The Dark Would – Halfway between being born and dying – The book, the show.

In a special feature for FLUX Curator Philip Davenport writes about his groundbreaking exhibition THE DARK WOULD, which is both a book and art show, at Summerhall in Edinburgh 7 Dec-24 Jan. Additional commentaries on works in the exhibition have been written by poets and artists involved in the project.

You stumble into The Dark Would at the mid-point in life, halfway between being born and dying. (Remember the poet Dante’s line about being lost in a dark wood, his mid-life crisis, on the way to hell?) I turned fifty recently and I had a strong sense of time flowing by me, running out of me. I felt I had to do something.


To mark the moment, I asked poets and artists from around the world to send me work that mapped the strange place I found myself in. I’d had the idea for a gathering of poets and text artists before – my own activities hover somewhere between poetry and art – but this was the impetus to do it. The works were gathered first into a book (also called THE DARK WOULD, published 2013) and now an exhibition. But our exhibition isn’t just about my shock at getting older, it’s about the world changing for all of us – the computer, micro-biology, the collapsing ecology are revolutionising our lives and we need new ways to express this future, this ‘would’.

To do this, language and communication need to change. It’s already happening – we email, tweet, photoshop, change font sizes and avatar characteristics without thinking much about it. Our language is merging with image, sound, process. Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting and poetic work being made with language right now is by artists using text and technology. Coming from a non-literary starting point gives them great freedom. Equally there are poets who are exploding the shape of the poem and many of the methods they use are similar to art processes, using the physicality of the work to speak. People like Fiona Banner, Simon Patterson, Tony Lopez are neither ‘artists’ nor ‘poets’ – but they all happen to make extraordinary work, using language as their material – and that work can connect deeply with our lives.

In the exhibition, I’ve very deliberately placed works so as to ‘speak’ to each other. For instance, in one room we have a condom, two photos of the nose cone art on a couple of jet fighters, and a text that says TAKEN FROM THE WIND & BOLTED TO THE GROUND. All of them are textworks. The fighter plane photos by Fiona Banner are called Bollocks and Sperm – they yoke ideas of male sexuality to violence. The text on the condom by Jenny Holzer, says PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT – seemingly about the manipulation of desire. The third piece TAKEN… by Lawrence Weiner is about the material world but in this context the word BOLTED brings to mind lightning strikes from the air and the speed of fighters. Put all three together and you’ve got a conversation that touches on the sorest of wounds – war and it’s mirror aspect desire. The space has become a dialogue. Two of the pieces from this room are discussed later in this article by the poets James Davies and Vanessa Place.

Elsewhere, Tony Lopez’s slates adopt the briefest of poetic forms – memorial inscription – to tap directly into large contested fields of knowledge and feeling: on fatherhood and spirituality in the epic tradition, on ‘Arcadia’ that most ancient utopia of ‘the simple life’, that always includes displacement and ethnic cleansing.

In the middle of the main gallery is a quilt stitched by homeless people, recording fragments of their lives. All around the quilt are text works depicting war, repression, rape – but also paradise, genius, love, kindness. Again, space has become dialogue. Perhaps it’s about a wanderer being offered many possibilities. Who are they, what route will they take? It’s for the viewer to find their own way through.

In this special feature for FLUX magazine, I’ve invited other poets and artists to comment on a few of the works in the exhibition, so that if you can’t come to Edinburgh you can, in their company, enter The Dark Would.


Exhibition contributors: arthur+martha, Fiona Banner, Erica Baum, Caroline Bergvall, Mike Chavez-Dawson, Maria Chevska, Matt Dalby, Philip Davenport, Steve Emmerson, Alec Finlay,Rob Fitterman, Steve Giasson, Susan Hiller, Jenny Holzer, Marton Koppany, Laurence Lane, Richard Long, Tony Lopez, Darren Marsh, Simon Patterson, Tom Phillips, Sarah Sanders, Ron Silliman, Carolyn Thompson, Tony Trehy, Carol Watts, Lawrence Weiner and Richard Wentworth.


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