A Curious Descent

An article of various related and unrelated subjects that may only evince meaning after several determined attempts at reading.

By Shaun Caton

‘Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?’— Clarice Lispector, Hour of the Star.

Part One: The Grimlich*
With current technology and modes of space transport it would take humankind an estimated 73,000 years to reach the nearest star; therefore, the prospect of journeying some 803 miles from London to Gdansk, seemed a mere trifle in comparison. This excursion was mental, physical, and metaphysical, the sort of trip that can be assembled from ramshackle memories, penned on scraps of crumpled, dog-eared paper, stuffed into the collapsed lining of a 50 year old overcoat, as if it were a portable filing cabinet, or an escritoire of the unreal. Circumnavigating these memories is the job of the scrivener, who is an unwitting custodian of a half remembered (and fabricated) history, or a myopic curator piecing back together the impressions and experiences hastily penned in a spiky, sloping, handwriting, that would seem outdated in an age of text messaging. However simple it may seem on paper, an expedition in words and pictures is never as straightforward in actuality, and comprises of several clumsily conjoined destinations cemented together with varying degrees of frustration: taxi to airport, slow motion escalator to departure level, elevator emitting unpleasant metallic odours filled with bodies bumping together, precariously wobbling baggage structures, up to shops and down to sputtering rest rooms, where someone suffering from the advanced stages of inebriation, has deposited the contents of their stomach all over the floor, switch to moving walkway with spring heeled stride to gate, and so on. There is always an element of compromise, of lost, dead time, filled with emptiness, distraction, and the boredom of being suffocated by a temporary state of incognito, saturated with the monotone loud speaker announcements. During this time I feel more dead than alive, and it is only through the awakening of my creative animus that I am able to enter the world of the living once more, permeating the splinters in an illusion of so-called reality. No matter how hard one tries to blot out this greyness of malingering, the experience is taut with psychological uncertainty and a mounting anxiety that bathes armpits and brows in a patina of sweat. Hanging about in non-spaces, filled with haemorrhoid inducing stainless steel seating and deserted cardboard tubes of lukewarm liquid, is bad for creative karma. Airports are the most inhuman of spaces, void of character and comfort, their generically furnished waiting areas are populated with clones in baggy shorts, the anticipation of an exodus, creatures who eat, drink, and flick mindlessly, through mobile ‘phones to alleviate the stultifying apprehension. Occasionally, the piercing shriek of a disgruntled infant will shatter the comparative status quo provided by the limited provision of extortionately priced refreshments, punctuated by frequently shrill ringtones, and robotic announcements in a guttural haemorrhage of unintelligible speech. When finally called, there is an urgent scramble of panic stricken passengers to the ‘plane, and an overtly assertive custody of seating, still warm from the former occupant’s buttocks. You are in my seat. No, I am not. Oh, sorry, yes I am, how silly of me. That’s my seat, can you please move? This seat has my number on it. See, here… Thank you, I am English. Do you speak English? There’s no need to be rude.

