:: Article

Those Poisonous Fields

By Nathan O’Donnell.

Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. Single channel video with sound, 32 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London. Video still.

I was sitting at a window table in a small, fairly basic pizza restaurant in Clapton, across from a roundabout on which several buses were parked. I wrote:

12.10.18. I went to see Charlotte Prodger’s work at the Tate today. Very good. Not sure why. Just very good writing; or what do I mean, an ideal expression of something, like a branching out that seems to start with writing. Isn’t that an idea: that it could be something else. Like, not just switching to the second person, but actually… I don’t know. Whatever. An articulation in space of something. But how does that start? A script? And also? I don’t know what else. An arrangement in a room or on a screen.

Through the window I watched cars passing. Traffic on the four-lane street approaching the roundabout was non-stop. At the table nearest the door of the restaurant a child sat saluting everyone who came through the door—other customers, delivery guys here to collect orders—while his parents looked on indulgently, smiling, inviting others to indulge him too, like it was their job to just sit here inviting people, whoever, into this faintly depressing, almost empty restaurant in Clapton. Outside, a man with an electrified street-sweeping implement was laboriously cleaning the pavement. He seemed to be operating according to some meticulous, inscrutable routine. Indifferently the traffic zoomed past. When he finally drifted off, he was replaced by a motorised street-cleaning machine, dragging gradually down the street after him, brushing over the already-swept path. I wrote:

The woman at the table beside me sounds uncannily like Olivia Coleman. She is talking about learning Spanish with Olivia Coleman’s voice, a bit breathless, with a high querulous intonation. I don’t feel as warmly toward her as I do toward Olivia Coleman.

The pizza restaurant had some Italian name. I was only there because I couldn’t bear to enter any of the other nicer restaurants along the way. I was staying at the other end of the Clapton Road, in an Airbnb, and before coming out I’d looked up a few recommendations on websites, one of which— ‘The 25 Best Restaurants in Hackney Right Now’—suggested a trendy wine bar and restaurant housed in what used to be a Chinese takeaway (the old shop signage remaining unchanged, out front), run by people the listicle mentioned by name, as if I might recognise them. The listicle said it was small, intimate, private; the food was careful, it said, and ‘personal.’ These adjectives all seemed to make sense. They reminded me of food I’d eaten and restaurants I’d eaten in before. When I got to the door of P Franco, I didn’t even stop. The windows were crowded with people laughing and talking; behind them was a crowded room assembled around a single large table, also talking, laughing, like everyone knew each other, which was, I realised, the fiction of the place. Sociable Londoners enjoying ‘personal’ food ‘intimately’, together. There was no way I was going in there. I was on my own and well-versed enough by now, acclimatised in the art of self-preservation, to know (like a TV police detective, I suppose, surveying a dangerous situation) that this was not for me. I strode past confidently, I didn’t so much as falter, as if I was going somewhere else, somewhere specific, though I didn’t even know where this road led. I continued to walk with purpose up the street long after I’d passed P Franco, needing to believe that I was at ease, that this one near-exposure to simple sociability had not destabilised me., that I was practiced in the art of eating alone.

I passed several other restaurants with other similarly gregarious clientele eating at communal tables before reaching the almost-empty pizza restaurant beside the roundabout with the child mascot at the door. I was still waiting for my food. I wrote:

If I keep writing in restaurants, all I’ll ever write about is restaurants and the people in restaurants.

Somehow that didn’t – doesn’t – seem like an entirely bad thing.

What did I mean when I wrote that about ‘the second person.’ It sounds defensive, dismissive, in ways I’m sure I did not intend. I wanted, or I think I meant I wanted, to think more deeply about the second person, about the nature of that exchange. Reading back over it, that passage in my notebook about Charlotte Prodger’s work seems entirely inaccurate. Earlier that day I’d been to Tate Britain to see her film work, BRIDGIT (2016), which was nominated for and has since won the Turner Prize. It opens in the second person, or the script does: a passage of spoken address, overlaid against a slightly more muted, one-sided telephone conversation about—I think—a DJ set, and a piece of footage filmed on an iPhone that may or may not have been the source of the other quieter voice:

So there’s this huge event. A group of people focusing very closely on you—like, tiny details of you and also the macro. All of you, every part of you is their concern. It’s all women. They’re totally in control of you. There’s three main people in charge, and an outer layer of others, each with their specific roles, and they’re all focusing very intensely on you. You’re at the centre of the whole thing. It’s all about you, every part of you.

