Songs With Dirty Words (text)
“His strange, heavy almost waxen face was not lined by experience. Rather, experience seemed to have washed it perfectly smooth, like a stone on a beach whose fissures have been eroded by successive tides.”
A waxen face of waxen flesh. Perhaps the reason that the comparison makes so much sense is that wax has been used as a visual and symbolic substitute for flesh for thousands of years. When warm, wax is able to form itself into the precise point where the associative or poetic meaning of a material is almost indistinguishable from the functional meaning of that material. The description of waxen flesh evokes a sense of the dead-ness in the surface.
White wax of the true consistency should have the quality of lily-backs, with the same flat whiteness as the flowers’ shoulders. Unpacking more than that, reaching the meaning of wax, is much more difficult.
‘Candlepower’, as an idea, is based on measurements taken of the light produced by a pure spermaceti candle weighing one sixth of a pound, and burning at a rate of 120 grams per hour. Spermaceti is found in the head of Sperm Whales, and once was used to make candle wax. Wax might be the space between light and time. Wax makes the flesh of candles as they eat up the slow-burn of the night, and hints at mortality as metaphor. Wax is the feeling beneath the skin, and is intimately related to the flesh.
Wax is the colour of church candles, and of unlined faces illuminated only by candle-light. It is the colour of probing tubers, or tumours beneath the skin. Wax is in the containment magic of seals, and has the power to convey the interiority of an unbroken vessel because of this association. Wax is thick, viscous, malleable and insoluble, repelling water in swelling, dripping globes.
Of animal, plant, or mineral origin, the contours of can feel fattened by grease or even oily to the touch. In English, we say the moon ‘waxes’. Perhaps because the surface of the moon looks like wax. This grainless quality of the moon seems balanced by wax’s quality of stillness.
Wax is used to make waxworks. The flesh of waxworks are still in fleshless death. Wax-lidded eyes do not close in sleep, or rest. They are immobile, solid, and opaque. Waxworks can be heated, melted and re-cast into the shape of someone else. Death masks are made from wax, recreating perfectly the translucent quality of the dead.
In Britain, witches make waxen dolls, called poppets, made of wax. They are also supposed to use wax to take the mice out of houses: catch a mouse and drop him, wriggling, in as much molten wax as will fit into the bottom of a saucepan (a couple of inches deep); cool the wax, and remove it from the pan once it is solid; keep it in your kitchen, with the mouse inside it, and all the other mice will move out.
In 1979 in England, a mother from the town of Plymouth went to her local witch because her daughter had a boyfriend she did not approve of. The witch filled the daughter’s glove with wax, and kept a hold of it until she’d changed her mind, and the girls married a decent navy man instead, six months later.
The physical forms of making are important, and it is possible to find a point within a repetitive process of production where an action is performed over and over and over and over again until the hands know how to make, until the hands have a sensitivity to the object or the idea. This becomes an interesting way to think about these parallel processes of thinking and making; thinking and flesh.
Some of my recent work has revolved around a couple of ideas; death/mortality, and language/thinking. They aren’t so far apart as they might seem at first. A lot of our cultural thinking about death - certainly in a western, northern European context - comes down to the fear of a loss of recognition. A fear of absence, a fear of the loss of specificity in some ways.
Death is very anonymous because it is a common condition. Thinking and language are clearly related to that idea, as ways of defining and articulating self as well as others and the world. Through definition we are able to challenge nothingness, but the disparity – the gap – between thinking and articulation must also always be questioned.
“Death is both alien and intimate to us, neither wholly strange nor purely one’s own. To this extent, ones relationship to it resembles one’s relationship to other people, who are likewise both fellows and strangers. Death may not be exactly a friend, but neither is it entirely an enemy…
My identity lies in the keeping of others… It is others who are the custodians of my selfhood… It is only in the speech I share with them that I can come to mean anything at all. That meaning is not one I can ever fully possess, since neither can those who fashion it.”
Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 2003
This makes me think of the American writer Susan Stewart, who talks about poetry as a form of illumination. She talks about light through articulation, because to illuminate is also to see. She talks about words giving shape to darkness through the entry into it of language and metaphor. Perhaps I’d add the language of making as another way to define and shape.
So this idea of definition is placed as a force that acts against obliteration, loss, death, and darkness. I heard someone say once that art is a series of acts of witness. That the important thing about art is that it notices. Art sees. That’s why, when a country or a society is taken over by a tyrant, the first thing to be banned, to be controlled, is art. Art in becomes an act of subversion or resistance, and yet it seems as though it can never be stamped out. Sometimes I imagine art as a compulsion, like shaking, or grief, that comes from deep inside a group of people, who don’t seem able to stop. Art was made inside the Nazi Concentration camps. Its is made in prisons, in mental hospitals, and in the horror of civil war and revolution.
Art might be thought about as a way for cultures to bear witness to horror and atrocity. I’m talking here about the practice of art, the gesture of what it means to make art, rather than any single artwork. But sometimes we can also see the moment of witness as it might be spoken about in an individual work. Maybe we can think about pieces like Picasso’s Guernica, or Even Anselm Keifer’s Grane.
But even in the most optimistic of still-lives, for instance, we see the transience of flesh. These objects are recorded, here, and fixed. But they will be moved, and broken, and lost. The image becomes a symbol of pre-imagined loss.
That reminds me of the David Bowie song from the Ziggy Stardust album – 5 Years. It’s a song where he imagines that the world only has 5 years left before the apocalypse. Knowing this, knowing that the end of the world is coming, he sings:
“My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spareâï¿½¨
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there”
And he lists some of the things he’s trying to remember. They’re very ordinary things. “telephones, opera house, favourite melodies, boys, toys, electric irons and TV's”âï¿½¨
And that very throwaway, even facetious lyric becomes a call to notice things that are not permanent and, by noticing, to bear witness to them.
Somehow, to notice things is the opposite of Nothingness, and so Art is a continual conversation with the idea of Death, and the permanence of loss. This reminds me that I’m always interested in the idea of memorials. Especially civic memorials as opposed to private memorials. When a country or a city or a town or a person decides to visibly remember something, it becomes an important way of marking a death or a loss, so that it is noticed and visibly described. So that a loss becomes a presence, and something that is not there, becomes visible for all to see.
At the beginning I talked a little bit about wax, and how I’d like to find a way to work with it. Perhaps that brings me back to the idea I’d like to finish with: that sometimes something can be palpable, without necessarily having to be described. Just as warm wax can take almost any shape, can reflect almost all intentions, so art and the thinking about it can change their shapes a thousand times without becomes brittle.