The quivering that now enraptures us Essay by Matthew Holman
The sounds used in music are those whose mutual relations form an image of the basic mathematical laws of the Universe. Olivier Messiaen
When Rainer Maria Rilke visited the Swiss canton of Valais in the midsummer of 1921, he was a hollowed-out shell of his former self. Half-delirious from a deep depressive bout of melancholia and still weary from war service, he hadn’t written anything of note for months. His unfinished magnum opus, The Duino Elegies, was nearly a decade behind him; he had every reason to doubt it would be completed in the time he had left. Accompanied by the painter Baladine Klossowska, his last great love, Rilke toured Sierre and Sion. It was there, at the ‘time of the vintage’ as he described it, and among the lush meadows of Provençal wildflowers and green-underside blue butterflies, that he made a creative recovery. He called it his Wiederanheilen.1 Think of this: July, midnight, a full moon tentatively shimmering above the Haut de Cry. A lyric poet, in the twilight of his life, looks up from the foothills of Sion to the fortified Basilica of Valère, with its stone walls like a citadel on the sand rocks. Listen close, it’s evensong; you can hear the distant hum of the cathedral’s fifteenth-century organ, the oldest play- able pipe organ in the world, reverberate up and over the sides of the slopes like the concaves of memory dipping on a nightingale’s wing. We imagine Rilke happy. It is this vista that we can see and these sounds that can we hear in Gillies Adamson Semple’s present exhibition, Volumes. Pay close attention: we cannot help but find ourselves in Valère, or amidst the reconstructed traces of Valère. We find ourselves lost in its wild rapture.
Travelling on a scholarship from The Slade School of Fine Art, where he completed his studies in Media in 2022, Adamson Semple visited Valère that Autumn.2 It was a pilgrimage of sorts. On the album 1435, which refers to the year of the organ’s installation in the Basilica of Valère, the music sounds as though it was pro- duced against the bounds of time. What I mean by this is that the organ’s delicate notes remind us that something of music might seem timeless and that its sound, to listeners across the ages, must recognise in that sound a likeness like two brothers now living on different continents share a likeness. We feel the organ and the acoustics, as well as the foreboding sense that we are listening to a rich melody from a distance – no, not from a distance in space, but from a distance in time – as it penetrates our ears. In doing so, Adamson Semple recalls the conductor Leonard Bernstein’s be- lief in teshuvah–the musical equivalent of spiritual atonement or reconciliation with the old regrets that keep us remembering what we can’t forget, and the Talmudic power, we might call it, to vault back in time and transform one’s past deeds. (Or, in the logic of this line of thought, the deeds of the medieval gleamer who spends his weeks in the fields or in the homestead, struggling against the harshness of a life that Job would recognise as punishing like his own, but who finds salvation as the director of the sabbath day’s music). The past and the present converge and diverge.
The Valère organ itself is an extraordinary instrument. Its pipes were arranged to form a rough outline of a church; the larger ones formed two towers, and the smaller ones create a triangular church roof. The left door depicts the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine, patroness of Valère and Valais, who was tortured on a spiked breaking wheel and then beheaded as a martyr; the right door depicts the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene, who mistakes him for a gardener. They are images of sacrifice and revelation, and they contain multitudes. ‘A particular facet of this ancient instrument was the channelling and chambers connecting the original pumped bellows (now commonly electric) to the pipes themselves’, Adamson Semple reflected: ‘These plywood volumes syphoned air from one part of the architecture to another in great quantities, almost unimaginably so, yet no physical material filled them.’3 In the present exhibition, the artist has recreated the sculptural architecture of the organ – or, more accurately, re- imagined its capacity to be both a communal object wholly integrated into its immediate environment and yet contain within it, concealed but emergent, all the empty space that holds the joyous possibility of art.
