HOMER —— HEPHAESTUS is a newly commissioned text work by artist Alec Masterson Forbes. Sadly it is also the last major work to be made by the artist who died in July this year.2 The strikingly simple work consists of two names: that of the writer of the ‘Iliad’, and that of the Greek god of fire (and of makers, sculptors, artificers). These two capitalized words are placed together like the names of boxers on a fight poster.3 Between each name is a double ‘em’ dash, like a graphic symbol for the corridor in which the work is placed.4 This corridor has at one end the offices of a literature festival and at its other end an art gallery; and crucial to the understanding of this work is a passage by Homer which also attempts to traverse the void between literature and art.5 In Book 18 of the ‘Iliad’, Homer famously describes the astonishing shield crafted by Hephaestus for Achilles, a passage that was one of the first examples of ekphrasis, which is the literary description of a work of visual art, or an account of one work of art by another.6 Homer’s description of the shield is made even more remarkable by its impossible complexity and detail: the shield’s imagery incorporates the earth and sky, two cities, a wedding, a battle, harvesting and dancing, as if the work was an encapsulation of the entire human realm. Sounds and movement within the shield’s imagery are also described, which makes us think that Homer is almost emphasizing, in a kind of contest with Hephaestus, the superiority of words over mere physical representation.7 Masterson Forbes’ last public work was developed over a two-year period with the help of artist and friend, Derek Wilkinson, whose input was close to outright collaboration, so important were Wilkinson’s ideas and advice. The piece makes apparent the presence, if you will, of ‘literature’ and ‘art’ at either ends of the corridor, but beyond that, and as a fitting final legacy for an artist who continually wrestled over fifty years with the relationship between words and images, the work subtly intimates that literary writing and fine art are both intimately connected and irreconcilable, at one and the same time.8
Alec Masterson Forbes was born in Delhi in 1935. Training as a sculptor in Falmouth in the 1950s he is primarily known for his text-based works which he has shown throughout the world since 1969. An honorary fellow at Arizona State University, he was nominated for the Guinness Prize in 1987. He died in Morecambe in 2010.
1This work is clearly related to the large series of ‘’’’’’’’’’name’’’’’’’’’’ pieces that Masterson Forbes initiated with ‘Christ/Holbein/Dostoyevsky’, made for the library of Arizona State University in 1985. I hope you will forgive me for interjecting here. Though foot/end/around notes are not often used for exhibition explanatory texts, they have been known; indeed I have personally installed at least three such footnoted gallery texts for Tullie House Museum alone. So I, Derek Wilkinson, thought it would be fitting to add my commentary to the all too brief explanatory paragraph here provided by the Institute……….. I know that Masterson Forbes would have appreciated my attempts here, in these annotations, to clarify his intentions, for although I am primarily a vinyl lettering installation technician, with twelve years experience in arts sector interior signage provision, I am also a conceptual text artist who is very much indebted to the example set by AMF across – a – broad – range – of – artistic –interventions – publications – + – lectures.
2More of this tragic, unspeakable, wrongful event in a moment.
3See also ‘Frazier — Trotsky’, temporarily installed at The Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, in 1988 or 1989. I am sure there is an exhibition catalogue for the Fruitmarket show, called something like ‘Unfortunate Constellations’, it will be somewhere on Amazon no doubt. I usually carry a spare set of letters and various kinds of typographical symbols for most jobs, and have started improving the punctuation or sentence flow of some of the texts I have been employed to install — there is always the odd comma that needs moving or semi-colon adding. I feel it is part of the service, attention to detail beyond the call and all that. The wall texts are written, of course, to provide a source of authority, to unlock the work, but to offer no opinion as such: the voice is always neutral, and never draws attention to itself as a voice. This is how power works. So I have also started adding a few words here and there, so that a voice can snag the flow. Just making things clearer or, sometimes, providing a comment that the reader may appreciate: some common sense opinion on the material at hand, nothing too critical, just constructive glossing, elucidation, gentle revelation, if, you, will. Firing the arrow of comprehension at the reader’s great round target of uncertainty. The library/gallery/festival staff do not notice my tampering, as they never seem to read the texts again once they have been signed off. Why would they? So with this one I have really gone for it, as you can see: I could not resist, “what” “with” “the” “subject” “being” “so” “dear” “to” “my” “own” “interests”. The wall text they gave me I have annotated, as you can obviously see, fleshing it with my particular (and unique) knowledge, printing out all of this extra vinyl at my own expense. I have also introduced a more experimental approach to the ~~~~punctuation~~~~ and line placement in the spirit of AMF’s own work. Happy to do it, if the work and legacy of Masterson Forbes is in any way aided by me doing so. The staff will no doubt notice this one, but I shall deal with them when it arises. Perhaps I could promise to remove all these notes if they have a problem, then keep delaying the job? That will keep all this on the walls for a few days at least. Call it — the whole process, these words, the fight to preserve their ‘life’ — my tribute to AMF. My homage???!!! My eulogy.
4Em dashes are the longest dash, used for linking words that have some kind of equivalence: ‘New York—Paris flight’ for instance. Information like this you can find on Wikipedia so I will stick to matters related directly to AMF from now on.
