Absence and Essence

Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)

He isn’t mentioned in this book, but he haunts it like a semiotic spectre at a phantasmic feast. Yes, this is a very Ballardian book and I’m sure J.G. Ballard would have liked it. And perhaps been inspired by it to write one of his haunting stories about abandoned buildings or aircraft, about human artefacts slowly succumbing to nature and the elements and the ineluctable forces of entropy.

But Ballard’s omission isn’t surprising. There’s little room to mention anyone or anything here: apart from a brief foreword by the compiler Mathew (sic) Growcoot, there’s nothing but section headings, photographs and brief captions. I like the absence of words and the abundance of images. Abandoned buildings and artefacts are fertile not only for Ballardianism but also for bullshit. You can imagine what po-mo-ticians would make of the anomic alienation and transliminal alterities on display here.

As it is, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves: silently, subtly, seductively. There’s everything from fairgrounds and theatres to jails and asylums, from rusting aircraft to sunken ships. The photographs are all variants on the single theme of abandonment, of what happens when bustle and busy-ness turn into quietness and contemplation. And the buildings and other artefacts do seem to be contemplating themselves or their own decay, like a Buddhist monk sinking slowly into deeper and deeper into meditation until he begins to merge into what surrounds him, becoming one with the world. But the power in the photos comes partly from what isn’t there: the human beings who created what nature is now reclaiming. That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.

They’re abandoned: human beings should be absent. The ab- of “abandoned” and the ab- of “absence” aren’t actually the same, but it’s appropriate that they seem to be. The ab- of “absence” is from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “from, away”. When a building or machine is abandoned, people have gone away. Something is subtracted and something else takes its place: an eeriness, a melancholy, a murmur of memento mori – “remember that you die”, that all things must pass. That eeriness comes in different flavours with different kinds of abandonment. The section headings run like this: “Abandoned Homes, Abandoned Recreation, Abandoned Rooms, Abandoned Journeys, Abandoned Society, Abandoned Industry”.

The photos of abandoned fairgrounds, theatres and stadiums – “Abandoned Recreation” – are in some ways the most powerful, because the absence is most present there. Crowds of people once filled these places with noise and activity – they laughed, cheered, applauded, had fun. Now paint is peeling off the colourful walls of a “Gym in a derelict school, Arctic circle.” Frost-whitened trees surround a stationary “Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl, Ukraine”. Shadows and slanting sunbeams fill an “Abandoned theatre near Berlin, Germany”.

No-one’s there: the crowds have gone. These places are abandoned to absence. But if the photos in “Abandoned Recreation” are in some ways the most powerful, they’re also in some ways the least powerful. Fairgrounds, gyms and theatres were regularly abandoned even when they were in use: the crowds would come and go, like tides filling a bay. It’s just that one day the crowds went and never came back. The private homes of other sections never had the same noise and activity, but they didn’t fill and empty like fairgrounds and theatres. People were always or almost always there, so their absence now is a stranger and sharper thing. Men, women and children did intimate, ordinary things there, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century. And now the thread is broken: the people are gone. No-one will ever sit in the sagging armchair or play the collapsed piano of a “Living area in industrial site, Austria”. No child will push the wheeled little horse in the “Nursery, Château de Moulbaix, Belgium” or look at the pictures on the walls.

But the sadness isn’t very strong in the nursery, because a nursery isn’t a permanent place. It’s akin to a theatre: abandonment is always natural there, because children grow up and leave. No, the sadness is strongest in places that were built to be in permanent use, like houses. Except that nothing is permanent. A nursery is used for a few years; a house might be used for decades or centuries. But in the end it will pass away, perhaps quickly, if it’s demolished, or slowly, if it’s abandoned. Demolition has its delights too, but abandonment is subtler and slyer. Its power follows a curve, first rising, then falling. The most powerful photos here have the least change in them, because they have been taken when the abandonment is most recent. Dust and shadows have taken over, but everything is still more-or-less intact.

When the abandonment is older and ceilings and floors have collapsed, as in the “Collapsed villa, Italy” and the “Collapsed palace, Italy”, there’s less power in the photographs. Or a different kind of power. Humans have been gone much longer and their absence is less poignant, less powerful. Their ghosts are fainter. And sometimes there are no ghosts, because something else has taken the place of humans. In the “Old overgrown glasshouse, Belgium” and the “Shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand”, it’s vegetation, green and growing. In the the “House full of sand, Kolmanskop, Namibia”, it’s sand, slanted and scalloped. Or perhaps you could say that here the ghosts themselves have become ghosts.

“Ghostly” is certainly the word for the photographs in this book. The ghostliness comes in different forms and flavours, as the photographs capture both what’s there and what isn’t. Or rather: they capture what’s there and your mind conjures what isn’t. Absence is essence. Abandoned is a Ballardian book of phantasmic photography and I think Ballard would have enjoyed it a lot.