In some places, the flush and hard rectilinear forms of the sculpture are juxtaposed against the delicacy of what is held within: dried wildflowers, taken from a Scottish garden and lovingly pressed by the artist’s mother. Like blunt-toothed leaves in motion lights, these wildflowers seem to signify nothing but hold a place – hold- ing a place in the depths of midwinter for the arrival of spring, for vivace into adagietto, and for all the returns that we all might make to the places that had once felt so permanent and unchange- able. It’s extraordinary how these wildflowers call in coded music across countries and continents back to the Basilica of Valère. On the interior walls of the cathedral, dried pink poppies and angel- ica flowers are affixed to eleventh-century frescoes of flora; the world outside its walls, the world of life and seasons and change, is held fast against a millennia-old dedication to the creation myth. In this way, our encounter with these dried wildflowers, whether they be hidden in sculptures on a first floor in Soho or the pillars that maintain such an exalted church on a hill, is an encounter of life intervening into art. More specifically, the wildflowers–dried, held, kept against losing–represent life as it is given to us. The wild- flowers remind us, like the kind of gentle memento mori in a Hen- ri Fantin- Latour still life, that our own lives are given and are threatened in the same moment. The dead wildflowers continue to serve as a reminder of the gorgeous transiency of life as it is lived. Elsewhere, Adamson Semple has produced Perspex boxes, with thickly daubed fingerprints that mark the exterior. I close my eyes and imagine something like this: in a sort of intuitive collective gesture, all the symphonic players have glanced at one another, like a wildfire on a mountain, and determined to stand up, walk across strewn pallets of acrylic, and dance. There is something so pro- foundly musical in the way that the fingerprints cavort and romp on the glass. Musical but transgressive. Like the dried wildflowers revealed in the sculpture, these marks are traces of the world of freedom and beauty that mean so much; they are subtle residues of a kind of rational resistance to the imposition of order amidst chaos. The fingerprints are left as traces made by someone al- ready departed; the marked absence of a presence that is now past. It is easy to attach language to the colours that mark the box; no, not easy as such, but we are inclined to imagine the intentions of the mark-maker in leaving the marks like deciphering a whisper in the crowd. We are inclined to read them like a language; like brail, or hieroglyphs, or whatever it was that Ezra Pound believed was the origin of ‘the image-text’ in poetry. When we think about fingerprints, we think they are the marks of a radical individuality. Such an idea has been constant throughout modernity: few parts of the human body have played such a central role as the peculiar little lines on the tips of our fingers. Their use-value is to mark out our singular individuality and yet also to remind us that we all make these marks, in everything that we touch, often invisibly and imperceptibly. Your fingerprint touches mine.
Adamson Semple’s boxes seem to whisper to me something about the sacrosanct freedom of the individual in a world that seeks to always constrain us, and to – as the proverb goes – put us in boxes, to fix, to define, to reduce. Perhaps, too, the boxes refer to the arbitrariness of an artist’s process as he seeks to make marks in abstract formation, marks that in their own excuse for being seemed to represent their own kind of freedom. But for all of this, these boxes are also about closing in; they contain, hold in a place, and keep safe. For me, these Perspex boxes recall something of the Victorian invention of the butterfly box, or the catching of those most exquisite creatures in a glass enclosure to preserve their perfect patterning from the blurry fury of flight. In this way, I think less about how this exists as a receptacle for seeing – in which we might see theshape of a wing, or the porous smudge of a fingerprint – but rather what these sculptural works express about the desire that sought to construct such a receptacle in the first place. For the Victorians, it was surely a desire to protect something beautiful against the ravages of time, and to say, ‘this beautiful life, this object of exquisite shape in miniature, can be held for all time and never change.’ But this is, as we all know, a fallacy. Adamson Semple’s fingerprint boxes operate to expose that misplaced desire, but also to remind us–in much the same way as the wildflowers do–of the world’s capacity to elicit wonder in the seemingly banal.
The fingerprints serve less as a reminder of the radical individuality of Adamson Semple, as a marker or material proof of his singularity as an artist in the way that a signature might serve the same purpose, but the importance of paying attention to the deli- cate.4 If the statue of Apollo told Rilke ‘You must change your life’, then the volumes of Adamson Semple’s artworks tell the viewer that we can take our lives this seriously, whether the tiny extremities of our bodies or the subtle residues of ourselves in the world. That is, in itself, a transformative act. Even when you seem dead to yourself, or lost in the mundane events of everyday existence, you can come to recognise the ways you are still alive: however partial- ly, or however painfully.
I want to end quite close to where I began. On the hills of Sion. When Rilke managed to complete The Duino Elegies, he decided to begin with a lyrical adventure into the winding path of music that takes us by the hand into the distant past and back again:
“Is it a meaningless story how once, in the grieving for Linos, first music ventured to penetrate arid rigidity, so that, in startled space, which an almost godlike youth suddenly left forever, the empti- ness first felt the quivering that now enraptures us, and comforts, and helps.”
Like Adamson Semple, Rilke recognises the difference between the vacant or unfilled places in our lives and the overflowing pos- sibilities of art to swell those cavities with joyful madness. Adam- son Semple’s works are uncompromisingly embodied and rever- berate with the colours of the world. We hear the organ penetrate all arid rigidity; we look close at the wildflowers and fingerprints. They remind me that we will all have to pay attention in the fu- ture, however uncertain it may be.
1 – Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Marie von Thurn und Taxis, dated 25 July 1921, trans. by Jane Bannard Greene & M.D. Herter Norton, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vol. II. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947). The ‘Green Underside Blue’ is the title of the fourth movement of Adamson Semple’s 1435 album that accompanies the exhibition. Glaucopsyche alexis, to give its Latinate name, is a butterfly of the family Lycaenidae, and found in the Palearctic. The butterfly flies from April to July depending on the location, lingering in warm, lush meadows with plenty of its host plant, vetch.
2 – The Award was predicated on a proposal submitted with the intention of continuing the research conducted at the Slade, and that which resulted in the degree show.
3 – Gillies Adamson Semple, correspondence with the author, 13 January 2023.
4 – It was the Czech physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkinje, who, in a dissertation devoted to the organ of sight, coined the first qualification of the practice of fingerprinting: the art of individualization.