How we come back

How we come back

Sketches of the Musee d’Orsay, August 2017

As a child, you can get close enough that the strokes become strong and dissolve the image. This close, you don’t need much imagination. You see plants, you see their reflections. You quickly forget the room around you.

I remember that feeling of trying to tie it all together with what I had learnt of lilies. I had studied them at the local horticultural hall in preparation, yet the way the canvas seemed to expand made it difficult to understand. There was no horizon, no sky, nothing else beyond the plants in their water.  Just atmosphere and my breath, slow against the blues.


This isn’t a complicated tale, except for the way it layers. There’s a particular way the mind, transcribing moments, sets them down as translucent sheets atop one another. Or, to picture it differently, if each journey is a canvas, each canvas is disguised by the brush that traces its surface. The composition of any memory is a painterly mix. It’s when you look back, trying to separate the coats, that the edges of time begin to curl, and the layers begin to separate strangely. I’ve spent hours trying to squint into this space, to unfurl the beginning of my journey. Things come in and out of focus quickly. They’re all just impressions. It feels like an impossible thing but I keep trying to hold it all at once.

Sometimes it feels simplest to start historically. But with whose history? I could always start by tracing my own footsteps, to go back to that surreal age when nothing bad had ever happened to me. What do I remember? An art teacher with a kind face. A mother who encouraged. The hues of the summer sun setting in the south, seen through a slit in the purple patterned curtains, when I was supposed to be sleeping.

One moment in particular comes to mind: my small body close to the wooden floor, the space gold-tinted, perhaps by the sun, or perhaps by the light of a lamp on the desk to the left. Newspapers spread, open across the floor, with large, thick rectangles of white paper arranged on top of them. Hunched over one of them, my whole arm sweeping across the surface, I painted in thick, bold strokes. Those paintings are still in the attic, somewhere, curling under the weight of the golden grasses, dense sunsets, and the deep blue shadows I had understood from my copy of the History of Impressionism.

That’s the first reminder that my history isn’t all mine. In 1986, three years before I was born, a building on the banks of the Seine was reincarnated. Actually, the process was slower and undoubtedly more tumultuous than those words make it seem.  Many were not convinced by the unnatural transformation of the Beaux-Arts building, finding something awkward in the way the new interior filled in the precious voids, disguising the structural strength.

When I arrived here for the first time, and stood at the bottom of the spectacular space that is known as one of Paris's great 19th-century rooms, I wasn’t aware of the architectural criticisms, the historic correctness. At twelve years old, in Europe for the first time, I found my eyes catching on the sparkling edges of things. I must have walked around on tiptoes, trying to get to the centre of things. Mostly, I found, you can imagine what things might have been. A paving stone here, an entry there, the great cavernous belly now filled with bodies - bronze, stone and the living - instead of the engines of  steam trains. And at night, an image history can’t shake: the glowing face of the great clock telling you the time.

On the flanks, in this new arrangement, there are hidden spaces that I now think only the curiosity of a child opens, galleries you couldn’t hope to find without a map. I remember getting lost, the delight of it. Even now, this is the most visceral of memories. Not the open space, but being held captive against the darkened corners under the soaring barrel-vaulted glass ceiling: vivid and atmospheric, shot through with light.


There’s another history here, too, one which starts more than a century earlier in 1840, and slightly North of where we are now, on Rue Laffitte in the 9th Arrondissement. The young girl kneeling over her painting could have told you that, and how the story would take us further North still, to Le Havre, then to Africa, London, and Vétheuil.  And then, finally, to a place first seen while looking out the window of a train, and later immortalised in the Nympheas Bleus. Giverny.

How can we measure such a journey? As a station becomes a gallery, a child becomes an adult, a painter a memory of his strokes - by the movement, the motion, the way we travel?


The second time I stood beneath that roof I was with friends, but I found myself alone, standing slightly to the left of his Gare St. Lazare:  an enclosed urban interior, but somehow also a scene of travel, an echo of each engine’s movement across a landscape. The image itself seemed to be formed from steam, those thick wet strokes, the space of the canvas erupting, the illusion of depth. And the light seeping out.

