Anatomy of a pocket

By Shaun Caton

For a start, the black visage is very horrible and frightening to look at, and particularly the red sunken eyes under the fearful black brows, which are fit to make the weather cloudy and make the earth tremble.
Leonardo da Vinci ‘Fantastic Descriptions’

This is the peculiar history of a pocket stuffed with all manner of oddities, a repository for uncategorised storage, concealment, and potential transformation. A former naval pea coat came into my possession several years ago and was second hand at the time of its arrival. With a tall, angular, collar that can be made to stand on end, it adds dramatic emphasis to the head, lending it something of a sinister Max Schreck* look. It also has two deep pockets to the front, where articles can be sequestered away. These have carried so many items that through the passage of days, months and years, have worn away, incrementally fraying and loosening the stitches, collapsing the inner lining, where objects have become temporarily lodged in a topsy-turvy turmoil. Thus, the pocket serves as a portmanteau, portable studio and library – all in one.

Many of the commodities deposited inside the coat have their own bizarre, fractured narratives, as they are transported from one place to another, wrapped loosely in pieces of paper, bound with elastic bands. The more pedestrian things might include: S shaped paperclips, barely legible, faded tickets and receipts, dried up pens, a broken pencil, knotted shoelaces, yellowed teabags, ketchup stained serviettes, a flattened matchbox, cotton handkerchief with monster motif, shopping lists, a plastic spoon, a stray mouth lozenge covered in fluff, electrical tape, a bottle top, newspaper photos, a comb missing some teeth, shard of wing mirror, various brown and grey hairs, creased calling cards grubby with grime, phone with sweat imprints resembling alien beings, candy wrappers, blunt nail file – any attempt at a complete inventory is futile.

One spring day, I spotted a piece of rubber wire and quickly pocketed it for possible use in one of my sculptures. Much later, when I placed my hand inside to retrieve the cable it presented a deep mauve, the colour of mature bruises or ripe berry juice. Careful study revealed that it was actually a cartridge from a leaking ballpoint pen. Purple blotches appeared on my fingers like some undiagnosed malady, mapping out a previously unexplored terra incognita. This sputtering reservoir seemed to be giving birth to bluish punctuation marks, manufacturing arabesque curlicues, cuneiform script. To all appearances, what could be discerned as a crudely applied body tattoo made by a hamfisted amateur, indelibly inked on my hand. Minuscule seeds wedged in the corners of the pocket turned hyacinth, and once removed, expanded then sprouted within a week when planted in compost. The world glimpsed through a cracked lens is infinitely fascinating to the eye ravenous for metamorphosis.

A Christmas altercation with two candles splashed orange wax onto the coat which trickled inside the pocket to form a solidified bolus, in which multiple particles were bonded in an unlikely agglomeration. Attempts to melt the wax with a steaming iron were unsuccessful and only exacerbated the situation, causing scorch marks and an acrid stench. Pinpricks of trapped migratory food products (crumbs, grease, sugar and salt) coalesced to become the ingredients of an inedible snack. This is what I later termed a Precipice Recipe and incorporated it into a show at the Freud Museum in London. Seen through a honeycomb of viewpoints and telescopic screens this is indeed, a meal fit for a fly.

Gods on a keyring

I possess a number of iconic pewter charms, collected during the past twenty something years: a green man sports a foliate whorl of a beard, the Hand of Fatima, emblazoned with rubbed blue and red enamels (bought in a Tunisian street market), a Sheela Na Gig exposes her pudendum and leering mouth, a Celtic boar with bristled back (lost for 2 years in the mesh of a wicker basket) a Viking spiral head with goggle eyes. All of these deities and ex votos are looped together by a series of interlocking rings that jangle in the oblivion of the pocket.

Nomen est Omen – the name is power. The notion that these keyrings are in some way talismanic, conveys a totemic energy when manipulated between finger and thumb. There is something reassuring about the click-clack as they are manually rotated. Peering into their dull metallic surfaces, you can just about make out the hint of quivering grey reflections exaggerated by elongation and sudden diminution. This brings to mind some of the earliest photographic experiments, in which pioneers of optics and chemistry attempted to fix an image on surfaces such as aluminium foil, silver plated copper, paper or leather, with variable and sometimes astonishing results. Observing reflections in polished objects, gives rise to the phenomenon of scrying, channelling hallucinations into a form of prophesy. The nature of these images are fleeting and fluid, they do not leave fixed impressions, only reticulate associations in the mind of the seer. In a similar way, too much ink seeps through thin paper to form a back to front sentence when viewed from the other side: an unknown language of phantom utterances.

