The white centre … is both an emptiness and an energy generator. Your eye is continually drawn back to its white silence, its void-ness. Then your attention is propelled out again along the twisting road-ways. The eye cycles back and forth between “something” and “nothing”.
First Rauschenberg laid down a base coat of white paint on a 48-by-32 inch piece of masonite. Then on the top four-fifths of this white ground, he pasted pieces of maps of American cities: Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St Louis, New Orleans Boston, Denver…
The twisting spidery roadways – dark lines radiating across off-white backgrounds crackle with shivery linear energy. This frenetic activity is silenced at the pictures centre by a great white circular void that hovers like a pulsating energy field. This void isn’t empty. Literally it’s a layer of brushed white paint that laps over the cut edges of the maps. Visually, the painted surface dematerialises into a humming whiteness.
Kay Larson on Robert Rauschenberg’s Mother of God
I recently finished Kay Larson’s wonderful book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists. I don’t particularly want to offer a review here but if you have any interest in John Cage then I guess that you will be well rewarded by reading it.
Like any great book, it’s the ideas that linger around afterwards that are of greatest value. They push, prod and poke. Unconscious spectres haunting the edges of conscious thought before demanding some form of engagement, application or reflection. This perhaps explains why, for a few minutes last weekend I stood, in the dark, on a motorway bridge at Charing Cross, Glasgow. A walk back to the station interrupted by thoughts about “something” and “nothing”. The traffic of the M8 motorway cascading underneath my feet and I’m recording it on my phone…
Well clearly my silent piece…expresses the acceptance of whatever happens in that emptiness. And the same thing was expressed by that empty painting, that white painting of Bob Rauschenberg.
One of the most fascinating parts of Larson’s book deals with Cage’s conceptual evolution leading up to his (in)famous ‘silent’ piece 4’33”. Larson makes the case that prior to 4’33”, Cage’s thinking was expressed in Either / Or dualities. His two lectures: Lecture on Something and Lecture on Nothing bookend this approach. Increasingly inspired by the Zen lectures of D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University and the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, Cage moved towards the idea of the radical act that was required to detonate these dualisms. His famous visit to the anechoic (sound-proof) chamber at Harvard had shown Cage that ‘silence’ could never be an absolute absence of sound. Even in the scientifically quietest place on Earth he could still hear sounds. The high whine of his own nervous system and dull roar of his blood circulation. He heard the sound of his life in process and Cage concluded that there is no such thing as silence.
Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.
4’33” embodies the idea of life and art as a process. As Larson says: “before anything else, it’s an experience.” It is a proposition that says, in notational shorthand: stop for a moment and look around you and listen; stop and look; stop and listen. “Something” and “Nothing” can never be divided.
Well I use it (4’33”) constantly in my life experience. No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work…I turn my attention towards it. I realize that it’s going on continuously…
This may all sound pretty abstract but two events from a recent afternoon wander through Glasgow bring it all home. Heading back from the West End, the energetic bustle of Byers Road noticeably slips off the shoulders as you enter Kelvingrove Park. Welcomed into the crisp and brittle air by the bare winter trees, very few people are around and circumstances are conspiring to shift towards something approaching an urban ‘silence’. (The ubiquitous, low hum of traffic is always there, much like the sound of Cage’s blood circulation). Slipping into a kind of unconscious walking reverie, measured out in the rhythm of movement, I was brought completely into the moment by the spooling song of possibly a mistle thrush or song thrush high in a tree. What an enchanting experience to simply stop and listen to the cadences and Fi-ga-ro Fi-ga-ro refrains weaving a thread of song through the urban silence. An oscillation between something and nothing. Lives in process. I managed to capture around 40 seconds on a pretty rough phone recording, by which time several people had gathered around wondering what I was looking at:
I wanted to be quiet in a nonquiet situation.
