Human Flower Project

Stuck inside Immobile


Photography, gardening, history, healing: John Levett avoids ‘fixed positions.’


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Shortlands

Essay and Photos by John Levett

Sometime around 1963, at a party somewhere in south London, a friend asked me if I’d heard of Bob Dilan. I said ‘Yes’ because I always said ‘Yes’ because I had to be the one in the room who had to know. About everything. Even today I find it very difficult to say ‘No,’  to publicly acknowledge that I’m flawed. This is a terrible thing to carry around. When I’m preparing a new course or seminar it’s not the big issues that I dwell on but the footnotes, the question that might arise that I’ve got to plan for — Who was the tea boy of the Rheinische Zeitung when Marx was writing for it?; Did Mary Wollstonecraft travel port or starboard on the packet ship to France?; What was Hegel’s favourite brand of tobacco?; Did Mary Shelley write her drafts in pencil or charcoal? Don’t get called out!

So, Bob Dilan it was for a few months. This was OK as nobody I spoke to knew any different. It was on buying Freewheelin’ and being corrected by the record shop guy (“Dylan as in Thomas sir”: the patronizing scumbag!) that I had to list all those I’d talked to about ‘Dilan’, then meet casually and equally casually slip in, apropos of nothing, ‘Dylan’ with the hope they’d never bother remembering my aforementioned unhip references.

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Lee

I bought Dylan for the rest of the ‘60s and then dropped away and started collecting Vaughan Williams. The two are connected. I was reminded of this whilst reading Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America. The references that Dylan has made; the lines and phrases he has borrowed from, stolen, adapted, rewrought; the appropriation of popular music as well as appropriating other people’s appropriations are encyclopaedic. VW did the same; so did Bartok, Kodaly, Dvorak and so it goes. Don’t we all?

And then I was reminded of Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise which makes more or less the same point. And then listened to Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me and the same point again. And then Daniel Lopatin’s Returnal. All borrowing.

What’s the point that I’m getting to? I have a problem with classifications and hierarchies. Here’s an example. I have ‘worthy’ reads and ‘incidental’ reads. Whenever I go to the library (which I do a lot of these years, the price of the books I want seriously rising despite their overproduction) I have to go through a process of putting a choice in a grand scheme of how it’s going to move me on in terms of my current understanding of literary theory/criticism/appreciation/history and so forth. Thus, I’m at the last volume of Doris Lessing’s ‘The Children of Violence’ sequence. This is categorized under ‘worthy’. My last read was Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen; this is ‘incidental’. Lessing speaks to me of my post-war world; Myerson doesn’t disturb my sleep patterns. I do this with art (as in Art) too; not the hierarchy bit but the classification and the slotting in of reference & influence stuff.

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Where’s all this going? Towards connections is where. Here’s another example. I convene a group of photographers and researchers of the urban environment and its communities. The group meetings are about speculative ideas; ideas that don’t necessarily fit into an academic framework; ideas that members of the group can trial; ideas that can lead to an extended project and ideas that can get nowhere. Some of us in the group have decided to make a small part of south London an area for our speculations—The Elephant and Castle. We often make detours as a focus for starting a new investigation but I called this one a ‘convergence.’ The Elephant is a hub, a focus of many routes—routes of transport, of memory and imagination; routes of maturation through a life; routes of history and mythology. It all started with one of the group questioning how we can photograph materiality. Some of us thought it was worth a shot.

I began by thinking of all the ways I could interpret a material space. It was difficult to stop. The Elephant could be an historical memory, an historical moment, an historical memorial, an historical impression, an historical monument, an historical mausoleum. It once was a scene from Genevieve, a pub, a social security office, a gateway to the south, the Salvation Army, a Saturday night, a theatre, ‘George Davis Is Innocent OK.’ It is a thing, a complete thing, an imaginary thing, a collection of things, a timeline, a recreation, a re-creation, an entrance, a route. It might be recorded, left alone, talked about, walked around, be walked around again, be drawn, be undrawn, be sung, be decorated.

