Catalogue essay by Iain Sinclair, 2007. Review by Peter Suchin, Art Monthly, Dec 2007

Conversations with angels

Child in the trees (catalogue essay by Iain Sinclair, 2007)

No weather has been trapped in the nets of these luminously dark windows, such black is eloquent and absolute. Hard-won. We say that a storyboard is graphic and we think: graphite. Lustre and lubricant, plumbago. Black lead. The darkest muds of consciousness mined for their alchemical potential. Nigredo. Toad pebbles. Executioners suiciding in the eyeless hoods of their trade. There is a narrative, clearly, of fragments and fractures, water-wheels, star-mills. Knobbled sticks, planchette gloves, masks. Light surgery. Three-dimensional images flattened in an olive press. The uncommissioned film that continues, of its own volition, when the participants have walked away. Loose sheets of an elephant folio nailed to a white wall by some boiling Luther, hungry for skin. A flat coffin-box of words and symbols protected by layers of prophylactic tissue: unbooked (in every punning sense). Nothing must be stitched, bound, framed, finalised. The mechanics of Enochian magic: or, the point at which we can imagine, if we trust our instincts, this angelic argument between Oona Grimes and Dr John Dee. A fabulous chart we are free to interpret in our own fashion: which magus summons which spirit? Does the spectacular concentration of the contemporary artist haunt the precocious nightmares of the Elizabethan geographer? She walks in his sleep (as a forgotten pulp novel was once titled). Grimes is good at that too, scavenging; exploding comic-book frames, slivers of outdated maps, random postcards. Christ-symbol fish found in the street carry just enough sushi ink in their bellies to sketch a fine line. To blacken her licks. The illusion of movement in a cryogenic vault.

‘Usually it is seen to disappear round a corner. At other times it is said to have described a circle and gone back to the point whence it started – an old house, close to the Synagogue,’ wrote Gustav Meyrink in The Golem: a novel of Prague, in which he describes the way a certain kind of art feeds on repetition, the processes of marking and erasure, walking the line back into its own mouth. Like a harpoon. Meyrink (the shadow Kafka) published another book, The Angel of the West Window, in which John Dee’s Prague exile at the court of Emperor Rudolph II is recreated and made new, in the eros of memory: a proper documentation of specific episodes which never happened. Dream-truths. Fabulous cities. Green angels lurking on the far side of the mirror: where the special physics that Grimes employs – lenses, refractions – strips the weave of time like an electric cable. What she achieves, in the linear séance, the privacy of her heart-place, is to infiltrate the stellar projections of the dead: she appears to them and they collaborate on a work that all are agreed has no beginning and no end. The more you read, absorb, view, meditate – and Oona Grimes has certainly done that, the scholarship, the research – the more you are infected, implicated, drawn in to the gravity of the original project.

The nature of Dee is that he is incomplete, predatory. He is waiting for a summoned other to place a hot coal on his tongue. He drifts between worlds, medieval and modern, the speculative and the experimentally proven. Technician, hierophant. Courtier, heretic. Christian, occultist. Ventriloquist, ventriloquised. Cuckold, ram. Father, molester. Male, female. Old man, child. Dead-in-life and animate corpse. Tree on fire. Waterman. Collaborator, hermeticist. Dee understood better than any other man of his period that knowledge, the sacred marks on paper, comes from ash: you have to burn the books to get at their essence. Only then, as crisped leaves float into orchard night, will truth resurrect itself. Later German pyres were a terrible perversion of this selfless act: to put London’s greatest gathering of old knowledge, pressed doctrine, on a bonfire. And to sail away, Prospero-like, on the tide.