Leech Unleashed

The Great Beast writes:

I witnessed a remarkable sight on the road to Chabanjong, which was here a paka rasta (that is, a road made by engineers as opposed to kacha rasta, a track made by habit or at most by very primitive methods) wide enough for carts to pass. I had squatted near the middle of the road as being the least damp and leech-infested spot available and got a pipe going by keeping the bowl under my waterproof. I lazily watched a leech wriggling up a blade of tall grass about fifteen inches high and smiled superiorily at its fatuity — though when I come to think of it, my own expedition was morally parallel; but the leech was not such a fool as I thought. Arrived at the top, it began to set the stalk swinging to and fro; after a few seconds it suddenly let go and flew clean across the road. The intelligence of and ingenuity of the creature struck me as astonishing. — The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography (1929), ch. 52

Colorfool

Album primo-avrilesque, meaning April-Foolish Album, is a collection of visual jokes published by the French humourist Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) on 1st April 1897. Note that some of the captions can’t be translated fully into English, because they use French idioms that refer to color.

Combat de nègres dans une cave, pendant la nuit
Negroes fighting in a cellar at night


Stupeur de jeunes recrues apercevant pour la première fois ton azur, O Méditerranée!
Astonishment of young naval recruits seeing for the first time your blue, O Mediterranean!


Des souteneurs, encore dans la force de l’âge et le ventre dans l’herbe, boivant de l’absinthe
Pimps, still in the prime of life and with bellies to the grass, drinking absinthe
(Pimps were then known as dos verts or “green-backs”)


Manipulation de l’ocre par des cocus ictériques
Handling of ochre by jaundiced cuckolds
(According to one page I’ve found, coucou is the name given to some yellow wild-flowers, and cuckolds can be yellow with jealousy)


Récolte de la tomate par des cardinaux apoplectiques au bord de la mer Rouge (Effet d’aurore boréale)
Harvesting of tomatoes by apoplectic cardinals on the shore of the Red Sea (effect of the Aurora Borealis)


Ronde de pochards dans le brouillard
Dance of drunks in the fog
(Slang for “drunk” in French is gris, which also means “gray”)


Première communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par un temps de neige
First communion of anaemic young girls in snowy weather


Marche funèbre, composée pour les funérailles d’un grand homme sourd
Funeral March, composed for the obsequies of a great deaf man


Loricifera Rising

Marine Loriciferan Pliciloricus enigmaticus

The very Lovecraftian Loriciferan Pliciloricus enigmaticus (Higgins & Kristensen, 1986)


N.B. The title of this incendiary intervention is a paronomasia on Kenneth Anger’s film Lucifer Rising (1972) (which I ain’t never seen nohow).

Go Too Woke on an Egg

Goop to pay out over unproven health benefits of vaginal eggs

Goop, the new age lifestyle and publishing company founded by the [actress] Gwyneth Paltrow, has agreed to pay a substantial settlement over unproven claims about the health benefits of its infamous vaginal eggs. Goop’s website still claims that inserting the eggs into the vagina helps “cultivate sexual energy, clear chi pathways in the body, intensify femininity, and invigorate our life force”.

Its $66 Jade Egg and $55 Rose Quartz egg are still offered for sale on the site, but the company has agreed to pay $145,000 to settle allegations that it previously made unscientific claims about the eggs, and a herbal essence that it had said helped tackle depression.

It also agreed to refund customers who purchased the products from January to August last year. During that period it claimed the eggs could balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse, and increase bladder control, according to officials in Santa Clara part of a group of California district attorneys who filed the lawsuit. — Goop to pay out over unproven health benefits of vaginal eggs, The Guardian, 5ix2018.


N.B. The title of this incendiary intervention is a paronomasia on the old British advertising slogan “Go to work on an egg.”

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #43

Me dijo que su libro se llamaba el Libro de Arena, porque ni el libro ni la arena tienen ni principio ni fin. — Jorge Luis Borges, “El Libro de Arena” (1975)

   He told me that his book was called the Book of Sand, because neither book nor sand has beginning or end. — Borges, “The Book of Sand

Sphere Hear

οὐσίαν θεοῦ σφαιροειδῆ, μηδὲν ὅμοιον ἔχουσαν ἀνθρώπωι· ὅλον δὲ ὁρᾶν καὶ ὅλον ἀκούειν, μὴ μέντοι ἀναπνεῖν· σύμπαντά τε εἶναι νοῦν καὶ φρόνησιν καὶ ἀίδιον. — Διογένης Λαέρτιος, Βίοι καὶ γνῶμαι τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ εὐδοκιμησάντων

    “The substance of God is spherical, in no way resembling man. He is all eye and all ear, but does not breathe; he is the totality of mind and thought, and is eternal.” — Xenophanes’ concept of God in Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (c. 280-320 AD), Book IX, chapter 2 (translated by R.D. Hicks, 1925)

Vibe Alibe

“The recent election of Syriza in Greece offers a vibrant glimmer of hope for the future of social and economic democracy in Europe.” — from a letter to The Guardian by Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, Jacqueline Rose, et al.