Later in the early evening, it is already dark and I’m walking back into the town centre . I stop on the motorway flyover bridge at Charing Cross. For a short time I just watch the traffic swoosh past underneath. Pools of light flooding the motorway and dispersing within seconds. The experience is strangely mesmerising and calming. The rhythms of sound vary depending on the sequence and number of cars across the three lanes. Like a childhood game, I start to guess which lane a car will appear in next. A chance operation in process. I then notice that occasionally there can be an almost complete drop out towards a momentary void of sound. For a few seconds no cars are in view in any of the lanes. Once again this is a rough recording but within this short clip it happens a couple of times:
After a few minutes of this hypnotic experience, I realise that I’ve been in the white centre of Rauschenberg’s painting. The void. Quiet in a nonquiet situation. As I lift my head to look around, the roads and paths of the city spiral off in every direction. Energies of neon, arteries of possibility, encounters, histories and stories yet to come.
I walk towards Sauchiehall Street, always poised between something and nothing.
Now playing: Kevin Drumm – Tannenbaum
Richard Konstelanetz (ed), Conversing with Cage (London: Omnibus Press, 1989).
Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, (New York: The Penguin Press. 2012).
Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, 1950. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Special thanks to Fraser Macdonald and Louise Arber for offering suggestions as to the identity of the singing bird. The wonder of Twitter.
It is often the shortest journey, undertaken with least expectation, that offers up an excess of possibility beyond what we expect to see.
It’s always worth exploring the other side of the barbed wire fence.
Never keep to the path.
(Extracts from FPC Field Guide).
Time constrained by commitments later on in the day and yet compelled by the need to go for a walk, we settle on a local part of the Fife Coastal Path. The very short stretch between Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay is a narrow tarmacadam / cinder ribbon of a mile, or so, that meanders around the coastline. Whilst offering fine views of the Forth Rail Bridge and over to Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat it is unlikely to trouble any tourist brochure. Indeed, the walking guide for the Fife Coastal Path devotes one short paragraph to it. There is a clear implication that this is a space that you can simply pass through. It is also a functional path, popular with dog walkers, leisurely strollers and is even lined with street lighting. However, as the sign above indicates, the traveller is asked to keep within the marked path. We cannot help thinking of Little Red Riding Hood but can only read the sign as an invitation to stray …
There is a distinctive topography to the land along this stretch of the path which edges around Inverkeithing Bay with sloping scrub and wooded elevations up to Preston Hill and Letham Hill behind. These factors and lack of road access, has prevented any urban coalescence between the nodal points of the old industrial harbour of Inverkeithing and the 1960s new town of Dalgety Bay.
However, there is also a distinct feeling of crossing a threshold, as you escape the gravity and material ephemera of the human settlement, and move into this zone from either end. A feeling of the wildness encroaching, long forgotten histories written into the land, whispered stories at the periphery of perception. A freeing up of the rules.
Leaving from Inverkeithing, we walk past a row of lock-ups, that are not without some semblance of aesthetic beauty in their irregular order and contrasting colours. You wonder what is behind these out-of-the-way closed doors? Some have obviously not been accessed for some time given the overgrown vegetation in front. We also notice that as soon as you pass the last lock-up, the wild space is already there, encroaching green fingers, edging into the human space and into the photo frame. There is also a rather cryptic graffiti announcement:
We are not sure whether to read this utterance as a comment on some existentialist predicament (“Out of it”) or a marker post to signify a transition point of moving out of the urban setting. (Moving oot it). Later on, when we reach the Dalgety Bay end of the path we find more graffiti on the first inhabited house. There is a clear sense that both of these graffiti bookend an entry – or exit. We read these signs as an intimation that what lies between these threshold markers is a different place – a zone. Not urban, yet not rural. Not even ‘classic’ edgeland. Instead, an indication that what lies within is an escape from the ostensible order of the settlements. Possibly a play area, a hidden place, an out of sight place, a gathering place, a wildness.
We are not far out of Inverkeithing when our advice to keep to the marked path is quickly discounted. We are drawn to the barbed wire topped, chain wire fence that we can see across a flat area of post industrial wasteland off to the left. It’s a pretty feeble attempt at preventing access as a whole section has been removed and most of the barbed wire has been snipped off.