With bleary eyes, heavy through lack of sleep, deep ringed and grey like a cadaver, blood vessels enlarged by rubbing, the momentary drowsiness leads to lucid dreaming, and in flight turbulence jolts the dreamer rudely back into consciousness. Through the oculus of the wing window beads of water course in staccato fashion down the pane as if in unison with some celestial parade music, to which end they ultimately collide and explode in systemic annihilation. A tympanic thrumming recalls the solitary scream of the worm. One glimpses the indistinct outline of a city through the swirling vapour and mist. Such an unfurling of vision reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s quasi-imaginary studies of cloudscapes, which like inflated Renaissance garments and ruffs, expand and contract with all the peculiarities of a pig’s bladder on the end of a court jester’s stick. Accentuated scrolling and arabesques blown by zephyrs and chubby cheeked cupids on the fading border of a reverie; the spires, rooftops, chimney stacks, towers, highways and byways that sprawl like some tentacular Behemoth, are illuminated by the winking sodium and carmine lights in the semi-darkness of dawn, affording the sleepless eye a shimmering mass of habitation encroached by dense forest. As we descend, there is an ear popping uneasiness, a stomach churning dread, and we fall rapidly through a hole in the sky into the rebuilt artifice of a post Renaissance metropolis. It is not quite morning on the ground and the inhabitants of this matrix are rubbing their bulbous noses, smacking their chops in gummy intonations of archaic words, scratched on the back walls of shuttered rooms, where dust is blown in spiral vortexes into the sleeper’s nostrils, and resides for days and weeks before being sneezed back into the daily grind as a livid, fluorescent mucus. In the alleyways of the dreaming hive I see a tumble of pot-bellied, scrawny bodies, tonsured beyond the fringe of otherness, emblazoned on placards over gateways and lamp posts, calling our senses to attention, these are the heralds of the laminated apocalypse. This is the land of GRZECH or SIN. The arresting posters and fluttering banners tell us something of the astonishing world of Hans Memling and his 4 year stint at painting an altarpiece, The Last Judgement (1467-71) in the form of a huge triptych, on exhibition at the National Museum, a repository for the obsolete knowledge of centuries. Stumbling through patches of creaking ice, towards a housed collection of pictures that depict the seven deadly sins of man, I become the awakened dreamer staring at a convincingly frightful cavalcade of cacodemons and monstrosities cooked up in the mind of Memling some 500 years previously. There is even a shaggy haired mutant with bug eyes, presiding over the damned minions, who grimace in anguish as they are led by devils brandishing pitchforks with which to skewer them. The lambent flames of Hades are stoked, fanning sparks and smoke out of this incredibly life-like painting into the auto-combustible perception of the beholder. This is art on a grand guignol scale, saving no sinner (or pretentious artist) from the searing torments and lacerating screeches that await him. One is struck by the amount of sinners with flowing, crimped red hair, their pallid nudity that does not reveal genitalia, the sheen of goose pimpled, hairless skin, stick-like limbs, and finely rendered, porcelain teeth. They could almost be abandoned medieval dolls. If we could hear them now, might we be overcome with their lament, would we be engulfed by the impending horror of their folly? The elevated drama of this painting still transmits an existential undertone to its stupefied viewers, despite the cracks which emerge in the blackened thumb and forefinger, with which we frame this vision, and in which our solitary promenade upon this gallery floor must point to an exit. There is something inherently photographic in the minutiae of the painting’s message: a quality of sadness, and strangeness that suppurates through time’s threadbare veil, suffusing it with terror. Eyes agog, mouths agape, legs akimbo, we follow the sinners to their stage managed doom. For a moment we believe in those sinners and they could even be us staring back through time, through the hexed glass of the vitrine, into our own slowly fading eyes. Taking a happenstance turn into a side room, I enter a chamber of ceramics and am entranced by a plethora of the incomplete, a fascination with fragments, anomalies, shattered shards of cobalt blue and sanguine brown, Westerwald pottery from the 17th and 18th centuries. I see recognizable glazes trickling over the raised letters G and R, crudely engraved foliate forms contained in a quivering, lopsided lozenge, a Boschian alchemical bubble flask or alembic, and the familiar grotesque yawning of the Bellarmine jar, or witch’s bottle, a vessel for the virulent reek of piss, nail parings, felt hearts, and spells written backwards, so that they could only be deciphered in a mirror. The carbuncular agglomerations, the drizzle of earthy, excremental hues, on these gourd shaped flasks, remind us of burst seed pods, an eviscerated child probed and dissected in the anatomy class of Dr. Frederik Ruysch, the butchered uterus of a murder victim. Such receptacles beckon the dreamer with their mysterious, spectral allure, augmented with thumb prints, by the hand that crafted and incised it with cracked nails in a filigree of latticework. Their contents have long since spilled or evaporated, and all that remains is a brownish tide mark, where once a fluid frothed and fermented there now remains a sour whiff of yesteryear’s reviled concoction of odiousness.

