Aside from earning money, what is the meaning of work? This is one of the questions troubling Aarav, the protagonist and first-person narrator of my photo-text fiction, Reversed Curses. The project is set in India, where I am currently staying, and to which I have made several trips from London over the last two years.
Justin Coombes, Chitrahaar, installation detail, 2016, mixed media
This is the first iteration of Reversed Curses that I recently made for London’s Other Art Fair and gives a good sense of the way the project’s final exhibition is likely to feel. Lightboxes, photographic prints, and poems of various sizes intermingle, with work floating above and below an invisible centre line. Two qualifications I need to make here are that the principle form of the project will be a book, although highlights will be exhibited in India and the UK, and that the final textual component will likely contain prose as well as poetry.
Most of the artworks I have created over the last five or six years have several elements in common. They combine photography with fictional text, and they take the book as their primary form, but have been accompanied by parallel exhibitions. My camera assumes viewpoints that are not ‘my own’, but those of my fictional characters: what might be described as ‘first person narration’ in written fiction and ‘point of view’ or ‘subject camera’ in moving film. This cast of fictional characters includes a lovelorn, brain injured, acid-scarred crow in Plea, a pregnant, nesting kingfisher in Halcyon Song, a shape-shifting monster in the Thames in Water Creature (a collaboration with poet Eleanor Rees), and several characters in Hokkaido Postcard, including the Taoist and Buddhist deity Kannon and an officious Tokyo tour guide. Reversed Curses continues in this vein, with a greater emphasis this time on my fictional character’s interior life. Aarav is, in some senses, an alter-ego for me, and a means to think imaginatively in India, as I try to learn as much as possible about this country and expand the possibilities of what I term ‘alterical photography’.
Aarav is a late-middle aged conductor on the Indian Railways. His poems and prose muse on working life and his hopes and fears about retirement, but also take in his complex relationship with his family, his doubts about his Hindu faith and some of his thoughts on verbal language. His ‘curses’ are ‘reversed’ in that job pressures cause him, at times, to hate the things he loves: ambivalence is a central theme of the project. The typography of the book cover will also play on the ambiguities of the word ‘reversed’, suggesting instead, ‘re: versed’. I am trying to create a voice that is obviously lyrical but also splenetic, comic, fearful, melancholic and loving. And Aarav sees his own bilingualism (he is a native Hindi speaker but learnt English in school) as another significant form of reversal.1 This mirroring trope is also present in my conception of Reversed Curses as a whole: I am imagining myself into late middle age from its mirror position: early middle age (I turn forty next year). The project’s title also plays on train journeys’ repetitions and reversals: the paradox that, as Kierkegaard wrote, ‘Life must be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards.’2
Like most artists, I am trying with this project both to build on what I have done in the past and to push myself beyond it. I am moving in areas beyond my comfort zone in two particular respects. First, I am trying to give a more rounded, believable version of a fictional consciousness than I have in the past: something much closer to the full sense of interiority afforded by the novel than the ‘snapshot’ of a character that short stories or poems can afford. Second, I am moving into a more politically loaded area. There are the ethics of using people’s photographs when it is near logistically impossible for me to gain their consent: a great deal of the pictures have been ‘grabbed’ on the 400-mile train journey between Delhi and Lucknow. But perhaps even more pressingly, there is the topical issue of ‘cultural appropriation’. All the more so as I am a white, middle-class British man. What right have I to ventriloquise a working class man in contemporary India? I cannot fully answer this question at the moment, but I can assert that a number of aspects of my research are creating what I hope will be a greater degree of authenticity in the character. These include conducting interviews with Indian Railways staff and with my extensive network of friends and family in India (my wife is Indian and a Lucknow native). But perhaps the most important ‘holding pattern’ that I am using to reign in my own semi-autobiographical musings (Aarav as mirror of myself) are formal. Specifically, they are organising principles of colour harmony in the book’s visual ‘track’ and rhyme in its textual counterpart.
In ‘Why Rhyme Pleases’, Simon Jarvis describes how authors have criticised rhyme in poetry as being somehow unsophisticated: sacrificing meaning for the sake of ornamentality.3 His rejoinder is that to draw such a distinction is itself unsophisticated: the best poetry complicates any supposed difference between content and sonority. The qualities for which rhyme is usually dismissed (redundancy, distraction, etc.) are only native to ineffective, ‘surface’ rhymes. This point is echoed by David Samoilov in his study of Russian poetry,4 when distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary rhyme. And Reginald Gibbons, in his book How Poems Think, makes another, related point, following Joseph Brodsky, that poetry is ‘a form of linguistic disobedience’.5 This could mean that rhyming words in a truly ‘thinking’ poem dictate, to some degree, the growth and meaning of the work: its unique ‘thinking structure’. I am using these as organizing principles as I compose Aarav’s poetry:
This is my mind, stuck with elephant pain.
I cannot think straight. I would do it again.
