Cultural Bric-a-Brac

Growth, like mould, depends on a certain microclimate in which to nurture a culture. When spores are wind-blown, they attach themselves to structures, developing into something of a cluster slightly out of reach. Try as we may to rub and wipe mould away, it returns with stubborn regularity. In a culture composed of centuries of reinvention and perpetually morphing values, we are faced with an overflow of dross. This great compression of stratum is the brimming residue of post-colonial exploit and plunder, reimagined for our glassy eyes, bleary with the incessant scrutiny of little screens. Today, western popular culture focuses on these shifting charades, revisions and collaborations with us and the dead. Some might consider this to be the zenith of culture. Others see it as the nadir. A heap of disparate components forms the sediment of a disintegrating culture. As one cultural commentator so aptly put it, ‘we no longer know the difference between crap and crème brulee’.

The vignettes that follow have been ‘curated’ over the course of a year. Jotted down in a small orange spiral bound notebook, in an even tinier, ink-stained script, I recorded the incidental oddments and images that populate this bric-a-brac culture as encountered. The end-product is a meandering eclecticism that borders on the tangential. It’s a meeting point for gravitational nihilism. Each sentence tells a covert story, in a concoction of spliced narrative and anecdote. So bountiful are the littered alleyways of the bric-a-brac culture, that we only need pick at them to reveal what lurks underneath, travelling back and forth, stumbling in the mud, watching the woodlice flee as we kick away the detritus.

Going dotty

The year is obsolete and so brittle that great care must be taken to avoid flaking. Sensitive to touch like a moth’s intricately patterned wing. The suburban dot punctuates a collapsing magazine. Its spine is filled with magical ornamentation. Clues, curses, conundrums, all are embedded.

Prized from the river’s fetid treacle, a sherd of glass is held between thumb and forefinger. LENS. Through a scratched and iridescent haze, we can see swirling dots that appear to drift in constellations. They oscillate in a flotilla of pink, green and black. Forming glyphs, wriggling insignia, gyrations. All the signs beckon to the eye: I was here and saw this. Through this low tide monocle, we view the writhing ectoplasm of regeneration, dissolving and reconfiguring to become a happening, rather like an animated storyboard. Pink dominates, then devours the expanding vista, gobbling up the yellow to become a fluorescent green. Pacman as a gourmet devouring deity. This reminds us of Saprophytes; microscopic organisms that feed on dead and decaying organic matter. Back on the page, our likenesses occupy a cityscape, delineated in black and grey lines, overlaid with shading. We are cartoons depicted in the slang of the era as it trickles over the edge. Down into the bubbling slime, consumed by the river of throw-away household gods, in a collective gurgle. Spiralling inside the sewer pipe, in a maelstrom of rapid-fire belches.

Technicolor was an overactive age of ink. Soon engulfed by a great Stygian brown of post-war austerity. This blemish is occlusion caused by brain fog. Speech is only possible in bubbles that have yet to be pierced with a glass-headed pin, releasing tinny voices in whirling vortices. These are the prophecies of things to come, sloughing off towards an incoming chocolate swell. Frothing with yellowish spume. All around us, these nuclei groove, collide, and overlap in cosmic superimposition. There goes a scurrying paper mite, busily gorging its way from one tale to another. Consuming the red first, and then the green, in a frenzy of post-pointillist hoovering. Eating so many words and pictures until all faces resemble barbarous fungi. Those calcified idols, who grimace and leer in drains, inhabit dripping brick tunnels beneath slumbering cities. Malign and impious, they augur witchery in onyx eyes. Cult of the tilt, the rotational optic. Gradually surveying the horizon, in the roundabout gaze of an afterthought. Finally, the river slick meets the soft cover of a lukewarm dream. All is engulfed and flushed away with the swift action of hand on handle. Whoosh!

crystal garden

A crystal awakening. Imagine if we could be shrunk to the size of an atom like in old science fiction movies. Entering the column of the citadel is tantalising and alien. Inside its frozen liquidity there are inclusions: ice thistles, tinsel moss, lichens that leach out in ossified, arterial probes. Splintered, skeletal appendages, a rutile tangle of golden hair. A spangling, conversational rainbow. The oblong water droplet bulges: an incunabulum. Resident X-Ray phantoms, leave multiple summits, stacked on top of one another, like forgotten, discarded histories. When capturing passing light, the crystal ignites into multi-coloured transmission mode. Speaking to us in spectroscopic epiphanies. Once it is heated, it exudes a deep blue that radiates like the aura captured in Kirlian photographs. Such a blue does not exist in the world of artifice. It is deeply resonant and capable of transporting the beholder into a thicket of vegetal encrustation within the frosted matrix. We are encased in a volatile hailstorm for millennia. 

