Artworks: extending the visual language of the poem
The project is the result of my research at Middlesex University which in part asserts the Green Knight and the Green Chapel as early examples of the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’ in representations of the English landscape respectively. Mark Fisher describes these phenomenon in his influential text The Weird and the Eerie (2016): ‘the sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or where there is nothing present when there should be something’ (27). This is primarily a mode of understanding the landscape one, as Fisher explains ‘points to the eerie power of landscape, reminding us of the ways in which physical spaces condition perception, and of the ways in which particular terrains are stained by traumatic events’ (Fisher, 2016:40). While the eerie is primarily linked to spatial and temporal examples, the weird often refers to something embodied, a thing that disturbs, via its ‘wrongness’ the illusions of normality. In an introduction to Fisher’s work Yohann Koshy (2017) states ‘Weirdness abounds at the edge between worlds; eeriness radiates from the ruins of lost ones’. Moreover, Fisher was interested in the ways these modes de-centre subjectivity and denaturalise habitual thinking.
An increased interest in magic and the supernatural has been an aspect of contemporary British art for many years (Paul Nash’s Monster Field 1938 or Graham Sutherland’s mystic landscapes of the 1940s for example). However, the article 'Something supernatural, this way comes, Magic and Modernity in British Art' (2009) by Michael Bracewell, re: the eponymous exhibition at Tate St Ives titled, The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art, identifies many relevant contemporary artists and suggests that there is ‘a recent uptake of these themes by contemporary artists that has maintained and extended the presence of the magical and the occult within British art’ (Bracewell, 2009). Will Abberley (2018) also draws attention to the contemporary relevance of this way of seeing the landscape in the work of many influential creatives across disciplines of literature, fine art, film and music. It seemed to me that this phenomenon had a potential (unacknowledged) progenitor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where the thoroughly weird Green Knight and the liminal space he is associated with offer Gawain a considerable cognitive upgrade. Because of these connections I wanted to encourage greater dissemination of the poem into contemporary art and culture. (Initially the project pre-empted the Hollywood film which started production one year after initial preparations.) I approached a selection of contemporary artists whose practice involved the inclusion of both figurative and landscape imagery and asked them to respond to the poem.
Initially artists were directed to Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007) a highly acclaimed modern translation that emphasises poetic form. Additionally, by way of a critical introduction to the poem artists were directed to texts by Professor of Medieval English at the University of Bristol Ad Putter (1996; 2014). Finally, as a potentially fresh way of thinking about the relationship of nature and the English landscape artists were also sent Will Abberley’s, Into the Eerie (2018) where aforementioned notions of ‘eerie’ informed by the work of Fisher (2016) with a focus on the English landscape is discussed with various contemporary creatives. ‘The eerie is not an English phenomenon, the landscape of England is a potent conduit for it because of its many layers of human history and the violent struggles of ownership and access’ (Abberley, 2018). The artists were not obliged to engage with these particular texts (or that particular translation) but they were offered these as a starting point and a provocation.
As a point of clarity, the designation of ‘Artworks’ and ‘Illustrations’ used on this site does not denote any hierarchical relationship, nor does it refute the status of illustrations as artworks. It is simply a pragmatic categorisation that acknowledges the role illustration plays in directly accompanying translations of the poem and the relationship that such relations demand. The practices of those creatives categorised as ‘Artists’ are free to incorporate or explore the themes as obviously or indirectly as they wish, working as it were without a commission and having the freedom to interpret whatever aspect of the poem they choose in the midst of existing studio practices.
Abberley, W. (2018) Into the Eerie, A Somethin' Else production for Radio 3 accessed at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002zmr (accessed on 8/03/2019).
Armitage, S. (2007) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Faber and Faber.
Bracewell, M. (2009) Something supernatural, this way comes, Magic and Modernity in British Art, Tate Etc. issue 17.
Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie. London, Repeater Books.
Koshy, Y. (2017) The Revolution Will Be Weird and Eerie. [online] Vice.com. Available at: <https://www.vice.com/en/article/z4g4gj/the-revolution-will-be-weird-and-eerie> [Accessed 25 May 2022].
Putter, A. (1996) An Introduction to the Gawain Poet. Longman.
Putter, A. and Stokes, M (2014) The Works of the Gawain Poet: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, Cleanness. Penguin.