Reading: Iain Banks — Whit (3rd time)

Continuing my circuitous re-reading of Iain Banks for the nth time. Of his lesser-acclaimed works at that. Whit was a birthday present from Gala in 2007. Coincidently, I bought Whit for myself the same day. So I have two copies. This is the one Gala gave to me. Unlike Feersum Endjinn or The Business, both of which I’ve read near-double figures of times, Whit I’ve only read three, maybe four times. It’s a strange one, possibly aligned with works like The Wasp Factory or Feersum Endjinn, rather than the ‘return home’ novels like Espedair Street, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, or Stonemouth. It occurs to me here that his classic form of these ‘return home’ novels all have a white, cis, hetero male protagonist, and that this genre in Banks’ œvre is the one for which he received the most mainstream, authentic acclaim — whatever acclaim he received for his Culture novels, they’re sci-fi, and in the world of literature, genre is never authentic.

Against those mainstream genre works — which I also love, just not dealing with here — we have the majority of the rest of his works which feature women, sometimes straight, often queer, brown as often as white, and if we’re talking his sci-fi stuff then by today’s language they’re all trans. And yet.

Of course, it could be me. I could be wrong. Always check the equipment for sensor error first.

Says protagonist of The Business (which I’ve also just re-read and have to write about) Kate Telman, shortly after she’d mused, “Maybe they’re both closet misogynists.”

And yet.

My love of Iain Banks, of the critical utopia he proposes in the Culture, of him as a person and what he stood for (diversity, feminism, and hooning!) makes it difficult for me to not find what I’m looking for. It’s there. I read him and I find this. Right down to the Indo-Scottish fusion he himself says (in Raw Spirit) he took to mouth-wateringly hilarious lengths in Whit with haggis pakora and other Indo-Gael cookery (which is a thing, and I would eat it).

I said Whit isn’t a ‘return home’ genre, yet that’s not strictly true. Isis, or The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, has more in common with Asura/Count Sessine from Feersum Endjinn, Lady Sharrow of Against a Dark Background, or Vyr Cossont of The Hydrogen Sonata than Prentice of The Crow Road or Alban of Garbadale, though like them, she uncovers family secrets in her journey away from and return to home. Unlike those latter two, she’s a woman, and as with some of the main characters in Feersum Endjinn, she’s queer, at least bisexual if not more, though highly compartmentalised in her personal desires, describes her close physical relationship with her neighbour as sisterly, and herself as not knowing what or who she wants, if anything. As well, possibly slightly neurodiverse, another aspect of selfhood Banks repeatedly wrote, whether Bascule in Feersum Endjinn, Oramen in Matter, or the mob who make up most of his stories who live with PTSD, depression, and other variations. So here’s the main character of a novel who’s a queer, bisexual, somewhat asexual woman who’s handy working the fields and taking out Nazi skinheads with Tabasco Sauce-filled water pistols. And she’s brown. It’s there in her name: Saraswati, her grandmother a daughter of immigrants to the Hebrides from Khalmakistan, another one of those parallel Earth Himalayan countries like The Business’ Thulahn. (And I said Banks doesn’t really do multiverse, so draw your own conclusions.)

One of those meme-type things that sweeps around Twitter and Tumblr is, “Where did you first see yourself represented in sci-fi / fantasy / art?” I’d never had an answer to that, but now thinking about it, I read Iain Banks because I’m desperate for seeing myself and I find myself, or the possibility of me or what Judith Butler calls a liveable life, not in a single work, but in what he proposes in both Culture and non-Culture works. Indeed, as there’s always such an imperative to divide his work up into these categories, or Iain with or without an M., or sci-fi non-sci-fi, or … and maybe this is the point: there is no division; all his works propose this idea in varying degrees, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, and sometimes he just wants to hoon an F40.

So I’m wondering if I’m trying to read too much into him, check equipment for sensor error and all, or if what he’s written is even enough.

