ADVENTURES O F T H E C O N T E M P O R A RY S P I R I T This is a call for unrealised relations, a call to realise these relations, those contemporary and of the future, before and after us, to come and to arrive at.
POST-SCHOOL 003 / MYTHY WORDS BY JACOB MCGUINN JESSIE BOND MARTHA MCGUINN / SUSANNAH E. HASLAM STUART MEL WILSON ANNA PIGOTT
We approached the Wylerhorn on a bright summer morning. It seemed to emerge in front of us out of the valley, as if a massive pressure below the earth was forcing the ground upwards into this peak. As we ascended, the trees thinned out and we could see the extent of the valley opening up before us, and ahead of us the path continuing upwards, until it was lost in the thickness of the clouds. The guide suggested that it would be unwise to try to ascent in these conditions. We couldn’t see the peak anymore through the clouds. We agreed and dismissed him and decided instead to find somewhere for lunch. We contoured the mountain, away from the path, until we found a waterfall which appeared abruptly from behind a rock and collapsed down a small precipice in front of us to a pool below. I stared down into this pool, with the light behind me, until I could only see the frothing of the water where it fell. I stared until it seemed to me to be a lake of glass and fire, perfectly still and yet alive at the same time, with water disappearing as soon as it appeared on the surface. I stared until I felt that I might tip into this lake, my eyes loosely pulling me with the sun’s light that fell on the back of my head, down into that water. After lunch this feeling stayed with me, and if it wasn’t for my companion I would have turned back. But the sky seemed to have cleared, or at least there was a good chance of clearance, so we began climbing. We saw the neighbouring mountains brilliantly close and shining in the sun, with the incredible extent of pure blue sky all around their lit silhouettes, so that I could follow their edges as they rose and fell with my eyes. The snow glistened yellow in the sun. We carried on climbing and I noted disinterestedly two boys who came down the mountain yodelling. I noted the way the snow which had begun to appear lay sometimes combed towards the clefts of the rock in hung to, sometimes crisped up in still patterns. Occasional crowds of mountain flowers bloomed hidden in rocky shelter, the colour striking against the stone’s deep grey. I’ve been having dreams recently where I’m high up, not on any particular mountain, but high up, and I can see in front of me a widening vista, widening like a scene opens up behind theatre curtains.
And I’m so high up, and the scene in front of me is so vast, that it’s almost like it’s above me. I’ll see whole cities at once, or whole landscapes, filling all my vision in front of me – and I can’t take it. I try to close my eyes in my dreams, but you can’t close your eyes in dreams. So I can only see a huge and overwhelming landscape, and my body becomes powerless and immobile, with my eyes excruciatingly open. But walking up a mountain is, strangely, almost the opposite experience. You see the details, the details of what’s exactly, minutely in front of you, on the path. As we climbed we stopped seeing the expansive views opening up and instead we saw the mountain, the constant mountain in front of us, rising up in front of us, as if it was in motion. And that day the clouds were so thick that they wrapped around us. At one point the mountain levelled out and we found ourselves completely inside the cloud. I couldn’t see anything around me, only the cloud. The ground opened up underneath us in a boggy depth that reached up above our knees as we stepped into it. There was no trail anymore, just cairns laid out at a distance that meant that I could only see the next one in front of me, not any others. We would reach one cairn and then, on the horizon of mist, we’d just be able to make out the next one. We decided to turn back. Walking back down the path felt like a kind of recovery. I noticed that the snow which lay in hollows and patches now seemed to be coaxing us down, and that the flowers that trembled in the light wind all lay with their bells facing down the slope. Walking back the same way we had come earlier I recognised everything, like it was coming back to me as I returned to it, and everything fit in my memory and my mind. I insisted that we return to the waterfall that we had lunched at. I was excited as we followed the path around the mountain again, through the spare ash trees, and around the corner of the rock where the waterfall began to descend. I looked down again into the pool but saw that the surface was interrupted by something, some dark circle moving around. We moved closer and I realised that it was a man swimming. We descended the rocks beside the waterfall, some slippery with lichen, others crisply dry. At points my hands were in the water, so I had to watch carefully where I placed my feet, one and then the other, on the rocks. When we reached the bottom we saw that the pool was shaded by the trees surrounding it, as if it was in a hollow, and that it the water didn’t seem to run
