Lynchian narratives

The person who blogs as Still Outside Authority is known for giving gnomic titles to WordPress posts: the latest landscape line drawings are headed “Under the Gibbet“.   There is something of David Lynch in this linking portentous words to image.

Yesterday, OA and I walked the canals between Manchester Piccadilly Station and the artspace HOME.   Here was my last sketch, coloured this morning in conte crayon and watercolour, having first been re-inked to obliterate the heavy black lines in the original on-site drawing.  A cleverer artist would have left that expanse of water as white paper, with a minimum of lines to suggest ripples.

We had visited the exhibition My Head is Disconnected: visceral drawings and relief paintings by David Lynch (open just one more week).  In these images, we meet recurring characters and a house motif.  This is not a storyboard, rather each individual picture might stand for a whole film, the series connected by a single director.  Each work encapsulates the totality of narrative and dialogue, characterisation, build-up and climax and resolution, tone and mood in unmoving shapes and cryptic utterances.  We fill in the gaps (the missing 90 minutes of film) in our responding imaginations.  That recurrent house icon is clearly, very much, not safe as houses.  We see “light fire boy” and the caption beneath “meiah is a girl who he likes AA lot”; “Who is outside my house” which throws out a poignant thought about the dog; “Her shadow began to change“; “Bob’s antigravity factory” with the artists fingers clawing through the think earthbound paint; “A lonely figure talks to himself softly” standing in a storm, expressing the thought common to us all; and Bob’s meeting Mr Redman is not welcome at all.

Block, pit and tower

The most west and southern tip of the British mainland is littered with industrial buildings with a history and pre-history of mining and trade.  Here I looked across the moor to the Ding Dong mine.  Each ruin seems to comprise a block building like a castle keep, a chimney and a pit.

Here is a glimpse of Dong Dong close up, the side of the building and the opening to the mine shaft.  Covered by a grate, it drops maybe a hundred feet, perhaps more.  Men were lowered down that pit once.

Here is another, by the roadside, the map did not even give it a name.  I drew the stack, I guess that opening beneath was a hearth of sorts.  Behind the scrub is the distant sea.  These sketches were drawn in Indian ink (or graphite for the middle sketch), then conte crayon, then watercolour, then another layer of crayon.  I love the use together of translucent and opaque media, and the crayon as a resist for the overlying wet paint.





I have known since I was seven

The Rabbits, by David Lynch

He who posts as Cakeordeath, endlessly informative on all things surreal, introduced me to this short film by David Lynch. This, though, is not so much surreal as permeated with existential dread, the haunting soundtrack comprising undulating chords punctuated by a muted engine siren, like a muffled scream.  Three people, expressionless in rabbit masks, make short gnomic statements that almost make sense.  It plays out like an episode of Friends, with characters coming on set pausing until the applause dies away and recorded laughter sounding unexpectedly at irrelevant moments.  We look down and in on the stage, so action plays out in a hutch, or a shoebox diorama.  I watched it in fragments and when I finished it, I found myself scribbling furiously in conte crayon on a sheet of cardboard.  I had been captivated by those two pools of light, from the table lamp to the right and the upright at the back.  At first I saw the colours as a sick turquoise and dull brown.  Only by drawing did I see the set is criss-crossed by shadows and varied hues, and standing out on the side table is a small lime green pot.

Who was on the phone?

It is still raining.

It has always been like that.

When did you go out?

I have known since I was seven.

It happens all the time.

There is no moon tonight.

I said it looks like it is still raining.

Where was it exactly, do you remember?

Is it that late?

Since then?

And getting darker.

An old warm rug.

A dog crawls.

Something’s wrong.

The dog crawls.

Lights blow out.

A wind.