But you’re not there.

This monologue butts up against the conversation about the set; later the work seems to be stitched together from diary entries and first-person reflections and short blunt video recordings. This is the thing, or one of the things, I liked about Prodger’s work, the way in which modes were blended, merged, bits of intimate language, situated, embodied in very specific contexts but also disembodied, dispersed. There is a very particular way in which Prodger’s writing relates to the body, though I haven’t been able to quite articulate what that is, or maybe it’s not articulatable in these kinds of generalised terms. It’s too specific. It’s the same or a similar specificity as that of the day-to-day iPhone footage she uses, filmed from the chance, inescapably personal vantage point of wherever the artist happens to be. The words are inseparable from the conditions in which they are uttered. Much of BRIDGIT recounts a period of time spent in a rehabilitation ward, reinforcing this impression of chance, the sheer situatedness of the conditions of writing, the limits of any one body to be ‘general’ in any real sense.

The film’s title, BRIDGIT, refers to one of many names of a Neolithic deity, or several deities, depending upon how one views it/them. In Ireland, Bridgit was absorbed into Catholic ritual, a symbolic gesture of goodwill toward the native pagan population, becoming St Bridget, whose name-day marked the coming of spring. There is a passage in the film when one of its several narrators speaks about the mis-namings of queer couples, so often misread by the casual onlooker as familial relationships: mother and daughter, sisters, twins. The film modulates between names, bodies, and beyond them a spectral anaesthetised non-being or world-being, ‘bang in the middle of the Great Mother’s heart’, says the narrator, quoting someone else.

It was a strange week to be in London, and Irish. It was particularly strange to be in London, and Irish, and doing the work I was doing. I was there to look dispassionately at the letters in the Tate archive between Betjeman and Clark, engaged in conversations about cultural diplomacy—and propaganda opportunities—between Britain and neutral Ireland during the Second World War. At the same time, the daily news was focused upon Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, due to be finalised that week, though it seemed to be foundering on the question of the Irish border. Anglo-Irish relations were being rudimentarily summarised in every paper for English readers hitherto evidently unfamiliar with it. The degree of ignorance of even basic facts about Northern Ireland—spoken about as if it were a distant place, as if it were not part of the United Kingdom—was astonishing. I wrote:

It is a little curious being here at this time. Online all is talk of the Irish back-stop. (The linguistic garble that has accompanied this whole thing gives little hope: Brexit, back-stop, no deal, EUSSR, etc.) At the same time I’m in the Tate archive looking at John Betjeman’s correspondence with Kenneth Clark about British diplomacy in Ireland, propaganda. Interesting to see things play out, recur. Betjeman’s nasty ‘Oirish’ jokes. Andrew Adonis talking of the damage Britain can do Ireland. Dirty jokes about knee-capping. Curious recurrences—or maybe not so curious.

On Thursday night, tipsy, on the Overground home—the last leg of the journey, from Highbury and Islington to Hackney Central—I read, on my phone, a New York Times article with a sensationalist headline: ‘I Didn’t Hate the English—Until Now’. It was a short piece by a London-based Irish writer, Megan Nolan. I was trying to read it discreetly, not letting other people around me see the headline, or the mocking union jacks, even though this kind of mockery would not be clear to people upside down on someone else’s phone, and who looks at other people’s phones anyway, and if they did, who was actually going to be offended by what was in fact a fairly uncontroversial article about the indisputable ignorance of many in England about Anglo-Irish current affairs. I was drunk, eyeing other people on the train, most of whom seemed to be staring into their laps. I decide I’d wait til I got home to read the article. I put my headphones in and pressed play on the last thing I’d been listening to on Spotify—Whitney Houston, ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’—and I left it on and let it fill the carriage and then when I got to my stop I jumped up and let the high-pop energy of it—‘with. some. body who loves me’—take me from my seat to the door onto the platform and out the station door.

