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Alison Grant, Artist, Scotland


Seven Portraits of Seven Poems




These works in this exhibition are the result of a collaboration between the artist Alison Grant and the poet and writer Fiona Sampson and have been inspired by poems from Sampson’s most recent collection Come Down (Corsair 2020): they are not mere illustrations, however, but what Grant calls "portraits of the poems". While they remain true to the mood and imagery of the poems, they also contain the rhythm and intonation of the poet's voice, traces of weather and the changing seasons and samples of soil and mud, spring water and vegetation gathered by Sampson herself from landscapes significant to her during the composition of Come Down. In the exhibition Grant explores the nature of poetry itself, the ways of being of poetry and the tension between text and voice, between stuff and breath, between the noumenal and the phenomenal. 


Many of these works begins with a suminagashi print. This is an ancient Japanese technique, long associated with poetry, in which ink floats on the surface of a shallow bath of water. Grant has then disturbed that surface in a manner appropriate to one of Sampson's poems, by wind, for example, or faintly falling snow. In one case the ripples in the water result from Fiona Sampson speaking her poem over it: the literal breath (in Latin spiritus) of the poet moving upon the face of the water. This inescapably suggests itself as a metaphor for the creative process, but Grant's work is too grounded in the real to be fully conscripted into the service of metaphor, and the aleatory aspect of the suminagashi technique locates her firmly as an artist of the given.


The works on the walls of the exhibition are intended to be viewed while listening to a recording of Fiona Sampson speaking her poems in the study where she writes, so as to immerse the viewer in the experience of word and image as a unified whole, without the intrusion of text, or the distracting flicker of the eye back and forth between the two. Also included in the show is a set of prints, subtly reworked from those on the walls, housed in a folio box alongside poems printed in Sampson’s prefered Garamond typeface. The prints derived from Sampson’s own voice, own breath are on Japanese paper so fine it seems to float, weightless. The sense that there is a tension between the spoken and the written, that they are conceptually quite different, is almost as old as writing itself: Socrates in the Phaedrus derides writing as fatherless, and mute like painting or sculpture. Printing too was often regarded with suspicion, many feeling that this mechanical means of reproduction threatened the metaphysics of presence, the authority that derived from a single origin, a single voice or scribal hand. This was particularly so in Islam: the Koran (and the word after all means recitation) was first printed in Christian Venice in the 1500s, the earliest example from the Islamic world not appearing until almost three centuries later. It is in this context that we should view this folio of prints, not as a record or souvenir but as part of an exploration of the disjunction of the spoken, the written and the printed. Scale and mode of presentation matter too, as Grant knows. On the walls the works are public, outward, performative, they call to attention and demand to be heard like the 'hwaet' that opens the oral epic Beowulf. In their folio box by contrast they turn private, inward and meditative like a mediaeval book of hours. 

Gregor Sloss, 2019






Works on the Wall


Folio Box Prints


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