What I like also is he proposes a kind of interstitial world: not x, but not not-x. Here’s a book written by a self-professed evangelical atheist (who, given how that has become the domain of exactly the kind of braying white hetero men he is so continuously and emphatically against, he might no longer choose that term) who writes a story of religion that understands the impossibility of evidence for faith yet always striving for a consistent logic, and the value of community whether a sect like the Luskentyrians here, Islam, or the Culture. A book of immigrants and children of immigrants who move between religions, sexuality, gender, selfhood in a way that takes all these parts of one’s identity as self-evident and unremarkable, and fundamental to who they are. Besides all that, or along with that, because these are his fundamental themes, Whit is Iain Banks’ attempt to propose faith and religion within a Culture universe. Nothing if not internally consistent logic is our Banks.

I’m writing this very slowly while reading other Banks books. Presently I’m three ahead of this one, having read The Business, followed by Surface Detail, and currently on The Hydrogen Sonata. Something I’ve noticed on this re-reading cycle is how he describes the protagonists. More or less, he doesn’t; it’s a “one and done” process for him in broad, almost meaningless generalities: tall, short, old, young, hair long or shaved or dark or silver; body generally default humanoid which requires little additional detail unlike the aliens who often receive degrees of elaborate descriptions. Skin also: brown, pale, dark. All just enough to fulfil the barest imaginatory requirements. And on this flimsiest of structures he builds the character through what they do and think and say, through how they live in the world, through their own imagination of themselves, alone or with others.

A friend, Justine, said to me — and paraphrasing so wildly here it’s like making things up — that we care for Banks’ characters because the story is about their journey. It’s about what happens to them and how they go often from a state of not knowing to revelation. This was part of a conversation where we were both heavily critical of a novel that is currently receiving plenty of acclaim, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, where I can’t even remember the characters’ names, let alone much of what happened to them. Perhaps Banks’ method of writing is more conservative, as in of an older, safer approach. Yet here I am, re-reading his works again, and still finding new depths of critical analysis.

What Banks as an author expects from us as reader is to retain pertinent information for the duration. Pertinent information can frequently be a line here or a word there, and he seldom signals its importance at the time. There’s gradations to this as well, like shells enclosing shells — which is literally the worlds he builds, whether the actual Shellworld of Sursamen in Matter, or the structure of a Culture ship, with layers and nested spheres of habitable space, or that of a ship Mind, or the fastness Serehfa of Feersum Endjinn. As with the recurrence of landscape and architecture like Scotland and its castles so too are there shells. A castle is perhaps the blueprint for this, the keep being the deepest and least visible part, working in layers all the way out to the colossal curtain wall and its placement in geology and landscape. How we move through this as literal space as well as narrative simile can be found perhaps most clearly in Use of Weapons, where two (or more) stories begin from opposite directions and interleave across the course of the book.

Bearing all that in mind, the first, simple physical description is something we’re expected remember, which modifies the character in every instance. It is pertinent information that accrues over time. It is not just a young woman who takes on a some Nazi skinheads, it’s a brown, short-haired, unworldly, queer, androgynous young woman who first tries unsuccessfully to communicate and reason with violent white Nazi skinheads, then tries reading their newspaper to understand them and educate herself, and later, to defend her black and brown crust punk friends, returns looking for trouble and maces the quartet with Tabasco sauce. If you’re familiar with ’70s through ’90s UK (and British colonial) history, BNP and NF skinheads, and just how perilous it was to be visibly different, looking like an ‘immigrant’ or queer or both, reading this scene is terrifying and jubilant.

When I wrote about Feersum Endjinn, I was broadly trying to make a few notes on themes that I was drawn to in Banks’ novels. With Whit those themes seemed to be much clearer to apprehend. As with all Banks novels, there’s multiple stories, so if I focus on one for a moment it’s not at the diminishment of another. After all, he’s writing intersectionality. I read Whit as a story of immigrants, of coming from the colonies or former colonies to the UK, of being on the periphery in both instances, of being the children and descendants of immigrants, of being emphatically of this place and also of elsewhere. This last point is one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, wondering how to make it succinct. A fundamental precept of nationalism, of ethnic identity as well, is one cannot hold allegiance to two places. It operates on absolutist principles: There is only a finite amount of self to go around. If one is both ‘from here’ and from elsewhere — or as in all British and European colonies, really, originally ‘from here’ — then this can be codified, given a fraction or percentage. It’s inherently racist and demeaning. It informs a jurisprudential position as well as actual law, such as the Half-Cast Acts and other acts that enforced cultural genocide in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, and means any person who is multiethnic is forever inferior, culturally, physiologically, morally. It is European racism’s greatest philosophical victory that this belief holds strong when the reality is diametrically opposite.

