In October 2019 I travelled to the Lake District in the North West of England, my first visit for some years. Accommodation was a rented cottage overlooking lake Coniston whose waters reflected the tones and activity of the overarching skies; one moment aggravated by the falling rain, in another glinting back transient sunlight from whence it came. On the far shore stood a grand country house, at dusk the golden lights from its windows calling out invitingly when not obscured by autumn mist. This is Brantwood, former home of John Ruskin and the catalyst for the visit, for a few weeks home to Russell Mills’ installation, Happenstance.
The experience lives up to all expectations. Vast canvasses have been submitted to diverse chemical processes, layers of accident creating abstract landscapes that inexplicably capture the essence of the surrounding natural environment, both elemental and beautiful. Some of the works have been partially cut up into tiny squares and reassembled as mosaics. Man seeking to impose order on that which chance created. Other pieces incorporate tape measures, referencing our irresistible drive to codify everything we encounter. The atmospheric soundtrack created by Mills and Mike Fearon envelops the viewer as each piece is contemplated.
Back at the cottage later, the fire crackling in the grate, I turn the pages of the installation book to relive the experience. Tucked towards the back is a section entitled ‘Seeds of Change – A Fragmentary Selection of Preoccupations’. It’s a catalogue of influences and references, a mind-map affording a glimpse of the genesis of Happenstance. Here there are quotes from Beckett, Schwitters, Leonardo, and Ruskin himself. My mind turns back to Ember Glance, Mills’ 1990 installation staged with David Sylvian in a Tokyo warehouse, and in particular to the short track ‘Epiphany’ on the accompanying album. I’ve always been fascinated with this piece of music: a sound collage in which the spoken word extracts hold a resonance that echoes out beyond the track’s less than three-minute duration. Could it be that ‘Epiphany’ captures the ‘fragmentary selection of preoccupations’ from which Ember Glance emerged?
I promise myself to invite Russell Mills to explore this thought at some point in the future. And recently I did just that. Little did I know how deep the well would run.
Before investigating the sound layers of ‘Epiphany’, I had to ask about its title. Surely this is a reference to James Joyce?
‘I first read Joyce in my teens,’ Russell confirms, ‘beginning with Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then gingerly grappling with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. I’d also read his poem ‘Ecce Puer’ (1932) written to mark both the birth of his grandson and the recent death of his father. Hard going, but I persisted and was helped enormously when, around 1972-73, in a charity shop, I came across a vinyl recording of Joyce and Cyril Cusack reading extracts from both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1971, Caedmon Records, I think). Having listened to their voices I found I was able to read the books with their lilting dialects in my head, so was able to find a way into reading them with a much faster and far greater understanding than I’d managed before. Joyce’s work naturally struck a chord.
‘Of course I understood Joyce’s use of “epiphany”, and its meaning in the context of Dubliners, with particular regard for, “The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.”’ It’s a phrase that conveys the essence of what we see in Mills’ work where found objects are integral, recalling lived experiences and therefore “wiring” his abstract art to reality. In the Ember Glance installation there were twenty-four wooden boxes evoking the artist’s own memories, with items such as a feather, honeycomb, a fragment of bone, a compass…
‘I’d fallen under the spell of Kurt Schwitters’ work and ideas in my teens, and throughout my art school years my appreciation of his work and for collage, not just as a means of making pictures, but also as a philosophical concept about how our world and we are shaped and operate, became more informed and more coherent.’
The stimulus of Joyce, Schwitters and other creative minds led Mills to study at the Royal College of Art where the influences exploded and his thoughts span wide and far, excited by ideas and how they might influence his own artistic expression. ‘I’d elected to take a secondary course of study in a psychology group taught by Natasha Spender, Stephen Spender’s wife. As part of the course I read some of William James’ massive Principles of Psychology (1890), which posits the idea that individuals help to shape the character of reality (their surrounding environment) according to their needs and desires, that thought is adaptive and purposeful while also being infused with emotional and “ideal” concerns – “should-bes”, and that our responses to external events are caused by overlapping or immediately successive stimuli.’