Wooden Heads Revisited

Several years ago, during a visit to the church of St Mary and St Nicholas in Beaumaris, on the Isle of Anglesey (North wales) I stumbled across a fabulous throng of late 15th to early 16th century misericords* carved on benches. Here lives a whole contingent of wooden heads, mostly of men, women, and androgynous Bacchic youths. With curiosity and a sense of hushed reverence, I went about photographing these 500 year old* carvings in the subdued light. As I framed my images through the viewfinder, I heard a distinct creak and wondered if this was the clandestine voice of the misericord, occurring perhaps now and then, punctuated by decades or centuries of silence, augmented by the doleful voices of singers, the clatter of skeletal remains ransacked by crows, the furtive scurry of a disturbed spider. Could this be a communication? Unfortunately, time would not permit me to wait for a response. Instead, I studied the faces staring blankly back at me, with their eccentric coiffures – beehives, loaves, wimples, crowns, heraldic hats. At this point, I considered the misericords to be arcane friends of sorts, who posed more riddles than I could decipher. Some heads grew from vines, fattened like gourds about to drop, bobbing on undulating umbilical cords, chittering in a secretive, splintered verbatim, barely audible to the human ear. I vouched to revisit the church and spend another daydreaming session with my adopted kin.

For nearly 2 years the church has been padlocked and to my chagrin, I have not been able to enter. This year, the makeshift gods of chance have been more benevolent and I was able to glimpse the misericords at distance, from behind a sagging red silk cordon. I could position myself at the threshold and just make out their tonsures, curls, and spiky crowns. But there could be no interface or communion with these ancient sentinels. One must reinvigorate and excavate memories, flick through images stored in my phone’s gallery for a reminder of their honey coloured features, rubbed smooth by the touch of hands, now all turned to dust.

Eternal Dreamers

Here they slumber beneath a great window. Laying side by side; speechless to the profusion of their crazing and craquelure. Feet propped on a disproportionate lion and snub-nosed hound. Spangles of ruby and cobalt light ripple across their torsos, giving the semblance of animation, of filmic projection, passing over them like some mesmeric experiment. Will this wake the effigies or extend their dreaming? Over their grizzled, gnarled faces, an epiphany within the glass splays the colour of prayer, painting them in shimmering waves of prismatic rainbows.

Aside, a fluted arpeggio machine fires up, pumping advancing rhythms and trills into the chapel. Is this the ghost of the last hymn they ever heard? Their frozen pitted heads, so filled with pictures of a time we can barely comprehend – an era of illuminated animalia dressed as people, braying and masturbating to the congregation within the margins of secret and profane parchments. Through the cantankerous rasping and sputtering of pipes we come closer, almost touching tomorrow through the abstract unfurling of sounds. Trickling from the corners of their mouths like ransid spittle, names and years are stylized in chiselled graffiti, trapped deep in the furrows of their drapery, marooned in the folds like banished iconoclasts. Spelling out the names of the forgotten dead in curling, looping initials. The anonymous mark makers decorated the sleeping couple with their own identities, so their speech bubbles will continue to inflate and burst, raining snores, mumbles, and the malaise of never ending brainless sleep on this place.

Inside the Matrix Maker

Reflections on the sculpture, The Lightning by Lesley Hilling

The matrix maker inhabits a lofty room, with its leprous ceiling, at the top of a church on the Walworth Road. One rainy afternoon, I was invited to visit and ushered into the inner sanctum for an expedition into the matrix. The stupendous tower before me entitled ‘The Lightning ‘ was constructed from hundreds of pieces of recycled adapted wood, arranged to form a column, rising from dark to light. On a workbench, many tiny spindles and sections are glued and clamped together in a riotous mesh of protrusions and appendages that go to form the viscera of the matrix. The maker does not reveal the methodology of these constructions and there is no apparent blueprint – the densely packed web of structures just seems to proliferate ad infinitum. You are left to ponder similarities with aerial maps of imaginary city grids teeming with alleyways and trajectories, walkways, platforms, and slanting corridors. Somewhere along the line, there has been a rendezvous with a de-constructed Bolshevik geometry. This has now followed its own nose.