In painting, a traditional approach is to plan the work section by section, allowing each to dry - often a process requiring days at a time - before continuing with the next. The reworking of an existing but neglected building is similar. There is a lot of waiting and you can’t be sure how it will turn out, despite your plans. That process requires disassociation, pocketed emotion. You cannot paint what you see - not if what if you see is how you feel, and how you feel is where you have been. To paint en plein air, in the poppy field or the station, you must be there, really there. Sometimes I think there must be a way of folding physical space with the feeling of being. This story is the closest I can get to some kind of evidence.


I’ve been here three times now. One visit for each of my journeys to France, one for each decade - although they don’t quite distribute that way. I never remember lining up, the tickets or people. Just the proximity - my flesh against the bronzed figures in the lofted volume. And always, the light above.

They might have told you otherwise but I think maybe this is how we might best measure a journey - the ways we understand light differently. Each history, then, as a journey, a travelling of light. And when they intersect, well, I still can’t tell you which is which, or where one stops and the other begins. Sometimes I’m not so sure they’re different at all.

Wait, I remember it now. I remember being outside, waiting, the rain on my leather shoes - it must have been the second time. Barricades stopping the crowd from pouring into the traffic, the unadorned stone facade darkening in the dampness. The way everything smelt damp, as if the water had released an entire history from the cobbles. Later I crossed the bridge and turned back to see the clock face and, there, between me and it, l’arc en ciel. Sometimes there is magic in reality. Sometimes time has a way of configuring things.


The last time I went it was early on a winter evening, and darkness had already fallen. And it was the quiet, stolen hour of the Parisians who, after work, wander the gallery as a kind of urban meditation. When I arrived I found the space resonating, the notes from a pianist outside filling up the chambers.

I left after an hour or two, crossed the river and walked to the north west, to the canals. There, I ate in the dining room of family. In the room with two doors and one window, we were a family with two countries and two languages. Outside the window was a narrow balcony overlooking the street. As I ate, all I could think of were distances and journeys.

Later that night, on the balcony of my own studio in the South, I realised it was never a building I was supposed to love. But I could not extract it from what it means to be a painter, an architect, a citizen, or, now from what it means to be myself. Like Monet I find myself coming back to "things that are impossible to do…”. I am trying to tie these threads together.


In the gift shop before we left, my parents gifted me some francs. With them, I purchased a calendar. It was a very small one, and when we got home at the end of June I stood it in the corner of my desk. I waited patiently for January and then, at the end of each month for a year, I would flip it over to reveal a different painting. I bought it thinking it would be a way to grow up, that I could plan my life by it. My birth month of May was the Nympheas. I thought it meant I was limitless.


Sometimes, we cannot extract ourselves from the journey of light. This is how we come back.

Penumbral Reflections

In 2018, I attended the opening of PAC Studios exhibition Penumbral reflections. The following three poems, entitled Penumbra I, Penumbra II and Penumbra III came out of the experience.


Penumbra I

Consider first architecture as a penumbra;
as an act that casts a deep shadow upon art.

Consider then architecture a disciplinary experiment;
a blurring of simulated and physical.

Consider next the tools of projection;
the grid, the light, the curved surface reflecting.

Consider now the murky relationship
between translation and building.

Consider later a lucent procession,
or James Turrells articulate volumes of whiteness.

Consider architecture as the partial shadow that occurs between umbra,
the darkest part of a shadow, and its full illumination.

the murky relationship between translation and building - Robin Evans

James Turrell,  Arfum .

James Turrell, Arfum.


 Penumbra II

In it we see:
James Turrell's Arfum;
his sketches for it;
the night sky;
the insides of our eyes;
quick drawings we did in charcoal at school;
the magic near-impossibility of a total penumbral lunar eclipse;
that fine passage through the penumbral cone that the moon must make, not touching the umbra.

Penumbra III

In darkness, all the possibilities present themselves and become entangled.