About face

Aimless wanderings around the deserted square mile, during a time of masked quarantine, yield chance discoveries. Above street corners and cemented into the walls of grand 1929 buildings, are the immortal heads of commerce. Bearded titans and sentinels, festooned with inedible flowers and gritty fruit, their curious stony countenances locked in toothy stares. Some are coiffured or wimpled, perched on shit smeared pedestals. Out of earshot, we whisper and gesticulate in slow motion. Who are they and what do they signify? A greatly enlarged version of a medieval pewter pilgrim badge adorns a modern shop entrance: Thomas A Becket. The martyr who had his head stoved in at Canterbury, once lived on a site near this spot. What would he make of it now? 

The entrance to a patio garden; claw marks surround a grille – a grinning cat’s head in gold filigree. Dating back further in time, stored in subterranean receptacles: decapitated marble heads, chipped and striated, the angular, chiselled heroes of vanished Romans. What stories do they tell one another after lights out, through a history of creaks and cracks? Do they know we even exist? What if stone contains a trace memory?

Phases of Grey

In urban terms, grey defines the vanishing point where the city fuses with clouds to become disappearance. Often bruised and battered, like the innards of an old suitcase, greyness is hurled onto a rubbish heap like some abortion.  No Fly Tipping. Or so the sign reads.

Skin: washed out, existential, anaemic, nicotine-stained greybeards. Sodden newspapers left outdoors to rapidly dissolve. A liquidised language of grisaille. Grey conversations barked into fist sized screens. Why? What do you mean why? Yeah, Nah, Yeah, Nah. I just said that didn’t I? Pinch lines around grey mouths, indentations of puckered malice. Grey longing for green, in the damp vacuum of Winter’s rictus. Grey of the roadkill, left by the kerbside to time lapse into livid blubber. Grey hairs sucked from scalps covered in blood crystals, inhaled deep into the spider holes of night. Monochrome photographs, before the fusion of colour dots. Quicksilver eyes, that inhabit photographs of the long dead, see themselves in the nameless faces of their forebears. Grey in the lattice and furrow of the brow, filthy crevices and wrinkles of the neck. The greased lenses of the myopic, fumbling towards a fingerprinted window. Squeaking a likeness on the breathed glass – a great balloon face. 

Across the city, people in grey uniforms pretend to drive cars, making noises that mimic acceleration, then sudden braking. All the time, they are seated on grey swivel chairs. Some may fantasize about becoming avant-garde composers with artfully tousled grey locks, being interviewed for television documentaries, with protracted um’s and ah’s in the style of feigned distraction peculiar to genius. Others are trapped in a bureaucratic drabness of their own innate tedium. Grey of dandruff and decline. Of microwaved meals, forked into a soggy grey mulch. Grey of empty days. Grey of the excluded and insane. Grey of solidified vomit, pecked by pigeons. Of cigarette smoke and sagging eyelids. Grey fuzz of monitor screens in the wee hours.  Grey of crumpled shopping lists, toilet rolls, and spat toothpaste. Grey of dead leaves, alcoves and sculptures that nobody will ever see. Grey of Morandi’s bottles and jars accumulating dust. Grey of the expelled, unable to befriend a colour. Grey of faltering memory fashioned into lumpen figurines, placed beneath dead trees. Naming the grey in a decolourized world without hope.

Spindle Vortex Machine

At the 1905 Kitson villa in Sicily, I stand before a marble mantelpiece. My eye is lured to the spindle vortex machine, which sits underneath a gleaming glass dome. Carved by Napoleonic prisoners of war, from whittled and polished bovine bone, this fragile automaton has survived 200 years. When the front lever is wound, it releases a series of spinning cogs and wheels, which turn this way and that, sending the apparatus into operation. A lady rocks her baby in its crib from side to side, another attends a trundling spinning wheel. Three bonneted Georgian ladies rotate in some forgotten dance, to an unheard melody. The whole effect is charming and mesmeric. These machinations have been performed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of times, running for just a few brief moments before slowing, then stopping. Every twist of the ornate crank brings them to life for a brief performance, no matter what the occasion.

