In three distinct texts, Will Wiles, Natalie Ferris and John Hegley respond to José Damesceno's Plot
Sleeping was forbidden in the history library of the university where I studied for my degree. The library, the work of a visionary architect of the 1960s, had as a reading room a vast glass tent hung between two towers set in an L shape: knowledge pouring from an open book. In the dark of winter – I have very few summer memories of the place – this glass space was a ziggurat of light from the outside. Inside, light lacked the stamina to adhere long. There was the pool on your desk, in which you worked, but beyond this fine, bright spot, the light bled away, leaving a night-hospital demi-gloom.
Regardless of the rules, students still fell asleep. Of course they did. The unlucky ones did so with the head thrown back, making them an easy target for patrolling librarians. It was better to drift away while slumped forward onto the desk; then, one's pose could be taken for deep thought or myopic attention to a text. The patrols might pass by. After graduation, my first real job was as a subeditor on a business magazine, correcting the galley proofs of news articles and features. I discovered – an accidental discovery, like penicillin – that it was quite possible to sleep undetected if I leaned on my elbows and screened my eyes with my hands so the people sitting at either side and opposite could not see them. This discovery was rapidly followed by another: that said technique was useless, unless I was prepared to work twice as hard before or after my cat nap in order to generate the number of edits that could justify working for so long on a single proof.
This posture, then, this hunch, this slump, is provocatively ambiguous: it could mean rest, or the most intense application to work; lively and purposeful mental activity, or oblivion. It is a form that is, in a way, formless, like clay. Finding that the same pose allows two completely different states, we can wonder exactly how different they truly are. In both states, there is a sense of trying to leave the body behind, to remove it from the equation, as the mind floats into the dreamlands or seeks unmediated contact with a text; it is as if the body is a base material, like clay, and must be laid down while the mind searches elsewhere. Instead of a hard boundary between study and sleep, there is a twilit space, a gloom, the hypnagogic state, credited by artists and scientists as the wellspring of great creativity and insight, the source of Coleridge's Kubla Khan and Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde.
In his essay ‘Coleridge's Dream’, Jorge Luis Borges brings to light the astonishing coincidence that – unknown to Coleridge – the historical Kublai Khan may have based his palace on a vision seen in a dream. “Compared with this symmetry of souls of sleeping men who span continents and centuries, the levitations, resurrections, and apparitions in the sacred books seem to me quite little, or nothing at all,” Borges writes. But the palace exists only as a trace and the poem only as a fragment, he continues: perhaps an archetype is being slowly revealed to mankind through a series of dreams? The material brought back from this state, from either dream or study, needs work and execution in the world; it is unfinished, like clay.
5 November 2014
Will Wiles is a London-based writer who, having worked as an architecture and design journalist and editor, published in 2012 his first novel, Care of Wooden Floors, immediately described in the Guardian as "impeccably stylish" and in the TLS as "funny, beguiling and quietly profound". His second novel, The Way Inn, was published this year and Wiles is a regular contributor to Icon, RIBA Journal, Dezeen and Protein Journal.
Image: A figure made of blocks of un-fired raw clay slumps in the library's Local Studies and Archives Centre, part of José Damasceno's Plot (2014). Photograph: Marcus J Leith
The soles of the feet have their own language. Applied with a pressure to be meted out between the two, footsteps express a catalogue of feeling: purpose, pain, hesitation, drudgery, competence, fear. It is a language composed of efforts made by the body, articulations sent between muscle, bone and nerve, given voice only through contact with the surface or ground beneath. Each footstep emits a noise, long or sharp, or even a series of sounds as it echoes, revealing the inner workings of the individual bringing it into being. Such meanings can also be obscured, the aim of prints lost amidst the amblings of an otherwise occupied mind. To walk, to move from foot to foot, is to account for nothing more than the swing of our inverted pendulum.
