/ The Animal That Therefore I Am: Justin Coombes’ ‘Halcyon Song’
Justin Coombes is a photographic artist represented by Paradise Row gallery, London. He is currently a PhD student in the department of photography at the Royal College of Art and a tutor at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford. His work has been exhibited internationally and acquired by such collections as Ernst & Young, the Government Art Collection and the David Roberts Art Foundation. Below, Photomonitor contributor Daniel Campbell Blight investigates Coombes’ recent project ‘Halcyon Song’.
Completed in 1820, The Regent’s Canal enjoyed a somewhat restricted period of usage before having its traffic subsumed in the 1840s by the faster and more efficient London railways. By the middle of the nineteenth century much of the canal’s potential cargo was being transported by train, and the canal itself – the hopeful project of notable architect John Nash (responsible for the conservatory at Kew, Royal Opera Arcade and Regent’s Park), with support from Prince regent George IV, from whom the waterway gets its name – was already undergoing an identity crisis. There were several attempts to transform the canal into a railway, with no success and a gunpowder barge explosion at Macclesfield Bridge in 1874, several previous water supply shortages, a badly designed lock and a bout of funding embezzlement, marked a series of despondencies in the canal’s somewhat frustrated history.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the Second World War that traffic was increased on the canal to take pressure off the over-capacity railway system. By the 1960s, commercial traffic had almost completely disappeared, leaving the waterway as predominantly a leisure facility, relished by many Londoners for daytime excursions, boat trips and all manner of unhurried activities. Canals have celebrated a long and successful history, but comparatively The Regent’s Canal, built in the later period of British industrial development and therefore soon-overshadowed by greater technological achievements such as the railway, paled in comparison to the success man-made waterways had relished in England since the 1750s and elsewhere for, in some cases, thousands of years. Indeed, the earliest irrigation canals date back to 4000BC Mesopotamia.
The canal is undoubtedly an invention of ingenious proportions; not just for its speed compared to often badly-surfaced roadways, but also for its relatively quiet, mellifluous nature: canals are places that accommodate both commercial and cultural pursuits simultaneously. It would seem, however, that from one point-of-view The Regent’s Canal was more suited to leisure than commerce, as its difficult history reveals.
Canals have formed the subject matter for a number of notable artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, including Turner’s Chichester Canal (1828), Monet’s The Grand Canal, Venice (1908) and somewhat more exactly related, Algernon Newtons’ The Regent’s Canal, Twilight (1925), which can be found housed in the Government Art Collection along with Coombes’ own work. A number of Romantic and Impressionistic paintings and drawings can be discovered of canals in the last two hundred years of Western art history: they form what one might call a quintessential or even somewhat predictable subject for fine and folk artists alike. The appearance or aesthetic identity of the canal, as quaint and beguiling waterway, is well developed art-historically.
Such subjects are ripe for further exploration by contemporary artists and, as Justin Coombes’ project Halcyon Song shows us, the canal as a place of study for artists is far from dead. Coombes’ series of photographs transform an idle, somewhat clichéd subject into a revitalised and perceptive tale of non-human photographic perspective, iambic pentameters and post-structural complications within the language of photography itself.
The photographs that make up Halcyon Song can be viewed in both book and exhibition form. The works, within the context of a gallery, appear as large, panoramic canalside-views loaded with saturated, resplendent colour, hazy, abstracted surfaces and picturesque views of egg-stealing boaters, balloon-carriers and other bon vivant subjects. The images are accompanied by a series of sonnets written by the artist, which along with the pictures themselves, were created from the viewpoint of a halcyon bird, a genus of kingfisher. Through the eyes of this bird and the medium of photography we are offered a neoteric view – both visual and literary – of The Regent’s Canal as it winds its way through Hackney, collecting rubbish at its banks and playing host to both human and animal visitors alike.
Song of My Womb
Ri-ri! Ri-ri! Ri-ri! Ri-ri!
My halcyon song stretches proud, shrill, long
and my unborn darlings echo the call in canal
and river and city and sea!
That swirling soup of refuse that I spied
this morning as the lock rose up
reminded me, as all things do in
pregnancy, of my divine insides.
Reader, take these musings lightly,
but see that home looked for when cruising
can shift like silt: nests when floating
can drift away towards cloud sightings
updownupwards, where the mind sings,
from trails of swirling trash where it all begins.
The Sonnet, a form of poetry written famously by Shakespeare and Milton, has fourteen lines in iambic pentameters. A sequence of sonnets, as is the case with Coombs’ Halcyon Song, often makes up the over-arching narrative of a single poem. A sonnet, not really functioning as a stanza within a poem, feels more akin to a poem within a poem, one might say. In Song of My Womb, the first sonnet in the book the artist produced for this project, we hear the shrill of the halcyon as she flies pregnant over The Regent’s Canal, spying collections of litter in the sullied water. This and other sonnets seem to have a dark humour to them; one line swears nonchalantly while another speaks of ‘lack’ and ‘dismemberment’. Coombes’ use of language is varied, allowing the narrative both a distinctive and vernacular quality throughout: the halcyon is a cynical bird in this poem, one who passes comment on her everyday experiences of the waterway, without restraint or any particular esteem for the presence of humans on the canalside. The poems offer a descriptive accompaniment to the large photographs, allowing the viewer a chance to put himself or herself in the position of this kingfisher as she sarcastically wings her way about the waterway.