The young artist encountered concepts that would take root in his own aesthetic for many years to come, their allure still strong in Ember Glance and to this day. ‘I’d also dipped into the writings of Henri Bergson and had been inspired by his theory of dureé (duration), in which he explores the ineffability of time, and that of a moment’s resistance to measurement by science or mathematics; i.e. from the moment one attempts to measure a moment, that moment is gone. He believed that duration, the passing of time, which for individuals, may speed up or slow down, could only be shown indirectly through images that never reveal a complete picture, and so can only really be grasped through a simple intuition of the imagination.
‘Through my intensifying absorption in Schwitters in particular, and collage in its multifarious applications in every area of creativity, I’d also become very interested in the developments in culture during the inter-war years (1918-1939), in the artistic revolutions and experiments that had been taking place in and across continents and borders, from Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism to Dadaism in the visual arts to the literary experiments of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust, amongst others. It struck me (as it has literary critics and academics since) that this period was one of enormous, significant, pivotal changes in the cultural world, particularly in literary experiment.’
Joyce was at the epicentre of this cultural explosion. ‘For instance, 1922 saw the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherché du temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past). Meanwhile in Hannover, probably as unaware of these literary breakthroughs as their authors were of him, Schwitters, who had been creating his strange, poetic, abstract collages, made of detritus, and had just begun work on his monumental immersive installation, the Merzbau, and his extraordinary phonetic poem the ‘Ursonate’.
‘It seemed to me that it was in that year that our cultural landscape was changed forever; there was something in the air that shaped the zeitgeist, which, in rejecting all the orthodoxies and supposed certainties of the past that had led to so much unnecessary waste and destruction, sought new ways of thinking, new means of making a future worth living. The influence of these experiments, the breaks from the traditional norms, demonstrated in these works cannot be underestimated.’
When it came to putting together the aural content for Ember Glance, it was Mills who raided his extensive tape library for appropriate clips to bring key references to life. In the exhibition space these excerpts were heard alongside the long-form piece ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’ that Sylvian created with Frank Perry for the installation. ‘Each of the individual speakers hanging above the light boxes carried one of the vocal extracts used in ‘Epiphany’,’ Mills explains. ‘Through the randomly controlled sound system these samples would emerge at unpredictable times, merging with the generative surround sound in the massive space.’ For the CD edition, Sylvian incorporated them into ‘Epiphany’. A short postscript perhaps, but laden with significance.
‘I’ve always been interested in what might be described as strays and mongrels,’ Russell says, ‘fragmentary notions, hybrids, disconnected clues, asides, things, ideas, and people, which are incomplete or dislocated, that operate or can be discovered at the edges. For me, they’re always far more interesting than what may be considered as being part of the mainstream, or that are accepted as part of the accepted canon. Sparks always fly at the outside of the wheel not at its hub. Blessed be the cracked for they shall let in the light. And, like Virginia Woolf, who was always aware of the potential “diamonds in the dust” of her diaries, as with Schwitters, I’ve always been an obsessive collector of “stuff”, always alert for the disregarded, discarded piece of grubby paper or rusted metal that might find a home in my work at some future point. Similarly, since childhood, I’ve also been a magpie for audio curiosities that excite or intrigue me.’
An earlier musical collaboration had been a playground of sorts. ‘I’d been working with Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis of the group Wire from the early 1980s, several years before Ember Glance, collaborating on experimental recordings (Dome and ‘Kluba Cupol’) and creating generative multimedia installations (MZUI at the Waterloo Gallery, London; MU:ZE:UM: Traces at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford) and performances (the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre and the Electric Ballroom, London; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; Le Havre). Apart from contributing actual playing of instruments such as drums and percussion, the latter usually on found materials such as guttering, rubbish bins, electric fires or defunct cookers, and borrowed guitars and synths, which I couldn’t actually play, my tape collection of found sounds was gloriously plundered to interesting effect, either for samples that became integral to compositions or live events, or as triggers for new ideas.’
