On 25 May, Vanessa Cunnew introduced visitors to our exhibition and to the work of architect Eileen Gray. She focused on Kasper Akhøj’s photographic series Welcome (to the Teknival), making unexpected connections with Japanese Symbolist poetry and stick-insects. Here is a transcript of her talk:
This exhibition is called: ‘I Blew On Mr. Greenhill’s Main Joints With A Very ‘Hot’ Breath’. It introduces the idea of the hot, healing breath of Tropical Modernism.
In early Modernism especially after the First World War, there were many experimental ideas in healing and mental health. For example, in 1935 the De La Warr Pavilion was co-commissioned with the Ministry of Health. Brazilian artist Tamar Guimarães and Danish artist Kasper Akhøj are interested in the telling of ‘Minor Histories’: awakenings from suppression…and eclipse.
Considered by the artists as a process of healing, they present three films and a series of photographs. Two of the films in the exhibition are made collaboratively. The eighteen photographs by Kasper Akhøj show Villa E1027, an icon of early Modern architecture by Irish architect, Eileen Gray. Built as gift for her lover, the codename interlaces their initials : E for Eileen and 7 for G (seventh in the alphabet ). Today, I thought we might explore Villa E1027 through the Japanese ideas in Symbolist poetry…as a minor history of ‘space’.
Inspired by the soundworld of the films, I have tried to create a musical instrument of seven photographs…or healing bells. You are welcome to listen to just one …or maybe more, if you wish.
In Japan, healing bells take the form of water bowls. They have been considered, since ancient times to have supernatural powers of healing. Tomoko Sauvage, Japanese-French sound artist explains her technique on Exposure on BBC Radio 3:
‘…I am using five bowls, four porcelain and one glass of different sizes and filled with water. Each bowl is amplified with a hydrophone…an underwater microphone, and I also have a mixer to control the intensity of the sound and also some electronics to modify the sound…I am constantly playing with (chance), especially with the acoustics of the room. Also the number of people who are there…changes completely the acoustics, and of course, the water is evaporating all the time…’
On a rugged hillside seen from a calm sea, on a cloudy day, is Villa E1027 designed by Irish architect Eileen Gray. To build on a hillside Gray uses a pioneering concrete frame structure. Developed in 1902 by bridge designer Francois Hennebique, this technique was used for the construction of sanatoria on the edges of steep gorges. Every room was exposed to south-facing sunlight and sweeping horizontal windows opened wide to mountain air. Only just visible in this photograph, are the horizontal pale grey sun-canopies made of sail-cloth, on the Villa’s south-facing facade. They are the same pale grey as the curtains in the gallery forming a soft-sculpture around three cinemas. The cinemas were designed collaboratively with designer Frederico Fazenda. They create acoustic cocoons.
In 1935 Gray briefly met Erich Mendelsohn the architect of the De La Warr Pavilion. The curtains in the gallery evoke the curtains for the Pavilion’s unbuilt cinema. The curves and micro-curves of the curtains have, for Tamar Guimarães, the reality ‘of walls less solid…more porous… unable to contain the subtle substances that inhabit them.’ They appear to breathe like lungs… or to airlift to a hovering, intangible hospital like spiritual helicopters.
Textile designer Petra Blaise mentions another key word…voyage in ‘A Curtain Can Be A Political Statement’:
“I believe that the way curtains make a path can influence… and that their form in reality is like a choreography of movement that does not belong to the curtain alone but also…to the people that use the space that is changed by it.”
Villa E1027 is known in France as ‘Maison en bord de mer’ (House by the Sea). It is set adrift by the ideas of French Symbolist poetry. Kasper Akhøj presents a document of the restoration of Villa E1027 over ten years. He has sought to use the same camera angle as Grayto recreate her original portfolio of black-and-white photographs taken when Villa E1027 was completed in 1929. There is a sense of both photographers being equally present and absent. Akhøj told me that he used a 1950s camera to take these photographs. This was a time when Eileen Gray’s work fell into obscurity.
French Symbolist Paul Verlaine, imprisoned for his poetry, expresses the idea of nuance, the sense of something not quite there in Art Poetique 1884:
“Do not choose your words without some mis-translation, Nothing more precious than the grey song, Where the wavering and the precise are joined…Not colour, nothing but Nuance!’
