International Klein Blue, 1957
WORDS ON A TRAIN HEADING NORTH
The sky a climbing field, from crop haze to Klein blue (oh, that leap he made); a colour, if any, out of time.
* * *
One spring morning, a person, a young man or woman, in their mid 20s perhaps, is walking down a quiet street in the residential districts of a large city when an unremarkable car pulls up alongside them. Before they can appreciate what is happening, the young person is seized by two men from the vehicle and pushed forcibly onto its back seat. The car drives away at speed. In the shock of the abduction, the young person’s small day-sack has been dropped and now it lies on the pavement, its mouth open, papers stirring and scattering in the breeze that settles in the avenue trees like a throw of small birds.
On long train journeys, one should read novels. They privilege the passage and not the stops. A newspaper is too often a series of thinly populated and even derelict stations.
The young person opens their eyes. There is a faint light falling from a stuttering blackened bulb. The young person can make out the dimensions of a damp concrete room, windowless and steel-doored. There is nothing else in the room. She is sitting on the floor. There is nobody else in the room.
It is possible to buy coat buttons individually from a dedicated small shop in the east of the capital. This in itself is almost a surprise, given the loss to the neighbourhood of so many merchants of use. Each button is glued as a sample to the lid of a small jar of its own kind. They range in price from small change to considerably more. One of the larger items is a silvered dark-brown, like certain shells. It is made from water buffalo bone. It is not clear how or when the button is claimed from the bone.
She keeps rubbing her wrists where the cuffs dug deep. She is very hungry and thirsty. The floor is covered in liquids of various densities, which gather in fetid pools where the rough surface dips.
A daily miracle, of course, how one can send out messages from the palm of one’s hand, while also in motion across great tracts of land, to any part of the world. A kind of telepathy, the unspoken transmission of wishes, dreams, hopes. Words in a bottle, despairing or otherwise, which arrive.
They come for her at all hours of the day and night, although she does not know the time, only the intervals between pain, which become briefer, as the echoes and ripples of the devices deployed spread to fill the absence of their direct application. Electricity, household and garden tools, medical implements, drenched fabric, fists, music amplified into great dissonance, certain animals. Dependent on her gender, the methods vary but, increasingly, what she is or isn’t makes less and less difference. The numbers of men. Their roar. The complete noise, as if sound was solid and occupied all corners. And the total silence of the room, only her own sounds there, afterwards.
While I have been writing, my shoulders have been hunched and a tension has been growing in my lower back. Focused on the small screen, its display hard to view in the bright sunlight of a gifted northern afternoon, I have remained completely oblivious, until now, of the fact of the sea, immaculately calm, filling the entire frame of the eastern windows of the train.
After what must have been days, but could have been months, in this place, she is no longer sure whether the screams she hears are others’, or her own.
Here, the tracks run just metres from the cliff edge. If one looks straight out of the window and not down, it appears as if the train is running directly on the surface of the waters.
One morning, two men come into her room. They order her to stand but she is too weak to do so unaided. One lifts her beneath the armpits while the other ties her wrists with wire behind her back, but high, between the blades, with an extension of the wire looped around her neck. Then she is gagged and blindfolded, and dragged by her hooped arms out of the room.
When the tide is out, as it is currently, a rock pavement emerges and one has the sense of a vast network of paths extending further beneath the waves, as invisible to our eyes as the aerial corridors followed through migrating flocks.
In the car, she holds onto the conscious world by repeating her own name to herself, inside her head, as if she is in a cavern far from harm, as if she is being addressed by somebody else, in the tone of their asking after her.
The skeleton of a house on low, grassy ground near the sands.
A great unravelling of sound fills her head. Unable to locate its source, she is startled by how much one sense depends on another for clarification. She is dragged again, then lifted roughly, to about tabletop height and rolled across a floor of ridged metal. She feels this with her bruised fingertips and cheek as she turns and turns, then stops.
The threaded blues of the sea today - a sifting of cobalt and the hue of alpine snow, maybe a little indigo also; all edged, in sight from the train, by the yellow flowers of tormentil - reminding how important these colours are in matters of the spirit.
The din continues, increasing even.
It seems again to spread throughout her body, a fluid running to all the available spaces of a vessel, filling it entire.
