To accompany our exhibition of assemblages by Richard James, we've published a beautiful catalogue showcasing Richard's extraordinary work.
Alongside detailed photography revealing the breathtaking levels of workmanship in Richard's cabinets and assorted reliquaries, critically acclaimed writer Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Landmarks) has produced a remarkable short essay for the exhibition catalogue which we couldn't help but share below with our Discover readers.
'Here Comes Your Old Navigator Again' assemblage by Richard James
I first encountered the work of Richard James six autumns ago, at a period of my life when I was travelling frequently to the Outer Hebrides and the north-western seaboard of mainland Scotland. That year I sailed overnight in an old open boat from the Butt of Lewis up to Sula Sgeir – the Gannet Rock – forty miles out into the North Atlantic. My skipper on that journey, Ian Stephen, was a navigator of exquisite precision. To plot our course on the charts he used a pair of brass dividers with curved handles, that reminded me of the skull of a godwit. The sky on the night we sailed was cloudless. Jupiter blazed in the east. A phosphorescent wake unfurled behind us. As our destination lay due north, our navigation was celestial and simple: keep the North Star steady between halyard and spar.
detail from 'Birds and the Flowering Sea'
Seeing Richard’s exquisite work for the first time shortly after that journey, then, I was struck both by its eeriness and its familiarity. The obsessive nature of his collecting and arranging; his fascination with star-charts, with birds and whales, with littorals, with wrack and wreck, with navigation and orientation – these made immediate sense to me. I admired, too, the assembly of precedents that his cabinets invoked: the reliquary (sacred), the wunderkammer (secular), the 19th-century naturalist’s cabinet, the archaeologist’s display, all shaded by a kind of steam-punk fetish.
details from 'Sun Chariot'
What I could not pin down – and what gave the work its askance power in addition to its delicate beauty – was the nature of its address. Towards whom were these works tilted, I wondered? From where had they come? They seemed the ritual objects of another civilization or epoch altogether, somehow washed up – stranded – in the present day. I puzzled vainly at their workings, as one might at an orrery or astrolabe. Their quasi-mechanical structures invited causal thinking, even as their occult textures undid such logic. What does the alignment of this bone-shard with that phial achieve? What ritual task is undertaken by the conjoinment with horse-hair of this shell with that beak?
'Evangelical Songsters', with details
Richard’s formidable body of new work extends and deepens these questions, without solving them. These obscured, feral gatherings possess their own laws, largely illegible to the viewer. Seeing them, you are struck first by wonder and then by mystery. Path Of The Old Sun seems an apothecary’s cupboard for inducing solar immolation. Bear North At The Far West a deep-sky star atlas for the navigation of micro-terrains or inner space. Another’s Land encases a white-bitumen map of ‘an uncharted polar landscape’, brought into being by chemical chance but perhaps corresponding with some off-world terrain that we have yet to discover. At The Borders of the Known World declares itself, inscrutably, a ‘processional object for protection and guidance through new world landscapes’. These pieces play riskily with practices of ritual and performance – but refuse to disclose their precise mandates.
detail and left panel from 'Ring of Brodgar and the Salt Knowe'
Each of these new works is accompanied by a single short paragraph. The language of these prose-poems is intriguingly pitched somewhere between sacramental utterance and antiquarian caption. There is a naivety to their tone that seems to simplify but in fact perplexes. Across these paragraphs, one sentence recurs as incantation: ‘All life is made from elements formed from collapsed stars – everything is connected.’ Heard several times, and in this context, these familiar propositions start to shudder uncannily, as if re-sounded on a bone flute.
'Between Dun and Stac Levenish', with detail
For connection is what connects these works: there in the fine lines of taut-drawn horsehair that join the individual elements, there in the lattice of preoccupations to which the cabinets return, there in the sky-maps and the sea-charts and the transistors, and there in the oblique ecology that suffuses Richard’s vision – the first law of ecology being that ‘everything is connected to everything else’.
(above) details from 'The Book of Saints and Martyrs'; (below) detail from 'Path of the Old Sun'
Baruch Spinoza, writing in the seventeenth century, proposed a theory of mosaicism, whereby all things are ‘modes’ of a common ‘substance’, and all apparently individual bodies exert reciprocal influence upon one another, however discrete they might seem. Three centuries later, Gilles Deleuze developed Spinoza’s philosophy to propose an account of the world in which a surprising density of interrelations exists between disparate entities, and in which what we might call ‘will’ or ‘agency’ is not centralized in strong-minded humans, but instead widely distributed across both living and non-living bodies, from micro-bacteria to oxygen to electricity to starlight to gannets to granite. Deleuze’s term for these enigmatic new networks of connection was ‘assemblages’, and it is clear to me that Richard’s assemblage-art, in all its archly enigmatic energies, shares with Deleuze a sense of the world’s strange and thrilling vibrancy.