We are immersed.

As lines become planes we to watch ourselves tip into three-dimensionality.

The room levitates.

The horizon shifts.

We are on a plane. We are rendered in continual movement.

This is drawing, you say quietly. This is all drawing.


Hiroshi Sugimoto | Seascape:   Aegean Sea, Pillon,  1990.         via   c4gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto | Seascape:   Aegean Sea, Pillon, 1990.        
via c4gallery


The minute gears mutely whir. To put your ear
Against it is to put your ear inside it.
It does not tick. It isn’t a heart.
It has no pulse. It isn’t a clock or a wrist.
Scrutiny can coax no secret from it.
There is no hearse with one flat tire
In endless circuit, headlights dispersed
In fog like sunset behind a veil.
A paving stone extends a grave through iron
Gate to a door at home. To knock
Your hand against it puts your hand inside it,
As in a cloud at night the pale moon
Gathers itself outside itself its own light
And glows dimly behind the dust that outshines it.
It has no heat. It isn’t the sun.
It isn’t uncertain. It does not think
About the sun or the distant balls of dirt
And ice that circle closer to the star
With each circuit done. Comet tails
Darkly flowing back as the horse leaps
Forward, straining against the catafalque
All November, predict disaster as grammar
Predicts breath, the need to breathe, or the mind
Must rest. It is its own edgeless disaster.
It is there as if it were not there. Vague
Repetitions haunt the circumference.
To walk out the door is to place your foot
On a stone worn away by another’s foot.
Rumor has it that the sun sends heat in form
Of sight. Watch the ice as it melts
For proof: water pools, darkens on a stone,
Becomes as a shadow on a stone,
A horse’s hoof as it rises off a stone,
Except it rises forever, and the shadow is gone.
Such processes turn the minute gears.
It is not a note in the margin. The margin is
Covered with snow. When the winter fog
Disperses a black horse stands on ice
And cannot move. It is as if a breathless song
Hovered like a veil in the air. The black
Horse’s breath spirals upward like smoke.
Pyre-smoke like a thumbprint as a cloud.
Similes sing mutely in it, likening the unlike.
Mourners name the peace they find and walk
Away. To step into it is to find it missing.
The footprints are before you as you go.
— Dan Beachy-Quick

Yet another of those beautiful seredipitous moments this morning when, having read and loved and re-discovered this poem three times, I read the accompanying interview at How a Poem Happens. Only then did I discover that 'the whole poem arose out of reading Levinas' - Levinas, of course, being one of the key foundational thinkers in my thesis.

Moreover, the poem seems intricately related to one of my own entitiled Palms which is long  wanting a revision; or perhaps a sister poem.

All that is to say: this poem's really got me. 


   Dawn/Water Poem, 1986. Ralph Hotere.


Dawn/Water Poem, 1986.
Ralph Hotere.

Language makes arrangements. These might be compared to the behaviour of water, an expression of energetic relations among molecules. There is activity at the meniscus where tensions arise from oppositions juxtaposed.

Understanding the singularity of the present moment, you invent a syntax with materials close to hand. A language evolves. Becoming skilled in it you can modify, rough it up and stretch it by experiment and exploration. Like this? Like this?

Whether canvas, timber, iron, steel, words or light, harmonies arise between materials. Meaning is spun. There are riches: rhyme, assonance, dissonance, melody, harmony, percussion, onomatopoeia and the mighty dimension of metaphor.

The painting puts the poem visually. Synaesthesia allows me to hear the voice in it, pick up nuances. Shapes shift behind the surface. In a certain light, at a certain angle it seems that the surface is permeable, that I have gone through it and look out from within my own reflection.
— from Dark Matter, Ralph Hotere and Language by Cilla McQueen

Language, space, syntax, material, the physical, the spoken, the written, and the felt.

Reflecting on the work of New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere, Cilla McQueen folds each of these elements into the others - searching for a way to describe the manner in which Hotere's work precedes the poem, rewrites the poem, and critiques the poem at once. Words become material for the artwork to be produces from, rhythm for the head-voice of viewers to replay, and their meaning becomes a dimension for the artwork to extend. 

