Writing in Galleries

Royal Academy of Art: Australia Exhibition


Exhibition: ‘Edward Burtynsky: Australian Minescapes’ at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

The following pieces were inspired by several painting in the exhibition. When I looked more closely I realised that they belonged together:

When we got there it wasn’t what either of us expected. Not that we’d talked about it, you understand. We stood, hands resting on the bonnet of the car, the sun a hammer blow barely warded by sun-hats and shades.

‘So,’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ she said.

The so-called cottage looked more like a shack, corrugated tin roof sloping to a squint over windows blinded by mud and dust. I turned on one heel, hoping we’d pulled up outside an out-building by mistake: scattered gaunt trees in various russet shades stood watch, a few scratty bushes hunched in untidy gangs, and in the distance I caught the lumpy shimmer of the outcrop that marked the quarry.

Nope, this had to be it.

‘Might as well take a look?’

She shrugged but followed, one hand waving a zigzag defence against the insect whine, her shoulders tight, lips pressed together. I had to shove my weight against the door, but I got us inside. Stepping into shade, an instant of relief before years of accumulated heat snatched our breath, dust-dry air coating throats, making it hard to swallow.

‘Shit,’ said together, in the same I-don’t-believe-it tone.

The edges of the room were crammed with guessed at boxy furniture crouched beneath yellowing sheets, improbable stick-like appendages tenting at odd angles. The dust-smoothed concrete floor held a history of delicate movement. At the centre, warmed by an invading shaft of sunlight, curled the largest snake that I had ever seen. Its flat wedge of a head turned to stare, tongue tasting the air.

The distant sound of hammer striking stone echoes around the quarry walls, repeating until the original sound is lost with its copies. A shout, indignation tapered by distance, is muffled by the scrape of booted feet: my feet, impatient to be away, while hand and eye continue to work, capturing detail, blurring lines. Is that thunder? Rocks tumble and slide, promising death to those who labour beneath the overhang. I snatch a breath, mouth stretched to cry a warning. The screech of a hawk on the hunt fills the air; trimming feathers to an arrowhead it dives.

This is the place to walk: where shadow encompasses the meadow and the only sounds are the buzz of insects and the inconstant digestion of sheep. Walk slowly, experience the brush of wide skirts against brittle stems, the soft scrunch of leaves underfoot. And there, on the edge of hearing, the cry of a hawk. The wildness, the raw edge of it, wakes a longing for vistas beyond the farmstead.

A door slams in the distance, a familiar voice shouts. It’s time for chores and supper, and perhaps, a story under the stars.

Pushing through the meadow and back up into the farmyard, moving from sound to sound, encased in noise. An unexpected silence points out the clamour. Sigh—one less burden to carry. One more step and the cacophony that is life snatches us back.

We shared a glance. It was all we needed. A shaky step back, then another, pursued by a rattled warning. Diamond patterns picked out by fingers of sunlight, flexing, arching, making new patterns in the dust.

No, this is definitely not the place.

Climbing back into the car, arms and legs sticking to sweaty leather, doors and windows sealed against the reality of this place, waiting for the aircon to kick in. Our retreat marked by dust trails of our own. Curling fingers of hot air, spun out by hard acceleration, grab at the bumper.

Writing in the Hayward Gallery

I spent a fun and creative writing afternoon writing in the Hayward Gallery. The writing was guided by exercises provided by Shaun Levin, and inspired by the works of Dayanita Singh and Ana Mendita.

Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer

Danyanita Singh is an artist and book-maker who works with photography. Photography is just a language: in her work images become texts.

Twilight shifts the world through shades of blue; haphazard lego-brick shapes with snaking pipes and orange maws fill the frame. Each light is a focus for conversation, for contact, as fingers and thumbs dance over glowing screens. Faces bend close; eyes narrow and then widen with delight; lips press together before stretching into a smile. Fingers flick, stroke and scroll. A sudden laugh, head thrown back, a momentary disconnect. The world rushes in: rumpled sheets and the smell of sweat and sex, the bite of hard chairs on the backs of legs, the familiar ache in hunched shoulders. And just for an instant, a glimpse of jumbled rooftops through the window, stretching to the shadow of hills and an empty sky.

Ana Mendita: Traces

During her brief career Ana Mendieta generated an inventive visual language. Using her own body, together with materials such as blood, fire, earth and water, she created visceral performances, which she captured on film.