My mis-translations use a French dictionary from 1924, the year Gray began her designs for Villa E1027.
FLEURS DU MAL
In the winter edition of the magazine ‘Living Architecture’, Eileen Gray’s photograph of the ‘living-sleeping’ room of Villa E1027 appeared. In the background was a large navigational chart of French coastlines. The words ‘Invitation au Voyage’ (Invitation to a Voyage) were emblazoned across it. This is the title of a poem by Charles Baudelaire. It contains a dream of sensual Modernism described as an ‘immanent cosmic current’ (from www.etudes-litteraires) It was published in ‘Fleurs du mal’ or Flowers of Evil in 1857. A complex rejection of decadence, it was immediately banned as immoral. Gray’s black-and-white photograph was stenciled over with bold pockets of colour, called ‘pochoirs’ in French. This is also the word in French for ‘black eye’.
In this ‘remade’ photograph by Kasper Akhøj, leaning against the same wall of the ‘living-sleeping’ room there is a displaced exterior shutter. Above there is an arrhythmic musical score of toxic fingerprints. The wall is heavily bruised with forensic ‘fleurs du mal’. They capture the disquieting soundworld of this broken interior. Shown in the centre of the room is the benign ceremony of a site-table. The scene looks like an improvised hospital in a war-zone.
In 1926 Eileen Gray designed a small tea-table especially for this room. A circular tray of polished chrome hovers above a lacquered tabletop on an elegant pivoting armature. It is mirrored at low-level by a second pivoting tray. It was intended for the ease of serving tea standing-up or sitting-down. For me, this table has an echo of a moon above a smooth surface of water with its reflection below. This is how contemporary Japanese music composer Yuka Takechi might imagine herself in Gray’s living-sleeping room…
‘This room is particularly for tea, a tea room, a tea-ceremony room. I think it is a very zen room. I imagine if I could be here… maybe I could compose very beautiful work…’ (From ‘Night Blossoms’ on BBC Radio 3)
This is Eileen Gray’s Non-Conformist Chair. To me it looks like a wounded chair, with one arm abruptly absent. The other oversized arm, is softly curved and muscular. It was designed to be pushed against the wall to create a corner ‘study’ in the small guest-room of Villa E1027. Yet its enforced asymmetry is elegant and compassionate. Gray was an ambulance driver in France in the First World War. This chair is perhaps a self-portrait, captured by Kasper Akhøj in an unblemished corner of the Villa. It expresses Gray’s wish for her designs to be ‘simple and healthy’. It reminds me somehow of the stick-insect shown in fragile equipoise on a masculine arm in the film-work ’A Minor History of Trembling Matter’. The insect looks like a tiny green word or a mini-musical instrument that has come to life.
The austerity of Gray’s designs possess an aura. She believed in space as ‘a living organism’ evoking the Japanese concept of space, called ‘ma’. Shakuhachi player, Rei Jin explains in ‘Night Blossoms’ on BBC Radio 3:
‘…if you see the space, the calligraphy…the sounds…in particular for the Japanese flute player, when you are breathing through that sound, towards the end…there is that meeting between silence and the sound, which is the ‘ma’.
This photograph has the beauty of Japanese lacquerwork. It also evokes the Art Deco Metro canopies of Belle Epoque Paris where Eileen Gray became a celebrated furniture designer. It shows the interior view of a sky-lantern above a spiral staircase. It is a sculpture that opens onto a roof-terrace garden formed simply of grey gravel. A Japanese garden of contemplation. As we move through the gallery, the space seems to become this grey-garden… which we inhabit like spirits.
The roof plan of Villa E1027 is also a plan-portrait of Gray’s lover. The lantern represents his eye. Although the sky-lantern is pure white, in this photograph the metal glazing bars are seen in silhouette. The light through them echoes the diaphanous verse of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Invitation to a Voyage’.