We follow the well trodden desire path through the fence to find ourselves in the heart of the abandoned Prestonhill Quarry, now filled up with water. There is a compelling, uncanny beauty to this place. A void gouged and hewn out of the Earth, with the remaining dolerite walls reflecting weak sunlight like a cubist canvas. The acoustic ambience has also noticeably changed. We are in a huge reverberating chamber so that the slightest noise pings around the walls. A distant ice cream van sounds as if it should be coming from somewhere within the quarry, possibly submerged underneath the water. At the same time swallows dart and zig-zag above our heads, whilst magpies hop and skip around the top rocks, observing us with curiosity. A couple of buzzards circle in the distance . There is no one else around.
What is noticeable is that even in these most barren of conditions, non-human nature is restaking a claim with outcrops of growing vegetation, clinging to the quarry walls, thriving in the most hostile of conditions and the thinnest scrapings of soil.
We soon find the ubiquitous discarded fridge. Lying face down, its broken body surrounded by other accumulated fly tipped debris. The human stain of the dumping ground. It is always a puzzle to consider the time and energy it must take to fly tip a fridge in an ‘out of the way’ area, such as this, compared with taking it to the recycling point. Perhaps it’s for the sheer visceral thrill of throwing a fridge into a quarry. We assume that it has been pushed over the top and has been there for some time.
There is perhaps another attraction of the quarry. It is an unseen place with very deep water. Every surface has another side. What else lurks underneath the skin of calm blue water? What is submerged down there in the green depths with the little fishes?
All underwater photographs of the quarry are by ‘Zibi’ and can be accessed here along with many others. Whilst we have attempted to seek permission from Zibi to use these images, we have not received any reply to our request. Clearly if our request is subsequently refused we will remove the photographs from the blog but in the meantime were are grateful to Zibi for their inclusion.
It would appear that the quarry is also a favored disposal spot for stolen cars, making for an ideal symbiotic relationship with the diving community who find the quarry an attractive destination for underwater exploration. There is plenty to see and investigate below the surface. We are also told later that local fishermen stock the quarry with fish which they then try to catch again, fostering a fledgling underwater eco-system. There are rumours that someone may have introduced a pike.
The quarry is also clearly a gathering place. A hidden place of escape and unregulated recreation. We walk around the void, recording some of the many tags that have been written on to the rocks.
Staring up at the quarry wall and contemplating the material passage of time ossified in these rocks. The play of light on the angular shapes conjures up dynamic planes of movement and appear to imbue the rocks with an almost animistic quality. We can eventually see a cubist rock giant, emerging from time with right arm raised:
Back on the path, we head off to the right hand side this time.
Stretching out over the water is a fretwork pier of rusting metal which we find out later was the old industrial conveyor system used to load the quarried stone on to tethered ships.
We stand for a while to listen out for the lost sounds of this place. The kling klang ghosts of the industrial machinery, the heft of monolithic slabs of dolerite rattling down towards the waiting ships.
almost silent now
now almost silent
only the ack-ack-ack
of a solitary gull
riding the wind currents
A large steel plate has been placed across the structure presumably in an attempt to prevent people from climbing out along the pier. It’s unlikely to be a deterrent but it no doubt satisfies some health and safety regime. The plate has rusted and weathered into something resembling a Richard Serra sculpture:
Once again, we can see how the wildness is staking its claim with tendrils of green growing up, through and out of the lattice structure. “Shugg and Leanne” evidence the human urge to make a mark. The basic proof of existence. A name recorded. A demonstration of love?
Running parallel to the fretwork structure is another abandoned jetty. The pulleys remain suspended from the cross beam conjuring up something of the gibbet or perhaps some form of cosmic launch mechanism to project the traveller up and into the pillows of cloud:
all of this
lost stories, forgotten stories
sounds of absence
whispering in the wind.