Both rhyming words here move meaning forward. Aarav’s pain is one subject of the poem. The resounding ‘again’ of the final line emphasises that his situation is all the more objectionable to him as he feels trapped in it. The very over-familiarity of the pain/again rhyme, which we can find in countless other poems and pop-lyrics, reinforce the banality and ‘stuckness’ of his condition.
Jarvis, following Adorno’s writing on music, praises prosodic thinking, one to which rhyme can give us proper access. I would add that rhyme’s visual parallels (repetitions of line; colour harmony, etc) can serve a similar role. Prosodic thinking is innate to the point of invisibility in music and moving image film-making. But in the work of still photography and picture editing for books and the web, it is perhaps easier to analyse because of the physical structure of how these works are composed: unlike music and film we can see them ‘all at once’. Reversed Curses is one such instance of this.
Prosodic thinking is not simply a counterpoint to, or escape from, that more familiar ‘reasoned’ thinking whose form is essentially semantic. It is not as if some ‘rational’ mode of existence (how much you ate and earned; how many days you lived) is glossed with musicality, but rather that the two must be properly imbricated, woven into each other, in order for one to live a full life. See Shobha Broota’s painting The Rhythm below.
Shobha Broota, The Rhythm, 2006, oil and acrylic on canvas, 122 x122 cm
The term Jung would use here is ‘individuation’. I would like to underline the importance to Jungian discourse on the mandala, which can be found not just in Vedic religion but also Buddhist, Native American and Australian Aboriginal cultures as symbols of wholeness and the universe. If we think of Shobha Broota’s painting as a mandala for Aarav’s own life song (his micro-universe), moving centrifugally, or centripetally, through it would require multiple reinventions of the self: today he is orange; tomorrow, brown, the next day, white, and so on. Aarav currently believes he has lived his life in prose, in one colour, and I hope, as I grow with him, he will increasingly discover poetry’s many colours were woven into it all along.
Justin Coombes, Durga, from the series ‘Reversed Curses’, 2016, Duratran in lightbox, 50 x 70 cm
In this picture from the ‘Reversed Curses’ series, the Bengal pink of the figure at the rear of the cattle convoy in this picture chimes with Durga’s robes above her: there is rhyme in the literal alignment of real woman and goddess. And there is rhyme between the terracotta of the building in the top left-hand corner and the blurred form in the bottom left. These meet along the x-axis: the camera records them as being of similar size and colour. Raw experience presents itself to Aarav, as it does to all of us, as a mixture of the known and the unknown. If the train was still, the blurred pink form might be recognisable as perhaps, litter. But as the train is moving and the pink patch is glimpsed momentarily: it floats, a known-unknown in Aarav’s consciousness. These blurred patches of colour, like unspoken thoughts, seem to be acquiring a real significance to the project.
Two colours leap out at me in the edit I have prepared for Third Text. The first is the Bengal pink mentioned above, which can also be found in the pigments thrown at Holi (the Hindu spring festival), in the washing hanging from clothes lines and draped over buildings, and the lotus flowers held by Parvati and Ganesha in the calendar. The second is saffron, that sacred colour so ubiquitous in India: it crops up in the boy’s bucket, the headgear of one of the passengers on the train platform and again in the flower prints worn by the woman next to the pile of gravel. It also makes an appearance in Parvati’s sari, the pigment on the backs of the two horses, and the background of the grim reaper poster. It would be easy to extrapolate on the significance of each of these colours to the scenes in which they appear: nowhere is colour more loaded, more laden with associations, than in India. But I would like to stress that their presence in my sequence is far more intuitive than programmatic and in this sense, again, there is an analogy with rhyme.
Consider the close proximity of saffron and Bengal pink to one another on a CMYK colour wheel, and look again at the way they bleed into each other in the pigments on the backs of the horses:
SW Pryor, CMYK RGB Colour Wheel, no date
Justin Coombes, Holi (detail), from the series, ‘Reversed Curses’, 2016, Duratran in lightbox, 50 x 70 cm
Sonically, rhyming words must have elements in common with each other, but also distinct differences: ‘horse’ rhymes with ‘course’ and ‘force’, but not with ‘horse’ itself. In the CMYK model, neither saffron nor Bengal pink contain any cyan, and both have yellow and magenta in common, of opposing ratios. They contain then the right amounts of similarity and difference for them to ‘rhyme’ convincingly to the eye and to form a refrain giving my entire sequence a degree of visual continuity.
Part of rhyme’s force is that it is both pre- and post-linguistic: the effectiveness of nursery rhymes in language acquisition is testament to the fact that a rhyme provides a sensual pleasure, often before it provides a cognitive one. I am at the very early stages of learning Hindi and so find myself tuning into the lyrical qualities of the language, just as I am drawn to the colours of its landscapes and street life.
Many of the pictures I am making here exist somewhere in that liminal space between the staged and the candid: I have been looking at the classic street photography of figures such as Raghu Rai, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Colour in my Indian street pictures is perhaps more important than tone or form: I am trying to use it to make an intuitive score that captures a tension between being ‘of the everyday’ and yet somehow elevated and memorable. Another mirror: can my position as a quasi-stranger in India, my tourist-like pleasure in its novelties, convincingly morph into Aarav’s self-imposed task of re-enchanting himself with a world with which he has become overly familiar?