We hear a trio of speaking voices on ‘Epiphany’. ‘At the time all the spoken word excerpts had a relevance to both David and me. For me they were like touchstones, minor axioms of major importance, which guided my life and work and were central principles for the installation. I think they are possibly even more relevant now in today’s far more uncertain world.’
‘And all shifts dreamily as you keen far off’
A line drawn from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘A Northern Hoard’, citing a literary mind of immense significance for Mills personally. In isolation the words ‘all shifts dreamily’ have always struck me as particularly seductive, but the immediate context of the quote has to do with violence in Northern Ireland (‘the din of gunshot, siren and clucking gas’), so perhaps it’s more a delirium as the past weighs heavily on a bleak present.
‘It is Heaney’s reading that we hear, I‘m afraid I can’t recall the source; I suspect it was from one of my cassette recordings taken from a radio programme – I have hundreds of them.
‘Heaney is another whose poetry and ideas were and still are very important for my work. Through reading both his poetry and his prose I came to more fully understand the need for a moral conscience in one’s work as well as in one’s life. Most of his work deals with ideas of transformation, of seeking out sources of hope, even in the bleakest of times and circumstances.
‘In ‘A Northern Hoard’ Heaney is struggling with the place of politics in his poetry during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sectarian violence of the Troubles was increasing, and he found himself under the added pressure to act as a spokesperson for the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Shortly after the publication of Wintering Out [from which the poem is drawn] he moved south to County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland. He was negotiating the nigh on impossible task of an artist figuring out how to confront political and moral questions while trying to avoid both partisanship and neutrality. Being a poet of and from the land, he understood the moral paradox of the violence that was destroying the land that had shaped him and that he loved, had itself sprung from the land. The sense of place that he revered had become a hoarded ground ruled by a demonic, idolatrous attachment to that land that threatened civility and bred more violence.
‘Heaney once said that, “All a poet can do today is warn.” He realised that in order to write freely he had to write from a no-man’s land, physically, imaginatively and metaphorically. He was restricted to two difficult choices: to stay put and somehow tolerate what was happening, or to go into exile. He needed to be able to stand apart in order to show things as they really were, to create a balanced response to the violence while accommodating the needs of poetry to make works of relevance and resonance.
‘Generally it’s been Heaney’s use of the land as a signifier, a carrier of histories, stories, potential, that has always interested me. I think this idea is best expressed in his Bog Poems, which celebrate the connection of present to past, which can be found in the land. At the end of ‘Digging’ he writes that memories awaken in his head, “through living roots.” For him the past is not dead; its capacity to nourish continues. Heaney’s thinking grew out of his upbringing in a rural, farming area in which his family’s roots were deep. His poetry connects to his past, and to his and his nation’s cultural heritage, and ultimately serves as a reminder to others of the potential of a shared inheritance. The parochial becomes universal.
‘In ‘Personal Helicon’ he suggests his primary motives for writing poetry: “Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime … is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”‘
‘Geheimnisvoll aber nicht Geheimniskrämerei’
A phrase in German that I’ve seen attributed to Joseph Beuys, but have always understood to be that of painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer… ‘Yes, the voice is that of Kiefer. The quote – “mysterious but not secretive” – exemplifies the idea of making works of art (visual, musical, fiction, poetry, film, etc.), that can contain complexity and ambiguity, that are allusive but that are not elusive, or so obscure as to be impenetrable. I’ve never particularly had any interest in art that is direct and obvious. I enjoy the act of interpreting meaning from works. While I can be emotionally knocked sideways by seeing a work of art, or on hearing a piece of music, whether previously unseen or unheard or familiar, I think that for a work of art to have any lasting resonance it should be difficult in that it deserves more of our attention and scrutiny. It should draw you in, seduce or ambush you with its suggestive possibilities.’
