54: Hepworth Gap
Hello, I hope you’re well. We’re back with the autumn season, so a leafy jumper-wearing welcome to Border Crossing issue #54.
Thank you very much for signing up and supporting my writing. Hopefully you’re surviving okay, on the long slide towards Halloween.
This episode’s main read is a waffle about the two main galleries devoted to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth.
I’m pleased to say I’ve completed my annotated lyrics book. I’ll announce it publicly in the next two weeks. It has 108 songs, being every song (with words) that was released during my time in the music game. Right now it’s getting proofed and indexed, plus someone incredible is writing a foreword. I’ve decided to self-publish it as a limited edition hard-cover. So as soon as it physically exists, you’ll get a discount offer as a Border Crossing reader. If you’re a paying subscriber, you can expect your free copy in the post.
In November, I’m off on a UK tour with Jim Bob, playing piano in the band. Half the dates are sold out and the rest have few tickets left but it’s well worth checking, if you fancy it. London still has some tickets. These shows will be a total blast.
Also this autumn, I’m moderating a series of panel events at Fusebox in Brighton, as part of 5G Festival ‘Alternative Stages’. We’re unpacking how online and immersive technology could impact the live music industry. Here are the next two, on 3rd Nov and 10th Nov.
A lovely Charlotte Clymer blog entry on Kathryn Joosten, the brilliant actor who played Mrs Landingham on West Wing, who only began acting in her forties.
Livia Gershon in The Smithsonian on an excavated Iron Age burial site in Finland, which may have been the resting place of a high ranking non-binary person.
A lot of people (including me) loved Mike White’s hit HBO show The White Lotus. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s music is particularly ace. He previously composed for Channel 4’s Utopia. Here’s an excellent Slate Working podcast interview with Cristobel.
Hannah Giorgis’ acclaimed long essay for The Atlantic exploring representation and rules in Black television (in the USA).
My friend Oliver Gray has published his ninth book. Usually he writes on travel and music, but this is different. It’s called Detention and it’s a vividly honest, personal memoir of his more than forty years in the world of education. Oliver writes beautifully, with a light touch and thinks clearly about schooling. It’s a fantastic work. It’s available from the usual sites but you can get it from Oliver’s website.
Back in June, Haruki Murakami published a new short story in the New Yorker, called ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey’.
An outstanding, brutally tactile poem by my friend Emma Easy, here’s ‘Language Barrier’ published in The Hunger.
Robert Kolker’s brilliant essay in New York Times, ‘Who Is the Bad Art Friend?’ about an odd dispute between two Boston writers (hat tip Slate Gabfest for this).
Last week a lorry full of Birdseye potato waffles caught fire on the M6.
(from Manchester Evening News)
Also, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam just opened a new exhibition on his masterpiece The Potato Eaters, assessing whether it was a mistake (!) — here’s The Art Newspaper on the painting and the new show.
I have never never felt bored with my work or in working. In fact I get such intense and sensuous pleasure out of it that it is almost a Yorkshire sin.
When I first pierced a shape, I thought it was a miracle.
There are two places in England where you can experience a lot of work by the modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth, all at once. But they are quite far apart.
In St Ives in Cornwall, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is open to visitors. It is owned and maintained by the Tate, having been kept in a largely unchanged form for many years. A number of Hepworth’s sculptures are placed in an informal, homely kind of environment, to give the visitor as authentic as possible a sense of how Hepworth herself might have worked and played. Piles of her tools are left lying around artfully, alongside unfinished and prototype works.
At Wakefield in West Yorkshire, the Hepworth Gallery is at the opposite end of the display spectrum: lofty, architecturally delicious, silver-grey gallery spaces over two floors, built overlooking a canal-side industrial estate. This year, the gallery has been celebrating its tenth anniversary, with a major retrospective, Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. This runs through to the end of February, 2022. Go if you can.
These two galleries are 378 miles distant by the fastest drive, which will take you six and a half hours, traffic willing. The route is a badly sewn stitch holding the flesh of England and Wales loosely together, diagonally up the country. These two locations represent (literally) the far ends of Barbara Hepworth’s life: she was born in Wakefield in January 1903 and died 72 years later in St Ives. She did some traveling. But when the Second World War broke out, Hepworth and her second husband, the abstract painter Ben Nicholson (with whom she’d had triplets) moved down to Cornwall as a family. The infamous artists’ colony was now very much in situ.
St Ives isn’t at all nice anymore, if it ever was. So firmly has it given itself over to a yucky brand of faux-arty tourism that wafts into spiritual fetish gift-shop guff, it is akin to visiting the town of Glastonbury in high season. Nothing has ruined the beautiful places of Cornwall more than that county’s poverty, forcing it to lean so hard on the tourists. That film Bait wasn’t wrong.
Perhaps The Tate has some responsibility for wrecking St Ives, after the organisation plonked its fat concrete gallery onto the seafront in the early 1990s, just in time for Britart and such. Recently, they’ve spent tens of millions to hollow out rock behind the pokey gallery, extending it backwards under the town and creating much bigger, well-lit, white boxes. They won Museum Of The Year for it, yet it’s still an off-putting art gallery in a whole bunch of ways. The large, snail-shell stone walkway up to the entrance is foreboding, rather than welcoming. The door is invisible to the street. Parking in St Ives is carnage. And of course, people who grew up there can’t afford to live in the town anymore. The Tate building also boasts a big curved window looking out to sea, a beautiful but unwise design decision, because it effortlessly outguns the art works on display. This month, the window has translucent light-reducing blinds in place, to protect nearby artworks from direct sunlight. This accidentally conveys a powerful sense of “okay, we know the sea view beats the art, so you can’t have the sea view anymore”.