Self is not finite; it is always 100%, and each addition is also 100%. Isis Whit is entirely Scottish (just go and look at where Luskentyre is) and entirely South Asian Khalmakistani. She is not half one, quarter the other; one does not diminish the other, indeed, the opposite is true. Another friend, SJ, also from Australia, I was talking with maybe almost two years ago, probably at the same Alevi café in Kreuzberg, my local favourite. They are the one to change my thinking on this, to understand what is meant when this language is used. In the midst of a long conversation about family and identity, I said something like, “Are you half or quarter Aborigine?” They replied, “Nah, it doesn’t work like that; you either are or you aren’t. Dividing like that is a racist tool. It was and is used by Europeans against Blackfellas.” Again, always poorly paraphrasing here. They continued, “I’m Koori. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter. If I ask to walk onto Koori land, and tell them who I am, and where I’m from, that’s enough: I’m Koori. There’s no half or quarter or whatever; you are or you aren’t.” And what if someone is but doesn’t know their history? You wanna read about the Stolen Generations here.

All this helps explicate how I read Whit and Banks’ interstitial world. I am or I am not. Whether or not I know my history, I am. Whether or not I know my history, it can and has been used against me, and not knowing is not a defence. So, I am, whether or not I want to be. Erasing history and telling people they’re white is a tool of racism working hand in hand with fractionalising. I am still formulating how to talk about this, and make no claims to being anything other than my own history and my archaeology of it. At best I can say I’m the child and grandchild of Muslims in South Africa who may have been Turkish and Afrikaans, and I was named for my grandmother. That’s one side of my family, which as I’ve tried to explain in reading Whit is an entirety, just as the New Zealand side is another entirety, and migrating through the Commonwealth (let’s not pretend dropping the British prefix changes anything) is another.

Back when I was reading Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, I wrote:

Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference.

I want to say he also proposed something similar for the entirety of identity — with a huge bunch of caveats. With regard to ethnic selfhood, he was not proposing a kind of universalism, “we’re all the same deep down, aren’t we,” ‘post-racialism’; nor was he ignorant to or dismissive of the very real situation in Scotland and the UK for anyone not white or British or whatever enough; nor was he trivialising how fundamental ethnic selfhood is or glibly suggesting we try on different ones like fashionable clothes. He was also aware of his position (at least publicly, nominally) as a white, cis, hetero male meant he always wrote from outside the perspective of his protagonists, and the commensurate probability of slipping into Orientalism. If he explicitly stated this at all it was only within the Culture civilisation, where he was already dealing with a critical utopia and the default for human-basic bodies was brown.

For the rest, his non-Culture novels like Feersum Endjinn, or Earth-bound novels like Whit or The Business, this position is absent only if there’s some wilful ignoring of what he’s written going on. It’s always there, and only becomes more clearer and more explicit over the course of his 29 novels. It’s a little like MedievalPOC’s long project of documenting people of colour in the history of European art. After a while, you realise some artists were always doing this, always painting the same people into their work, painting them like they knew them, like that was the world they lived in, like Peter Paul Rubens, or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

I was thinking as I thrashed at these last paragraphs, trying to tease out a coherent line of thought, that I’d love to read a story where Isis Whit and Bascule met each other — well, besides the one called Feersum Endjinn where she decides Asura is a good name for herself. I don’t have an ending for this, nor do I think it’s going to get any more coherent or benefit from a reduction in dodginess by more rewriting, so I’ll end with this:

Banks writes for us, writes for me. I am his audience, the not- and not not-. And like Banks intended, sometimes I need to find and see myself explicitly, and sometimes I just want to hoon. And sometimes I want to do both, and for it to be unremarkable.