Coombes replaces his own position as photographer with the view of the kingfisher, seeking to understand photography as a way of capturing the world from the point-of-view of an existence outside of human consciousness: instead, the halcyon appears to be photographically documenting the canal through her own unique gaze. Here, photography becomes Orwellian fiction; these images offer an insight into a particular character in a fabled, anomalous world that exists as metaphor for our own. As the artist states, ‘I’m interested in the idea of “seeing lyrically”… I limited myself to one “voice” and one poetic form: the sonnet.’ This is essentially a way of conceptualising the act of photographing in a manner that does not, despite surface-level appearance, appear as realist; even the bird’s skewered viewpoints and poetic descriptions of the canal are littered with both visual and literary abstractions. For Coombes, the language of photography is a fictional one. In this sense reality as it appears in the artist’s photographs, could be seen to provide a somewhat fabled quality, which has therefore led Coombes to consider photography as necessarily fictive, compounded by its relationship to poetry and narrative in these works.
As opposed to accurate representations, photographs could be described as interpretations of the world at various subjective distances from it. Often, the gap between what is thought or even seen by a photographer, and what is actually captured by his or her photographs, is distant – a space shrouded in complex layers of difference, intentionality and interpretation. Like verbal or written languages, the visual language of photography is often allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic. Photographic images allude to so much more than just simply what is pictured at a given moment, which is precisely why, tied-up in mystery and illusion, photographs so often enthral.
Halcyon Song would suggest Coombes seems to recognise that within the history of photography theory, the language of photography has moved from describing photographs as realist or mimetic, to understanding that there is an identifiable and intriguing space between the photograph itself, and the thing it depicts (its referent). After developments in linguistics and philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s, artists and writers such as Victor Burgin and Umberto Eco described photographs and their difference to the world with vehement interest and concentration. Specifically, the articulable distinction between a photograph and the world is a clarity offered to photography by semiotics.
Due to these developments in theory, the practice of photography has changed too. Photography has now become a complex art form that cannot help but “think” its way around aesthetic, cultural and political phenomena. In fact, the medium is somewhat bound to thinking itself. Photography doesn’t just simply show things any longer, devoid of analogy or interpretation, it often explains how it shows and why it shows. By representing rather than accurately depicting, photography trades places with various things in the world in order to describe them. There are myriad ways it can do this, but perhaps they all boil down to the unfenced relationship between four essential elements that make up the language of photography: a human subject, a camera, a photograph and the world around them (the key here being that a photograph and the world are not one in the same thing; their difference must be acknowledged).
There are a great number of ways in which photography can change depending on the emphasis placed on one or more of these four elements. Photography can be cameraless, an object might be alone within an image – enlarged and hyperbolic – or there might be many objects simultaneously in view. Indeed, an entire landscape can be panoramically captured, or a photograph can be completely abstract. Each one placing concomitant demands on the viewer, these variations effect the extent to which a photograph can be seen as “different” from the thing it depicts.
What if another scenario, for example an intrigued, voyeuristic animal were to anthropomorphically replace a human photographer? What happens to the language of photography when one of its four standard elements is replaced, or removed altogether? In Coombes’ Halcyon Song, a bird’s point-of-view replaces the traditional human viewpoint; the halcyon seemingly takes on the ability to photographically document what she sees. Therefore, a strange new photographic language is constructed. As two separate but interrelating forms, the photographs and the sonnets are poetic representations of a world created by the halcyon bird. The combination of the images and the halcyon’s poetry forms a strange metaphor for seeing photographically. This metaphor, and thusly the work itself, states that seeing in this way is necessarily poetic, fictional even. As Coombes states ‘I am fascinated by the apparent irreducibility of one form from the other. Where the combination works best, there is a kind of tension that keeps the whole thing alive.’ This tension is the observable difference between the world we think we recognise in the photographs and the actual photographs themselves as photo-poetic descriptions.
In what way can the difference between the four elements (bird, camera, photograph and world) that make up the photographic language in Halcyon Song be described? This difference is best articulated by considering the idea of whose gaze we are seeing at work within the images themselves. The language these photographs speak in is an unusual one where traditional conceptions of the gaze are concerned. We are seeing the bird seeing; or rather, we are seeing as if we were the halcyon herself. Coombes successfully replaces the more traditional human-centric gaze with an anthropomorphic one; these works show a kind of intra-diegetic gaze with the exception that the point-of-view shot of the bird looking at the world does not show the bird itself precisely because the bird’s point-of-view becomes our own. When looking at these images we become a bird, or to put it somewhat philosophically, we “become animal”. In this sense Halcyon Song offers a literal take on Derrida’s idea of “the animal that therefore I am”. ‘As with every bottomless gaze, as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called animal offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself.’
Coombes’ project can be seen to comment on the end point of being human which, within the specific context of photography, would surely describe the limit of the human gaze in photographic seeing. This mixture of theoretical basis and aesthetic accessibility makes for a novel, and at points incredibly interesting, way of thinking through what it means to “see” or “gaze” photographically, from a truly atypical point-of-view.