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Pimlico

I’ll stop there. The point is that once the process of making connections begins then the process can become the ‘thing.’ I’m currently working with a team on organizing a London-wide photography initiative that’s about to take off. Someone said to me a short while ago that nobody understood what the project was about. I understood what he meant and could have pointed out to him that that was one of its strengths. The moment I was invited to do this I wrote a twelve page essay to myself about what I thought it was. That for me was the starting point & it could only evolve from there. It’s still evolving and, if I’m not kicked off the project, that’s how it will be throughout its life—photography as an exploration of self and how our perception changes as we walk each step and question the process of making.

Which leads me finally to garden photography.

Currently I’m relatively immobile as the result of a muscle-numbing series of happenings, and I’m alternating between taking the tablets, snoozing as a result and trying to keep moving so that the body doesn’t think it’s time to stop action completely. It also means I can’t spend too long in fixed positions like in front of my desk. Which leaves thinking.

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Before this pause I had been spending time on the continuous process of sorting, cataloguing and tagging my digital archive. I have, according to my current tag list, projects on such as the following: A ‘60s Odyssey; A Catch of Memory; Appropriating a space; Commodification; Emptiness; Filmset; Ideology; Layers & Palimpsests; Once Upon 1953; Orton; Signs of Absence; The End of Ideology; The Various Events; Walking practice; Westway to the World. There are another forty. I’m always trying to make connections between images that apparently have none, trying to find another way of making/re-making the world. What’s missing is that I don’t tag gardens and gardening.

It’s true that, in the time I’ve been writing here, I’ve been out specifically to illustrate an essay because I want the image & the word in equal measure but equally often I’m prompted by something I’ve read, something I’ve overheard, something from the radio, something I’ve passed by and never noticed before; very often it’s something that I remembered from years ago and just happened to have snapped.

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Regents Canal

The casual garden image, the result of what I’ve heard described as ‘the sub-conscious click,’ is very often that. It’s an image that has set off some memory, something I’ve imagined, something I thought I’d like in my own garden, an idea that I could use. It’s what gardeners sub-consciously do — nick gardening’s past. I can remember an image in The Englishwoman’s Garden of a paved path in Autumn sun which I then moved outside to create; memories of what came out of a mixed seed kit I got as a Christmas present about five years old; the hollyhocks that grew against the back wall of our garden in south London; a magazine cutting of Ingwersen’s original plot on the Weald — these and a multitude of other thoughts and associations get fed into our gardens.

It’s also the image of ‘the fight against all odds’ that goes on during the gardening year — the front-of-house plot next to a motorway, the rose under the ash tree, the window box in the basement well of a tower block, the clematis on the north-facing wall of a new-build in central London. The aspiration, the ‘I’m building a garden,’ the hope, the connection that’s being made with something past — that’s often what gets snapped on walks. The word ‘building’ is central — permanent, to mature, to house lives and events, to know joy and sorrow, to know death.

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Westway World

It’s very rare for me to go to the pay-at-the-gate garden and even the formal layouts of public spaces aren’t always something that I linger over but the fact of history, not just garden history, will draw me. I can stand in an enclosed space beneath a keep and think only of what was going on as this space was built—a war being fought, a novel being written, a bridge being built, a voyage being made. Equally, I can walk into my garden and tell my own stories within it and those of family and friends and when I first met that rose. Connections, any connections, that place me and it together.

The ‘imaginings’ of other gardens that can be built is something that’s recently come to me. I started early on the garden this year and was well ahead of the season before I took a dive but as I worked I felt that my garden had to change. It might be my mind that changes once Spring kicks in but I got the idea that my aspirations need a new garden. I’ll have delphiniums this year for the first year in ages and I’m going to start collecting alpines again. Hollyhocks too. I used to hate hollyhocks because they were the only plants that grew with any vigour in our back bombsite garden. I might then have thought that hollyhocks were the only plants in the world and that I’d be stuck with them for life. Now I value their history in my own. I’ll start snapping them shortly.


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