In honor of the 50th anniversary of Astral Weeks, I thought I’d repost this piece written a few years back as part of an abandoned series of experiments, each a tangential essay on one or two particular artworks. In fact, a new decision has come about: to reopen the series as ‘Art Works’, one of a few ways of kickstarting my own prose. I hope some of it is useful to someone.
A brief meditation on the restorative powers of travel and art, via Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair’s “Flying Down to Rio.”
“I’m caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue.
And I’m conquered in a car seat:
Nothing that I can do.”
– Van Morrison
The fault-lines of speech. The madness of motion. The impossibility of escape. “Cyprus Avenue” is a prayer to the vagaries of love for some kind of release. Release from the onslaught of madeleines that keeps its narrator trapped on the infinite loop of this road. And it’s also a seven-minute tracking shot, a slow-motion jaunt through these horrors of memory. “The leaves fall one by one / and call the autumn time a fool.” Cyprus Avenue is no country for aging men.
Astral Weeks makes a mockery of our failure to comprehend the immensity of the mundane. A single leaden sight, glimpsed at who-knows-when and lodged into memory like the bullet my Grandfather carried under his skin for 70 years, inching its way through the flesh. A forgotten book of matches or a pair of child’s shoes imbued with the fascination of a grail. A simple walk on a misty morning becomes ecstatic: Saint Catherine in the drops of dew.
Watching Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair’s four-screen / sixteen-channel video installation “Flying Down to Rio” in a darkened central-London basement gallery was an act of projection as personal and quickening and predictive as Morrison’s Rorschachs. For me, the non-Londoner—surrounded by these port and starboard; aft and bow tracking shots mounted on a car splitting East London’s longitudinal arteries—the piece proves forebodingly open in its non-narrative theater of possibility.
I’m confronted and passed by pram-pushing mothers and sketchy sidewalk killers; phone booths plastered with Bollywood promo materials and, likely but unnoticed, hand-scrawled phone numbers for Dalston dominatrixes. Each scene approaches and passes and fades away behind me, all the while soundtracked by a seek-and-scan radio broadcast of hard-boiled film noir clips, pop music from the ‘50s/’80s/and today!, and various snippets of cultural clues.
For me, the non-Londoner, this wasn’t about a place but the act of movement itself. “Road, like cinema, is a form of projection,” the artists claim in their statement, and this darkened club-turned-gallery, surrounded by empty couches and tables picked clean of the last-night’s on-brand lager bottles and rocks glasses, proved a most project-able road to follow.
Each approaching life was a character to beset with stories and a memory to embrace and escape. But always with a caveat: you are their audience, and they are yours, but you are not actor upon these situations. As the title implies, referring to the wing-strapped performers in Fred and Ginger’s first picture, “Flying Down to Rio” is about watching and being watched—alter as you will in your mind, sonny, it won’t shake our world.
But this is art, and this is travel, isn’t it? The attempt, regardless of odds, to remake oneself through motion and contemplation. To re-comprehend the world by heading towards it, dewy-eyed.
“I’m conquered in a car seat / looking straight at you.”
“I have no memory,” says Gregory Peck in a famed line from Spellbound, cut into Chris Petit’s car-bound tracking shots of East London. “It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing nothing but the mirror.”
Amnesia is the default setting for travel. We trade our baggage for bags and reimagine our lives not as we wish they were, but perhaps slightly more like they might have been. On a short flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago, on my way to play guitar for a relatively well-known singer at what proved to be the largest show I’d ever performed, I recall chatting with the woman next to me. I told no lies, just a Fibonacci sequence of truths: I was a musician; I was flying to a gig; I would, that night, stand before 1,000 people and strum songs.
A few of the items left out: the gig was a “thank you” for time served in the lower leagues, and would prove the only one of its caliber. The artists for whom I stood at the ready were, themselves, by no means the headlining act—I was a replacement for a second-stringer. I’d paid for this plane ticket myself.
But while such encounters can prove momentarily thrilling, play-acting in the role we perhaps once wished for, there’s a more unique and positive power in travel’s insouciant amnesia. At some point in our history as civilized human beings, we determined that a road exists between two places. About the same time, I’d imagine, we determined that a story begins and ends; that time travels from one point to another, never looking back, never stepping to the side or giving it another try.
On a journey, none of this is true. We are simultaneously in multiple places and none; we are staring down, strapped to the wings, as the locals stare back up at us. Time becomes a panopticon, and our possible selves become just as real as the people our loved ones know. And more importantly, sometimes the traveler returns home somewhere in between the former and possible selves. Sometimes the yin and the yang we pack for travel embed themselves like a bullet in the leg.
In “Flying Down to Rio,” Petit and Sinclair take the foundational genre of the “road movie” to its illogical, non-narrative, conclusion. In their road flick, time is simultaneous—the faux-exoticism of “Rum and Coca Cola” and the 21st-century apocalyptic urbanism of grime stand together with the classic noir heroine’s dares. “Your future is all used up.”
Bereft of the geographic peculiarities of the Londoner, “Flying Down to Rio” asked me a bigger question: Can we erase the modern condition of linear time by reversing the road movie ideal? If we can transform the “point-a to point-b” journey into a panopticon—a loop of images that don’t pass by us, but rather exist around us in perpetuity—could we go some distance towards a Joycean awakening from the nightmare of history?
The people and places in “Flying” fade in, pass by, fade out—as Tom Waits says, “Their memory’s like a train / you can see it getting smaller as it pulls away.” Like so many things related to Petit and Sinclair, we assume that Hitchcock is the key: Strangers on a Train, the anonymity associated with travel, and the uniquely dangerous opportunities it presents.
In the case of travel and of art, the opportunities and the dangers are the same: they are acts of projection. We can combine the words and images of “Flying Down to Rio” in whatever way we choose; create of it cartographic explorations or an urban picturesque.
All island cultures view the sea as event horizon. To the English, the sea is the true panchronic horror—at once the bastion and the eraser of memory. As the filmic “car” we’re conquered in is subsumed by the sea in the final shots of “Flying,” we gain the true power of travel and art alike: We erase ourselves from this time, this place, this un- or over-comprehended morass of personal tales and financial woes and loves and hates and teeterings and absolutes, and replace it with the beautiful nothingness from which we can re-evolve and reemerge.
In my projection of the piece, I’ve chosen to remove it from reality, tack on the obsessions of my own lifetime, and imbue it with the grand sublime. In other words, “to venture in the slipstream / between the viaducts of your dream.”
* It’s worth noting that, a year after writing this, I was able to exhibit “Flying Down to Rio” at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, as part of The City & the City – an exhibition of visual and audio artwork by London writers.