Traitors’ Rock: a place for the clan to gather to witness the cleansing fire. A place for Marti and me to sneak back to at night, or in the drab grey of dawn, to sift through the charred debris, hoping for coins or trinkets that survived the flames. Sometimes we got lucky; mostly all we got were black-streaked knees and dirty fingernails.

That never stopped us; there was something compulsive about the place. It shouted secrets.

Marti cried sometimes, rubbing tears and snot across her face when I dragged her close to the Rock. I would have to shake her, and hiss that if she didn’t shut up the spirits of the stone would snatched her into the dark. And then I’d give her a piece of jerky to chew while she searched the outer rim of the burn. I had to remind her to give thanks when her grubbing fingers turned up a shiny, as she called it. Facing the Rock, we would touch soot-stained fingers to our foreheads and trace the sacred symbol, silently mouthing the words that bound us to this place.

Stillborn, I watch you. Hollowed out; smiling on the outside. Feel my skin. Don’t I feel solid? You smile and turn away, leave me rough and grieving: a scorched outline. Trace me—smooth fingers along rough surfaces, unwelcome bumps and lumps, caught on the cusp of becoming. No, don’t turn away. I exist only in your gaze. I stand in a frozen attitude of attention. Perceive me; consider me. Give me legs to stretch and walk away… from you.

Tree of lifeIf I stand here long enough, maybe you will see me. Or maybe you won’t. I hold my breath, torn between the two possibilities; not knowing, now, which one I want to come true. Don’t be stupid, I tell myself. Isn’t this why you have come? To be seen, noticed. To move in the same space, breathe the same air, taste life in the same way as you.

I hear the steady hum of voices, breaking into a staccato of shouts and laughter as you draw near. I take a breath, ready to step out, to enter your world. But limbs refuse to move, muscles lock in place. I’m a statue, slicked and pasted and moulded into the background. You saunter past. The moment is lost. Again.

Writing Workshops and Getting Published

Around this time last year I participated in a series of workshops that explored ways of engaging with the city of London via writing. Entitled ‘Write Around Town’ and facilitated by writer Shaun Levin, each workshop took place in a different venue. I found myself writing in galleries and museums, department stores and cafes. All fun, and more importantly, great prompts for creativity.

As a primarily science fiction writer, I surprised myself by writing a couple of pieces of fairly decent ‘general’ fiction. The work generated during the adventure of ‘writing around town’ has now appeared in an anthology, published by Tree House Press and edited by Shaun Levin. The anthology is entitled ‘Writers in the Crowd’ and can be found both on Amazon, and more pertinently on the Tree House Press website.

My story: Junction 13: There and Back Again is, believe it or not, about driving on the M25. Sounds dry, huh? Well, to my surprise the piece really took hold of me; it wasn’t exactly a pleasure to write, but the damned thing wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it.

Fortunately for me, I am within spitting distance of completing my MA in Creative Writing. This means that I am at liberty to sign up for the next ‘Write Around Town’ course, which starts in October this year. I’m looking forward to meeting new people, and writing for fun in interesting places. And you never know, some of the work may well appear in print.

Writing in Galleries

In September 2011 I went along to the Royal Academy of Arts as part of a ‘Stories at an Exhibition’ writing group led by Shaun Levin. I spent a couple of hours wandering around an exhibition of street photography by André Kertész, and writing to images that inspired me. The first exercise invited me to stop at ten random photographs and write the story that I saw in the image—one minute of writing per photograph. Looking back over my notebook, I’m surprised at the immediacy and energy in the few scribbled lines per image—each one could blossom into so much more.

Writing and Photography

Exhibitions of street photography can offer a rich variety of inspiration for writers. A visit to the Tate Modern and the William Klein/Daido Moriyama exhibition on 1st December certainly provided me unexpected insights into one of my characters.

Klein has a distinctive approach to street photography, using a wide-angled lens to cram as much as he can into each shot. He wants to create the sense that the viewer is jammed in amongst the crowds. It was the faces that jumped out at me, one or maybe two in a crowd, often looking lost. Loneliness spotlighted. Writing in the cafe, it was this sense of being lost that emerged in the internal voice of a character who is, on the outside at least, a strong and confident man.

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