Space, strings and saurian skulls

An afternoon in the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden geared my brain for observing the landscape in Cornwall, where she spent much of her life.  Apparently Hepworth pioneered the idea of the pierced object in abstract sculpture, an idea developed famously by Henry Moore.  The Tate’s notes on this piece “Sphere with inner form” describe the “smooth thin shell, punctured by circular and oval openings, covers the crusty inner form, which is also pierced. The warm brown patina of the outer surfaces contrasts with the green of the interior faces and the inner form”.  I reflected on these comments “she drew attention to the relationship between ‘an inside and an outside of every form … a nut in its shell or of a child in the womb, or in the structure of shells or of crystals, or when one senses the architecture of bones in the human figure'”.  Is this a particularly female perspective or simply a mark of a great artist, who can express the vitality beneath the surface?

I began my sketch drawing freehand with the brushpen and then with fountain pen loaded with india ink.  It was later that I worked colour back in, using watercolour, and conte crayon both as a resist and as an opaque layer on top.

The Tate’s notes on Hepworth’s 1966 piece “Spring” draw attention to its ovoid shape, in short, it is an egg.  This relates to ideas of nature’s cycles and rebirth (and therefore also death or dormancy too?  The notes don’t say this).  As with “Conversation with Magic Stones“, this idea had been developed through multiple versions, with previous iterations carved in wood, the painted  smooth shell contrasting with the coarse grain of the interior.  I loved that the pierced interior is strung through and through with threads.  I wanted this to make music – a stone lyre.

 I walked round this piece “Bronze Form (Patmos)“, holding open the shutter of the iphone camera, distorting it so I could see three sides together.  The critical feature of this sculpture is the enclosed space, within the bronze shape that folds over it like a wave.  It was inspired by her time on the Greek island of that name.

My immediate response to Bronze Form was to see, not the space within as Hepworth intended, but the outer shell as the twin-arched saurian skull, that heavy block of bone evolved to develop piercings and pillars, lightening the load and providing a framework for powerful muscles.

I wrote on the page “Sculptures built of space and pillars, like huge distorted saurian skulls.  Others solid but holes strung with strings like a stone lyre”.  I reflected that these shapes seemed natural “set against the more unnatural forms of the the cultured plants” in the garden.

The magic of stones

I found a shady corner on a hot day in the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden (part of the Tate in St Ives).  I had walked through Hepworth’s bronze installation “Conversation with magic Stones“: comprising three standing figures and three low-lying irregular polyhedrals.  The notes tell me that though this was a late piece, it was a large-scale realisation of ideas developed through multiple earlier works across several decades.  For her, the figures depict something of human relationships: totemic persons in tension with each other, the mythical landscape and magic stones.  From my standpoint, I saw the hard-edged uprights alongside the less regular lines of the bamboo setting: the distressed flat metallic surfaces against the smooth natural cylinders.

When I looked at my sketches made over several days in Cornwall, I started to recognise something that Hepworth had been conscious of in developing her work.  Here are three of the ten or eleven remaining stones that comprise the Nine Maidens of Boskednan sited in the midst of moorland.   These placed stones speak of now unfathomable relationships among the early Bronze Age inhabitants and between them and their surroundings.  How did these stones relate to matters of kinship and exclusion, exploitation of resource, search for meaning, and hierarchy of power?

On the coast west of St Ives, I chanced across another stone circle set deeply in the ferns.  This was not marked on the map: I cannot say whether this is the work of ancients or a contemporary folly.

Each sketch was started in pen and indelible ink – really an exercise in mark making.  However, I then applied conte crayon to give texture and act as a resist for simple watercolour washes.


Time’s riddle

This story has its origins in the work of physicist and philosopher, Carlos Rovelli, who has sought to explain the nature of reality and of time in language, for people like me who lack the math.  We experience time but its nature is an enigma, a riddle.  Thinking of riddles brought to mind Bilbo Baggins, underground, staking his life on out-guessing Gollum.  By a fluke, he reaches the right answer, “time”, to the last true riddle.  I used elements of that well-known chapter, morphing them, in an attempt to think through Rovelli’s explanations.  In my story, the traveller has a weapon that illuminates the cave far better than the faint glimmer of an Elven sword.  At the climax is the riddle of time, but one which I hope describes Covelli’s insights, not those of Tolkien or Gollum.