Part Two: The Catharsis of the Crumb
The scrutiny of tiny things is magnified in the dream zone. Dust on a window ledge, a dead moth, golden and hirsute, falls to the feet of the hooded and veined scapegoat, to be imbued with new life as a ghost in a private ceremony of the spiral. Even a crumb, a meal to a mouse, is a universe to the expansive eye that gobbles everything up in its radius. I call these moments punctum – fissures in time – a breathing point in a sentence without end. In the warm belly of the museum, that cultural cocoon, my dream meanders hesitantly over the grisly, frozen contents of a plastic bag: severed cock’s heads, their glassy, sightless stares, recall a time of great darkness and their spirits yearn for illumination on the replacement cave wall in the form of shadows scattered by the fused rays of a flambeaux. In this gallery we see the re-enactment of a barbarous rite, in which a scintillating blue powder is mixed with copious spittle, applied to partition screens with much brushwork, gusto and blow power. As the cocks cannot speak to us, a coterie of part time prehistoric groupies have assembled and clack river stones together, ululate in unison, making bird-like trilling noises. This is Top of the Pop’s stone age style. Many pictures are born in a spatter of brownish blood as if shat from some ignominious orifice. Beaks scrape and chafe at the panels, tapping out an arcane coda for the painted stones, with their rattling noughts and crosses, dots, dashes, and wavy lines. It is extraordinary to note that many of the Mesolithic painted stones found in the Mas d’Azil cave in France, during the 1920s/30s were faked for mischief and financial profit. Reimagining an Ice Age Morse code? Underfoot, there are spent paint tubes squirting their manna all over a buckled board like the penises of fearsome beasts, long extinct and sandwiched in the proverbial permafrost . Some of the paint doubles up as shit, and smeared into gobbets, is thrust greedily into the mouth. Someone is laughing hysterically, but this is the laughter of exclusion and embarrassment, not mirth. The last time anyone laughed in a situation such as this, was when an undernourished, German performance artist (Egon Schrick 1935-2015), attempted to eat one of his own paintings, by tearing it into strips and chewing it into a viscous paper pulp. Few would imagine such an event let alone witness it. Eating one’s own art definitely lends the work credibility, but may cause some digestive tract problems depending upon (a) the subject matter of the art work and (b) the medium it is painted in. The eschewing of a heinous capitalist ideology, the forsaking of preciousness and elitism, makes for an invigorating stance on the ephemeral transience of all things, including the chicanery of the art world when viewed as an edible commodity. This lends a whole new significance to the expression, having the stomach to be a struggling artist. Artists have crucified themselves, sat in bath’s of rotting meat, thrown up in feigned acts of political revulsion, canned their own excrement for its weight in gold, so why not make a hearty repast from a painting or drawing? In the world of the Tuber Matrix where dreams merge with memory and actions fold into gestures, anything is permitted so long as it is not phoney or revisionist. Even those who tell of witnessing uncanny events, such as the mischievous, lanky Scotsman in Serbia, who recounted a story that he had stared at an oyster shell on the banks of the Danube for many hours one summer’s day, without the barest visible movement or flicker of facial expression, much to the fury of a local thug who taunted him, and eventually swung him a punch in the mouth. This is the kind of ritual that is powerful and evocative of primordial regression therapy in the zone. People who do not know what else to call it always refer to it as the ‘zone’. For the most part, I prefer oral and anecdotal histories of performance art to actually watching it. Living the event through somebody else’s faltering description of stopped consonants, is rather like attempting to cross a fast moving river on slippery stones. How much can they tell you before you invariably slip and are carried away by the current? In outlining this escapade into the realm of the outré I am in danger of skirting round the perimeter of what constitutes a dream melting into the everyday. The story about the oyster shell was recounted to me by the performance artist who made the action on the river Danube. Truth lies in such cases.