away anywhere. There was no stream leading away from the pool. Perhaps the water ran away underground and then down the mountain. But the pool seemed to be endlessly filled by the waterfall without ever changing. The man was still submerged in the pool, and I couldn’t see where he had left his clothes. The light was less intense in this hollow, filtered through the few trees. As we approached he saw us and got out of the water, smiling quite calmly, utterly naked and dripping. I was about to look away out of politeness when I noticed a dark line on his arm that fascinated my vision. I couldn’t help but follow it, this scar which twisted in the most warped but natural way, like a tendril of a plant, up his arm, twisting round gracefully, holding the glistening water that dripped from his naked shoulders. The man smiled at us and said, in French, that we could look if we liked, he wasn’t ashamed of his scar. He turned around and showed how it coiled all around his back like a spring fern in an exact and almost deliberate pattern, like a fissure in ice, reaching all the way across his wide shoulders, developing into a complete, singular figure. He explained that this was a scar he had had for twenty years. It was near this mountain, he said, that he’d received it. On a warm summer’s day like this one I had been hiking up through the valley, he continued, away from my home, when gradually the weather changed and became thick and ambient with electricity. The clouds had swollen, as they do in this region, from behind the mountains, so it seemed like the mountains were belching these clouds out. I turned quickly and headed back home, but the pressure from behind the peaks pushing these storm clouds towards me was unbeatable. I remember my fear, but also my excitement, mounting with each step as I hurried home and felt the first drops of water, and felt the wind pressing in my ears. I turned back and saw the clouds and the rain swallow the entire valley. I saw a hare running in front of me, crisscrossing the path, unsure where to run. The valley was suddenly lit by a flash of lightning from somewhere behind me so that I saw my outline in shadow for a brief moment stretching in front of me, until it was all collapsed into the shuddering sound of the thunder above me. It was impossible to out run the storm, and there was no shelter anywhere. I knew enough, young as I was, to avoid the trees, and to abandon my stick with its shining metal ferrule to the ground, but there was little I could do. By this point I was sodden, and the atmosphere was so thoroughly dark that I felt that I could hardly see any more. I gave up and closed my eyes. It was at that
moment, standing alone in the middle of the valley, no one and nothing around me, completely surrounded by the thickness of the falling rain only, that the most important and extraordinary event in my life occurred. I turned my head upwards, with my eyes closed, and saw suddenly nothing but incredible light, an amazing, colourless light which opened up everything around me. Even though my eyes were closed I could see the perfect outlines of the mountains that I know so well, that I was born amongst. I could even see, he said, and you may not believe this, but I could even see behind me, with perfect colourless clarity, and that moment, where everything was open to me, was the most peaceful moment of my life. When I woke up, he continued after a brief pause, I was back in my home. I called out and my family rushed into the room. My entire back was in pain. I had apparently been struck by lightning, out there in the valley, and had been left with this burning scar all across my back and my arm, where the skin was raised by the currents of electricity. I only have to trace this scar with my fingertips to recall that moment, with my eyes closed, and it has troubled me in dreams ever since, so that I wake in the night trying desperately to see what I saw that day once again. That moment seemed to alter the way I think. I truly feel like a different person now. It’s as if I was separated from my body that day, and now my body can no longer accommodate me. We returned to England two weeks later, concluding our holiday. We travelled by train through Paris to Dieppe and by Newhaven home to Hampstead. We hadn’t really talked about the extraordinary man with the scars much, but his story had excited and troubled me. I kept returning in my thoughts to that scene by the waterfall, and I could hear the collapsing water when I closed my eyes, and see it churning into froth on the rocks by the pool. It wasn’t until we were on the channel, on the boat home, with the sea calm and the waves flecked and edged into little tips gleaming with light, and the smoothness of the water beneath a marbled and perfect surface, that I recalled suddenly, to my friend, a story that I hadn’t thought about for a long time. When I was much younger, a child, I was sitting inside with my brother late one hazy afternoon in November, when we saw the first snow of the year begin to fall outside the house’s window into the street and down over the city below. I looked up through the window with my cheek pressed against the