It’s a reference with striking relevance for Ember Glance and its theme of memory. ‘Kiefer’s “works of remembrance” are like his thinking: embedded with multiple allusions to historical references and autobiographical events, yet nothing is expressed literally, or in a linear fashion. The obvious is avoided. Kiefer’s work, like Schwitters’ and Beuys’, explores ideas of transformation and the potential of regeneration. Like Beuys, he uses materials, objects and processes, primarily for their symbolic charge, their metaphoric potential rather than for any desired aesthetic end. Whilst the finished works are, I find, profoundly beautiful in the true sense of the “sublime”, his purpose in the choice of visual elements, the mixture of art and non-art materials and objects, and in the chemical processes he subjects them to, is to make symbolic connections. The objects he uses can seem to be dense with esoteric yet universal symbolism and political meaning, and yet they can be read by anyone willing to put in the time and brainpower to reflect, to extract some specific meaning. As Kiefer has said, “Art is not entertainment.”
‘Most of the artists, writers, musicians, et al, whose work inspires and informs me, tend to work in this way; all make allusive art. I strive, pitifully, to do the same, but hopefully using my own visual language.’
Finally, we hear Jiddu Krishnamurti, the spiritual teacher who spoke passionately of the need for change in humankind and of a truth that was not constrained by organised religion. Famously he said, ‘Truth is a pathless land,’ his conviction being that, ‘A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organise it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallised; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion to be imposed on others.’
‘Observe what is going on in the world together’
Once again there are just a few words uttered here and yet they carry such depth of significance. The sample acts as a pointer to the man and his philosophies. It also draws the listener to the particular speech it is taken from, given at Brockwood Park in 1985 on the first evening of a gathering of some 3,000 people. They’ve come to hear wisdom from Krishnamurti as ‘the speaker’, but he urges those assembled to rather be engaged in a dialogue. The words carry particular poignancy given that they were spoken by the 91-year-old very close to the end of his life, lending them both the authority of a lifetime’s experience and a ghost-like quality.
‘David chose the Krishnamurti sample,’ Russell explains. ‘I guess it simply reflected his growing interest in various eastern religious belief systems at the time. I’ve never been convinced by any religions, especially not esoteric ones and their cult-like status. I’ve always thought that much of their so-called wisdom and teachings have simply been plundered from other religious faiths, and that most of their maxims are no more than the kind of common-sense guidance I’d learnt from my father – dressed up in a kind of New Age profundity.’
Just as the materials for the installation were carefully selected for their relevance to the underpinning themes, the same was true with other sounds that are heard on ‘Epiphany’. ‘The sound samples all came from my collection and were incorporated as being contextually central to the installation, not to be perceived as merely adding atmospheric tints. They were as important as the sculptural objects, the gauze veils, which divided the zones, the lighting and the layout. All elements, in their various juxtapositions, were designed to be complementary and to suggest multifarious interpretations. The generative nature of the technology used (lighting and sound) delivered a ceaselessly shifting series of impressions and allusions to create changing senses of place – internal as well as external.
‘The first sample on the CD, the ethnic voices, I think came from a three part TV documentary series for Channel 4 called The Nature of Music (1988) concerning ritual music from Bali to Bayreuth, or it might’ve been from the fourteen part Beats of the Heart series (1977-1983), both produced, written and directed by Jeremy Marre who sadly died in May this year. Another ex-Royal College of Art student, he was one of the most important music ethnographers of recent times: his documentaries are brilliant.
‘Heaney’s voice gently leads into a recording of an old woman keening at a funeral on the Aran Islands in the extreme west of Ireland. This excerpt was from a tape I made from a beautifully made BBC 4 Radio programme broadcast on 11th December 1982. Written and presented by Kevin Crossley-Holland, it explored the tradition of funeral wailing, a vocal lament for the dead stretching back to the 16th century, which at the time of the programme, was surviving in parts of Asia, Africa and South America, and only just surviving on the Celtic fringes of the British Isles.