One day, a child in the gallery described this photograph as a dandelion. It captures the idea of a cloud-like dehiscence, a seed-burst of voices, a dispersal into unexpected future territories. The lantern is in the shape of a logarithmic spiral in the Golden Ratio. This ratio is known as an ‘irrational’ number. It is present in nature, art and astrophysics. In botanical growth, it ensures that one leaf can never fully eclipse another…it creates dappled light beneath a tree.
French founder of Spiritism, Allan Kardec describes ‘spirits’ as ‘intelligent beings that influence our world.’ Perhaps they are also ‘irrational’ numbers. ‘…Also, the sound which was very simple… was very particular because of the water waves, making a…flowing glissando, natural movement in sounds.’ Tomoko Sauvage, Japanese-French sound artist (From ‘Exposure’ on BBC Radio 3)
This photograph shows a folding French cafe-table. Placed carefully on top are bubble-wrapped slats of wood. They are salvaged pieces of Eileen Gray’s built-in furniture. ‘Plaque de Porte – Gauche’ (Door Panel – Left ) is handwritten by a conservator across bands of white tape. This plastic bundle looks like a white sea bird with a broken wing, ringed for identification before being set free. Behind it is a bi-folding window with sliding exterior shutters. There is a zig-zag progression from firm-closure to an open window with the foliage of a botanical garden seen beyond. It echoes the process of re-wilding, restoration or healing. Gray developed her transition to abstract ideas through her work as an outstanding lacquer artist. She worked with Japanese master Seizo Sougawara creating folding lacquer screens. On the window sill, in this photograph of the guest-room in Villa E1027, a conservator has left a small black brush. It looks like a lacquerwork brush left by Gray. There is a reflection of the room interior in the folding window. Kasper Akhøj is standing in this room out of view to take this photograph. Perhaps we see Eileen Gray.The room we see may not be Villa E1027…but the gallery where we are standing, to view the photograph. Imagined in the window-reflection, hovering over the restoration table, like a healing astral city, is the wingspan of the Pavilion’s contemporary bandstand set free from its restoration cage of scaffolding and translucent white plastic. There is a zig-zag of reality. In Negoro style : ‘The red lacquer wears away gradually and irregularly with use (revealing the black lacquer underneath) producing the effect of natural ageing for which these pieces are highly appreciated.’ Sean Pathesema, museum photographer and Jihei Murase, lacquer artist.
This enigmatic garden feature is a solarium. There is a broken table in the middle for drinks. The glazed black tiles are gently inclined towards the sun. They absorb heat by day and radiate warmth at night. Perhaps it is also for naked stargazing…
For me, it looks like a meteor-crater. The trenches of two World Wars are submerged in this ‘pochoir’, this black eye of the twentieth century. It also evokes the ‘poema enterrado’ or ‘buried poem’ of Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar who died two years ago. He was imprisoned for his poetry, by the Military Dictatorship on his return from exile where he wrote his epic ‘Dirty Poem’ : “Oh, my dirty city you suffer deeply in silence, from the shame the family smothers in its deepest drawe of faded dresses of tattered shirts of legions of degraded people barely eating yet embroidering flowers on their tablecloths on their table centrepieces with water jars.”
This embroidery-scar says ‘ Welcome (to the Teknival)’. It is also the title for the complete series of eighteen photographs by Kasper Akhøj. During the restoration process, this sardonic graffiti was first overpainted in gloss black camouflage later to re-emerge…as a white bruise. It expresses perhaps the ephemeral and enduring nature of photography.
In a musical eclipse of underwater bells, Symbolist composer, Claude Debussy writes on his musical score these dynamic markings for loud and soft playing: “Deeply calm. In a ringing (Gray) mist Soft and fluid Without nuance Little by little emerging from the (Gray) mist Growing, progressively louder, without rushing Ringing without harshness A little less slow In an expression growing and stirring Expressive and concentrated Into movement Floating and hollow An echo of the first phrase With the ringing sound of the opening…” For me these markings echo the eclipse and eminence of Eileen Gray’s work and the beauty of Kasper Akhøj’s photographs. The Symbolists put titles at the end of their work. The words ‘Entrez Lentement’ (Enter Slowly) are stenciled by Gray in yachting graphics above this small entrance to Villa E1027. Slowly…space evolves through the invitation to a voyage.