Time’s riddle

The creature lived in a cave deep beneath the mountain.  They had crawled there after a death (I will not call it murder) and a taking (I do not call it theft).  The sun had wheeled across the sky, the moon turned through its phases and the seasons moved through their cycle many thousands of times since the creature had first sought refuge from brightness and company.  Time passed more slowly deep underground than on the surface, and not simply because the cave was so much closer to the planet’s massive core.  The creature metabolised slowly, their temperature the same as the rock, pool and slowly changing air.  They  dwelt in complete darkness, where almost nothing marked change except it was the occasional padding of their feet over the rocks, or the slow ripples on the water spreading from where they lapped, or the rare passing of stool, or the desiccation of the tiny fragments of flesh that clung to the scattered, unremembered bones.

A traveller came to the cave.  Often, as measured in surface time, travellers hazarded the shallow tunnels as a quick way through the mountains, avoiding the high snowy passes or the long trips north or south past the ends of the range.  In the tunnels, time ran slower near their feet than by their heads and so sometimes they tripped and stumbled, always falling forward and down deeper until lost, bewildered and alone they found themselves in the very depths.  They carried a small cargo of entropy to the cave, but it spent itself in their deaths, consumption and desiccation.  Then time’s mirage expired once more.

Anyway, this particular traveller did come to the cave.  The creature heard its footfall, its breath, it feeling for and sitting on a rock worn smooth with its past brief incumbents, it swearing softly.  It hefted a sack from its back, then drank from a bottle that sounded near empty.

Something slammed into the creature with sudden violence, a solid wall of harmony and dissonance.  Then this resolved into the familiar illusion of melody, tones heard in each fragment of now, understood by the memory of notes past and in the anticipation of future sounds, whether realised or confounded.  Chaos became syncopation became a beat.  The traveler was playing an instrument, a thing of reed, metal and breath.  The music lit up that cavern, waves echoing off rock and water, giving that dark place depth and space and shape.  The creature remembered the saxophone, the smoke and lights of bars, the taste of burned barley and hops, the thrill of risking high stakes on the chance of a king, the glory of pissing after a long night drinking.  There was the vision of ephemeral beauty: the perfect face still imprinted with the remnants of childhood and bearing its first lines; the ancient ornate building reaching to heaven, its roof on fire, coloured glass exploding, bells crashing down, towers collapsing; green light and dripping water, bark and hanging vines, chatter and hooting, rustles and fluttering, sudden death and slow strangulation, birth and germination, flying sawdust, diesel fumes and bright blue sky over desert.

The music fell to silence but hung in the darkness as memory.  The creature had not spoken in a thousand years.  Their mouth and tongue were atrophied and dry.  They croaked:

“Often sold but rarely bought,

In stone and glass and metal wrought,

Shapely youth or comely maiden

Or captured in perfect equation

Forever grasped, passes through fingers as dust,

Radiance within, or no deeper than the crust.”

The traveller answered without shock at hearing a voice in the dark.  Its voice was high and clear:

“Really?  “Maiden”? “Equation”?  The answer is easy though.   You speak of beauty, and I am honoured my playing brought you that thought.”

The silence closed in.  After a pause, the traveller spoke again.

“I have become separated from my companions and am altogether lost.  It is likely I will die here.  But music gives hope. Will you guide me out of this place to sunshine and laughter?”

The creature thought of sunshine and laughter, of birds hanging on the wind and plummeting for fish, of meat roasting on a spit, of flattery, teasing and sex.  They felt hunger for the first time in millennia.  Their mouth now was wet with saliva.

