December’s Drawn to the Page workshop took place at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill in response to the artist Fiona Banner’s exhibition ‘Buoys Boys.’ According to the gallery’s website, the work ‘features new commissions that continue her series of Full Stop sculptures: punctuation lifted from different typefaces, enlarged to human scale. Previously produced in polystyrene and bronze, for the De La Warr Pavilion, Banner has made a series of large inflatable versions, seen in the gallery and floating above the Pavilion on certain days. Full stops also feature in a vast window installation spanning the length of the gallery that makes illusory sculptural interventions – or Buoys – on the seascape beyond. Alongside these new works are a series of books published under Banner’s imprint, The Vanity Press. Founded in 1997, the series includes The Nam, a 1,000-page book that describes the plots of six Vietnam films in their entirety.’
We began the workshop sitting on a circle of stools on the gallery floor, in the shadow of the stranded buoys. From here we explored the exhibition, making notes as we encountered the many different elements of the work on display. Participants were asked to distil this into five words that encapsulated initial thoughts and feelings. Seated in our circle, we shared impressions. The range of words was huge, but all of them related in some way to the complex themes and layering of references that occur in Banner’s art. One writer responded with: ‘silences, undoing, sequences, gaps, incessant,’ another with ‘provocative, mystery, carcass, oscillation, ambivalence.’
We discussed the artist’s use of text and punctuation, the limits of language and the gaps in meaning that occur when words fail. On her text accompanying the exhibition, Banner says: ‘The full stop inflatables have the English Channel as a backdrop. They are big black empty texts in one way, just floating buoys in another. There’s something beautiful but also dark about the channel. Britain was invaded across this stretch of water in 1066, the same stretch that migrants are crossing today. It’s what separates us from mainland Europe, but also what unites us. Normally my work is verbally very dense: even though the full stop sculptures have the sense of a need to communicate in words, these sculptures acknowledge that sometimes that is impossible.’
The film at the far end of the gallery shows the inflatables, now at rest on the floor of the gallery floor, flying in the air above it. At one point the artist had hoped to install these buoys out at sea. If these huge full stops had punctuated the sea and sky, the landscape around them could be considered as words or a text.
To explore this idea further, we looked at Monica Alvi’s poem ‘I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro’ and then selected one of the inflatables. Writing in our chosen buoy’s voice, we wished ourselves out of the gallery and into the landscape, writing in a stream-of-consciousness, not stopping to reread or punctuate. We let our imaginations take us out to sea or up into the sky, beginning with ‘I would like to…’ or simply use the present tense: ‘I fly’ or ‘I float.’ The aim was to use all our senses to generate raw material to work with later in the workshop.
From the gallery, we moved into the café on the first floor, writing on the tables at the back while enjoying its vistas of the sea, sky and setting sun. Here we talked about Banner’s ISBN body of work and photocopied posters, the way in which she plays with uniqueness and reproduction. We remembered how the artist transcribes the visual, her verbal accounts of films which reproduce images by translating them into text.
To explore these ideas, participants were given large photocopies of photograph of snowflakes, originally taken by Wilson Bentley in the nineteenth century. At the time, debate raged about the alteration of his images. Participants considered questions such as: Does it matter whether each snowflake is unique? What happens when unique shapes are reproduced? We experimented with writing our snowflakes into words with coloured pencils onto A3 sheets of paper.
For our final exercise we looked at the work of the poet Yang Lian, who uses space within text in a creative way. An example of his work can be found here. Working with the raw material generated by the first two exercises, we began to craft a poem, prose poem or prose narrative that used some of the phrases and themes that had emerged in our writing during the afternoon. We thought about what gaps and spaces represented for us. Where are the points where words become impossible?
You can read writing from this session here on the Drawn to the Page blog. We’ll be back for our next session, exploring ‘A Certain Kind Of Light’ at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne on Saturday, 28th January 2017. You can book for this workshop on the New Writing South website, here.