cold pane. The first flakes were gentle, but soon they were dazzling, moving against each other and brushing up against the window pane, melting and wetting the ground outside and gradually filling the grass and the street. We went almost immediately out of the house and ran into the street to watch the snow fall. We ran and turned in the street. The sky grew darker and at the same time more bright as the snow filled the air and covered everything it touched with a serene whiteness, so that everything we saw was brightening with snow. I looked up and saw nothing but the snow as I blinked as it hit against my eyelashes. We ran towards the open ground of the heath. When we arrived there the snow was already thick on the ground. The sky had turned almost pink with clouds. We laughed and began to throw snowballs at each other. As I bent down to pick up a bunch of snow in my numb white hands I felt the shock of my brotherâ€™s snowball hit my back. I looked up towards him. At that moment we stood silent. The air between us exploded into a purple flash of lightning that scarred the air exactly in front of and in between me and my brother. Without saying anything we ran home. But this moment of pure colour, which I could hardly believe afterwards, has stayed complete in my mind, as much as I disbelieved the occurrence. I feel that it has in some way coloured my experience afterwards, hidden and obscure, but present in a warped, distracting way. It was so unlikely that it could happen that I almost persuaded myself that I had read it, and my brother hardly mentioned it afterwards, but standing on the boat it came back to me entirely, in all its crispness. The cliffs seemed to rise out of the water, with scatterings of clouds gently above them. As we watched the clouds shifted away, not in any direction, they just seemed to disappear into themselves and the dim sunlight. The fields are burnt white, the heat has gone on.
I approach the entrance, not to the Underworld but an Art Installation. A black-out-curtained doorway guarded by The Artist, in lieu of Cerberus. He allows entry, in pairs, under strict control. Upon my head is placed a mask, offering illumination at the expense of my sight. The mirrored interior of the mask transforms me into a reluctant narcissus; dumbly I regard myself. I have become a device for my companion, who also wears a mask with bell attached. I am proffered the solemn instruction “Follow the sound of the bell”. Together we enter the darkness of the labyrinth. * The first monster is The Critic. They lead our thoughts, tell us which exhibitions to visit and what to think whilst we are there. The Critic does the looking for us, whispers in our ear validation or disdain. They are a double agent, flitting between artist and audience; we cannot trust them. A duplicitous trickster, like Zeus, who disguised himself as a white bull in order to abduct Europa, and a swan to make love to Leda. The second monster is The Curator, autocrat of the Art World. They claim artworks with disregard for the maker’s intentions, twisting meaning, forcing works to fit their chosen context. You can never look at The Curator directly or you will turn to stone. Instead you sense their presence, learn their intentions through a press release or catalogue essay, they hide in academia. At the opening last night, I caught a glimpse of The Curator in the corner of my eye but as I turned to demand some answers they disappeared, changed form and dissolved into a thickly wooded glade. Poor Daphne had to turn into a tree to escape Apollo’s advances; maybe The Curator is not the monster to be slain here after all. The Artist is the final monster; no he is the devil! Cutting animals in half, a rotting cow’s head breeding flies only for them to be electrocuted, what is that stench? Death and decay. A skull encrusted with
diamonds. An endlessly repeated series, an endlessly repeated task, we are in purgatory. I think The Artist is laughing at me. Or maybe he is just revealing an Art World laughing at us. This artist is no monster, he is like Echo; all she could do was repeat the voice of another unable to say anything for herself. The Artist reflects us, The Audience are the monsters driving this machine. * A beached Leviathan has been wedged into a gallery. One of the seven princes of hell, redundant he no longer guards the entrance; in fact we are encouraged to enter one at a time. On hands and knees I crawl into the belly of the beast, to be confronted by nothing but myself, more specifically my-undignified-arse-up-self, captured and repeated on faltering CCTV.
