Shifting was published in Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture Issue 43 - Spring 2018. You can download Antennae to read the whole issue or read my text below.
This book is intended for all those who feel in need of some orientation in a strange and fascinating field. It may serve to show newcomers the lie of the land without confusing them with details; to enable them to bring some order to the wealth of names, periods, styles and traditions which crowd the pages of more ambitious works, and so equip them for consulting more specialised books in the future.
It rained the day we moved here, and almost everyday since. We took the train, while our belongings went separately, couriered with the case files. It was a long journey, unnerving being the only ones in the carriage, rocked gently between the boggy-green hills. We spent most of the journey in silence, staring out at the rooks marshalling on the pitheads, glimpsed through the mists and sheeting rain.
I concentrated on a guidebook to the region that I had picked out of one of the boxes before the courier had collected them, prepared for the audit we were to conduct. It wasn't a typical guidebook, perhaps put there as a joke on the part of our colleagues; this is why I'd picked it out, and the writing style was eccentric, written by a resident of the region, in an almost polemical style.
I should hate to be responsible for any similar misunderstandings. I would rather not be believed at all than be believed in such an uncritical way.
Neither of us had visited the region we were travelling to before, it wasn't known as a tourist destination, not least because the weather was so bad. Tucked into the Northwest of the country it had devolved governance, was ruled as an aristocracy by those known within the region as The Founding Families, or Families. Merchants who had declared themselves different from the rest of the country and whose access to natural resources meant their provocations were tolerated and a quasi-independence granted after a long-ago rebellion.
All this had gradually changed towards the end of the Middle Ages, when the cities with their burghers and merchants became increasingly more important than the castles of the barons and the merchants became increasingly more important than the castles of the barons. The merchants spoke their native tongue and stood together against any foreign competitor or intruder.
This was the second residential audit Lydia and I had been on together, the first was when we became a couple; something that was typical in our line of work. She was reading a more contemporary summary of the region, political life there was currently marked by regular trials for corruption; people were starting to tire of the Families and accusations of corruption were levelled against them all. Blame had been shifted to one family and an audit into their accounts had been demanded which was to be our responsibility. It wasn't rare to find our audits newsworthy.
Occasionally we would break the silence of our journey to read aloud from our sources, I would adopt funny voices to add melodrama and make Lydia laugh.
I feel the need to emphasize once more that this book is intended to be enjoyed as a story. To be sure, the story now continues beyond the point at which I left it in the first edition, but even these added episodes can only be fully understood in the light of what has gone before. I still hope for readers who would like to be told from the very beginning how it all happened.
Our possessions and casework arrived not long after us, accompanied by our contact within the Family, a man called Ernest. He was also our host, as we were staying on their land. The accommodation was a converted folly in the estate of the large manor house that was the home of the Family. The folly had been built centuries ago to look like an observatory with the requisite domed roof, but it offered no opportunity for stargazing. I imagine it was an attempt to at least look like the Family were able to keep pace with the fashions of other Founding Families, I knew from my guidebook there were 16 observatories in the region. This space had long since been converted to living quarters.
“Gamekeeper used to live here actually when I was a boy,”
Ernest said as part of a conversation we had in the doorway.
We were about half a mile away from the Hall, but it was visible from the back bedroom. Our space was designated by a hedgerow, 100 years younger than the folly giving it a front and back garden, ringing our new home.
“You may be sharing the land soon I'm afraid,”
“With some statues,”
Ernest said handing me an official looking sheet of paper, I recognised the region's crest from our boxes of official papers. It read:
'Following the recent ruling by the court; ratified, supported and agreed with by the council it has been decided to move the statues, as in their current location they have consistently harboured evil spiritual forces, despite numerous warnings and exorcisms. Should the statues not relinquish their parasitic guests once in their new location they will not be moved again. Instead they will be destroyed; ground up to ensure they can no longer play the host.’
I looked up from the paper and back to Ernest, expecting some insight from him,
“They'll probably put them here,”
Ernest rolled his eyes, in a 'what can you expect?' manner.
“And they are haunted?” I said with a laugh,
“Oh yes I'm afraid so, but there's nothing I can do. Hands are tied, you know how it is,”
He nodded toward the interior of our new house, I took his gesture to encompass our position as auditors, before continuing with a chuckle,
“Could be worse though, we could be statues ourselves. Anyway, they are currently in the square, if you want to check out your new neighbours. Should be quite a crowd this evening, when they make it official,”
Ernest winked towards the edict I was still holding and then walked off with his hands in his jacket pockets. I went into the house to look for Lydia and tell her what Ernest had said.
With some self-discipline and self-observation, we can all find out for ourselves that what we call seeing is invariably coloured and shaped by our knowledge (or belief) of what we see.