The entrancement of entering the matrix is in knowing that you will become lost and find one of the maker’s memories in the guise of a vintage photograph, tucked into a minuscule compartment, framed by an expanding galaxy of boltholes and casements that invariably lead back to a point of ingress. Here and there, are optical lenses which afford a closer view of the grain, its clockwork parts. Residual cogs and springs filched from an autopsy of battered clocks that stopped ticking long ago. This simulacrum of inner machinery also reminds the explorer that this could be a paradigm shift device, its exact purpose yet undisclosed. The iterations of memory that occur in the matrix are the select biography of the maker. We see what they want us to know about their life, in the handiwork of an elusive innovator. Occasionally, the experiencer will collide with a little white porcelain doll* (Frozen Charlotte) who pops up within the infrastructure to greet us. Hello.

The architectural potential of the matrix is turned on its head when we meet other pedestrians travelling through this seething complex, as if stuttering along on a conveyor belt towards the nucleus. Where do they go and what are they for? Turn another corner and you come face to face with several animal skulls, pristine, bleached, feline craniums – like one might find in an 18th century wunderkammer. Perhaps we have arrived at the terminus? The theatricality of the matrix is brimming with infinite dramas, in plays that have yet to be enacted, disclosed to us in sectors of an ever burgeoning parallelism. The fantasy element of this structure lies in its intricate inner scaffolding, which is akin to the hive, or power house at the end of a remembered dream. It just keeps on promulgating itself and therein, lies its momentum.

Fragment of a conversation between two children, overheard on a train.

That’s the junkyard where they break it up. Then they break it up again. They just keep breaking it up until there’s nothing left to break.

In the Ravine

Found in the sallow endpapers of a book: a newspaper cutting from 1993. Exactly 28 years to the day have elapsed since it was last inserted. I am looking at an eidolon. Black and grey dots oscillate, forming a fugitive trace that is fleeting and ethereal. The eye struggles at first to make sense of what could be a reproduction of a Baroque painting. One can almost distinguish phantom figures dressed in costumes, bearing lances, plumed helmets. A rocky edifice can be discerned. Is this a grotto? There are dark alcoves and arches leading to where? A large number seven appears below the picture like a ledge for it to sit on. After numerous inspections it is possible to establish that this could be a staged event. A ceremony? The static ghosts trapped in this monochrome pointillism are ever so tiny. No bigger than 20 millimetres. Bits of words appear, like chopped up sentences, crackling transmissions from the netherworld: perfect set, Experi, Mac, ooks, erona bravo, usile. When the paper is unfolded a giant oriental head floats momentarily before our gaze, suddenly dissolving into thin air. This is the god of the dissected word, the deity of the dot. I refold the clipping and place it back in its stained crack, in the dried-up glue of the ravine where language ends and images speak to us in this unfathomable syntax.

Mirror Image

The cover of a book, printed in 1950, shows us a young woman applying lipstick, looking into a mirror. One side of the picture is in negative but has enhanced colour: The other side is in positive, in Agfacolor. This colour photography was developed in the 1940’s and has rich, saturated hues, in reproduction that do not seem to fade. Although the dustjacket is creased and wrinkled it still evinces a visceral beauty, rather like period technicolor films, with their exaggerated blues and reds, their sizzling pinks and scorching yellows. Films of this era are like sumptuous living paintings.

April-November 2021.


Max Schreck was the charismatic German actor who played Dracula in F.W. Murnau’s film of 1920.

Misericords are wooden carvings usually found on or underneath church benches. They are whimsically jocular, sometimes profane, and nearly always eccentric to our eyes. Some of the misericords in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas, Beaumaris, were recreated in 1902 as replacements for those that disintegrated.

Frozen Charlottes are small, white porcelain dolls, manufactured in the middle of the Victorian era. They were usually put into puddings as surprise gifts for children. Their name comes from an 1843 melodramatic ballad about a young lady who froze to death, hence the term ‘Frozen’ Charlotte.