The subject of myth has suddenly become totally relevant hasn’t it? To you? Or to everybody? I don’t think that it has just become relevant. I think one of the most important things about myth, is the longevity of them. They are so old, but always relevant. To me and also to others. I mean myth as a methodological approach to understanding, or perhaps contextualising something, like SCHOOL, like an art show and so forth. Myths-as-stories-as-imagining, per se, are indeed subjected to and by longevity, and longevity, in turn is a marker for the importance or indeed pertinence of myths. There are stories and then there is method, or concept. Can I say that? Yes. So you mean that there are two aspects to myth. 1. The story itself. 2. The concept / meaning of the story? And 2 is what can be translated from its original place to now? Yes, probably more than two aspects - myth/s are like prisms. Many faces? What i’m saying, is, as I remember, when ‘MYTH’ as a sort of loose thematic for SCHOOL came about, it was subject to interpretation; what we read into the contributors’ works, were elements of what could be deemed ‘mythic’ in a fable/story sense and also ways that myth was used as a method to both communicate and build. It’s difficult to explain because i’m mainly talking about myth as a verb, to mythologise, for example. My understanding of Sophie’s work, as an example, is that she used myth as a methodological approach, or at least as a point of departure to connect dialogues between exploitative, sensational television and then the otherwise heightened, divine sense of the mythic in contemporary, visual theory, whereas Sam and Jacob’s application of myth was in the sense that you are talking about it. The mythic image and the dialectical image, here, were set against one another - in Stuart’s work, we saw the interstitial points where myth (in both senses) is used methodologically and then appropriated,
visually. In both Stuart and Sophie’s work, I saw sensation, spectacle and, referring to Walter Benjamin, the wish image meet. What is the wish image? This might be a bit far-fetched, but particularly with Sophie’s work, I kept returning to this, the colportage phenomenon of space - where everything is seen at once. The dream-like, collective wish image - the spectacle, sensation and the way that everyday life (Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord) is permeated by these images of total phenomena, of ecstasy and the total UNreal. I like “dream” when talking about this, because I’m not sure you mean it in this way, but all myth stories, in my opinion, are quite dreamy. Often disjointed and outside of the real, but with relation to reality. I remember one traditional myth from when I was younger and it involved encounters with monsters and huge journeys across mountains and to the bottom of seas and men doing things that in reality, are not possible to do. But they were just taken as a given. So for example, of course you would chase the monster to her lair under water and speak to her there etc. No problem. I think that this imagining of another world where other things are not only possible, but taken for granted, is important in myth. Exactly. I find Sam and Jacob’s writing really dreamy and really balmy and colourful. It’s so difficult to talk about something so intangible, because they are composed of words, but I don’t think I could ever talk about their work in the same way, purely because they put words together so nicely and I can’t begin to find the words to put together; their words become so totally visceral and weighty and bring to bear the most incredible visual plains, that I guess, right there, point towards Stuart’s tryptic - vast and huge, almost overbearing works that do a very similar thing, but visually, Stuart’s work and Sam and Jacob’s work do similar things, using the same tools, but conversely and at opposite ends of the visual / semantic spectrum. Do you think that they are all using invented landscapes to demonstrate something else? Like Stuart’s use of characters that he placed together with quotes that he chose from previous writings and his own quotes too. Or maybe that’s more planned
than any of them intended. Maybe that’s something that we have read into their work as we are thinking in relation to myth. Yes, invented landscapes that rationally pertain to other things; stories, traditions and impressions of things. Sophie’s landscapes were invented by someone else. And then she applies meaning to the landscapes. And that is the way that we use traditional myths? Because we apply meaning to others’ invented landscapes. Precisely. This is the most mythy, ers, and Sophie
good. So in actual fact, Sophie is because the others are the storytellis essentially listening, like you are.
Sophie is Mythy. Myth Sophie Von Cundale.