On the 17 April 1942, Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery in London, received an evidently desperate letter from the wife of an artist, interior designer, and architect with the Board of Works in Dublin:

I do wish you would cast your clever eye in the direction of my husband who does not know I am writing to you. Neither of us belong in this neutral country. Raymond is wasted here as a civil servant. Is there no official post to which he would be suited—either in Belfast, London, or even Washington where his brother in law, Albert Frost [?], has been transferred by the min. of economic warfare? I feel he can’t stick it out in Dublin much longer. It has been two years of hell for nearly all of us but the attitude of even intellectuals here is so smug and narrow. . . . [Raymond] has been characteristically zealous in his duties. But not being Irish except in blood he is not happy here—nor am I which is of no importance. But he is, I think, anyway. Ask Lord Sempill, Casey (if it’s not too late), Lady Stonehaven or anyone of our friends in London what can be done. . . . I must get something moving. My husband is too slow and too modest.

Mary Crozier McGrath was not alone in finding wartime conditions in Dublin intolerable. Many British expatriates found the city provincial, insular; there was a sense of being marooned, or stuck in a madhouse; as John Betjeman put it in July 1941, ‘many more months here being jolly with the 2nd-naturs [sic] will anyhow send me off my head.’ (I came across these letters together at the Tate Archive. I was supposed to be looking at Betjeman’s, but those between McGrath, her husband, and Clark, were proving a distraction.) Clark responded to Mrs McGrath: ‘I have always thought it most unfortunate that your husband, with his many talents, should be marooned in Ireland at this moment— it is a bad enough thing if you are an Irishman, and quite unnecessary if you are an Australian.’ He ended by telling her he would see what he could arrange. Nothing was arranged. The McGraths stayed in Dublin; Raymond was appointed Principal Architect for the Board of Works in 1948, and later designed several buildings in Ireland including the RHA Gallagher Gallery in Ely Place, as well as a (never-built) modernist opera hall, the Kennedy Memorial Hall, which was to be sited at the heart of St Anne’s Park in Raheny. Mary Crozier McGrath’s unhappiness was to go unremedied.

While writing this essay, I’ve received a couple of emails from a London-based PR company. They are looking for a young Irish writer, ‘Sally Rooney before she got famous’ as they put it, to write a series of ‘vignettes’ about Dublin for some unspecified reason. At first I think they are asking me to advise them of other writers, but then suddenly—I suspect because they’re running out of time—they seem to be asking me to do it. They have provided four ‘headings’ and are asking my price to write 12-15 texts, again of unspecified length, under these headings:

Tolerance for diversity. People living in a city side-by-side—working, shopping… being. Acceptance of other people and their backgrounds, people enjoying the city together as a community.

 Tourism. Footfall of people within the city, experiencing the activities and entertainment it provides. Shops, streets, parks, markets and buildings that make the city a place to be and visit. 

 Top talent. The professional talent that the city attracts and promotes, such as creative, financial and athletic. 

 Good transport network. What keeps the city moving, enabling people to move within and without.

It seems to me unlikely that Sally Rooney would have taken this job before she got famous. It is certainly very clear the PR company haven’t read anything I’ve written. They want to know how I’m set over the next fortnight. They are clearly desperate. They could probably pay well. Maybe this is how things go in London, maybe this is how writers get by. It is a completely novel proposal to me. I wonder is it intended to be published somewhere, or what? And if so, why a PR company is commissioning it? Perhaps it’s something in-house, for a ‘client’ requesting a series of innocuous vignettes about Dublin. But what reason could there be for such a request? The only explanation I can think of is that they want me to translate—i.e. narrativize, sell—Dublin for some London-based company, weighing up their options post-Brexit. I consider the proposal. I mean, if it never gets published, and they’re paying a lot of money, and it’s only ever going to be read by some corporate clients, middle-managers considering whether or not to move their multi-billion-pound companies to Ireland? Maybe I could ask not to have my name attached. How much could I charge? I dream up wild payments for miniscule word counts: infinitesimal snippets of text that will never be made public, never be seen by human eyes.