In terms of the crumb, that inedible, meagre morsel, I have recently arrayed a collection of tiny trophies: the exfoliated skin of a wart head, a rolled ball of cuticle clippings, an eyelash with dried chunk of sleeping dust attached, cerumen blackened with age, excavated from an ear during a period of sloughing off. These reside in a matchbox stripped of its label, marked ‘specimens’ and await application in the next ritual action. Indeed, the ancient Romans collected tears in glass phials to show how much they missed their loved ones after their deaths. In a similar manner, humans accrue the residual by-products of their physiognomy and examine them from time to time, rather like a tramp will admire his turds after much grunting and straining during defecation, delighting in their volume, plasticity, and their incomparable grossness with ribald abandon! The perpetually self-reinvented, ‘shock-horror’ performance artist, Stuart Brisley, (b.1933 -) has fashioned a successful career out of making papier mache stools, as ‘an investment’ he claims – although nobody knows what he is investing fake models of crap in or for. I recall meeting with the great, Emeritus Professor of Shit once, back in the 1980’s and he introduced himself to me as an ‘historical figure in the world of performance art’ and added, ‘perhaps you’ve heard of me?’ eagerly anticipating some form of psychophantic lionizing. One could be greatly impressed with his ability to concoct life-like pools of liquid diarrhoea from pulped newspapers with a splosh of curry coloured paint. To those of us in the trade this is colloquially known as a dose of the squitters. Decades of mind-numbing, number crunching in the Slade School of Art in London, have no doubt, paved the way for this most radical of British artists to explore his own scatology under the somewhat windblown umbrella of the Museum of Ordure. Nice work if you can get it – as they say. I know of one other active performance artist with whom I am on more personable, less hierarchic terms, who has utilised his own fingernails, snot, pubic hair, and scabs of dried food scraped from the kitchen hob, as integral components in a microcosmic theatrical presentation. These preoccupations speak of witchery and fetish libation in non-western cultures. In anthropological studies the collection of unwanted body particles reinforces the magical potency of the action, imbuing them with supernatural properties barely understood in today’s gadget obsessed culture.

An incomplete conclusion: The migration of maggots
I recently assembled a stinking plethora of desiccated fish heads from the beach, placing the brittle husks of carp, pike, and other unidentifiably hideous specimens in a zip up holdall together with a gel air freshener to ameliorate the stench. Naturally, my attentions turned to other matters, and I soon forgot about the bag sitting in my basement studio room, emanating the suffocating odiousness of charnel decay and a hint of the sea. On inspection, I noticed a few squirming maggots, plump, wrinkly, and penile, inching away from my probing finger, slipping through the perforated lining into the corners of the bag. At the time, I had not appreciated that these heads might have a few live maggots chomping through what little in the way of salvageable meat, might remain on these gruesome spoils. Deftly, I plucked them out and deposited them in the sink, where I flushed them down the waste pipe by turning on the faucet, with a whining judder. A miniature maelstrom would do the job of ridding me of these detestable organisms, so alien and abhorrent to our sanitized day to day existence. To make sure that they would not crawl back up the pipe (or worse still, clog it and propagate inside the U-bend) I poured some bleach and hot water down the reeking hole. The maggots ended their pipe dream by being spouted out onto the drain cover, thickly encrusted with a mulch of rotting leaves, mud and filth. Instantly, the paintings of WOLS, (Wolfgang Otto Schulze 1912-51) with all his biomorphic haemorrhoids proliferate my mind. When I looked inside the outer pocket of the holdall, I saw that a colony of maggots had migrated from the inner chamber through a screen into the side pouch. Again, I removed them one by one, with considerable difficulty as they attempted to sneak into the underlining and evade my grasp by casuistry more than intention. I contemplated what a delectable repast one of these grubs would make for a warbling blackbird; a choice meal of gratitude for its song. It occurred to me that this is how life ends, in shit and visceral disintegration, writhing like those maggots plopping through the slats in the drain mat down into the foulness below. Much of this meandering excuse for an article skirts around these murky moments of consciousness punctuated by my discoveries and epiphanies triggered by happenstance encounters with all life’s minutiae.

*Grimlich – Medieval word for horrible.