Catalogue Essay for the Roche Court Sculpture Park
SUCH SADNESS LIES IN THE HOLLOW CONTOURS
OF HER IVORY FACE; COLD, HALF-HIDDEN
BENEATH ITS HOODED BLACKS.
TONIGHT SHE WILL QUIETLY TURN AWAY
ASHAMED BY HER LACK OF WARMTH.
In the beginning was the Word, and the need to create signs to describe, interpret and tame the world goes back 25,000-30,000 years. To make a mark or a cut is, like all good graffitists know, a bid for immortality. The oldest known writing system, Cunei form, dates back some 5,000 years. In western culture the finest illuminated manuscripts were produced during the Middle Ages when the monastery functioned as a place of culture and education, producing and reproducing editions of Greek and Roman texts and the Bible. These were written in book-hand half uncial and uncial type on wax tablets, papyrus rolls and parchment. Western calligraphy and lettering has evolved into an art where creativity stems from rigorous discipline. Only after its mastery are new techniques and, perhaps, abstracted characters embraced. Unlike a typeface, irregularity in the characters’ size and style adds meaning to the Greek translation “beautiful letters”. Fonts, words and phrases can be explored to the point of visual, technical and aesthetic abstraction so that a work can, in the end, be experienced like a contemporary painting. The content may have become completely illegible, but it will not necessarily be less meaningful.
Many cultures have a tradition of riddle-poems. Among the earliest to come down to us are the Babylonian, which were incised on wax tablets. Others appear in the Rig Veda, the Bible and the Koran. The riddle had many functions; they may have been a form of magic or a test of knowledge. In the case of the riddle of the Sphinx, who guarded the gates of Thebes, a failure to answer her arcane question: ‘What has one voice, goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?’ (it was, of course, Man and Oedipus who gave the correct answer) resulted in certain death. In Mayan culture aspirants to prestigious positions were asked to interpret coded phrases of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel.
Just under a hundred Anglo-Saxon riddles have come down to us in the Exeter Book bequeathed to the Cathedral Library in 1072 by the first bishop of the diocese, Leofric. Their survival is something of a miracle. The manuscript was probably written or transcribed late in the tenth century – though many were first composed in the seventh or eighth century. Variously used as a beer mat, a chopping board and damaged by fire the manuscript has been badly ravished. Who composed these riddles and why is not clear and the scribe who wrote them did not include the solutions. In fact they may have been short oral pieces used to entertain the audience between performances of epics such as Beowulf or have been sung by minstrels around a smoking fire. Many are translations from the Latin. But through them we catch a glimpse of an Anglo-Saxon world not found elsewhere in Old English literature.They share with other Anglo-Saxon poetry the sense that all things form part of a living continuum, any element of which can speak with its own voice. This vision was to be echoed centuries later in the poetry of the Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose notion of ‘inscape’ was based on the belief that the unique characteristics of each thing reflected the glory of God:”Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”
The subject matter and tone of riddles was enormously varied. They were concerned with war as well as with the new Christian faith that swept through England in the seventh century. Some were witty, others ribald with an earthy sense of humour that relied on double entrendres. Many were concerned with the stuff of everyday life, with matters both great and small. They named icebergs and onions, swallows and storms. They described ploughs and anchors, animals and bird life and have been called the songs of ‘the unsung labourer’. It is as if, within the riddle, the familiar came to life and the mystery of the world was made manifest. The objects described were not seen as inert but considered to be living entities with their own histories. A spear or a cross, for example, was once a tree. Objects may, also, have gone through a period of tribulation to find their final form. Stoicism, and what was considered to be the Christian acceptance of pain, was characteristic. A sword endured the trials of the battlefield to become strong, while parchment suffered to become a holy Bible. Riddles often opened with lines like”! am a marvel” as though the authors were so awestruck by the miracle of Creation that they wanted, through the medium of the riddle, to describe the world of God in all its splendour.
This exhibition, then, at Roche Court is about collaboration; the collaboration between the hand of the carver and the mind’s eye of the poet. It reveals how the word can be made visual and the visual can extend the meaning of language. As Gary Breeze has said, a sculpture is like a riddle. For all good art intrigues and challenges, refusing to relinquish its deepest meanings with the first casual glance. A lump of stone is just a lump of stone until the sculptor sets to with his or her tools to set free its secret meaning. As the French philosopher poet Gaston Bachelard writes,”memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.” Memory is the territory of the poet and fixing those memories in space has, here, become the letter-cutter’s role.Through the long slow process of the carver’s art the transient image of the poet becomes anchored and literally ‘set in stone.’
Creativity is a form of cultivation; both language and visual ideas start as a ‘seed’ or a ‘green fuse’, which like the spring bulbs hidden deep beneath the well mulched soil or the twiggy herbaceous border plants waiting for the warmer weather to send forth new growth, will only reveal themselves within their own time. Set in the beautiful kitchen garden of Roche Court – a garden hidden within the larger park – one surrounded by weathered brick walls that can only be entered through a number of narrow gates, this exhibition is like a secret waiting to be discovered. The newly carved riddles by contemporary poets found here are experienced first as objects. The text initially functions as a series of visual signs, which only with patience on the part of the viewer, slowly like a riddle, discloses its meaning. The old garden is redolent with small tales of past cultivation and the day to day domesticity of an English country house. There are cold frames and glass houses, antique tools and fragments of pots, stone and slate. The historic function of all these artefacts is not always apparent but many are the sort of working objects about which the Anglo-Saxons would have created their riddles. The subjects chosen by today’s poets are elemental and include stone, time, a house, slate, the earth and a chisel. Such objects and themes seem to invite the creation of metaphors.
The tradition of the riddle is the creative use of metaphor, simile, and metonymy, where the description of an object is both concrete yet highly imaginative.The metaphor is a device of the poetic imagination, a rhetorical flourish and a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Often it is viewed as characteristic of language alone; a matter of words rather than of actions, yet the metaphor is pervasive in how we view everyday life. Our ordinary conceptual system, how we both think and act is, in many ways, metaphorical in nature. This plays a central role in defining our everyday reality, in how we perceive the world and relate to other people, so that the way we think and our understanding is very much a matter of metaphor. It is this quality that can be found in the riddle. For these knotty little linguistic puzzles insist that we see the ordinary with new eyes and experience the world afresh. In our fast moving lives where so much is transient, where words are hardly, any longer, committed to paper, let alone stone, the hand-carved riddle provides a point of stillness and intimacy. These beautiful yet modest objects create a space where we are able to focus our attention and find moments of quiet contemplation outside the hurly-burly and, as Bachelard wrote ‘unlock a door to daydreaming.’
THE ANSWER: THE MOON
Riddle by Sue Hubbard
Poets’ Riddles in Stone at Roche Court Sculpture Park from 21 June to 7 September 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images subject to copyright of the Artists