5Homer has of course provided the inspiration for a number of AMF pieces over the years. The best reference I can point you to is the monograph ‘Alec Masterson Forbes: A Written World’ published by Routledge in 2001, which gives you a good (but incomplete) survey of the man’s (brilliant), (oblique), (serious) output. Please don’t read the essay in it by Tim Johnson though: anodyne, and inaccurate with it.
6Here is the full text that AMF used on the canvas painting ‘SOCRATES 14’, from 1972: ‘"You know Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting. The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever." Plato: ‘Phaedrus’ 275D’. I think you will agree this is also a very pertinent comment on the work you are standing before today in this nicely refurbished institutional corridor. The piece I have just quoted from, part of a series of eighteen text paintings that used as their subject eighteen different translations into English of the above excerpt’s original Greek, was my own key of introduction to the heavy duty five lever mortise of AMF and his work. It was early summer 2004 and he was showing the entire series of ‘SOCRATES 1–18’ at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. As soon as I received the gallery wall text document, I was immediately taken by the work, captivated by the description of its austere purity, its poetic clarity, its simple!!! articulation, which even shone through the limply pedestrian gallery blurb.
7If I may be permitted, the idea of ‘’’words’’’ (sic) as superior to a visual work of art is questionable. Though the gallery text is not saying this, to be fair, merely that Homer may have thought it. More like an overcompensation for a subconsciously perceived lack, on Homer’s part. We got chatting, AMF and myself, as I was finishing the punctuation on the gallery text at Abbot Hall (punctuation always has to be smoothed on separately: this is my technique at least, and AMF had wanted to change some of the comma positions). I am sure that I impressed him with my knowledge of Greek philosophy, and was impressed in return by the quiet dignity of the man, an artist of great reputation and fame who nevertheless had the time to chat to a humble vinyl lettering man about the Socratic problem. Thus started a friendship — yes, the-word-is-appropriate — that lasted until the tragic events of the 17th July 2010.
8Since that Kendal meeting we, AMF and myself, had entered into a long correspondence that no doubt enriched both of our lives, though AMF replied to me only once, to the first letter I sent him. I feel sure that the many many letters, emails, texts and phone messages I sent his way were fully appreciated, because it is rare that men of such a like mind are able to make a <connection> with each other, share ideas, unconstrained by the restrictions of public discourse or academic enquiry. Our barque of friendship sailed on through six blissful years………. AMF changed his home and email addresses many times and, no doubt because of the pressure of work commitments, always forgot to let me know of his new location, though I was always fortunately able to find his latest address in order to continue our special dialogue. “””But I have destroyed all our correspondences”””. There are no copies of any letter or email sent. I thought this would preserve the purity of our connection – our bond, yes, our alliance – in my memory, a notion somewhat in, or to, the spirit of Plato, who claimed that writing is the murderer of memory and wisdom. There are, also, some things I do regret saying, things written in the steam that rose up from the pan of frustration when boiled by the gas ring of my own creative inadequacies, things that are better … consigned … to … oblivion. These were rare lapses in our regular and fruitful correspondence, which ended, as I have said, on July17th. The weather on that day was forecast to be beautifully temperate, so I thought a trip to the seaside at Morecambe was in order, with the added thrill of the possibility of bumping into AMF, who had just moved to the resort. And there at the end of the Stone Jetty — what do you know — was AMF, seated with a copy of ‘The Dialogues’ and bathed, in the warmth, of the evening, sun. Before I was able to shake his hand he quickly got up and moved away, seemingly in eagerness to look from the jetty across the majestic bay to the peaks beyond. But he picked up such a pace that he slipped and crashed through a temporary plastic railing, disappearing over the edge. AMF died, I am led to believe, the moment he hit the rocks, though his body was only recovered in Grange-over-Sands three days later. The fierce sting of the tragedy is tempered somewhat by the dock leaf of the fact that he perished in close proximity to one of his great friends, with the words of a Great in his hands.
The works of AMF, indeed the man himself, haunt my own art works. ???How could they not??? The trauma of witnessing his death has laid down a challenge: to use art to bring some kind of order out of the wretched, random, ruthless toyings of Zeus (((the God of fate))). Immediately after AMF was taken I was plunged into a white hot furnace of sorrow, so I poured the molten ore of myself into the sand moulds of my own art with a vigour I had never before experienced. One of these works you are reading now. Yes, these notes form an artwork, a collaboration with AMF after death, which was fully authorised by the man himself before his untimely end. “””My own best tribute to the man”””. And it was not until weeks after I finished another work, ‘Pyre’, a meditation on the Louis Edouard Fournier painting of the funeral of Shelley, that I realised that that piece too was shot through with, saturated and charred by, the memory of AMF –––. The work takes the form of a poem, which is to be projected above a pile of logs to look like flames issuing from them \\//\\//, a poem that torturously grapples with the madness of ekphratic description, its impossible translation, the violence of it, destroying that which is revered in the very act of rendering it in homage. We are running out of wall space so here I will, humbly, leave you, with a few lines: from: the: work: ‘On the painted beach a man sleeps/who is turning to smoke before our eyes/flesh billowing into air, undulating its stench./A stink of paint and of words.//That clings to us now. And always.’