin, Four Ways to Forgiveness, Gollancz 1995.

Le Guin’s galaxy was long ago colonised by humans from Hain.  Indeed this is so buried in history’s layers that humanity’s first origins are forgotten, and people on Earth believe themselves aliens.  After that great expansion and genetic manipulations by the ancestral Hainish, peoples in each system developed in isolation for a thousand millenia.  Time dilation during near-light-speed travel and cold-sleep means that your left-behind children and grandchildren grow old and die before you make your new start on another planet.  In the last few thousand years, which might be only a few lifetimes for space-farers, the Hains have sought to bring all humanity back into a loose community called the Ekumen.

This positioned le Guin as a galactic social anthropologist.  The underlying framework for each story is that of Ekumen observers exploring and falling foul of variations of kinship, politics, religion and economics.  Her most recurring themes are variations on gender and sex, and the power relationships which spring from these.  The Left Hand of Darkness, her novel written nearly fifty years ago, to me seems fresh and challenging in its deconstruction of our assumptions about humanity, encapsulated in the sentence “The king was pregnant”.  The four novellas which comprise Four Ways to Forgiveness offer perhaps a more conventional take on sexuality, shockingly so, for it is tied into power dynamics, slavery, rape and oppression.  It took me a second reading to confirm that her gentle writing style was, in each narrative, capturing a love-story.

The throw-away description of the enormous bridge, the ancient vast ruin present but ignored, gives to me the feel of le Guin’s universe.

I drew this listening to the hypnotic rhythms of Canto Ostinato (Simeon ten Holt) weaving a tapestry of sound from four pianos.

twisted myths

The Fisher King slaughters people to use as components in a psionic transmitter, intending to reach out to its compatriots adrift in the solar system.  It is defeated by the Doctor through the use of a stasis chamber and a time paradox.

This glorious costume prosthetic was created for the BBC by a guy called Dave Bonneywell.  I drew it at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, a museum and apocalyptic narrative which I highly recommend.  This was one of the few places I felt at home with people coming up to me to watch me draw.   There too I sketched one of many iterations of cybermen, the arch-foe of my childhood.

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We had gone as a family to Wales to see the exhibition of paintings by Rose Davis called The Hunt. She joined archaeologist Dewi Bowen and film maker Melvyn Williams as they tracked ancient paths through the wilderness used by megafauna, stock and people, marked physically by megaliths and mythically through the rampages of the wild boar y Twrch Trwyth and his seven scions hunted by questing hero Culhwch, King Arthur and his knights.  Over this year I have enjoyed the abstract representations of each standing stone as Rose posted these here on WordPress.

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I had heard the name “Fisher King” before but could not place it.  A bit of research revealed the name to have been borrowed from a myth set which twists through time.  In the Christianised version, the Fisher King is wounded in the lower body, perhaps crippled, perhaps emasculated, unable to rule but only to fish, but serves as the last guardian of the Grail which has healing powers.  This story harks back to earlier narratives including that of the heroic English king Bran who owns a magic cauldron which restores slain warriors to battle fitness.  In battle, he receives a mortal poisoned wound to his foot.  On his instructions, his men take only his head (which continues to talk) back to the fortress of LLyr (Llyr’s dun) where it is buried on the White Hill by the Thames.  From there he protects England until much later Arthur, in hubris, discards the head to his cost.

This story comes from Welsh oral tradition, written down around the 12th century and later translated to English as the Mabinogion.  This is the same body of myth from which comes the story of Culhwch’s labours to win the hand of Olwen, including hunt for the great boar, Twrch Trwyth.

The difficulty of crossing a field

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Ambrose Bierce’s admirably concise narrative tells of a man, Williamson, rising to walk to the distant pasture to speak on a particular matter with Andrew, his brother, the overseer, there supervising a dozen slaves; crossing a close-cropped field, level and without any means of concealment, and disappearing such that no person hears of or sees him again, so that he is declared dead and his estate is distributed according to the law.  The sole testimony is from a neighbour, Wren, who saw both Williamson’s presence and then, immediately after, his absence  but who was distracted at the moment of disappearance.  The woman, Williamson’s wife, black servant Sam and boy, Wren’s son, who were each greatly disturbed by the actual event, were deemed incompetent.  What had become of Mr Williamson?  Bierce states clearly, it was not the business of this narrative to answer that question.   The central event itself  is not examined and the reader is left to fill in the details.

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I came to this story though David Lang’s opera of the same name, a chance finding on Spotify.   Listening to this several times without any idea of its cast or staging nor the story or setting, the sense came to me of the neuroticism of oppression: that the act of oppression was driving the white folks mad and that myth and superstition were interwoven with horror and despair.

Mac Wellman’s libretto expands the original story to some 18 pages, seeing the events from the perspectives of the different actors,yet without resolving Bierce’s central question.

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At the heart of the piece is the tightly self-constrained testimony of Andrew, the overseer, explaining his principles of managing slaves and maintaining self respect, which collapses into anger and rhythmic evocative nonsense: “His name was Clock, of the tribe of Clock.  But I fear his true mode of locomotion, like that of Prince Zandor, was more humble, the singleton crutch, or cane, of the tribe of Crutch, or Cane”.  Andrew clarifies that seemingly random shouted words were the attributes, or names, of the slaves working in that distant field: Round, Square, Juniper, Crabgrass, Candlestick, Limbo, Clock, Bumblebee, Jackass, Crawdad, Nuisance, Puissance, Doorbell, Virginia Creeper.  The slaves are the chorus and Virginia Creeper their caller.  The overseer’s words become but an echo of the chorus’ ritual chanting: they are building a nation, seeking an erasure of John C. Calhoun (who promulgated that slavery was more than a “necessary evil” but was a social good) and invoking Prince Zandor, the one-legged red-coated predatory demon from their ancestral mythology.

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Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor II: Arietta

Ballad of Mae in Soho 2

I drew this one evening using the music to drive the strokes of charcoal.  I wet it and scraped back to the white highlights with a fragment of lava.  While cropping the photo, I noticed the invert function that reversed black and white.  The original is below.

Ballad of Mae in Soho 1

Last week, I watched a stunning performance of the ballet “Bye” danced by Sylvie Guillem, set to this piece and choreographed by Mats Ek.

However, the image I have drawn owes more to a set of line drawings by the late painter Barbara Tate and to archival photographs of 1940s Soho.  In her early 20s, Tate found employment as a maid, keeping house for a prolific and dramatic sex worker.

 

 

The garden beneath the bones

The garden beneath the bones 2

This large picture began as a layer of chalk pastel using a remembered images of a fallen tree as a source.  I disintegrated that with charcoal, oil pastel and water.  The skeletal remains of a long extinct mythical creature were overlaid in acrylic.  And then I developed this further on the iPad as a steampunk cityscape, creating “The Ribs“.

Still, the real picture remained.  I experimented with printing from paper covered with coloured oil pastel and overlaid with white acrylic, placed face down on my picture, and with heat applied. Initial tests suggested the acrylic would melt and carry the oil pastel onto the picture.  It failed.  The acrylic did not adhere and instead, the paint for the ribs was lifted off.

The next experiment was more successful.  I took scraps of various papers, layered in oil pastel my desired colours and, on top, white oil pastel.  Again, I used heat to print these onto my picture, creating the effect seen above.  I worked into these with more layers of printing and then brought out contrasting tones with ink painted onto the resisting surface.  I had to repaint the bones.

All in all, satisfying textures and strengths of colour on a dark background.  There may be more to do on this.