‘Crossley-Holland’s gentle reading of his poetic script outlined keening’s traditions and its manifestations so evocatively, that I was captivated. This wordless singing, while generally carried out by one or several women, its choruses were sometimes intoned by all present. He also described how the vocalising was accompanied by physical movements involving rocking, kneeling or clapping. I find keening to be profoundly moving, and at the time of Ember Glance I felt the excerpt, partly for its wordless-ness, and partly for its unintended aesthetic beauty, added another potential associative trigger, which I hoped might lead visitors to consider transience – in all its manifestations.’
Even the rattling of a train on its tracks conjures more than that its literal reference. ‘I have to admit that the sounds of a train were stolen from a Dutch vinyl release of extracts from Edward Artemiev’s soundtracks for Tarkovsky’s Solaris, The Mirror and the brilliant Stalker, one of my all-time favourite films. It comes from the sequence in which the Stalker and his two companions, Writer and Scientist, seekers of the truth, are riding a trolley car into the ‘Zone’. Tarkovsky explained: “In Stalker I make some kind of complete statement: namely that human love alone is – miraculously – proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world.” He added, “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware that beauty is summoning him.” Again, in describing the point of Stalker, he said, “What I am trying to do in it is tear apart the way we look at the present day, and turn to the past, during which mankind made so many mistakes that today we are obliged to live in a kind of fog.” Regarding the ‘Zone’ in particular, he once stated in an interview, “There is only one possible answer: the ‘Zone’ doesn’t exist. Stalker himself invented the ‘Zone’… He created it, so that he would be able to bring there some very unhappy persons and impose on them the idea of hope.” These ideas still inspire my work. In the catalogue for my Happenstance exhibition I wrote: “In Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, the Professor’s quest is to measure the ‘Zone’, a place whose defining quality is its mystery and its innate immeasurability, to subject its supposed miracles to scientific tests, to reduce it all to the predictable and quantifiable procedures of science.”
‘As with Ember Glance, my work still examines this dichotomy between the inherent mysteries of our world, and, in our attempts to understand it, we obsessively subject it wholly inadequate systems of measurement. As Heaney wrote: “credit marvels.”’
When I conceived this quest to unravel the references in ‘Epiphany’, I could never have known how much weight was carried in every clip of word and sound, each relevant to the theme of memory – both personal and collective – and to the transformation that Sylvian and Mills hoped might transpire for visitors interacting with their work.
‘I understand “epiphany” to mean a moment in which one suddenly feels enlightened,’ Mills summarises, ‘where one becomes more attuned to something of great personal importance. Joyce’s use of epiphany in Dubliners (1914), as a “sudden spiritual manifestation, whether from some object, scene, event, or memorable phrase of the mind – the manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produces it”, describes exactly what Ember Glance was about. My thinking was, and still is, that epiphanies are triggered by new or crucial pieces of information, events or observations, but can only be fully appreciated or capitalised on if one has a sufficient depth of prior knowledge, which will allow the leap of understanding necessary to make relevant and hopefully, revelatory connections. I’ve always adhered to Louis Pasteur’s axiom, “Chance favours the prepared observer.”’
David Sylvian – all instruments
Music by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian. From Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory, David Sylvian & Russell Mills, Venture, 1991.
Thank you to Russell Mills for his generous enthusiasm for our conversation and for permission to use photographs of his work. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
A description of the Ember Glance: The Permanence of Memory installation with a gallery of supporting images can be viewed here.
Download links: ‘Epiphany’ (iTunes)
‘John Ruskin in his ‘Stones of Venice’ (1851-53) encapsulates precisely what I am most concerned with in my work: “But what we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting, and to enlighten what is incomprehensible, to incorporate the things that have no measure, and immortalise the things that have no duration”.’ Russell Mills, 2020