Small worked fields patch all the way to the cliff; or stonewalled, sometimes fenced moorland grass, where the arrangements - and coloured farm identity markings - of the sheep within the barricades bear a strange correlation to the scatters and knots of fishing buoys, marking crab and lobster cages out in the shallower, shelving water.
There is a rapid jolt and she slides violently to one side as the floor seems to tip and incline. She rolls once or twice until she is stopped by something. Through a long rip in her trousers, she feels something against her lower leg, perhaps skin. With all the unsettling, her blindfold has worked a little loose, but the wire binding her hands is trenching further into her wrists with every jar.
I was looking out to sea when we crossed the border. It is terribly still.
The floor steepens. She is now covered by other bulks, uneven, that she cannot identify, that move as heavily and uncontrollably as her. The pressure on her chest is intense and, at times, it is very difficult to breathe. The roar is all around her. She feels now that she is only a part of it, nothing more or less, just a part.
It is interesting how drinking a glass of water when under stress or confused really does bring a degree of release, and quite rapidly. As if, prior, the body has remembered how far it is from its origins and, like a throat in drought, begins in its panic to fray.
Quite imperceptibly, the floor levels and there is a kind of settlement of the weights. She is lying face down on the metal. Its ridges cut into her brow. Her body is inclined upwards at the hips, as she feels some load, like a sack, beneath her thighs. The blood is surging in her head, but she can no longer feel her fingers.
There are many varieties of domesticated water buffalo, but they all derive from a single common wild ancestor, whose continued existence is now threatened. However, even these selectively bred creatures resist the driving that is the common method of moving cattle. Instead, the herder is required to walk alongside or slightly ahead of their herd.
For some period, there is little disturbance. One eye is now exposed from the blindfold but she is not able to see anything distinctively. Too long a time in deprived surroundings has almost robbed her of vision. All she can perceive is a great dazzle before her, a wall of light, and a strong wind, gusting and flapping, as if the light itself was a slack sail on a high sea.
From the window, a stave of crows alighting on the turned soil. The transport of time on a train.
Suddenly there is great movement, and the sense of other people for the first time. Other people standing quickly. And an urgency in the steps that drum and resound in her ear, pressed inescapably into the metal floor.
A man is slowly wading out into the small lake created from a former gravel pit. He moves very slowly, the water to his chest, not looking up as the train blurs past, the shortest distance from him.
Then, in a single sweep, she is raised, hauled up by the arms. She cannot support herself but is braced by unknown assistance. The wall of light is immediately before her now, so close its brightness brings its own blindness.
Bodies in water displace their volume of course. And ice turned water, in water.
It is as if she is looking directly into the face of the sun.
I admit, perhaps inevitably and all too predictably, to a fascination with the mystery created by women’s wearing of sheer tights. As through a fine mist, the way in which something is both seen and not.
She doesn’t know how long she is held there. Within the severe tension of the neck wire, she tries to move her head, testing for the limits of the light. Her eye can find no purchase on any surface.
So much of the land appears unclaimed by any outward evidence of action or intent. Small stands of trees, piles of dumped brickwork and rubble, stretches of scrub. In a churchyard far out in the sea of fields, a man in a white shirt is standing by an open grave. The mound of earth next to him looks a little like the body due to drop might, sacked.
It is as if the world has retreated far across a plain, and even that expanse has removed itself to a dimension beyond registration.
Further; imagine a landscape entirely untenanted by rail, by its embankments and cuttings, its divisions. Only the unmetalled walking and cart tracks, the dust and mud of paths and lanes. And steeples the only vertical, the way stations of the walking air, whose own higher fields are undisturbed by planes, by any flying thing that men have made, by any signals - visible or not - except for the smoke of fires and the songlines of the birds.
But then she marks a difference in the texture of looking, a firming into form, and slowly comes to know that she is looking at a reach of flesh, very close. As she stares, it resolves itself into the side profile of a face, a shaven jaw, a cheek, an ear and the brow over the eye, which is shielded by a darkened glass.
Strangely, a long way from any road, village or apparent purpose, a steel footbridge over the tracks, joining empty fields only, as if it was forgotten entrance, arch to a settlement without walls, roofs or inhabitants.
It is staring straight ahead, and barely seems human, for how little it moves, or even shudders in the general turbulence.
