This text was originally published in Two Essays to accompany the exhibition Teo and Kai, The Rond at Luna Elaine (2018).
In April 2017, following a six month sculpture residency at Husk, Limehouse, I presented nine sculptures which I claimed represented nine characters in a book I am writing. I began the book some months before the residency and, because it was at the forefront of my mind, my sculpture naturally became a methodology of research to support my writing.
Of these nine sculptures it has only slowly become apparent to me how an abstract amassment of material and object could be said to represent a character, and how the process of making these things could help me understand the inner landscape of a fictional person. I had a vivid experience of this a couple of weeks ago during a Buddhist meditation practice led by a friend. At a certain point we were asked to tune into our heart wish, our own deep longing. My mind wandering, I began to think about the characters in my story, about Emily or Dylan or Teo or Kai, and I was able to tune into, in a flash, what they each wanted on a very deep level. It was not something that can easily be communicated by words, but there was a tangible felt sense of their own individual and idiosyncratic nature and longing.
Another example of this process of discovery came in December when I realised suddenly that each of the nine sculptures in Dressing up Bars over time had for me become condensed into a single metaphor - an object, or creature - that best represented that character. Thus Teo is a sleeping dragon and Kai an instrument of some description. This connected back also to the genesis of the nine sculptures that, as their seed, each began with a letter from the Ogham alphabet.
Occasionally - as in the case of the character Josh - these objects or metaphors developed directly out of the ogham letters. Usually they aligned with my rough sense of the narrative arc for that character (always they have transformed it, subtly or acutely), and mostly they were merely suggested by the shapes or colours that arose in the sculptures. This kind of divinatory process is subjective, and I was not upset when Josh, who for me is a fish, was a horse for somebody else.
For completeness I present here the list as it currently stands, though it’s important to note that in the book itself my intention is that none of these allusions be explicit or laboured. They form the eddies and flows beneath the surface of the text and I intend to hold them only gently if the weight of the story carries me in another direction. Also, my nine characters do not necessarily have equal balance in the narrative. Emily is on every page since it is her story. The others will come and go as feels appropriate.
A coiled dragon
The three kayas
An upturned boat
I am a careful writer, and even now I have roughly drafted only about nine chapters of a hoped for 37. And these drafts are still clunky with large portions of text missing, or paragraphs that are yet to be refined, or that don’t line up properly. I expect that it will take another four, five or even six years to complete however I feel a powerful commitment to the process of nurturing this entity. And, although I intend the end result to be a novel in the conventional sense, sculptural research projects such as this one today at Luna Elaine, that develop for me the weight and complexity of the characters and places, will continue to be important for me throughout this process.
Last year I applied for and was accepted onto a six month residency at Growing Underground, in Clapham, which I began in December. I feel extremely fortunate to again have had such a generous opportunity - a studio space and an exhibition or event to work towards - for this duration of time.
On beginning my residency in December, my initial thoughts were that, having begun to investigate the characters, I would explore now some of the places of my story through sculpture. However it quickly became apparent to me that any environments are necessarily seen through the lenses of the various characters, and to present them as distinct from the characters, as separate realities, was perpetuating a philosophical view that, as a Buddhist, I distrust.
I decided therefore to pair each of the characters into twos, and then chose a location where, within the story, they meet. In drawings over Christmas I created a schema: I thought how the perception of a person could be represented by a triangle (an eye looking outward). By intersecting two such triangles one creates a central quadrilateral where the triangles overlap. This central quadrilateral might then represent a meeting point for the two characters and be imbued with the qualities of this location. Perhaps easier said with a diagram than words.
This gave me a physical structure or layout on which I could hang the narrative moments that I am interested in: each one an intersection of two characters in an environment. In the sculptures themselves, as soon as one takes away the framework, it is difficult to delineate where one character begins and another ends, or the space they are inhabiting - my apologies!
Teo and Kai, The Rond is a remake of sorts, of two of the nine sculptures from Dressing up Bars. Having created my schema I reflected on the earlier sculptures and considered how I would make them again, not this time as solo entities, but each enmeshed together with another character and an environment as well. This has, of course, thrown up a whole new array of aesthetic and spatial challenges and has also reminded me how wonderful it can be to rework something.
The story is still being written. These sculptures are a method of getting to know the essential qualities of these characters that in turn will influence the writing. As Paul has said more eloquently than I can, in the press release that accompanies this show, it is “a sculptural form that for Watkins, takes him one step further in increasing the reality of a world that can then be refolded back into his book.”
To finish I add a few notes about Teo, Kai and the Rond:
Teo’s ogham letter is Willow. Teo is intersex. After some research into the various options for pronouns, I decided to use ve/vir/vis as it has precedent in science fiction writing. I imagine Teo, beautiful and striking, striding out across the Rond with vis childhood friend, Jacky Segan on vis arm. Ve is dressed in gold with dark black skin. Another image I have of Teo is after Jacky’s death, completely broken, cradled into Kai on a sofa. Vis deep friendship with Kai hinges on their shared project, the Dressing up Bars.
Kai’s ogham letter is Grove. In the story he is a key instigator of the Dressing up Bars. It is Kai that brings people together. The seven crystals in the sculpture are the seven trees of the grove, based on Robert Graves’ assertion that seven types of tree made up a traditional Celtic grove. They are related to the seven ogham letters connected to each of the other characters (Dylan - Birch, Jupiter - Alder, Josh Peesh - Hazel, Teo - Willow, Rene Mackletone - Holly, Olfan - Apple and The Captain - Oak) and excluding Emily who is represented by the ogham character The Sea. Kai is serious, hard working. It is Kai who has found Emily washed up on the beach before the story has began, and they share a deep bond, as if he is her brother.
The Rond is one of the key locations around which the cult of the Dressing up Bars revolves. From the fourth chapter: “The room is massive. Six central pillars form a line down the middle. Around the edges a number of alcove spaces have been created with boards or curtains. Some are obscured also by folding screens. There are piles of clothes. In the centre, around the six pillars are low tables, shoddily constructed, and around each table, groups of people are sat on the floor or on cushions.” In the sculpture, the fabric camels are representative of a nature documentary that is projected on one of the walls of the Rond. The yellow squirls of plasticine: the people watching the film, lying prone on the floor.