Oona Grimes recognises the symbolic journey, flight into Europe, as a reversed pogrom. She presents Edward Kelly’s stick in a series of flick-frames. A tent show for refugees and idiot children from burnt asylums. The hooked walker’s cane without the walk. Get off the stage: a Chaplin prop from a carnival of ghosts. Other totems, axes and hoods, will release pilgrims tied too securely to territory. This saturnine comic, in its codex panels, invokes horrors from the fast-twitch newsreel world. Another kind of flat-screen scrying mirror in which Dee’s role as imperial geographer and practitioner of the black arts leaves him exposed as the ur-spin-doctor, manipulator of truth, father of privatised prisons and extraordinary rendition. Belfast cellars and degraded snuff movies are also caught in the gun-sights of Grimes’ giant apolitical broadsheets. The death programme has never been Dee-commissioned and the silos of old magick are very much in place. In a dialogue Dee recorded, from 23 May 1587, Kelly remarks: ‘The book remaineth hanging in the air.’

A premature visit, work-in-progress, to an artist’s studio is both a risk and a privilege. I approached the captured industrial premises, near Finsbury Park, down a green corridor in wild weather. Standing on a low wall, I was able to look into the high room, at the etching press and the unmistakable works displayed on the wall. And in this eavesdropping instant, before the artist glanced up from her work, I recognised that I was playing the part of Meyrink’s phantom in the west window. In a complex interchange of prints, windows, mimes and responses, our various tentative selves were challenged. I recomposed drawings, about whose origin I was wholly ignorant, to search out a novel approach to Dr Dee. And Oona Grimes, by the way her art was laid out, baited in wolf-trap seduction, anticipated – and directed – the blind lunge my prose.

The man of Mortlake was a London presence, but any previous attempt on my part, to approach him, ended in failure and oblivion. Farce. A completed sequence, in which Dee and Kelly are conjured into an upstream public house, from my novel Radon Daughters, was voluntarily aborted, and lost. The saxophonist and composer John Harle conceived a Dee opera for which I would write the libretto and the book. We lunched Elvis Costello, who agreed, mad as this was, to take the magician’s part. Then he read our synopsis and remembered, with sudden gratitude, an orthodox Catholic past. A television production company had the hare-brained scheme – even by their own fantastic standards – of walking myself and Alan Moore to Prague, as a sort of Oxfam Dee and Kelly. I’m not sure who got which part. Several hours of recorded interview vanished into that same black hole from which, in its most dense and impacted form, Grimes extracts the eye-tar to factor her provocative etchings.

Letraset and Lettrisme : once again the words bleed into each other. Grimes exploits join-the-dots nursery drawings to plot her incisions on the angelic body of the cosmos: a general theory of everything. Industrial signage must forge the sigils of a new art. A philosophy of ruptured sound and silent screams. What I discover, in ignorance of the heat of these images, is that further, disparate stories must told. As a defence. A reflex smoke-screen. I came here, down the thrashing tunnel at the side of the tracks, in quest of a spectral child, a girl. As part of recent Hackney research, I heard the legend of a Madimi-like apparition haunting the silver birches of Finsbury Park. A dry whisper downloaded from the semaphore of branches. A lost daughter. A rumour waif using the railway as a ladder between life and death.

‘She seemed to play up and down, child-like, and seemed to go in and out behind my books,’ Dee recorded in his Diaries. He challenged: ‘Whose maiden are you?’

To which there can be only the riddling reply: ‘Whose man are you?’ A circular exchange without resolution.

We agreed that this portfolio of Dee etchings, assembled for the Lambeth exhibition, doesn’t belong, by pastiche or material reference, to Elizabethan time. Nor to any specific location. Expeditions to Mortlake were conclusive only in proving Dee as an absence. That book is closed. The towers Grimes has drawn out of Meyrink are metaphors, energy devices in a personal tarot.

Or so I believed. Until I walked home. And noticed, yet again, how actions in the privacy of the studio leak into the streets (the revenge of all those scavenged scraps of chewing-gum wrapper, plastic fish, X-ray spectacles). I ignored the junkshop maps with their masonic stamps and pataphysical prompts – but Meyrink’s weird phallic towers were luridly present on Queen’s Drive, N4. Under the name of Barkway Court. As I paused to take out my camera, a bearded, crop-eared cyclist of the Kelly type tried to run me down. He was shouting into a mobile-phone: ‘I’ve got to take me frogs home.’ And sure enough he had something green in a Tupperware container. Now I understood where Oona Grimes’ star-spitting toads came from: the great fiction of the world.