Across an adjacent valley, a tall brick viaduct suggests the hoops and vaults of certain scripts from the remote mountains and desert edges of the continent, letters surely created to offer a home for their speakers in a world of threats and incursion. So that a word might become a cave for concealment in a high rock face, as a line of enemy soldiers, weapons snatching the sun like sudden mirrors, make their way slowly across the floor of the valley below, a second river shining. Or the nave of a church, or even a pair of hands clasped in prayer, beneath whose linked fingers one might breathe slowly out, and know brief rest.
She fixes on the jaw as someone who appreciates that they have lost a sense of scale and all its known relations. For her now, the jaw might present as a ridge of low, even peaks seen from the air in a flight over challenging interior terrain; or it could carry, in its subtly varying pigments, the signature of a recent wound, magnified and scrutinized for signs of recovery, stalling or continuing distress.
It is difficult not to perceive the gleam and glitter of the endless terraced roofs of the residences in the small town that approaches - clinging close to the wide, drained estuary and penultimate to the train’s terminus - as the damp and glistening rocks of a long shoreline exposed at low tide.
Her eye is both bird and breeze to this jaw. It barely alights, but is there. Maybe it is felt.
High willows line the park’s riverside path. They contain within their long lime trails all the promise of waterways on a dog day of summer; the cool chambers held in the current, inviting undressed bodies.
At once, before she can understand what is happening and as she continues to study the profile, she is propelled forward and the face disappears in a blur. She is instantly alone and can see nothing in the dazzle that surrounds her.
A flight of wide stone steps lead down to the river a little further on. A woman and a man are standing to leave. He waits for her as she brushes her skirt.
I still believe in my childhood dreams. Quite legible, even from the train, a line in chalk, the letters large but not excessive, on the factory-blackened wall. The last word is evident but has been neatly crossed through by a single horizontal line.
Turns and falls. Turns and falls. Now she is only light and noise, and all inside the wind.
In a second hand bookshop before making this journey, I found a collection of love poems by Tess Gallagher, the salvation – and now widow - of writer Raymond Carver. Endorsements compared it very favourably to the famous youthful work on such a theme by the late Pablo Neruda of Chile. It was significantly dedicated in ink on the inside front cover. I imagine it is still in the shop.
It looked like mine she thinks. The face, it… quite like mine.
The flooded silver birch grove, the calligraphy of horses still in railside pastures; and all the passing houses of the living and the dead.
It is only when she hits the water that she realises where she is.
Gareth Evans is a London-based writer, editor, film and event producer and Whitechapel Gallery’s Adjunct Moving Image Curator. He is also co-curator of Porto's Forum of the Future, Flipside Festival, Swedenborg Film Festival and Whitstable Biennale. He conceived and co-curated the year-long Utopia 2016 at Somerset House, and curated the moving image programme, including the new feature commission by US film-maker Jem Cohen (World Without End) for the inaugural Essex and Kent festival Estuary in 2016. He created and programmed PLACE, the annual cross-platform festival at Aldeburgh Music, is Co-Director of production agency Artevents and has curated numerous film and event seasons across the UK. He conceived and curated the two month cross-arts London season John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet in 2005 and co-curated the London-wide two month All Power to the Imagination! 1968 and Its Legacies in 2008. He regularly hosts events at institutions nationally and internationally.
Evans produced the essay film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee as part of his nationwide arts project The Re-Enchantment (2008 - 2011) and has recently executive-produced the feature-length works Erase and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Berlinale Panorama 2017), Unseen (Dryden Goodwin for Royal Museums Greenwich); By Our Selves (Andrew Kotting and Iain Sinclair for Soda Pictures); In Time: an Archive Life (Lasse Johansson) and is in development with Fly Film and the BFI for The Lighthouse (directed by Grant Gee and written with Sasha Hails). He commissioned Things by Ben Rivers, which won the 2015 Tiger Award at Rotterdam International Film Festival.
Working on the film pages of Time Out from 2000-2005, Evans edited the international moving image magazine Vertigo from 2002–2009 and now edits Artesian and is a co-editor with Go Together Press and House Sparrow Press. He has written numerous catalogue essays and articles on artists' moving image. Recent monograph pieces include Melanie Manchot, Siobhan Davies, Bill Morrison, Joshua Oppenheimer, Mark Boulos, Yves Berger and Chris Goode.