Iain Banks — Whit
Iain Banks — Whit

Reading: Charles Stross — Empire Games

I’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.

The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.

Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.

I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.

So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.

We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.

Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.

Charles Stross — Empire Games
Charles Stross — Empire Games

Reading: Alasdair Gray — Lanark: A Life in Four Books

“Wha’d’ya think of Lanark, then?” “La-whu?” “Lanark!” “Dunno. Never read it. I think …” “You love The Bridge and you’ve never read Lanark?” “urr …” “You have to read Lanark.” “Orright …” “Never read Lanark … How can you understand The Bridge without reading Lanark? Alasdair Gray was his —” I was pretty drunk, we were both pretty drunk in a restaurant in Leipzig after the première of Wonderwomen, so some of the details are … I’m probably making up this next bit “— mentor, his biggest inspiration. Gray didn’t really like him though.” Something like that. I probably said something like, “errr … yeah, he might have been mentioned in this book on the Culture I was reading …” He was. Also in the other book on Banks. So because of Chris Clark (musician, not footballer), I am reading Lanark.

Thanks, Chris, it’s fucking with my head.

There’s these scenes early in the first book, where our protagonist, something of an aspiring louche — he’d be positively emo if this was written in the ’00s — is all maudlin on a balcony in a café, which is above a cinema, and I can’t get a vision of Café DKD in Auckland out of my head, out the back of the Civic Theatre (it’s all multiplex there now, but the theatre still exists, as does the Moorish brickwork forming screens over the windows), the regular mob who lived there on both sides of the bar, just the feeling of the place and time. Lanark invokes this sort of visceral memory.

Do I like it? I’m not sure. It’s part nightmare, like when you have a distant memory of a film you saw in your teens and can’t decipher its reality, like Jacob’s Ladder. It’s definitely a book I wouldn’t be reading without Chris’s enthusiastic praise. It’s like archaeology, one of the classics at some point you can’t avoid and discover it’s fucking brilliant. Disturbing, don’t read in bed brilliant. Not sure how I’m getting through it brilliant. Not sure if brilliant or bludgeoning me with the inexorable will of the author. It’s a work of endurance. I’m surviving it. I think I like it.

Alasdair Gray — Lanark: A Life in Four Books
Alasdair Gray — Lanark: A Life in Four Books

Victoria & Albert Museum

All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.

I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.

I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.

Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)

How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.

  1. Victoria & Albert Museum — Level 0
    • Medieval & Renaissance 300-1500
  2. Victoria & Albert Museum — Level 1
    • Medieval & Renaissance 1350-1600
    • Cast Courts: The Weston Cast Court
    • Sculpture 1300-1600
    • Raphael
  3. Victoria & Albert Museum — Level 2 & 3
    • Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600
    • Rosalind & Arthur Gilbert Collection
    • Sacred Silver & Stained Glass
  4. Victoria & Albert Museum: Margot Fonteyn’s Swan Lake Tutu
  5. V&A

Gallery

Victoria & Albert Museum — Level 2 & 3

I took another diversion through the Asian Collection again before heading up one of the many sets of stairs to Level 2. More mediæval art. I was kinda committed to it at this stage, as much as I wanted to go off at random. I could have spent the whole day on the ground floor, working my way through the Asias. One thing I really liked here, and I reckon it has a lot to do with both the museum being free to visit, and London having a far more confident mob of people from more recent-ish immigration backgrounds — even the Mayor, the most awesome and we can all agree pretty bloody fine Sadiq Khan, son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver — was so many people were not the default white / northern European I see in Berlin museums. Plus I find it entirely awesome when I see groups of young guys running around the Middle East, South Asia, and Islamic collections getting really excited about the pieces cos they identify with them and see themselves or their history in them. This is something I genuinely miss and struggle with in Berlin, the monoculturalisation and paucity of the rest of us in — I don’t know exactly what to call it — in mainstream German/-ic culture. It feels to me that in London at least (despite the white nationalism of Brexit and all) immigrants of any generation are Londoners / British / not sure the most applicable appellation here, but you get what I mean, in a way I feel the comparable groups in Germany are not and perhaps will never be allowed to be. I miss that confidence and feel in Berlin being an immigrant or just somehow being marked as an outsider means keeping your head down, constantly scanning in case whoever walking towards you on the street is going to bring one of the so many forms of bullshit with them.

