Adventures in Ekphrasis:
a Report, a Consideration

Matthew Bellwood reads his text

Gill Crawshaw’s curatorial project, performed on 19 July at Leeds Art Gallery, explored experimental approaches to audio-description for blind and visually impaired audiences. Crawshaw commissioned six writers—art-writers, artist-writers, poets, fiction writers, essayists—to choose and respond to works in the gallery’s collection. This essay offers an overview of the event and then considers my own choices, responses, and processes in the context of the commission.

[Ekphrasis: The use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device. Mid 17th century: via Latin from Greek ekphrasis ‘description’, from ekphrazein ‘recount’, from ek- ‘out’ + phrazein ‘tell’.]

A Report

Crawshaw’s invitation came with a few guidelines: to name the work and the artist, to give its material constituents, and when choosing our works to be wary of dark works in dark corners, or works hung too high on a wall, and to be aware of which areas of the gallery were noisier than others—the ‘descriptions’ were to be performed live, next to their respective works. Beyond these caveats, we were free, she said, to do what we liked. I talk about my choice of work, ‘Movie’, by Hilary Lloyd, 2015, in the second section of this essay.

Eleanor Snare performing her text

Eleanor Snare wrote in response to Tissot’s painting ‘The Bridesmaid’ (c.1883-85), constructing a verse-imagining from the perspective of a boy in the painting, flipping from his vision to ours, the ‘she was painted’ bringing us back, momentarily, to the materiality of the object, the idea of ‘blue’ iterated throughout her text. During Snare’s reading Crawshaw passed around swatches of blue silk and pairs of white, soft leather dress gloves to be handled, tried on.

There was a hubbub in the street, / and I saw Her—the bridesmaid. / I saw Her for a moment only / —and even now I wonder whether she was a figment of my hormone-fevered mind— / And she was painted in a dress of pigment so blue / Its hue seemed to shine, inside-out.

But Her blue, Her blue; / I thought I was watching a sweet swaying field of cornflowers, / The ruffles of her dress icing on a sugar-laced gateau

Peader O’Dea wrote a flash fiction that animated the characters of Francis S. Walker’s painting ‘The Convent Garden’ (1878), which, like Snare’s piece, flipped the listener between an imagined narrative and the material surface:

“But reverend mother”, Bianca interjected, “surely one need not go as far as Exodus, one need only hear the birds in this garden, and observe the breeze in order to know the power of God”. The Mother-Superior paused for a moment at this, she had previously been gesticulating excitedly with her right hand but now she froze as if caught in a painting.

Brian Lewis traversed Frank Auerbach’s painting ‘Maples Demolition, Euston Road’ (1960) in a cartographic ekphrasis, mapping its painterly trajectories in terms of pigment as precarious structure, destruction and collapse, connecting this materiality to the bombings that destroyed the painting’s subject:

To the east of this line, the scheme is harder to read […] we can lose our way amidst the dark churn and scuff in the north-east […]. Above the sludgy tan of the south-east, however, two parallel lines assert themselves, one the colour of maize, the other a greenish-blue; broad, straight and tilting from south-west to north-east […]. The composition seems to be on the edge of collapse, yet something is holding it together. […] It’s an appropriate response to a city caught between ruin and renewal …

Brian Lewis reading his text

Matthew Bellwood, responding to Roger Palmer’s neon text work ‘The Remains’ (2007), writes in abrupt fragments, stylistically mirroring the manner in which the words of Palmer’s piece—THE REMAINS OF A WOODEN ICEBREAKER LIE SUBMERGED IN BOTANY BAY—reveal themselves as the neon sections add and subtract. Wikipedia entries, dates and facts jump-cut to reflection and simile: ‘the tide lapping up and down a beach or gradually climbing and descending a harbour wall, revealing or concealing…’.

Terry Simpson, responding to Edward Armitage’s painting ‘Retribution’ (1858) also enacts shifts between reflective observation and historical context, but in a more disarming, conversational manner. He observes that ‘this voluptuous figure, with her big breasts and fine hair streaming out from a garland of oak leaves and acorns, is no softy’; and then, in gentle, accessible language, invites us to consider empire and colonial oppression, returning at the end of the piece to the conversational, affectionate ambivalence of his opening. ‘I hate the jingoistic patriotism that’s behind it, and the lie that military force is really just like a mother protecting her own. But I also have a sneaky liking for the powerful pink woman, the snarling tiger, the drama of it…’.


A Consideration

The variety of responses outlined above were possible, in part, because of the commissioning curator’s exhortation to ‘go for it—whatever you want’, but also shaped by her caveats: to be wary of choosing a dark work in one of the darker rooms, and as the piece was to be performed live, to be aware of which areas of the gallery were more noise polluted than others. In other words, the choices we made, the words we wrote, the ways in which we chose to perform, were not entirely for ourselves. Of course, as writers, performers, we are always—or should be—aware that our practice is a reciprocal discourse between ourselves,  contexts, and readers (throughout this piece I use the term reader to include listener), but for this commission, the normative relations between writer, reader (or listener), and artwork are subtly changed.

Emma Bolland reads her text

I was acutely aware of hierarchy and power. What happens to a reciprocal dialogue when an ‘abled’ person offers a version of their own experience to a ‘disabled’ person? Whose vision is privileged? Whose is considered the most ‘fit’ to read the chosen works? Whose experience of the work is the most valid? I wondered if these questions of hierarchy and power might apply to art writing, art criticism, art history in any context, if they were questions that could be largely ignored in normative contexts, highlighted in this one? An aside: one of the values of the auto-fictive or the ficto-critical, I believe, is that it potentially offers a space for an ‘expertise’ that is less tainted with didacticism and patronage.

I had to reconcile my taste—my choice of artwork was not entirely my own—my responsibility to an audience framed as ‘different’, and my ego—because God forbid I could let myself produce a piece of writing that wasn’t ‘right’. I chose to address these problems in the piece itself, in the form of a letter, the opening paragraph opening up my concerns, and explaining—given these concerns—a paradoxical choice of an artwork.

…your vision is very different to mine […] neither of us can know how the other experiences this ‘thing’. It might seem odd of me to choose an art work that in its title, ‘Movie’, and its use of film, is both a thing to be seen, and a thing that makes me think about the idea of seeing. It is also hard to see […] and so in part I have to imagine seeing. I often say ‘I see’ to mean ‘I understand’, and there is something about ‘Movie’ being hard to see that makes it feel as though it wants me not to ‘see’ it, but to think myself inside it. I wonder if you can help me see it better.

As I wrote, I tried to keep my imagined audience by my side, to embed reciprocity. ‘The […] roof floods the space with sun, so that the film on the wall that I am trying to see is no more than a fugitive flicker. […] It becomes, for both of us, an imaginary film’.

The ekphrastic demands of the commission—as I understood them—led me to use simile, a device I usually avoid: like liquid metal, a horizontal flutter, like unpolished metal, like a shoal of small quick fish darting in the air. Was I right to do this? I’m not sure, not sure about ekphrasis, not sure of myself or my ability to be a conduit between experiences—in a sense, my use of unfamiliar excess language erased or cosmeticised my own. I attempted an interrogation of what it means to see things differently, to not presume a communicable experience, but rather to work with its failure.


Readings took place on 19 July at Leeds Art Gallery, commissioned by Gill Crawshaw as part of the MA in Curation Practices at Leeds Arts University.

Emma Bolland is an artist and writer who works with expanded screenwriting, experimental literatures, moving image, audio, and performance. You can read and listen to the full text and audio of her response, ‘Silvery Silvery’, here and the audio of Brian Lewis’s full text here.

Published 12.08.2018 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

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