We walked to the square in the evening. It was still raining, the ground was saturated, water wasn’t seeping into the roads but shimmering on top of them. We both had our hoods up. We could hear bells ringing in the distance; instinctively I looked at my watch but could see no correspondence between 19:25 and the repeated tolling, perhaps it was the prelude to the announcement. Lydia was in front of me, briskly sidestepping puddles, keen to get to there. The damp air smelt of smoke. There were a lot of people on the streets, pockets of steam where they were clustered like conspirators under the overhead lamps, the reflections of the lights were smeared down the streets. We turned a corner and onto the square.
There were people everywhere, applauding, chanting, cheering, screaming. Through the crowd we could see ten statues, sticking up like chimney stacks, the centre of everybody's attention. Somebody lit a flare and tossed it into the rectangular space delineated by the statues. They were lined up four wide and three deep but with a space in the centre; ten in total. The smoke and light of the flare forced us back into the arc of one of the buildings on the perimeter.
I wanted to look at them properly, tried to study them through eyes watering with the smoke. All ten were constructed to a similar design, were over fifteen-foot-tall cylinders carved from granite. For the first eight feet there were no sculpted markings though they were pitted with age. Then there were four busts, grotesques on top of one other as in a 'totem-pole.' Each face was about two-foot-high and had a line carved above and below it to delineate it from the head above and below, then a blank space on top, like a lid. All the statues’ ‘heads’ faced the same way and had been positioned so that they faced away from one another and onto the buildings that lined the square. There was something bewitching about their expressions. I took a step toward them but felt Lydia, who had linked arms with me, pull me back. I looked at her and she gave me a nervous smile.
We must not expect such sculptures to look as natural, graceful and light as classical works. They are all the more impressive because of their massive solemnity.The previously wild chanting regulated, and with an accompanying funereal beat stamped and clapped by the crowd cranes rolled into the square and toward the statues. Despite the aggressive atmosphere the statues were treated delicately; the chains of the crane were looped gently around a statue and padded with foam cushioning, the crane’s arm then swung in small circles until the chain was wrapped completely around the statue without any slack. The crane continued to make these small circles but now lifted as it did so.
“What are they doing?”
“It’s like they are going to unscrew it,”
Lydia was right, there was a heavy clunk as the statue was shifted from its moorings, the twisting continued, the four heads spinning, soon it was dangling off the ground and we could see the pin it had sat upon.
“Look at that, it’s like they’re designed to be moved around. I guess they never trusted them.”
Workmen guided it into a long bag that though it was made of a black fabric seemed to shimmer in the light. I squinted trying to ascertain what material the bag was made of but it was impossible. I wondered if it had some significance; was designed to prevent further haunting. We watched the rest of the statues being removed in silence. It felt important but neither Lydia nor I knew what to make of it.
At the other side of the square members of all the powerful Families were lined up on the steps of the town hall dressed in formal cloaks. Because of the unremitting weather they all had their cowls up and it occurred to me that this was maybe why the ritual dress was what it was, a practical consideration as well as ceremonial, though it did look sinister. Their outfits looked completely waterproof, I wondered if it was the same fabric as was housing the statues, which were now lain like kindling at the foot of the steps.
We do not know how art began any more than we know how language started.
A microphone was in front of the head of the council, distinguished by wearing the most vividly coloured coat; a magenta shocking in the grey night. He began reading from the sheet in his hands but I couldn’t understand him. At first, I thought it was feedback or maybe water in the machinery but then I realised it was dialect. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I gave Lydia an uneasy smile and kept watching, hoping it would be repeated in English. It was: The statues were to be our neighbours in a week's time. Lydia and I looked at each other and shrugged, while the townspeople cheered, I thought I saw Ernest slink away, an unreadable expression on his face.
There was no doubt something almost primitive and savage in some of its features, something which still linked an idol of this kind with the ancient superstitions against which the prophet Jeremiah had preached. But already these primitive ideas about gods as formidable demons who dwelt in the statues had ceased to be the main thing.
In the intermittent week, we read everything we could in the guidebook and online about the statues. Built not long after the region had been assured its compromised autonomy, they were totemic of independence. Acting as both memorial for those Families that had lost their lives in the struggle they were also symbolic of the fresh start the region was granted, the chance to take back control and do things for themselves.
They wanted to face the stark facts of our existence, and to express their compassion for the disinherited and the ugly. It became almost a point of honour with them to avoid anything which smelt of prettiness and polish, and to shock the ‘bourgeois’ out of his real or imagined complacency.
We did think about the audit a little, talked through how it might work, we tried to unpack though it was difficult. It is never easy, but the statues had made us feel more transient, though I don't remember us ever in fact speaking about the possibility of leaving. I felt a little sick with tension the whole time, we couldn't relax.