Dawn/Water Poem, an example of such work, was a collaboration between Hotere and poet Bill Manhire. It becomes more than a collaboration -  a criticism, a use, and a production at once. In her reflections in Dark Matter, Ralph Hotere and Language, McQueen transitions the discussion back to language. A conversation between artists, across mediums, and through time exists.

The work is spatial - in many ways, the interplay of voices, thoughts and images defines a kind of artistic site. Its hard not to be drawn in, to want to take part, to want to make physical this place or to enquire as to the physicality(s) of it. From where did Manhire, Hotere and McQueen write, paint, write? And perhaps more interestingly, to where?


Paris, l'Opera. 2010.

It doesn’t take much. A deserted street at dusk, with the summer sunlight lingering on the upper floors of a row of buildings and the sidewalks down below already deep in shadow, may get some old movie in our heads rolling again. Since we are ordinarily better at forgetting than remembering, it is often a mystery why some such sight has stamped itself on our memory, when countless others that ought to have far greater meaning can hardly be said to exist for us anymore. It makes me suspect that a richer and less predictable account of our lives would eschew chronology and any attempt to fit a lifetime into a coherent narrative and instead be made up of a series of fragments, spur-of-the-moment reminiscences occasioned by whatever gets our imagination working.
 - Memory Traps, Charles Simic.NYRB Blog, November 2012.

Paris is, and will likely forever be, my memory trap.

I think it was that way before I had even been there the first time. But it was our second time, although our first together, which hangs in my mind most often these days.

After stashing our bags at the hostel mid-morning, we snuck out and wound our way through the tightly cobbled lanes of the Marais. The air was crisp, with a cool blueness settling over the rooflines. I can't seem to remember anyone else being out. In my mind, the streets were impossibly ours.

Each with a white-specked brioche tucked into a brown paper bags at a quiet boulangerie, we found a place to sit by the canal. The cobbles were warm, and the roughness didn't bother us. Our teenage knees and travel-worn legs dangled. We couldn't help ourselves but to grin.

We were here.

Thanks to the Paris Travel Guide over at A Minute Away from Snowing for bringing it all flooding back.


Sometimes, in the evenings, I find it hard not to get lost in The Paris Review - and even harder to find my way back out of the Interviews. There's something about the rich reality of these characters, many of whom have spent years envisaging other characters, which is just so affirming.

Margaret Drabble (with impeccable cashmere and bentwood),  1976

Margaret Drabble (with impeccable cashmere and bentwood),  1976

This evening, I have been lounging about with Margaret Drabble. I can't say that I've ever read one of her novels - although I have quickly added some of her classics to my reading list. Towards the end of the interview, she refers to Freud a few times. She's grappling with events, with how the passing of time relates to who you are, and to where you are. 

On surprises and familiarities (and a beautiful understanding of mortality):

There's an essay by Freud in which he discusses the uncanny feeling of being both familiar with and utterly surprised by something. I think this is one of the most distressing, but important feelings in life. The feeling that I knew this all along, but I never knew it before. Freud would argue we feel this about sex. The first time we find out what it actually is, we think “how absolutely astonishing and impossible,” but at the same time we know we knew.
I'm sure death feels a bit like that. In fact I've often had a dream in which I am just about to die and my last words are, “Oh, that was what it was like. I did know really, but now I know for real.” And then I wake up.

And on coincidence:

Freud takes a harsher view. His view is that they are coincidences and the idea that our need to see them as not being so, like our need to avoid that death really is death, contorts the whole of human life: that the whole of human culture is distorted by our desperate need to avoid the truth.
I'm perpetually tossed between these two interpretations of life. It is a fact that if you have faith of a certain sort, then certain things will happen for you or for those that you love. But this is only in a way like watering a plant. One of the images I like best is the plant in The Waterfall that Jane keeps on watering long after she thinks that it's dead. And then it begins to grow again.