Now, leave that building behind. Up in the middle of town, on the edge of the Trewyn public gardens, quite high up the slope (so it overlooks the roofs in a way reminiscent of how Antoni Gaudi’s rooftop spaces overlook their Barcelona neighbourhoods), Hepworth’s garden is an oasis. Her works are deeply bedded in and comfortable in the studio spaces. This is why one might still go to St Ives.
She worked right here, looking out across her world, the garden already full up with her output. Later, across the road, she purchased an abandoned dance hall, where she made bigger pieces. The garden surrounds and overlaps the works of art with polite but untidy nature.
Meanwhile, up in Yorkshire, the Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life exhibition at Wakefield’s Hepworth Gallery takes the opposite approach. Instead of humanising and domesticating her works, this show — in this space — elevates them and removes much of that sense of thinking about how they’re done, which came from being inside the place they were made. The physical craft and labour (although mentioned) is less important than the artist’s meaning and intent (and inevitably, worth); a dazzling creative mind’s origination and expansiveness. The exhibition locates the works carefully and formally in the space, centred in a bright, upstairs universe that unhesitatingly gifts gravitas and formality to their abstraction.
In Wakefield, the Hepworths get their power back, when before, you might not have noticed it was missing. Unexpectedly, counter-intuitively, her mighty works have more space to be consumed (and to consume you) than their siblings did in the intimate Cornish studio. Even if one presumes to attach greater authenticity to the studio and garden, as a home and a place of work, this feeling is overpowered by the pure expanse of beautiful curation.
It should’ve been obvious, yet realising that Hepworth’s work needed this monumental dimension was a genuine surprise. This exhibition is quite overwhelming to experience.
I’ve written before, I think, about the two Eduardo Paolozzi sculptures placed a few hundred metres apart along Euston Road in London, and how differently they’re perceived and experienced by passers by. The chunky 1995 re-imagining of William Blake’s image of Isaac Newton, ‘Newton After Blake’ lives at the British Library, where it is venerated and centred, high, casting a bulky shadow as you walk across the quad. Then the other, smaller, earlier Paolozzi; a squat abstract head figure called ‘Piscator’ from the early 1980s, has spent cold decades plonked on a forecourt outside Euston Station, where few notice it and people eat their sandwiches leant against it. In 2016, confusion arose about who actually owned ‘Piscator’. No stakeholders or landowners around Euston wanted it, until its ownership was traced back to a British Rail commission that pre-dated rail privatisation. Once that was established, Network Rail gifted ownership over to the Arts Council. I suspect they don’t really want it either. In 2019, as the area became part of the HS2 development and buildings started getting knocked down, ACE didn’t even move the work clear of the site.
Thus public display can elevate or diminish — and with a lasting effect. By osmosis of time and context, now this work is perceived, even by an arts establishment that venerates Paolozzi, as having far less value and interest than its sibling down the road.
Anyway, it turns out that the humanised, biographical, ‘showing-the-workings-out’ Barbara Hepworth experience is the lesser way to experience her work. While that little, secretive Trewyn garden is delightful and moving, it imposes a stooped sort of feeling, like an elderly, frail essence. It is full of old people, too. Essentially, you’re done in fifteen minutes. Showing their human-ness was not what these great sculptures needed.
By contrast, Wakefield’s exhibition is so all-enrapturing and stands so tall, with those high ceilings and enough space that you can easily — easily! — still be in there an hour later, walking a third slow rotation around the works, finding new angles, perhaps this time with headphones on, listening to Nwando Ebizie’s immersive soundscape project The Garden Of Circular Paths that responds to the show. Props to Ebizie by the way, who was in Brighton in 2019 on a different project and did fascinating immersive work here too.
In May 1975, at 73 years old, Barbara Hepworth was killed in her rooms above the studio in St Ives, in an accidental fire. She was too immobile to escape as it tore through the building. Fire fighters were still tackling the blaze when they found her body. In an obituary, the New York Times described St Ives as a “fishing port and artists’ community”, so tourism hadn’t yet nobbled the place.
Artists so often imagine art itself to be morally good, even when it clearly isn’t. We have the same aching blind-spot as technologists, who can’t see the darker implications of what they’ve invented, until it’s too late. Once, at a conference in Norwich, I was in the audience for a thrilling panel of leading poets, who discussed their approach to radical verse. It was heady. But the shared conclusion of the whole panel was that poetry is somehow a force for good, in and of itself. Despite their enormous capacity for imagination, in that moment, these four people were prisoners of their art-form, who could not comprehend or accept it as merely neutral, let alone malevolent. That’s profoundly, if momentarily, unhinged. It was an uncomfortable Q&A session.
So I’ve changed my mind about display, then. After decades preferring the homespun, the authentic, ‘show the workings out’ DIY kind of sketch, now I’m all in for art that is exposed and isolated, held up high, if that gives it its due weight, for good or ill.
Place it up on the hard rocks to be eaten by crows.
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