We decide to explore a bit further underneath the conveyor structure sensing that this may yield possibilities. We are not disappointed when we alight on this gathering site:
What is noticeable is that there is no rubbish strewn here. It’s as if this is a place of respect. Strangely enough, the atmosphere evokes a similar feel to another outcrop of rocks that can be found on The Binn (Hill) along the coast at Burntisland:
Humans have also made their marks on The Binn stones, albeit some 4,000 years earlier
We pick up a bit of walking pace to take advantage of the seascape.
a sounded wave, persistent and seductive –
plays the shoreline.
flux and flow of sea brine –
a spilling over
of elemental energy.
Once again the unusual topography is such that we can hear a mash-up of field and hedgerow bird song against foreshore waders and gull talk. A chorus of crows, darting finches and tits; a wren bobs along the wall before taking refuge in the trees. What looks like a falling red leaf is actually a robin. On the foreshore, oystercatchers, and curlews wade and waddle whilst fulmars, cormorants and herring gulls dive and swoop. Symphonies of birdsong and gull chatter.
It doesn’t take long to reach Dalgety Bay, but just before the threshold graffiti we come across this:
Roofless and abandoned, it looks as if all of the surrounding land has been sucked away from the foundations leaving it sitting like an old tooth stump.
We try to piece together a narrative here but fail. Why has it been abandoned? Why left to ruin? It was clearly a property that had wealth behind it at some point, sitting in its walled garden. Enquiries are made of a few passing locals but yield nothing. “It’s always been like that” says a man who looks to be in his forties. “Ever since I was a wee kid”. He doesn’t know the story though.
We are on the reverse trip back to Inverkeithing when we spot a small opening in the stone wall with a signpost:
How could we resist? Off up the rickety path which didn’t appear overly well trodden.
We find a beetle on its back on one of the steps clearly distressed. A multitude of legs. flailing wildly, unable to right itself. We soon tip it on to its feet and the little jet black shell scuffles off into the grass.
The path ascends fairly steeply and it’s not long before we find ourselves on a high ridge which slopes away towards Letham Wood. That will have to wait for another day. Our immediate area of interest lies off to the left. Another barbed wire fence and it’s as easy to circumvent as the last one. This is what we had been leading up to. We could already feel what we were about to witness but were unprepared for the sheer scale of it. Compared to the ground level, water-filled heart of the quarry, we could now gain a perspective of the entire void and walk right up to peer over the edge.
Peering over the side, into the void, it’s as if a vacuum is trying to suck your insides out. I’m reminded of Aragon in Paris Peasant and the ‘suicide bridge’ in Buttes Chaumont park – coincidentally built in a reclaimed stone quarry. Before metal grilles were erected along the side of the bridge, it would supposedly claim victims from passers-by who had had no intention whatsoever of killing themselves but found themselves suddenly tempted by the invocation of the abyss.
Our photographic skills are unable to adequately capture the scale of this almost mournful absence, hewn from the Earth. It’s a place to simply sit and stare for a while.
It’s often easy to forget to raise our heads to the horizon. Having escaped the seduction of the void, we now realise how high up on the ridge we are. It changes our sense of the whole topography of the area. We can see how connected we are to the East side of Inverkeithing and marvel at the long view over to Dunfermline. We can see Spinner in the distance with the distorted perspective making it appear as if it is growing out of a housing estate.
We later discover that there is also an abandoned WW2 radio station complete with intact pill boxes not too far away but don’t see them today. Another time.
We descend back down the hill to the coastal path and reflect on our experience. What we had anticipated as a short, local coastal walk had been transformed into something else. A journey through a zonal space teeming with encounters and traces of the human, non-human and even the animistic. A co-existence of dumping ground, liminal playground, gathering place and nature sanctuary. The transient narrative of human activity inscribed in the abandoned house and the mute quarries and jetties a reminder of how financial capital abandons one exhausted void to migrate to the next site of profitable extraction.
Above all of this, the continually changing drama in the sky:
And as we return to Inverkeithing we can smell the sweet wood lying in the still functioning timber yard and take one last photo. It’s only later, that we notice that in this photograph, and almost all of the others, there is some intimation of wild nature straying into the frame.
An alert wildness, observing, perhaps patiently waiting for its moment to come.