Pierre Huyghe: UUmwelt, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London, (3 October 2018 – 10 February 2019). Copyright Ola Rindal. Courtesy of the artist and Serpentine Galleries

I went to see Pierre Hyghe’s exhibition, UUmwelt, at the Serpentine, an exhibition in which several discrete things seemed to be happening at once. The artist had, firstly, sanded back the walls of the gallery revealing the layers of paint from previous exhibitions, like a kind of carbon dating, revealing a genealogy of exhibition-making, not of art but of the kind of supplementary work like wall-painting carried out by gallery technicians, ring after ring of it, mostly white but with some surprises, a rich brown or a deep royal blue. On LED screens around the gallery, a series of modulating, brightly coloured, amorphous images succeeded one another, the end-product of a complicated technical process. A test subject had been asked to contemplate this as-yet undeveloped exhibition; their brain activity in response was scanned by an fMRI machine and reconfigured by a ‘deep neural network’, using its own bank of images to generate complex collage-like reconstructions, a continuously morphing set of machine attempts to translate and visualise human thought: to represent in some essentialised abstract way the idea of an exhibition. The result was a kind of incomprehensible cartography. But before you noticed either the walls or the LED screens, you noticed the flies, legions of them, everywhere, a colony of bluebottles, breeding in the central chamber of the gallery, so that the ground, the walls, the air, the audience, were covered in them.

I have been thinking about that exhibition ever since. In my journal, however, I wrote simply:

Pierre Hyghe at the Serpentine. Worth the 45-min-each-way journey on a crowded Central Line train w. all the stressful interpersonal politics involved? I mean this seriously, as a considered response to the show. Are galleries worth the bother & stress of getting to them? (I am only half joking.)

In the archive of the National Portrait Gallery, I came across a short typescript of an interview with Lucian Freud, conducted by William Feaver (for inclusion in the catalogue for a 2002 exhibition of John Constable’s work, as selected by Freud, at the Grand Palais in Paris), in which Freud spoke about his preference for Constable over J.M.W. Turner:

It’s amazing with Turner: the extraordinary things he did on his travels, he never lost touch with them. My idea of travel is downward travel really. Getting to know where you are, better, and exploring feelings that you know more deeply. I always think that ‘knowing something by heart’ gives you a depth of possibility which is more potential than seeing new sights, however marvellous and exciting they are. . . . For me, Constable is so much more moving than Turner because you feel, for him, it’s truth-telling about the land rather than using the land for compositions which suited his inventiveness.

Another time I heard the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, at a talk, say something also along these lines. He said that, for a portrait, there had to be intimacy, spontaneity, between artist and sitter. Otherwise, ‘you are just using the other for their shape.’

When I opened the Word document to start this essay—some of which I’d handwritten in the grey linen-bound softcover notebook I’d bought recently, one of the most expensive I’ve ever purchased, as if the quality of the notebook and the paper might enhance the quality of what’s written therein—I typed the following at the head of the page:

Think about the form of address. The letter. There must be multiple viewpoints, or points where view and vision are immaterial. Think about what that might look like, other than the most evident thing—an essay. Even if it is an essay in the end, let it be other things along the way, or several things at once.

I was thinking about Charlotte Prodger. I was thinking about Pierre Huyghe. I was thinking about what kinds of form a piece of writing might take, or what it might look like—what this essay might look like, say—if it could be transcribed, translated, whatever you want to call it, into another form. What if it were an exhibition? What would this formal decision mean? How would it change the impulse to create the work? Would it change the impulse to create the work, or just the work itself? Would it change the work itself? What is the work itself? What is the work itself.

I don’t believe I’ve been successful in what I set out to do with this text, by the way. I typed it like an aspiration at the head of the document and then it stood in for all the things I didn’t manage. Above it I inserted two square brackets surrounding a three-dot ellipsis [. . .], where the title would eventually go.