One of the pleasures of a train journey is that, if so disposed, you can find, whilst looking through a window, an agreeable mental balance between your inner thoughts and the rapidly shifting outside world. This headspace lacks the tyranny of meditation, with its insistence on elimination of unwanted thoughts, or the dizzying distractions of television channel hopping or web browsing. It is as if the train journey is a song, of fixed duration, forward momentum and a pleasing mixture between the anticipated and unanticipated; between elements both within and outside of our control. A metaphor for life itself.
There will be, I hope, pathos in Aarav’s quest to find rhyming colours, forms and thoughts that anchor his experience with meaning, lending them wider significance and giving him clues as to how he should live his future. What I had thought would be a melancholic voice is surprising me by becoming more salutary. What Aarav might have thought unnecessary rhymes, the banality of working life’s repetition, turn out in fact to be deeply necessary as he reflects more upon what he has seen and recalls.
Trees, water, animals and women.
These fish-tank finds for my mind’s collection
from its rush hour view across platform
and queue will tonight reach perfection
in the lushest of hues: a flood of sweet
images, a hot late-night show,
where women care for animals and lead
them to water. Trees grow…
What kind of change does Aarav need to recuperate happiness? Note 15 from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour reads: "In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new."6 The submodifier totally is Aarav’s pharmakon: his misoneism, his fear of change, springs from not knowing whether that change will constitute medicine or poison. Learning something totally new could mean a complete repudiation of one’s past. Does the revision he feels the need to make entail leaving his wife, his religion, his own life?
Whatever the change he needs to make, it will be an intuitive decision and formed in large part by the various forms of rhyme with which I am structuring the project. There are the literal rhymes of the octaves that constitute the poetry track. There are the visual rhymes formed by the two quatrains that form each octave. And there are also what I term ‘expanded rhymes’. For instance, the palindromic use of words (‘tikc uF /Fuck it’) and the relationship between word and image. Most importantly though, there are the chromatic rhymes. Colour gains significance through relation with other colours. And I want this relativistic way of seeing to be at the centre of Reversed Curses. In Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other, Bernard McGrane notes that, ‘travel is essentially… a mode of seeing; it is grounded in the eye, in our visual captivity’.7 For me, train travel, in particular, dramatises how our lived experience of time cannot be stopped and emphasises the impossibility of taking a ‘neutral’ viewpoint. It also gives the lie to the idea that the ‘inanimate’ world is somehow fixed in contrast to our transient selves. We might like to console ourselves with the thought that buildings, statues and litter are permanent things, but to view each of them from a moving train reminds us, as they rapidly disappear from view, that they too shall pass.
As I hope this article demonstrates, I am trying to avoid the follies of projection and ventriloquism, of simply creating a thinly veiled alter-ego in ‘Reversed Curses’, by introducing obstacles to my own omnipotence in relation to Aarav, as he creates an epic, perhaps even heroic, internalised rhyme about his life in his own head. And I am allowing the randomness of my train journeys, the way in which one has a limited choice over what one photographs, to play a large part in the sequencing, story and design of the project. Is this a single day in Aarav’s life? Recollections of a month’s worth of sights? Or ten years? I hope the pictures will answer this question for me. I want their quasi-randomness to be a primary agency and a series of necessary rhymes, that help to create Aarav.
Justin Coombes’s solo exhibitions include ‘Halcyon Song’ at Paradise Row, London and ‘Grief Tree’ at Valentines Mansion, Ilford. Recent art criticism has appeared in Photomonitor and Routledge’s Visual Studies magazine. His poetry has appeared in Material Online and his photography in Granta magazine. His work is held in a wide number of collections including Ernst and Young, the British Government Art Collection and David Roberts Art Foundation. Awards include the British Oxygen Company Emerging Artist Award and grants from Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Coombes holds a doctorate from the Royal College of Art and teaches on the BFA and DPhil Fine Art programmes at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University.
1 Just as English ‘sits’ on top of the base line on which it is written, Devanagari (the syllabary used for Hindi, Sanskrit and other Indian languages) ‘hangs’ below it. Other reversals in the relationship between the two languages are the postpositions of Hindi compared to the prepositions of English, and Hindi’s standard subject, object, verb sentence structure as compare to English’s subject, verb object structure. English, then is ‘an Other’ language for Aarav.
2 Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Notebooks, v 4, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2011, p 696
3 Simon Jarvis, ‘Why rhyme pleases’, Thinking Verse I, 2011, pp 17–43
4 David Samoilov, Kniga o russkoi rifme, Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, Moscow, 1973, p 5
5 Reginald Gibbons, How Poems Think, University of Chicago, Chicago and London, 2015, p 58
6 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ, 1991, p 24
7 Bernard McGrane, Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992, p 43