Within Damasceno's Plot, attention is consistently pulled to the feet, from the deliberateness with which they set upon each step; to the reverberations they sound within the panelled corridors; to the circuits they devise around this network of installations. Arrows direct our path, though there is no sense that the feet are under instruction. The routes are of our own making: peripatetic, knotted, to be doubled up and revisited anew. As with the skylon grey diamonds that decorate Holborn Library's panelling, composed of triangles of alternating tonal gradations, we are pointed in the directions of both the descent and the ascent.
Any environment can be traced with a length of string wound between the corners. So too can the foot, etched with lines, undergo the same practice of charting. Footprints delicately cut from a full twenty-four volume set of a 1960 encyclopaedia fill an antique display cabinet on the ground floor, from which the eyes of past masterpieces stare up behind the glass; butterfly wings are dutifully drawn, we learn 'Bartholomew', 'St. Bartholomew', 'Bar-ti-mae-us', 'Bar-ti-san'. Little paper feet gain more traction the higher one ascends the stairwell. Echoes of this vitrine space have been created in the deep squared window-sills that follow the stairs, shutting up behind panes of Perspex many more paper feet. This time these soles have trodden amongst contemporary print, a colourful tabloid livery decrying 'the decision to offload', '£669', 'tennis with Boris', 'FIRST POST 7 8-13'. Others are shreds – '…avel', 'strai…', '…bet', '…urance' – to be riddled.
'BUCK THE CULT', one small paper foot pronounces. Feet defy the cool press of the parquet floor to suspend their Letraset bodies from the ceiling of the main reading room, while deep within the screening room they plant solidly on amorphous platforms. Damasceno's footprint, a softly conceived shape resembling the arch and swell of the common foot, is a symbol. For André Breton, the feet of his wife were 'carved initials', the determination of her existence. Here the single footprint is the determination of universal existence. From the Lilliputian crowd to the clay deadweight of mortality.
27 October 2014
Natalie Ferris organised the 'Christine Brooke-Rose: Remade' conference at the Royal College of Art in 2013 and has contributed to The White Review, Frieze and The Guardian. She currently works for Enitharmon Editions and the Korean architectural journal SPACE alongside studying as a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford in abstraction in literature and visual art.
Image: Detail from José Damasceno, Plot (2014). Photograph: William Eckersley
It's the room that's full of little wooden islands.
It's the picture of the horse above 'the ball'.
It's the little bits of paper that my friend said look like zygotes
while to me they're more like 'spoons' you use to dig into your ice cream
while engrossed in films of horror in the hall.
It's the cardboard people walking on the ceiling.
It's the book for writing comments by the door.
It's the library that serves the whole of Holborn.
It's a rarity to see the final floor.
It's my dad who had an office in High Holborn.
It's not impossible his mission brought him here.
It's an invite to paternal reappearance,
even if it's only more of an idea.
It's the handstand he could do under the ceiling
where the people are positioned upside-down.
It's those little scraps of paper he could hand out as confetti
to my mum and his own mother, who was once a part of Paris
near to artists of considerable reknown.
It's the photos of the hall before the changes.
It's the chair brimful of bricks made out of clay.
It's on the route up to The Angel, on the 19 or the 38
though I didn't get the bus there yesterday,
when I went with my old friend who made comparison with zygotes
when referring to that part of the display;
my daughter ought to be able to to say what zygotes look like
she is studying biology and gets a lot of glee from D.N.A.
used to play
up front for Leeds
back in the day;
he saw a horse
on the golf course
largely modelled out of clay
but with ears
5 November 2014
John Hegley is a poet and singer who began his career in the late 1970s, busking outside a shoe shop in Hull. His work slices into the nonsense and pathos of the everyday; he has published several books of verse, and performs on stage regularly. He is also a regular user of Holborn Library where he encoutered José Damasceno's work for the first time.
Image: José Damasceno extends the floor of the library’s old lecture theatre and cinema into a series of stages, part of Plot (2014). Photograph: William Eckersley