Cutting corners

All this cutting is a curious phenomenon, removing images from ravaged books and magazines to create a new, albeit fragmentary, incarnation. The shears riffle through slightly faded paper which exudes a distinct musty odour. This is the trapped smell of the 1940’s. Along the paper’s edge, you can see a zigzagging movement, that evinces the flourish of a stop/start escapade of scissors. This is a new story of landscape transplanted into a mysterious topography. In this place, there is a typography that stands in for dialect, which is the accent of uncharted exploration. In the lost provinces of the cut and paste there is presence within absence. What we no longer see is supplanted by something apparent in the negative void. A picture removed from its page is now a frame around what? The photographic multiplication of landscapes where colour and monochrome coexist simultaneously. How incredibly blue that sky looks, even though we are under perpetual cover of night. That was a blue special to the 1930s way of seeing things. We cannot emulate that blue again, not now. 

Collage is a process of reinventing pictorial reality, of connecting things that are paradoxical by threads of random association, it’s a process of inference and interference. Similarly, the dead, in their muted garments haunt the deserted streets as printed in monochrome over 80 years ago. Are these distillations of dreams, or psychodramas, played out by mute actors placed on pause? Is this a place where convergent realities meet with hypnotized strangers? We occupy these fantasias, formed from a shifting inventory of pictures. Collage is all about trimming the weirdness that resides within these lines and pasting all of yesterday’s offcuts sometime in the future.

UR rum blur

river dream, Wapping steps 

rum blur, ummmmm 

an obs UR ovation 


headless idiot, descends into green 

noises machine thrum 

mini armature  

down the slipshod to black clout 

vision of trepanned oracle. 

hole in one 


peripheral species 

altar to the odd 

scorched pebble  

geological full-stop

Blabbermouth revisited

Back to the Bellarmine. Its grizzled, fierce visage, pronged eyebrows. Weirdie beardie. Spout head. Gargoyle. Tell Tom Tit. Counter hex, filled with piss, bent iron nails, felt hearts, nail parings. Buried in the blackness.

A stone head was unearthed in 1895 by a workman digging a well near the Rue des Murlins, in the city of Orleans. The Stone of the Chatterers, was a cruel punishment for gossiping women, worn from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The head depicted, dates to the early 1600s and was kept in the cellar of the Chatelet with other torture implements, until it was made obsolete after October 9th 1789, when torture in France was abolished. The head was worn on a chain or chord around the neck of the accused, as a symbol of brutal humiliation. These images are both from postcards printed in 1907 in a re-enactment scene.

Through the mottled prism of pink fluorite, I dream of my dead friend’s hoard of foreshore finds: trinkets from an unknown donor, stored in a child’s satchel, a careworn briefcase and several broken drawers. When we first met, she brushed my trousers with white paint as if to demarcate our friendship. I did not envision that some thirty something years later I would watch her ashes disperse into the sea, turning the water into a milky cataract. I recall her secretive visits to the river, the poking and probing, foraging in the bilge and ooze, the insatiable quest for the ultimate tidal trophy. The collection was off limits to my eyes, which exacerbated an already avid curiosity. The years passed. The ghost of the child whose photographic negative was found under the floorboards migrated to another dimension. The house where clubs were once held, was gutted and finally imploded, leaving my friend homeless and almost toothless. The thirst for acquisition was supplanted by alcohol and the temporary mindlessness that strong liquor brings. The collection soon sank into oblivion, floundering at the bottom of a bottle, like a life half lived. One day, after several inactive silent days, she was discovered dead in bed. Her marvellous sculptures of singing heads, with their mouths agape, rounded into an O, sang no more madrigals. Another noise maker was drafted in, to articulate the mute, sputtering and invoking the wake within the wormy bedpost, giving oscillation to the creature that lives inside the baby’s skull.  The same skull that was carried around for years in her bag. 

April 2022-April 2023