:: Article

Knots and Not Seeing

By Matthew Turner.

I’m lost, not for the first time, not even the first time today. It’s twelve by my watch while my phone glows two; the air is hot when it’s supposed to be cold; I’m in The Hague Central Station—the narrow streets constantly disrupt my phone signal displacing my location to inexistent roads, echoed from real ones, and my movements impossibly cut through clothes shops, department stores and walls. Amidst a tangle of interlocking elevated tracks and walkways at different heights, I’m on platform ten whereas I need to be on platform five in five minutes. My shoelace is undone. That’s one less knot I need to worry about, but not even the teenager giving Forget-me-nots to his girl could unravel my predicament in five minutes. She told him to get lost anyway.

I loathed getting lost—as everyone does—yet still, it always happened. A secret intuitive desire to be mislaid and disordered always seemed to prevail over my conscious efforts. People have said madness is the only way out. Is being lost and disordered at a moment when that seems to be impossible the only real clemency? Hidden within and comforted by knots, wrong turns and dead ends.

As with all my journeys, I suspect that the destination of this one is not the real aim. Instead I feel that I’m looking for, or following, someone—an idea. Some guy drops a half smoked cigarette on the floor before boarding his train. I pick it up, stand in his freshly vacated position and start to smoke. You could never fully describe a knot or getting lost to someone, and you most certainly couldn’t write a complete illustration of it, I think, as the moisture in my mouth mixes with that of the previous owner’s. Not only does a knot have an inarticulate order, it would also be illogical to explain. One way you could attempt to solidify it through spoken words or text is if the depiction itself was knotted, and even this would only capture the general sensation of being lost, not the precise situation. It has to be appreciated in one complete view; it can’t be delineated by one detail after another, as is the usual nature of writing or speech. Everything becomes very immediate when you’re lost, you can sense what is happening, but you could never capture it in an image and post about it on social media. It’s a situation still immune to technology—both analogue and digital—and their subsequent veils. Computers can predict most things, but I don’t think they could ever predict the unexpected turbulence of how, or when, you might next get lost.

I smoke very quickly as I watch people walk past, their reflected bodies secretly enjoying laced embraces in the glass of the train station’s façade, blistered by the coruscated refractions of morning sun. Multiple torn ligaments of tobacco make up the cigarette; the air weaves through them as you inhale, you eat it, before exhaling and the smoke wraps, entwines and finally eats you. Coiling around and within, locking into the lungs then releasing its amorphous embrace like an ephemeral contortionist breaking away from the form of numerous inner cavities: the vocal cords, larynx, trachea and bronchial tubes that it held for a moment. Is this why it seems so relaxing, because it gives the illusion of having some kind of control over the braids, bonds and bunches within and around you? Allowing the skein of life to breath a little… When smoking you are both the fucker and the fucked, entangled in a sensual coupling and —with a smooth exhale—you can decide when it momentarily uncouples.

Luckily the train is delayed due to public disorder on the tracks, otherwise I would have completely missed it. I only found the platform by chance after darting around for a few minutes; glancing off elbows into 360 turns, splitting the glowing embrace of couples, splicing misheard retorts, whipped by flicking coat tails, ducking gesticulations and ricocheting off the burn of a cigarette holding hand. Finally weaving through a tight throng of people on the platform and on into the safe pleat of my seat.

The weather is overcast. Tailors use a stitch called ‘overcasting’ to prevent the raw edge of the fabric they’re working on from fraying—the dark clouds looping over me certainly hadn’t achieved this. From the carriage window I can see the last of The Hague’s large windowed buildings disappearing—a hangover from Quaker times; an openness or honesty designed to show that people had nothing to hide even within their private spaces. They looked pleasant in the daytime, by night however, they turned into great iridescent voids that consumed each façade. The train gathers speed and takes one of the assorted metallic strands defusing northeast, over, under and through the landscape’s filigree manifestations.

I’m on my way to Emmen, 100 miles away, to see Robert Smithson’s only completed earthwork in Europe, ‘Broken Circle/Spiral Hill’. I have in front of me the autobiography of a Russian scholar, lepidopterist and one of the great novelists of the 20th century. In the final chapter as he discusses the spatial characteristics of his memory, the author is describing something uncannily similar to the geometry of the spirals in Smithson’s sculpture: ‘if, in the spiral unwinding of things, space warps into something akin to time, and time, in its turn, warps into something akin to thought, then, surely, another dimension follows—a special Space’. The book has been littered with the image of this ‘special Space’; one example I remember most vividly is the glassy, fluid and sinuous swirl inside a marble. Memory, time and life, the writer suggests, does not follow a linear path. Instead uncanny mnemonic similarities, moments, occurrences, people and events double back and re-echo on themselves from the past, and thread through to the present—like the multicolored double helix in that marble—excavated in an instant that erodes linearity and enables a kind of acid reflux at the intersection of those swirling strands. Conversely, Smithson’s ‘Broken Circle’ represents the irreversible entropy of such things, the final glug as the last of life’s waste spins down the plughole.