I was also thinking, as I plundered the Level 2 mediæval stuff, that it might be time to properly go eastwards and indulge my enthusiasm for Islamicate and Persian art as much as I do old European stuff.

There’s a couple of pieces here (The Adoration of the Kings, images 1 and 2; Descent from the Cross, images 9 and 10) are only details because I couldn’t photograph through glass. One of the most spectacular pieces is the wooden altarpiece by (probably) Giovanni Angelo del Maino and Tiburzio del Maino (images 3-7). This is simply extravagant and endlessly intricate. The detail is in the crush of the public arrayed along three levels and decreasing in size as they move higher and further back. The three crucifixes stick like masts high above the mass, the flanking pair bowing outwards in the emptiness, a forest of spears, halberds, and pikes at their feet. Lower left, the first figure above the predella is a woman breastfeeding. There’s children everywhere. In the predella itself, the central panel is the Adoration of the Shepherds, which I saw a lot of in London.

Plenty of other beautiful pieces. The Dish with a Couple and an Inscription by Workshop of Giacomo Mancini I loved because it’s secular, and one of the first pieces I saw that went this way; Plate with Three Graces by Workshop of Maestro Giorgio because it goes into Greek mythology; the various Virgin and Childs all of which so different from each other. The out of that and into Cast of Judith and Holofernes, from the original by Donatelli. It’s in the Simon Sainsbury Gallery high up on a plinth, suitably brutal and awful.

Up to Level 3. I spent a long time in the Materials and Techniques sections, a lot of design in metal, glass, enamel, porcelain, silver. I didn’t photograph much; there was far too many pieces to even think coherently about. Even with a full day I doubt I’d get through everything. Two to three days would be probable. So I finished with stained glass.

There’s a brilliant, small piece, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, with the Imago Pietatis, what I call a Bynum (because of her work, Wonderful Blood), Jesus literally dripping blood and filling a bath with it, the objects of his torture arrayed around him. I’ve never seen this subject on glass and despite being from the mid-1600s, it looks like it belongs three hundred years earlier. Then lucky last, The Adoration of the Magi by (possibly) Master of the Holy Kindred, another work massive and far above me (so it’s a little distorted from straightening it out). And shortly after I got kicked out. Out into the late-afternoon sun, onto a bus and see London pass by for an hour as I northwards home.

Gallery

Victoria & Albert Museum — Level 1

Speaking of massive altarpieces, here we go. Level 1 of Victoria & Albert Museum, the ground floor entrance, lofty, airy ceilings and art stretching up to them. It’s a bit like the Bode Museum for scale of art and architecture. Unlike the Bode, it’s packed. People are promenading like it’s life’s greatest accomplishment to wander around mediæval art. Which it is.

I’m first taken by The Troyes Altarpiece. We’re getting into very Late Mediæval / Early Renaissance here, and it’s not the most virtuoso altarpiece I’ve seen, it’s in limestone so the finesse possible in wood isn’t here, but it has a solidity and depth, like exaggerated perspective between the foreground and background figures. It’s not even especially large compared to The Brixen Altarpiece, which is so huge it’s impossible to look up at without seeing converging lines. Because photographs turn everything, no matter how big or small, into objects of the same dimension and all scale is lost, my head is about level with the heads of the four saints in the predella of The Brixen Altarpiece.

There were also several works I couldn’t or didn’t photograph, either because they were under glass, or I was too hasty. The Brixen Altarpiece was only one of many similarly gigantic altarpieces; The St Margaret Altarpiece was another. An especially fine Northern Germanic piece of a saint I rarely see, and certainly never with her life and torture so disturbingly depicted. This was made around the same time as The Brixen Altarpiece, yet shows the style that continued to develop north of the Alps, distinct from the Renaissance in Italy.

