Without realising it, I think that I joined what Kurt Schwitters called The International Brotherhood of Object Builders in 1966. Having escaped really dire Wage Slavery (oh, blessed release!), I was then in the middle of being ‘trained’ as a teacher, concentrating on English Literature but contributing keenly to artistic ventures. In no way did it feel like I was being ‘trained’ – the whole experience resulted in my embracing the opportunity to be myself in my self and do my own thing for a complete change: when I started ‘work’ straight from school in January 1955 I had no idea that you could earn a living by doing something you enjoyed; nor could I have had the nous (νους) to imagine that there were people who did just that; however, when I left office drudgery for pedagogy I didn’t do so in order to get myself into something I thought I might enjoy but just to escape relative slavery and, I make no bones about it, to enjoy the long academic holidays. I think I was set up for this as a result of the paradoxical freedom I did enjoy while doing two years of so-called ‘National Service’ 1956/58. I’ve led a charmed life really what with thirty years of early retirement and all.
Now I have unwittingly returned to fulfilling the conditions of my self-elected membership of The International Brotherhood of Object Builders; thinking about essaying to define it, I opened the luscious Thames & Hudson Kurt Schwitters (John Elderfield 1985) at random and found this:-
Art, as Schwitters conceived it, served as an escape from everyday life into ‘contemplative self-absorption’. ‘Self-absorption in art,’ he wrote, ‘is like service to the divine [sic] in that it liberates from everyday cares… It makes us free from petty everyday things and raises us above ourselves and our passions…’
Though I’d replace ‘service to the divine’ with something like ‘service to something much bigger than my small self’, that’s exactly as it is for me! Schwitters’ self-engrossment
…immerses itself in the world only to retreat, then mould and alter it after [his] own private specification, one that represents all elements of the world as his own. Collage has often lent itself to an endeavour of this kind… Despite the broad inclusiveness of his understanding of art and despite the outward looking nature of his procedures, he was not extending art into everyday life but doing exactly the opposite: subordinating external reality to one of his own making…; he seeks… not to represent his subjectivity before the outside world but rather to contain it, secreting his own self-centred universe behind an artistic front.
I borrow Schwitters’ self-engrossment as an expression of what the art of collage has given to me! It’s not that many years since I realised that collage, sticking things together to see what happens as a result of juxtaposition, in relation to both writing, musical composition, teaching and artistic endeavours in general, was my natural way of doing things. A very productive one in terms of quantity if not quality, amalgamating dedication to the contrivance of objectivity with autobiographical references – ‘ficto-criticism’ I believe this has been called more recently.
Schwitters… was driven to submit to art’s discipline those very aspects of his work that held particularized, personal meaning. This is, of course, a part of all serious art, though it rarely expresses itself as directly as it did in Schwitters’ case, where the dichotomy between things personal and things aesthetic was emphasized by the very structure of his work – for assemblage, as he practised it, involved the inclusion of things personal within the context of an abstract, and therefore impersonal, medium.
I do not now recall the mental marmalade that resulted in the first construction I made sometime in 1966 but I suppose the driver was the birth of an awareness of Schwitters’ junk enthusiasm. The main structure is a bit of fence post left over from garden work 15 inches tall x 3 inches square.
The elegantly shaped top piece was all that remained of the Victorian dressing table that was in my bedroom in Worcester Park for the first 22 years of my life. There’s a lip of an old wooden shoehorn, bits of worn tree slivers, a bit of chestnut fencing and various off-cuts that were lying around my shed. I well remember the sheer joy of assembling the bits & pieces so they achieved an organic whole. ‘Organicity’ became my watchword in all areas of my life – the way things just happen, this then that….
When the neighbours saw the result of my brush with Kurt Schwitters I had a number of orders each of which I sold for 10/- old money (50p now) No photos but, no more than 6 inches tall and on a pedestal, they probably looked something like this little sketch.I must have seen something like the following examples of Schwitters’ work and been impressed by the idea of his inviting guests to his house to bring a bit of junk to be displayed on Merzbau niches that spiralled up through a hole in the ceiling into the room above.
There is a gap of over thirty years between my first contribution to the work of the Brotherhood of Object Builders and my next one – the cue for which was a need for the classy disposal of the parts of an old piano I had broken up to make way for an electric one which had the quality of a £10,000 grand piano in its chips, so they said.
The column which is cemented in the ground was made up of two railway sleepers acquired from a Garden Centre nailed together by the initial pieces of ‘junk’. It is over 6 feet tall.
During Jolly Plague Isolation in the summer of 2021, I built three more Junk Towers or Obelisks as I like to call them, the dimensions of each determined by various different factors. The first utilised an existing 4×4 inch pole, 76 inches tall already cemented in the ground of a wild area in the garden. I had drilled a number of holes in it hoping that mason bees would regard it as a hotel – they may take a fancy to it now it’s been Schwitterised.
I found several pieces of fretwork I’d done many years ago for some purpose or the other long forgotten; there are old rusty tins squashed under the wheels of road traffic, a rusty chainsaw chain, specially cut shapes and offcuts from various wood-workings.
The second summer obelisk was constructed out of similar bits & pieces in my workshop for a friend who lives a couple of miles away. So it would be manageable in a car trailer it was made on a hollow framework and was small enough to be constructed in a limited space, capable of being turned four times in order to be worked on each side. Final bits of junk were added once the whole structure on its pedestal was cemented in the ground.
Schwitters said that ‘…all art is based upon measurement & adjustment’ and that ‘…freedom is not lack of restraint but the product of strict artistic discipline’. Constructing obelisks entails continuous measuring and adjusting of pieces – ‘…choice, distribution, organisation, metamorphosis’, endless decisions about what to put where, what needs to be sawn with a jigsaw to fit wherever seems appropriate, what textures seem to reinforce or contrast with whatever is there already. Beyond the material there emerges what Schwitters quotes from Kandinsky: ‘a mystical inner construction’ relevant to all arts deriving from common evolving principles of assemblage. It’s very strange to consider the emergent properties from the process of writing a poem, contriving a piece of music, doing a bit of teaching, putting lines on paper and adding colour – mystical may well be, unfathomable certainly – way beyond the manifest crotchets, words, shapes, textures, random insertions and shapes designed for something else just dumped in to see what will happen. Jasper Johns said ‘…an object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects does not speak of itself – it tells of others…’ – the past brought into the present in some new disposition.
The shape & size of the third obelisk in the current series was determined by an overwhelming desire to use a piece of metal 14 inches by 32 that had obviously at some stage been the top of a coal or coke boiler; it had been lying around in my workshop looking forlorn & neglected for twenty years. Again, I constructed a hollow framework just outside my workshop and did most of the titivating there; the whole thing was conveyed to its final resting place on a flat bed trolley I made for transporting the new electronic piano on in the house.
With the late-added silver top-knot the obelisk stands on its four legs 46 inches tall on bricks. Before putting the roof on the structure I drove a heavy wooden stake in the space inside it into the ground together with two substantial metal stakes; these have rendered the obelisk solid, immovable.
Schwitters said that ‘…MERZ stands for freedom from all fetters’, the making of ‘…perfection & order in the ruins of the world’. The totally unfettered pessimistic optimist in me says that the planet is doomed and that all the recycling in the world will not save it; but I am more than happy to recycle the mess I’ve made to create a ‘…self-contained work of art referring to nothing outside of itself…’
I think it’s on to the next one now…