February 2017


 This text is about the faintly heard voices that quietly direct a working process.

Spirits Of Ancient Egypt
Shadows Of Ancient Rome
Spirits Of Ancient Egypt
Hung On The Tele-
Hung On The Tele-
Hung On The Telephone”

Wings, Spirits of Ancient Egypt, 1975

I had always misheard these lyrics, thinking they went ‘I’m on the telephone’ until a moment ago when I checked them online. We are no longer on the phone, we have no landlines. Like the meanings behind the word’s construction (têle phōnḗ; a voice from afar) the technology has quietly stepped back from us. Satellites orbit around us to relay our voices, and the word ‘satellite’ derives from the Latin satelles; a servant or attendant who might himself step away quietly after an act of service.

Hyperlinks require textual relations; the (human) memory plots its coordinates in a much looser fashion. Remembering how a working process came into being is not orienteering. Whenever I listen to Paul McCartney’s solo music I’m reminded of the Beta Band (I think because they sound stoned in the same way), whose music I first read about just before the release of the their second EP (the second EP by the band of the second letter), The Patty Patty Sound, in 1998, the day before my 16th birthday.

“Coming up next

The lizard and the text”

The Beta Band, She’s the One for Me, 1998


In the late spring of 2010 I travelled to America mainly to look at typescripts in the library of the University of Texas, Austin. I met an Irish academic there who had been looking at some of James Joyce’s letters. He told me that he’d been taken out into the desert by a family friend and given the opportunity to shoot at reptiles with a revolver.

Retrieving, a moment ago, our email correspondence from almost 7 years ago I realise that a few weeks later he sent me an extraordinary photograph of himself standing on an almost-red desert road (which must have been somewhere between Austin and San Antonio), wearing leather gloves and holding a dead, shot snake. He sent the photograph to me partly in order to prove to himself that his trip was all real; that it had really happened. Just before he left Austin we spent an afternoon in a Spanish-speaking bar watching Real Madrid play Barcelona on television, and he was seriously doubting the veracity of his time in Texas. But he was there, I remember it clearly. After he had left (to travel to the American Northwest somewhere before returning to the British Isles) I came across a typewritten letter by Don DeLillo addressed to someone with the same name as the Irish academic. It began “Yo XXXXXX” (I redact the name), and concerned the possible misuse of one or two words by James Joyce.

Once I had finished my own period of time in the library I travelled to Chicago to produce and show a set of films with a frequent collaborator of mine, which appeared on a rear-projection screen visible at a first floor window. We also visited a restaurant called Ethiopian Diamond in the north of the city. The image on the restaurant’s business card shows an almost pyramid-like structure. Or rather, two sections from what might be a pyramid, with a diamond sticking out of the top.

The work around which this text orbits derives from postcards of ancient Egyptian objects. But more recently I’m drawn to beginning a new set of works deriving from a pair of postcards of early Christian Ethiopian objects. I acquired these much more recently, from the shop of the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich. It isn’t clear when the postcards were produced, but they appear to be genuine gelatin silver prints with a soft card backing as opposed to conventional photo-lithographic museum postcards. The paper curls up at the edges, and I’ve been unable to flatten it. On the day I visited the shop was unable to receive card payments, and I didn’t have enough cash, but the attendant was happy to exchange them for a postcard of mine based upon a postcard of the god Amun-Re in gold-inlaid bronze (and incorporating the words of Victor Burgin and a bookmark left in a travel guide to Switzerland).

On the way home from Chicago I stopped in New York and spent some time at the Brooklyn Museum. The museum shop, at that time at least, had some postcards printed in 1975 that were on the spinning postcard racks amongst much more recently printed ones. Presumably they would just sit there until they were sold. I bought two of these postcards, which document items from the museum’s egyptological collection, including the one of the god Amun-Re (the other is of a ‘Lotus Spoon’, in wood, bone and ivory, from the 14th century B.C.).

These postcards – as paper objects rather than references or referents as such – have become a persistent presence in my work. I’m broadly indifferent to the details of the objects’ histories themselves, as opposed to their acquisition, documentation and loose decontextualisation in my own work.

Amun-Re himself (or itself?) was (or is?) one of the most important Egyptian deities, and is present in the form of artefacts and dedications from at least 20 centuries before Christ. In ancient Greece the figure of Amun-Re amalgamates with Zeus, as Ammon. This text, tentatively, attempts to amalgamate (in the early medical sense) materials into meaning; to combine and reform them as one, to soften them via a cataplasmic emollient. But this amalgamation does not occur within the works themselves.

The names of Amun give us, due to discoveries of its salts near temples dedicated to him, that of ammonia, and sal ammoniacus; ammonium chloride, or salmiak(ki), depending on which side of the Baltic sea one is purchasing liquorice. Pedanius Dioscorides gives us the name that became ‘liquorice’ (glukus rhiza, ‘sweet root’) in his De Materia Medica, written the first century A.D. I hope that maybe these trails of logic are sweetly rhizomatic, in the Deleuzian sense; inevitably interconnective with themselves.

I’ve employed the Brooklyn Museum’s postcard of the Amun-Re sculpture as, very specifically, a scanned object digitally separated from its background. I think of these (and other such objects) as ‘floating signifiers’; things that have very specific, rich and deep local individual meanings that make little collective sense in the company of other ‘floating signifiers’.

A text like the present one is an attempt to derive some collective sense from these works and idea-collages. But it is almost impossible to put all the ideas back together again when their construction was so loose in the first place.





Image courtesy of the artist and The Brooklyn Museum