And then there’s Andrea della Robbia’s The Adoration of the Kings, also around the same time and from Italy, in tin-glazed terracotta, and very much committed to Renaissance and even anticipating the Baroque. I think this is one of the V&A’s more famous pieces, and it’s gorgeous in real life. It exemplifies the character of the V&A collections. They’re concerned with materiality; the works on display emphasise the diversity of choice of materials, of techniques, of aesthetics, making the museum as much a place of science and technology as art.

Last piece in these rooms, Perino del Vaga’s The Raising of Lazarus I mention because I realised I’m attracted to works like this fresco, or some of the preparatory sketches or unfinished works (I’m thinking of Pieter Brueghel’s De Aanbiddung der Wijzen here) where there’s a softness and visible exploratory process.

From there, I went into the Cast Courts, where I knew I had no hope; the V&A had been playing with me up to then. It wasn’t quite Louvre scale of tiny people in epic architecture, but for sure reminded me of it. So I got lost trying to find the sculpture corridors, completely missed the St. Mauritius sculpture in the last room (I still have no idea if I was inattentive or if it wasn’t open), turned around, got lost in acres of the Asian collection (Persian miniatures are my thing and I almost put the brakes on the rest of my mediævaling for this and the Islamic collection), found the Raphael rooms—he’s really not my thing, I think people like him because they confuse their fascination with a kind of seductive, transfixing blandness for the sublime, a lot like how people do over the Mona Lisa—the altarpiece was impressive the way the megalith is in 2001—also not Raphael but the ‘Master of the Centenar’ (possible German painter Andrès Marçal de Sas)—sometimes I wish museums put multi-level viewing platforms (with binoculars) in front of these towering pieces, but that’s just because I love smearing my nose right up against the art. Then I’m off up the stairs to Levels 2 and 3.

Gallery

Victoria & Albert Museum — Level 0

Enter via the Tube. Any city where you get off the subway and there’s a direct entrance into a museum is a proper city. The Victoria & Albert Museum, or V&A was on my, ‘probably worth a quick perv’ list, but I had no idea what I was in for. Six massive floors of art, pilfered from around the world? Oh, yes! I turned up on a very sunny Sunday with Jenn, both squinting with a bit of a hangover. She works in the British Library, in the Asian and African Reading Rooms, full of stuff from the Dunhuang Buddhist caves — something for my next visit to London. We spent at least an hour not budging from the lawn of the courtyard before going down into mediæval land.

The rooms of the Medieval & Renaissance 300 – 1500 collection is quietly spectacular. What distinguishes V&A from other museums I’ve visited is how they understand the inseparable history of art and design. In Berlin’s Staatliche Museen you get paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, sculpture in Bode Museum, and arbitrary divisions putting a bunch of pieces that are too 3-dimensional to be painting but not enough to be sculpture in one or the other. By looking at the materiality of the works (and I’m thinking of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe here) there’s not such a need to force arbitrary categories (though I’m aware the National Gallery is also full of altarpieces as paintings), and we get works in ivory, metal, wood, glass, stone, and any combination of these that seemed appropriate to the artist. Further, there’s a seamless flow from Early to High Middle Ages, where frequently I see Early split off into more archæological contexts, and High as art proper.

Many of the early works — from around 400 to 1100 — are small pieces in walrus ivory, with stone becoming more prevalent in the 1100s, and highly competent techniques in all materials developing in the following couple of hundred years. One of my favourite shifts happens with International Gothic, where the flat, verticality of bodies suddenly burst into movement, things flourish and flow everywhere as if caught in a fresh breeze, and the public begins to appear in the picture: individuals, groups, crowds arrive to fill the vision and comment on the main action. And I can’t choose between this or the styles they supersede. Or rather seem to swing between. When I look at The Deposition from the Cross (image 3) or Fragment from a Deposition (image 9), both from the mid-late-1100s, and compare them with The Symmachi Panel (image 1), Front Cover of the Lorsch Gospels (image 2), and Panel with the Adoration of the Kings (image 15) from 400, 800, and early-mid-1100 respectively, all from variously Germany, England, Italy, Spain, I see a shifting back and forth between ideas of representation that don’t strictly propose progressive development or evolution — at least maybe until the Late Middle Ages.