“Easy it says.  It guesses easy?   It will play a game with us.  It will say a riddle and we will guess, we say and it must guess.  It must hazard silence and darkness uninterrupted against sunshine and laughter.  Yes?  It will play?  It must ask”

Turn and turn about, they asked their riddles.  These were the answers to the traveller’s rhymes: teeth, sunshine, egg, woman-measures-distance-to-farthest-star, pocketknife.  These were the answers to the creature’s challenges: mountain, wind, quark, pterodactyl.

But the music’s echoes were very faint now and had dropped in pitch almost below hearing.  The brightness of thought and memory had faded.  The creature no longer hungered but felt old and weary.  It had an idea how to end this game that had become tiresome.

This creature had but one possession, a ring, a precious thing.  It was wrought subtly so that it could be lifted and held, yet it was forged from the vast mass of the dark heart of a collapsed star, caught forever on the rebound between compression and explosion.  If worn on the finger, it expanded its dark horizon round the wearer, so photons would not escape and the bearer might not be seen.  Even without being worn, the thing captured reality around it, slowing time and twisting space into strange contortions like a hideous monstrous mollusc shell.

The creature slid onto the rock next to the traveller, felt the unaccustomed warmth on their skin.  They carefully slipped the ring into the traveller’s open pocket, then asked their final riddle:

“This thing all life does make

Microbe to human, tree, snake

Pushes up mountains from rocky crust

But beats all these things to dust

To the warrior it brings the crown

Stirs rebellion and pulls him down

From our clouded vision this thing emerges

Reaches back, and forward surges

The dealer cuts and shuffles the pack

The suits are mixed, cannot go back

On the turn of a card you risk your all

But existence is indifferent

To how the cards fall”

The traveller twisted and shuffled, pinched and slapped itself, mouthed words, the names of gods or mythical heroes or wyrms that might do these things or gamble with mortal lives.  But none of these seemed right and it dared not say them aloud. The darkness closed in, and the stillness surrounded them.  The ring contorted existence into a howling yawning vertiginous spiral of spacetime, pulling the traveller into its terrible heart.  Then the traveller lost all thought and became a bubble of fear and sweat and piss and agitation.  It would not answer, could not say the name of that thing, “time”, for time itself had dissolved in the foam of probabilistic reality in which there is complete clarity but no particular viewpoint, no observation of heart or ace or club or king separate from every quantum value of every card, no entropy, no present moment, no past nor future, no particles, no mass nor matter, just interacting fields of energy, a network of kisses, and of curses.

As the creature stripped flesh from the traveller’s bones, they tasted quantum entanglement, like bubbles breaking on their tongue.  “Tricksy”, they whispered.  So this had been a snare, a plot to lead the creature back into surface time, lured by the prospect of birds, beasts, trees, flowers, sunshine on the daisies. And there, what then?  There is a sentience of sorts in the universe, not powerful.  It wants to nudge events, leading the ring through successive owners until at length one might cast the accursed thing into a hot star to be unmade.

The rings’s creator had sought to rule all existence but had been overthrown, the ring cut from his hand, all power native to him now captured in that one object that was lost to him.  But in making the ring, he had bound all other powers to its fate.  With its destruction, so too would go time and life and thought and beauty.

So the creature had rebelled.  In taking the ring from its last finder (I will not call it theft), at the price of that person’s life (I will not call this act murder), in hiding in the deepest place in dark and stillness, as far as possible from the illusion of time, local time or entropic time or false-time, they set out to preserve that very illusion.  They dwelt in that cave almost without time, beauty’s protector, the guardian of the ring.



Carlo Rovelli “The Order of Time” published 2019, Penguin.

JRR Tolkien “The Hobbit” first published 1937, George Allen & Unwin Ltd; “The Lord of the Rings” first published 1954-55,  George Allen & Unwin Ltd (now published by Harper Collins)

John Harle “Terror and Magnificence” 1997 studio album on the Argo label featuring John Harle (saxophone) and Elvis Costello (vocals).