The strands of these two forms converge and ravel within the jam of my synapses and seem to form a more appropriate geometry to elucidate my view on things. Sometimes, I think we are not controlled by order any longer, but by the shape shifting, constantly rewoven, fluctuating chaos that is our political and experiential environment. Yet, I can’t seem to grasp it properly. Is that the whole point? I approach it in the same way as approaching a room—once inside however, I forget what I’ve gone in for.

It doesn’t matter how much you look at a knot, you can’t really see it because you cannot make any sense of it, the same as looking at an underexposed photograph, the figures and forms lost in a sandstorm of virgin grains untouched by light. Surely then, this is similar to the intertwined nature of the digital realm and how its floods of data suffocate our capacity to see it clearly. Perhaps, trying to unknot this morass becomes the real bind: instead, counter to usual logic, is there a certain release in being knotted?

As the train approaches Emmen glances from eyes become more blue and swept back hair increasingly blonde. Walking the wrong way to the quarry where ‘Broken Circle/Spiral Hill’ is located, I eventually find that it is closed to visitors. A call to the owner doesn’t work because the signal on my phone is low, matted by the immensely flat distances all around, pine trees and pylons. And so I spend hours circumnavigating the quarry trying at least to see it from a distance.  I cannot get a clear view. Instead, I’m left to detect, through the dense thicket of trees surrounding the sculpture, its shadows and silhouettes refracted through the verticals cut by tree trunks, a snatch of its curves, or a fragment of the boulder that sits in its centre. I walk on, gazing quietly as a bird watcher hunting for a rare species, and although I get closer to the sculpture, we never quite meet. Despite its illusive nature my own movements around the earthwork strangely mimic the geometries of the Russian writer’s memory space, and Smithson’s sculptural delineations of entropy—a very human enactment of how the two geometries are entwining into a knot in my stomach.

At which point does a knot become knotted? Can some knots appear unknotted?    Computers can make everything seem calculated and worked out, all is well ordered to the algorithmic eye that constantly seeks out the path of least resistance: but to a human it is complete chaos. There is a certain potential in the path of most resistance, where strands come close and rub against each other and the friction creates comforting warmth as you struggle to unfurl it. I wonder what this liminal ‘special Space’ between being simultaneously knotted and unknotted looks like.

There is a Henry Moore sculpture located in the grounds of Kenwood House, London. Although completely frozen, as you move around the form, the two figures modulate from being fragmented to complete, from embracing copulation to mutual indifference, continually rebirthed from the friction. The sculpture instantaneously breathes from knot to unknotted in time with your steps around it—a geometry that is resolutely alive from the struggle. I also remember seeing the outline of a face with intensely staring eyes in the random contours of a knot in some timber paneling. The light shifted and it dispersed into an eddy in the surface of a stream, and then, just a brown incoherent stain from which I couldn’t divine anything at all—you can see anything you want in such a mark.

After looking around for some time I finally vault the security fence and push my way into an ever-tightening ligature of trees, shrubs, ferns and camouflaged barbed wire; a matrix that exerts a force on me like the gradually numbing pressure building on an arm or leg. A phantom limb within the mix, quickly coagulating, it’s difficult for me to move forward and impossible to go back.  I manage to sit down, and surprisingly, I feel relaxed; this is a real weekend getaway.

I’m looking for the discordant pixels that will coalesce and float to the surface to complete my abstractly tessellated view of the environment. If the spiral was, for that Russian novelist, the space of memory, and for Smithson, entropy, then perhaps, for the moment we live in, the tangled spiral, tornado or a simple loose braid in a woman’s hair is emblematic. I think the digital and its various entanglements with the material would be such a fluid labyrinth. And this tangle contracts as some people again rely on technology—the thing that placed us there in first place—to get them out of it. Untangling knots, however, is one of the few things a machine is unable to do. Knots instead, request and epitomise the work of hands, as well as representing links and bonds, resistance and binding. Although I’m lost, maybe this is the only way out.

Turning my head I can see flickers of the sculpture, obliterated by a contorted web of branches. It’s plainly in view, yet physically inaccessible: still an image on a screen. Although the depth is real, it is merely simulated from my current inertial position, as my eyes continue to switch from focusing on the nearby trees to the aggregate swirls and dust in the distance. Do we see more by not seeing? Every day I can see an image of almost anything, whenever I want; maybe this time it’s good to see nothing at all.

If the knot, the organic maze I’m currently ensnared in, is a concentrated shorthand of spaces and experiences I endure from day-to-day, it might be a symptom that is also a cure—an inoculant that can protect the body from a disease by injecting a small amount of it into the bloodstream.

Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as writer and assistant editor for LOBBY magazine while also teaching at Chelsea College of Art. @MjTurner_

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 18th, 2019.