The Sound of Silex

Some of the most beautiful patterns in nature arise from the interaction of three very simple things: sand and water, sand and air. Sculptrix Sabulorum, a side-project of the Exeter band Slow Exploding Gulls, are an attempt to do with sound what nature does with sand: turn simple ingredients into beautiful patterns. Here are extracts from an interview and review in the Plymouth fanzine EarHax:

Hector Anderton: OK. The obvious first. Sculptrix Sabulorum. What does it mean and why did you choose it?

Joe Corvin: It’s Latin and literally means “Sculptress of the Sands”. We chose it, well, because we thought it looked and sounded good. Good but mysterious.

Hector Anderton: And who is the sculptress? The sea?

Joe Corvin: Well, the sculptress is Mother Nature, in the fullest sense, but she uses the sea. The wind. Gravity. Simple things, but put them together with sand and interesting things happen.

Cath Orne: Which we wanted to explore, but we didn’t think S.E.G. [Slow Exploding Gulls] was the way to explore them.

Cover of Silica by Slow Exploding Gulls

Hector Anderton: But hadn’t you done that in Silica?

Joe Corvin: We’d started to, but Silica hadn’t exhausted the theme. Of sand, I mean. It’s something I’d always been interested in, but with S.E.G. we tend to go with the organic side of the sea, with sea life.

Hector Anderton: Whereas sand is inorganic?

Joe Corvin: Exactly. Silica was a bit of a departure for us, in that respect. It was as though we were walking down a corridor and we opened a door in passing and thought, yeah, that room looks interesting.

Sand Band: Sculptrix Sabulorum

Sand Band: Sculptrix Sabulorum

Cath Orne: So we’ll come back and have a proper look later.

Joe Corvin: Yeah. Under a new name. Which we’ve done. Hence, Sculptrix Sabulorum.

Extract © EarHax (1992)


Skulsonik, Sculptrix Sabulorum (Umbra Mundi 1995)

Macca to Madonna: “Listen to the music playing in your head.” In fact, we never do anything else. We don’t experience the world: we experience a sensory simulacrum of the world. Light or sound-waves or chemicals floating in the air stimulate the nerves in our eyes or ears or nose and the brain turns the resultant stream of electrical pulses into sight or sound or smell.

Skulsonik (1995)

Sculptrix Sabulorum: Skulsonik (1995)

But it does more than that: it covers up the cracks. Raw nerve-stuff is not smooth and polished sensation. We have blind-spots, but the brain edits them out. Only a small part of our visual field is actually in clear focus, but we think otherwise. If we could see raw nerve-stuff, it would be a blurry, fuzzy mess.

The same is true of hearing. And Skulsonik is an attempt to record raw nerve-stuff: to capture not sound out there, but sound in here – the music playing in your head. Sculptrix Sabulorum have set out to answer a simple question: “What does music really sound like?” Or rather: what does music cerebrally sound like? What does it sound like in your head?

Extract © EarHax (1995)


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Mental Marine Music – Slow Exploding Gulls

Pestilent, Pustulent and Pox-Pocked

I’m sorry, but let’s face facts: you cannot consider yourself a keyly committed core component of the counter-cultural community unless you own at least three copies — a reading copy, a prominent-shelf-of-the-bookcase copy and a wrap-carefully-in-brown-paper-put-away-in-a-cupboard-and-never-touch-or-look-at-again copy — of each of these toxic’n’tenebrose titles:

Can the Cannibal? Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro, 1974-1986 (University of Nebraska Press 2004)

Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010 (Serpent’s Tail 2007)

Re-Light My Führer: Nausea, Noxiousness and Neo-Nazism in the Music of Take That, 1988-2007 (U.N.P. 2013)

Base Citizens Raping: Revulsion, Repulsion and Rabidity in the Music of the Bay City Rollers, 1972-2002 (U.N.P. 2014)

Underground, Jehovahground: Ferality, Fetidity and Fundamentalist Phantasmality in the Music of the Wombles, August 1974-January 1975 (forthcoming)

All are by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers, of course. And what can I say about them? Simply this: these books hold an uncompromising mirror up before the pestilent, pustulent and pox-pocked features of so-called Western so-called society and say: “Look. That’s you, that is.” Dr Stimbers’ ruthlessly radical research and sizzlingly psychoanalytic scholarship will overturn your preconceptions so hard that, in some cases, they won’t appear to change at all.