For the first and perhaps only time, an artist had succeeded in giving concrete tangible shape to the fears that had haunted the minds of man in the Middle Ages. It was an achievement which was perhaps only possible at this very moment, when the old ideas were still vigorous and yet the modern spirit had provided the artist with methods of representing what he saw.
Nevertheless, I also had three or four meetings with Ernest. That first week he would only meet me, Lydia he dealt with with a troubled and condescending wince. All these meetings took place in the manor’s old music room. There was a baby grand pushed against one of the walls, a table cloth thrown over it. At the other end of the room was a desk at which Ernest and I would sit looking for discrepancies in the accounts. Most of the time Ernest would just sit there staring into space and then say something inconsequential about his childhood.
“We used to call this the ‘faces room’.”
“As children I mean, because we could see faces in the wallpaper,”
The walls were lined with a heavy damask with ornate floral swirls decorating it. He stood up and drew imaginary lines around the shapes that he and his siblings had seen as faces, he was right; they looked like caricatures of expressions. He walked me around the room, making me stand in different positions to see how the light hit the walls at different angles, highlighting different hidden faces. I told him I agreed and he came over and clasped my shoulder.
“I feel we really see eye to eye now, great stuff.”
While I was with Ernest Lydia concentrated on the actual casework, sorting through all the files we had and deciding on our strategy. By the end of the week the house was starting to look a little more ordered. It was reaching a stage where the things that hadn’t been put away rankled because they stood out.
“Can’t we get rid of these boxes?”
Was a refrain repeated by both of us, referring to the fat bunch of flat-packed boxes that we wanted to put outside but daren’t as we knew the rain would quickly reduce them to claggy lumps. Instead we propped this structure in the corner of the kitchen and repeatedly knocked our toes against it until the edges shrank away from us.
I looked out again for some covered aspect for them, but every inch visible to me looked wet, bleary in dark sodden colours. I watched the rain falling sideways before going looking for Lydia and some comfort, in that weather it was hard not to want constant human contact.
The quarrying and transport of stone, the erection of suitable scaffolding, the employment of itinerant craftsmen, who brought tales from distant lands, all this was a real event in those far-off days.
At the end of the week we watched them erect the statues; it was an arduous process. They must have anticipated that it would take a long time as they brought floodlamps with them, which I assumed also meant that they were determined to be finished that day. They started at 6am, we were woken by the diggers crossing the grounds, but the Family were absent, confining themselves to the house. The statues were kept in their bags until the last possible moment.
New stands had been made for the statues, the newly forged metal was shiny even in that dull light. The first half of the day was spent digging out foundations for these new stands before the cement was poured in. Whilst the workmen were waiting for this to dry they rested and I thought I would talk to them, there was a huddle and a pair separated from the rest, I went to the two. I was determined not to sound arch but it was difficult; I couldn’t talk about supernatural occurrences without feeling like I was speaking in quotation marks.
“So how do you think the statues will react to their new home?”
“Well they’re already bringing their cloak,”
He swilled his mug in the direction of the fog that was settling around the grounds, I couldn’t see the Hall anymore and the trees around the estate were disintegrating into the mist, they were just grey brushstrokes to me.
“They’ll not do much harm here though, they won’t be worried about you incomers, and the Family’s carrying no weight,”
They had to switch the floodlamps on at 6pm, the rain danced in front of the vats of light, emphasising the blackness that swarmed around the rest of the estate.
There was an accident; I think a labourer slipped on the mud churned up by the diggers and constant rain. How was anything ever dug up here? Or maybe that was why it had to be done so quickly, to prevent the holes filling with water. I wasn’t outside when it happened, but we heard the scream, the curses hurled at the statues, and from the kitchen window could see the ambulance arrive before carrying off a weeping workman, its blue lights tacking a course between the trees on the estate.
Eventually they got them up; we heard them leave and could just make out the ten stone cylinders from the back bedroom, monolithic and brooding in the night.
But we must realise that each gain or progress in one direction entails a loss in another, and that this subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase.
As opposed to their arrangement in the square the statues were positioned so they were all facing inwards, towards one another. It made standing in the middle of the circle quite intimidating, but I did it the next day, on my way up to the Hall. I looked more carefully at the faces and realised that there was an order to them. There seemed to be a familial relation between some of them. I guessed that of the forty faces I could see, there were eight distinct groups, or families.
I wanted to ask Ernest about them but we were distracted by the accounts and he wanted to show me some photographs of a dog they’d had as children.
