Sarah Hall, author on ‘Valley’ by Mateusz Fahrenholz.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
SH ‘Valley’ is on the wall of my living room so I see and think about it every day. It used to hang in an exhibition in a pub where I worked in St Andrews, Scotland, and I became very fond of it. When the artist moved to Poland this particular work was too big for him to transport, so he left it with a friend. Several years later, I tracked it down in Bedford, stowed flat under someone’s bed, due to its unwieldy size. I’d sold my first novel by then, not for a huge amount, but to celebrate I bought Valley. As an artwork, it’s not out-rightly beautiful, one might even describe it as relatively ugly, industrial, penal-looking – the colours are plain, white and dun, the items in the composition are quotidian, and a bit worn. It challenges aesthetic notions, certainly.
GB What is your interpretation of the image? Do you find that others have very different interpretations? Do these have any effect on your own view of its beauty?
SH I find the image almost tragic – the cup on the chain will never reach the tap, though it seems to strain towards it – but other people have found that particular feature humorous. In this way the piece is quite divisive, perhaps even a test of the viewer, the viewer’s temperament maybe. It’s interesting to find that other people’s minds worked so differently, and see other messages. This expands the piece’s quality for me. Surrounding the central window is aged Polish newspaper, some of the text mentions Margaret Thatcher but I can’t read Polish, so I’ve no idea what the articles say. The photograph in the wooden panel on the right is of a forested valley. I know I’m missing some overall meaning, or suggestion, but I like not knowing everything. I say almost a tragic image – the enamel cup is at the end of its reach, but it’s wonderfully plucky and earnest, the chain is pulled taut and might even break. I love that an inanimate object can have such spirit! Don’t give up, cup!
GB Are you generally drawn to works that use symbolism in this way more than figurative art? Is there any connection between that and your use of metaphor in writing?
SH I do like symbolism, yes. Though signs are found in nature, particularly in colour schemes, it’s a peculiarly human trait to use cyphers, to say, this equals that, this stands for that. It also allows messages and information to be passed between cultures and languages, like a reservoir we all drink from. I spent a long time exploring the issue in The Electric Michelangelo, which features a tattoo artist. Tattoos, particularly traditional ones, are fabulous examples of symbols – usually representing good and evil, love and hate. I am interested in the idea of essence and meaning. I’d consider myself to be a realist writer, I do try to fashion realistic landscapes, humanism and scenarios that are or seem convincing (though is this just trompe l’oeil?) but one who also tries to work on symbolic, maybe even metaphysical levels, especially when I’m writing short stories.
GB Do you know the artist personally? If you do, does that affect your view of its beauty?
I’ve met Matt, but only once. He stopped off to see me during his travels in the UK, in order to fix Valley, which had broken in transit from Bedford to Cumbria (plucky cup had come unstuck!). He talked a little bit about his work then and I think he even may have said – though this was a long time ago – that he came down on the side of the composition being funny. He didn’t say too much beyond that. I like his work a lot, the use of salvaged photographs and representations of travel and exile, the ‘boxed’ past scenarios. There’s a tension between the ephemera of human lives, history and remembrance. But I do believe that writing and art, once created, exists beyond the intentions or motivations or even the inspiration of its creator. We interpret widely, according to our own proclivities and beliefs. The very best art challenges our notions – Valley does mine.
GB It’s a very large work. Is the scale of it important?
It’s much larger than a lot of Matt’s work of that period, I think. It does dominate the living room wall, it’s about five feet by three and half feet – hanging it takes some patience and it needs a load bearing wall! The scale works really well, partly because of the newspaper text on the body of the box, you get the sense of columns and broadsheets. The tap and the cup are life-size and this central piece needs space around it as its quite an intense image, and a decent frame. I don’t think it would have worked as a smaller piece.
GB Fahrenholz often puts his work in boxes. Do you think that this makes them more appealing? Other artists such as Duchamp use boxes too, to great effect. Is this a tradition you’re interested in?
SH Yes, I like it. What is it about containment that is satisfying? Perhaps it’s the notion of saving and keeping things, intimacy, heirlooms. Why else did we invent boxes? Of course, with Valley there is a glass panel too – a window – not a lid. We are allowed to see in, we have access. The open box is in a way the most satisfying of offerings.
GB Fahrenholz is of Polish descent but living in Scotland and his works refer to ideas of displacement. You have lived in many different places. Does this affect your feelings about the work?
SH I’ve never written a book about a place I’m currently living in. I need a little distance to give perspective, or distil ideas about a place, and to see it in the context of other places. I spend a long time trying to get my landscapes and settings right, to make them authentic, textured, nuanced, but for some reason I need to be elsewhere to do that. Matt’s work does resonate that way. There are fixed points and also un-moorings.
GB Do you believe in universal beauty?
SH No. How wonderful it is that we don’t all find the same things, the same set of aesthetic proportions for example, beautiful.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
SH Perhaps the sense of elation that ensues. It’s not just visual pleasure or satisfaction. Beauty moves me.