Iain Sinclair



Review by Peter Suchin, Art Monthly, Dec 2007

Oona Grimes: Conversations with Angels Danielle Arnaud London November 2 to December 16 2007.

Oona Grimes’s ‘Conversations with Angels’ borrows its title and its point of departure from the Elizabethan philosopher, astrologer, geographer and secret agent John Dee (1527-1608), in particular from a series of so-called angelic conversations enacted by Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley in the 1580s. These exchanges, purporting to be communications with angels or spirits, took the form of seances in which Kelley, allegedly the bearer of psychic abilities, would gaze into a crystal and report to his collaborator whatever he saw there, the latter meticulously recording this. One of the spirits, that of a little girl calling herself Madimi, communicated with Kelley and Dee over a seven-year period, on at least one occasion escaping from the crystal and playfully dancing around the shelves of Dee’s voluminous library.

Grimes has presented a series of etchings that refer to, but do not directly gloss, elements of the angelic exchanges. The work is divided into three categories: ‘aaa’, ‘ccc’ and ‘ddd’, which stand, respectively, for ‘astrology alchemy angel magic’, ‘calculating calculing conjuration’ and ‘doctor dee’s drawings’. In the first category each work is made up of a series of small rectangular images laid out in columns or other regulated groupings. These inset pieces are in the main formed of white lines on black backgrounds, the support of the whole rendered in an off-white tint. The piece titled aaa # 1 & 2, 2007, for example, contains within it 30 images of various sizes, a few of which are connected by mathematical signs. The drawing itself is highly stylised, representing figures and objects in outline form only. In this and other works sequences of images repeat and are occasionally reversed, perhaps in an allusion to Kelley and Dee’s complicated technical procedures. Richard Deacon (not the artist), in his book on Dee, has suggested that the conversations involved the invention of an extremely elaborate system of codes and translations, making use of a grid into which Dee would insert letters of the alphabet as conveyed to him by Kelley, the individual parts of each message being transmitted in reverse order. Such a painstaking system of communication might be read as analogous to the multilayered operations, the twists and turns involved in the making of works of art. It also recalls ideas about artists being the bearers of esoteric information; Dee’s relationship with the Elizabethan establishment was precarious, his zealously guarded independence often attracting criticism and complaint.

The aforementioned letter-based classifications are printed in the show’s catalogue in mirror-writing, a device pointing to Dee’s use of mirrors and other light-related devices in his work, as well as to his close involvement with the English intelligence service during its formative years. Deacon has proposed that part of the function of the angelic conversations consisted not so much in attempting to converse with the spirit world as in developing useful systems of encryption, Dee’s investigations into the occult providing the perfect foil for the consolidation of these more practical, politically loaded experiments in communicative forms. The parallel with artists inventing and disseminating novel but legible methods of meaningful exchange is obvious.

While Grimes may be starting out from the rich world of Dr Dee, her work is nonetheless more broadly allusive as well as elusive insofar as the narratives implied by the arrangement of the multiple images remain open. Although there are a number of easily recognisable forms–hooded heads, scissors, an axe, various body parts, ‘knobbled sticks [and] planchette gloves’ (to quote from Iain Sinclair’s catalogue text)–the viewer is forced to enter into the complicated game of rendering into meaning these laborious anthologies of sequential insets. This involves decoding not only what individual pictures depict, but also the ways in which they relate one to the other, sometimes spilling out of the frame in a sort of join-the-dot proposition for the potential reassembly of something already seen, already rendered whole but now torn up, strewn out, turned round. A stylised spectre becomes a diagram of dots dropping into the picture below, or the track of what appears to be the line of sight of a man in a hood becomes a cone composed of Morse, or a constellation of stars whose connecting threads plot the outline of a speech bubble void of words.

For all the weighty Dee-related data etched into Grimes’s work there is a very amusing aspect to it too. These puzzle-pictures have something of the comic-book about them, relieving the pomposity that an interest in Dee might inadvertently conjure up.

Peter Suchin is an artist, critic and curator.


Related page:
Conversations with angels