That night we were both woken by a scraping noise, loud and unholy, we turned to each other our eyes wide. It was an unwilling, shrieking sound. Though we didn’t speak I think Lydia, like me, thought straight away of the statues and we headed to the back bedroom to look at them. It was too black and foggy to see though, but it did seem to be the direction the noise was coming from.
“I think there’s a torch downstairs. You remember when we moved in there was that bunch of stuff under the sink?”
I realised quite how loud the sound was when I started talking. It was difficult to hear myself, difficult to think.
“Yes, but don’t go. I don’t think we should.”
I looked at Lydia, she looked worried, looking up at me with her head angled slightly downwards like she was concentrating, I noticed her fists were clenched. And she looked determined. I felt the hairs on my neck twitching. I didn’t want to worry her by going outside and there was something in that look on her face. We hugged and went back to bed. Sleep was impossible, we just lay there on our backs, our arms interlocked, staring at the ceiling, picking out shapes in the darkness, the whining grinding continued for an hour and I think I fell asleep about 30 minutes after that.
When I woke it was like coming out of a coma, like the fog outside had drifted into our house and into my mind, I couldn’t think. I looked at my clock, it was almost midday. I went to look out onto the statues but it was still too foggy to see them, though it did seem to have cleared a little. Lydia was stirring in the bedroom and shouting to her I got into the shower,
“God I can’t believe how long we’ve slept,”
As I got out, Lydia called to me from the back, her voice sounded tight. She was staring out of the back window.
I followed her gaze and gasped. The statues had appeared out of the mist. They had moved during the night. Or the heads had moved. Now all four of the heads on all of the ten statues were facing our house, all appeared to be looking at us.
Walking to the house I avoided looking back over my shoulder. Thoughts circled in my head: Though I knew the Family hadn’t any power, I couldn’t believe they were without influence, but could I believe the statues were haunted. I also wanted to talk to somebody else about it; somebody who could put it in context, but Ernest believed they were haunted. I began to wonder, despite myself, if it was by former Families.
Ernest wasn’t at the door but I thought I could hear the tinny notes of a piano that hadn’t been played for a long time. Ernest normally met me at the front door but once had waited for me in the music room, so I headed there. The music stopped and the house seemed quieter than normal, the kind of silence that seems to make plants twitch and the air felt damp. I felt myself getting tenser. I tried not to think about the statues. As I turned into the music room I couldn’t see Ernest. I looked instead at the wallpaper, tracing with my eyes the faces we had seen within it. I lingered on threshold but didn’t go in; there was a pervading sense of… evil, is the only way I can describe it, that rooted me to the spot. I managed to move my legs, they were stiff with adrenaline and I hurried out of the house, I wanted Lydia, she was stronger than me.
When I found her I relaxed a little. I was tired. I told her what happened, she listened and nodded and kissed me. It’s funny how this brought us closer together, the problems that we had in the city were gone, being trapped together because of the rain and then the statues, it felt like we’d never been closer.
I looked outside to see a woman talking to the statues. I went to talk to her, to try and find out more about them, but she ignored me and started instead shouting at the statues, haranguing them. She threw handfuls and handfuls of bird seed at them and seemingly instantly was joined by a murder of crows, that crowded around her and snaffled the seed. She left the birds there, atop the statues and all over the surrounding. I had never been so close to a large flock of birds, it was unnerving in the mist and rain.
The statues moved again during the night, sleep was impossible; I would close my eyes and picture their leering faces revolving, imagining what I couldn’t see. Lydia and I would lie closer and closer together, her head under my chin, her legs angled backward to allow mine to angle forward. We had begun to tessellate.
It is the sober truth that our feelings about things do colour the way in which we see them and, even more, the forms which we remember. Everyone must have experienced how different the same place may look when we are happy and when we are sad.
In the morning, all the birds were dead, lying like sods of earth on the grass. Lydia cried when she saw them. What do you do in that situation? I dug a grave big enough to fit them all in, sweating in the mizzle. We wore a gardening glove each and tossed the birds in, trying to do it as decorously as was possible. At first, I counted them as we threw them in but Lydia asked me to stop and I did. At that point, I had reached 20 and we weren’t halfway through.
As I covered them with the soil she whispered something under her breath, a prayer maybe, and went back inside. I hugged her when I got in and washed. Then we finished the unpacking; there was a sense of having to make the best of it, that we had to get through this, the statues were there but so were we. I put the flat-packed boxes outside, let the rain have them, I thought, let the statues have them I caught myself thinking.
All passages in bold taken from:
Gombrich, E. H. (1950) 2011 The Story of Art. 16th ed. (revised, expanded and redesigned) London: Phaidon Press Ltd.
Gombrich, E. H. (1950) 2011 The Story of Art. 16th ed. (revised, expanded and redesigned) London: Phaidon Press Ltd.