I mention those pieces also because I find them beautiful and even strange, like the popping eyes of Panel with the Adoration of the Kings, or the intricate opulence of the Tabernacle (images 4-8), which looks like it should unfurl with mechanical glory. One of my favourites is the small Portable Altarpiece (images 27 and 28) by the Master of the Louis XII Triptych, in painted enamel on copper, which the V&A describe at length. My photos are more faithful to the original, but still don’t do service to the sublime colours, shadows, movement. I also love the Tapestry (images 29-31), because it depicts a woman “in fashionable dress undertaking a spiritual journey … she finally enters a convent” and I imagine it’s the story of Hildegard of Bingen or Mechthild of Magdeburg. As well, it’s an entire work of art devoted to a woman’s life and story, which is something I love mediæval art for.

Master Bertram’s Triptych with Scenes from the Apocalypse (images 32-37) is frankly scary bonkers. The V&A have an excellent article on the decision whether to clean the altarpiece — in fact their entire journal archive is worth losing a week or two in. I’m not sure why Jesus has a green-black face, but that’s what he has. There’s so much to see in this triptych, it’s worth opening the images and scrolling around their vastness.

As usual there were plenty of pieces I didn’t or couldn’t photograph (even really good lighting and presentation doesn’t mean a photographable work will result), plus this was only one half of one floor and I had no idea how overwhelmed I was going to get. Up the stairs and into Level 1 for more mediæval awesomeness.

Image

LADA — All The Books I Looked At

I’m doing this as a memory. I went to LADA, spent the afternoon in their Study Room, trawled hundreds of books and pulled out a few, spent minutes or tens of looking and reading. Also a memory. I am reminded of my own history in biographies or documents of people and groups I think of only infrequently, which at one time were all I thought of. Or others I know about and have never read, or have circulated around me, or are entirely new. The books are arranged chronologically, in the order they were purchased in. Of all the possible arrangements, this is my favourite. It tells you something about the book that it doesn’t and can’t tell you itself.

These are the books I looked at and read a little of. In chronological order — mine going from first to last, and LADA’s going backwards in time from most recently acquired to about halfway through their collection. Some I like; others I don’t. I am still wondering what they tell me about me.

  • Pina Bausch — The Biography, Marion Meyer (trans: Penny Black)
  • my body, the buddhist, Deborah Hay
  • Precarious Lives — Waiting and Hope in Iran, Shahram Khosravi
  • A Field Guide for Female Interrogators, Coco Fusco
  • Integration Impossible? The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić, Pamela Allara and Manuela Bojadzijev
  • Guerilla Aspies — A Neurotypical Society Infiltration Manual, Paul Wady
  • Leigh Bowery — The Life And Times Of An Icon, Sue Tilley
  • Black Artists In British Art, A History Since The 1950s, Eddie Chambers
  • Test Dept: Total State Machine, eds. Alexei Monroe and Peter Webb
  • Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Gerardo Mosquera, Helaine Posner
  • Thee Psychick Bible : Thee Apocryphal Scriptures ov Genesis Breyer P-Orrige and Thee Third Mind ov Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
  • Jan Fabre: Stigmata. Actions & Performances 1976-2013, Germano Celant
  • Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, eds. Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean
  • Femininity, Time and Feminist Art, Clare Johnson
  • The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott
  • The Shit of God: Diamanda Galás, Diamanda Galás and Clive Barker
  • Jan Fabre: I Am A Mistake. seven works for the theatre, ed. Frank Hentschker
  • Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam
  • Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, ed. Judith Rudakoff
  • That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, ed. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
  • Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s, Lydia Yee and Philip Ursprung
  • Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, Imogen Tyler
  • Are We There Yet? Study Room Guide on Live Art and Feminism, Live Art Development Agency
  • The Incorrigibles, Perspectives on Disability Visual Arts in the 20th and 21st Centuries, eds. Adrian Plant and Tanya Raabe-Webber
  • Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer, eds. Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier
LADA — All The Books I Looked At
LADA — All The Books I Looked At