Common miscomprehension places myth as being tall stories or lies. Especially when you consider modern myth making and telling. This is evident in mankind’s basic (potentially false) desire to find truth and logic. This corrupts the nature of a lie when something is told as myth, or mythologised. Do lies have an agenda; can a lie be honest? In relation to myth, personally, I feel it can be. It seems that it can be viewed that the nature of a lie is defined in its intention. What is the purpose of the story being told? Myths can be a place where human experience can be passed on and communicated. Greek mythology was centred around human thought processes and emotions. Myths created and presented narratives of gods with human faces. Displacement. To hide their human flaws. This is to assume they’re not so arrogant or just to perhaps blindly create gods/goddesses as their own desirable image. Divinity. Gods/goddesses tended to be petty and a little needy, overall. Virtues came from lessons learnt. Zeus the king of the gods fell to indulgence of the flesh, his lust created many demi-gods. These demi-gods and humans tended to have greater virtues than the all-mighty gods. Now, we continue to share this age-old tradition of story-telling. We create and curate myths all the time in novels, film, T.V, art. Children’s books are a nice example through the use of words and images. Using language to inspire a child to imagine a world; building up an understanding of a made up character - how could this situated fictioning be negative in it’s intent and viewed in a bad light? What is immoral about teaching through stories, or even nurturing the imaginary, or the mythic? What is wrong with that? Children’s books are very good examples of modern myths, as they are infused with morality, and the offerings to the minds of the child while reading or being read to brings more joy and cultivates and encourages learning. So is it through our own definition of the mythic that gives mythology a role or an agenda? If we are to view myths as only tall stories, then their validity becomes lost. Whereas, to see a myth as the continuation of a story, a creative story, with its own meaning and with intent beyond being just to deceive the truth, then
isn’t that a very special gift? Even if its intent is only escapism. The importance could come from the human death drive; the need we have as humans to not repress our death drives’ and in turn we may be healthier, more contented individuals; acting out very human, unconscious desires via an image-based and imagined realm. There should be no guilt in that ever, as, to encourage this could help with the overall understanding of ourselves and others. I personally think someone who has explored these subconscious, otherwise unknown desires, is less likely to act them out. This may highlight the zeal in popular culture to do this, in many deferent forms. Social media seems to be enlightening a technological practice, just the opposite to what we think a myth is. I see in particular, Wikipedia redefining our understanding, and taking mythic values away from the continuation, passing on and nurturing of information; turning myth into fabrication, a total untruth, it’s intent is only to deceive and or mislead a person to believe something which is not true. Another common contemporary idea of what a myth is, is an old wives’ tale, something that is commonly believed and holds little truth-value, is something which is foolish or incorrect to believe (don’t believe in that old nonsense, etc). I personally can’t see this as being a defining trait to what a myth is. What was important to people who carry these myths? Do we even know if the Ancient Greeks held these fables up in the same esteem as a Christian holds to the Gospel - does it even matter? We must remember that in Greek Mythology, gods bared human faces and must be understood to be as such (human). Their problems and dilemmas where human problems and dilemmas, so were their communicative efforts in and through presenting human worries and human concerns. If they are true or are not, let’s not take them out of history as they’re the richest truths.
So we gathered again, this time under the auspices of ‘Mythology.’ No one decreed that that is what we should think about – ideas rather constellated around this category of sorts. Indeed a spontaneous calescence of thoughts seemed to manifest itself as we moved through works so differing in form, yet lending a progression and continuity to our shared meanderings. Popular entertainment and the incessant reproduction which characterises late capitalism; institutional reproduction of the Old Masters; reimagining Classical Mythology via Eastenders and Avant Gardism via Jessie J. We revived the Modernists’ exortation to “make it new” and heard of tearing up masterpieces and reassembling them to create something else in order to survive under the watchful gaze of that menacing clock. We tried to be disciplined (“your two minutes are up!”), to have the grit to give voice to our half-formed thoughts and to reconcile them with the labourious research, impassioned manifestos and half remembered childhood recollections that shaped the trajectories which had brought us there. The path was not always smooth – to combine fragmentary utterances into the sustained investigation we seemed to have embarked upon together. “I’m thinking about situationism” -- “I’m not going to sit here and just tell you what it means” -- “about Walter Benjamin” -- “I don’t think I understand the question you’re asking.” We put our little heads together in an upstairs room in Sunny Saturday Peckham to try to work out what the question was.
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JOURNEY is the monthly writerly publication documenting the Adventures of the Contemporary Spirit