I went for dinner every night in London. I ordered a glass of wine each time, sometimes two. I felt extraordinarily luxurious. On my last night, I took this even further, booking a table for one at a well-reviewed local restaurant with a four-course set menu, again run by people the promotional material suggested I might know. I asked for wine suggestions from a waiter who looked like he also modelled for Ralph Lauren. The four courses turned into eight, with all the various pre-starters and extras. After maybe the sixth course, something delicious with Japanese mushrooms and courgette and I can’t remember what else, and I guess the second glass of wine, I went to use the bathroom. Standing there I heard a strange noise, a kind of rolling hum, fluctuating, like the sound of a storm perhaps, thunder rumbling, rainfall, coming from a white vent-like fixture on the ceiling which I presumed was noisily malfunctioning, until suddenly came the unmistakeable rapid-fire stutter of gunfire. The distant rumblings were in fact the noise of bombs being detonated. These explosions were part of an ambient noise track. The managers of this upmarket neighbourhood restaurant had chosen, for atmospheric background noise, while people used the toilet, a soundscape of war. The walls of the small bathroom cubicle were patchy, layered with skins of old paint and scratched-back wallpaper that looked—now I examined them—like blackened landscapes. For a moment I imagined the city was under attack; in the minute or two I’d been in here, destruction and terror had rained down upon London, and when I stepped back out into the restaurant I would be staggering onto a sudden battlefield. The Ralph Lauren model would already of course be theatrically, improbably dead, a Rupert Brooke-ian early sacrifice to the Gods of war, because I have what is probably a dangerous susceptibility—like a queer Edgar Allan Poe—to the tragedy of handsome young men dying.

After dinner, I had to go into the city to meet a friend. I made my way to the platform at Hackney Central. The next Overground service wasn’t for five minutes. I had my headphones in, listening to Roisin Murphy. On the platform across the way I saw something scurrying. A rat. It was at enough of a distance that I didn’t find it alarming, and there was no one there it might disturb. The far platform was almost deserted. Everyone was on our side of the tracks, waiting for the train toward the city rather than away from it, at this time on a Friday night. The rat made short darts here and there, in and out of the shadows, so I couldn’t see it at all times. Behind it I could see people passing on their way up to the ramp to the station entrance, a floor or so above street level. The passersby could not see the rat though he was, at the point where they passed, around eye-level. A family walked by, a mother and two young kids. There were three minutes left before the next Overground. The rat was rooting around in the rubbish beneath one of the platform benches across the way. One of the kids reappeared on the ramp. He had run back, excitedly. He was maybe seven or eight, peering through the bars between the ramp and the platform. He must have seen something moving. He crawled up onto the wall to get closer. He was right next to the rat, clambering to see through the bars and the little bits of overgrowth. He was trying to figure out what he’d seen, moving. His eyes were wide, curious. He crouched to get his head through the bars. The rat was less than a metre from his face. I looked around. No one else seemed to have noticed or to be bothered. The platform was full of people and no one else has seen the rat or if they had they were too accustomed to the sight to give a shit. (When I’m in London I pretend not to notice things and people that at home, for better or worse, I’d notice, everyone’d notice.) I watched for a second, tensely, on the verge of shouting across the tracks, willing the boy to get away from the rat. Then the boy was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief. The rat continued to wander around its little patch. It was so large I couldn’t believe no one else had noticed it, though people didn’t look alarmed or interested. Mostly they looked bored and impatient. And then the boy was back, climbing up to get close to the bars, this time with the other child in tow, presumably his little sister, she couldn’t have been more than five, and they were both peering through the bars like they were on the cusp of Narnia, full of wonder, and the rat was scuttling about now, like he was agitated, and I wondered—in a panic—where their mother or guardian or whoever could be, where could she have gone and why wasn’t she intervening, she must have been right there after all, there was really nowhere else for her to go, the ramp leads straight to the station entrance, which is just some ticket machines, so she must have been standing by the machines waiting for them, letting them run away and clamber off the path into the scrub onto the station, I didn’t understand how no one was coming to pull them away, and I couldn’t see the rat anymore so there was every chance it had fled but I couldn’t be sure, it was almost all shadow, and the little girl was stretching her arm through the bars and I wanted to shout but somehow I couldn’t, in case I was overreacting, in case I was just a gauche Irish person overreacting, a stupid Paddy, cos in London everyone’s totally over rats, rats aren’t even a thing anymore, I mean who gives a fuck about rats, and then the boy pulled the girl back, I couldn’t tell why, at the same moment that the Richmond-bound Overground train pulled in, and I stepped on and made my way into the huddle and I couldn’t see the kids anymore and it’s not like it was my business anyway and I had other things to concentrate on, I was on my way to meet an old friend in a bar near London Bridge, and I thought about the children and the rat for a while but then I didn’t think about them anymore.

Nathan O’Donnell is a Dublin-based writer and one of the co-editors of Paper Visual Art Journal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 17th, 2018.