The Polycephalus

As I took her arm she stared through my face at the dark branches of the trees over my head. We held this pose for a moment, frozen in tango, before she blinked as if waking, and lead me up the stairs to her studio. “Captain? Love the title, so nice to tell people!!”

This was the first time I’d visited. An old warehouse with a floor of ceramic tiles the colour of caramelised sugar. As soon as I entered I was struck by how cold it was. Whilst she was making tea in the kitchenette I look around at the notes, photographs and paintings that covered the walls. I didn’t know what had been done for us and what was her own artwork. She was an artist before we recruited her to spy for us and still is now I imagine. I haven’t seen her since our run of meetings ended.

The information on the walls was arranged so densely it was difficult to see individual items, it was a mess of symbols and images, of photographs, notes and paintings. There were representations of everything; a greasy pillow, Nordic House, a haircut, there were flying things to disrupt surveillance, lamplighters, scalphunters, shoemakers, parts of bodies pinned together with stumps jutting out, a croissant, markings that formed a kind of grate. Dissemblance and figuration, gigantic floating franken-symbols, small icons, the votive, the iconoclastic, politics, botany, the aquatic, hobbies, male pattern baldness, growing plants, a vessel of some kind, a stomach swilling and churning, paintings gone bad, a painting going well, a lone shoe in the street, a monster, a knight, an angel, mutterings and anti-mandalas, a waterfall.

Scrawled high on one wall was the phrase ‘RABBIT HUTCH GRAB.’

There were only a couple of windows, small and out of the way. The light came instead from the large skylights overhead, which whenever I was there, showed a sky the rich cobalt blue of twilight, as I always visited at the same time.

She entered, passing me a cup of black tea. As she blew the steam off the cup she was holding she flicked her head toward the large painting I was standing in front of.

“I often think that the first painting done in a new studio is sort of an outlier, it often doesn’t fit into either the work that you did in the old studio, or the work that you do in the new one. And maybe you don’t show it, but you like it, so you keep it. The paintings that you keep tend to be these outliers that don’t feel related to the rest of your work.”

I only knew her by her cover name; The Polycephalus, so called as she had run so many operatives for us, though by the time of our meeting it was down to just six. Most of them were also artists, or others of that kind, people who made time to drift and mooch, to observe.

She collected material for us in a manner of forms, from her own assignments and those of her agents. There were photographs, texts, recordings, both written and spoken, coded dispatches for us to unravel. And there were her paintings. These were memories of things she had witnessed, and of things she had imagined from what she had been told by the lovers she had taken; government functionaries who had whispered sweet secrets and state nothings, her head resting in the crook of their arm, visualising these occurrences that she would then paint.

She used to report to Oblomov who told me how she had described these trysts; that afterwards she would sit on the edge of the bed trying to fix the image that she was going to paint for us. Trying to force this objectless image into her brain matter.

We set up regular meetings for debriefing, I was supposed to know everything she knew within the six weeks we had scheduled, but obviously that was impossible. I spent hours in that studio staring at a wall, things constantly being playing out in my mind, conversations, the fictional, the real, over and over, and over again. My hope was to piece together this irregular pattern of extremely impulsive thoughts into a trail we could follow. But the chain that I was left with was one of constant erasure and by the time I arrived at end, the links had been completely forgotten. I often wonder how I would have benefited had those missing trails remained. So as to work quicker I started to take down short notes in quick succession or memorise one or two keywords that I would then later expand and elaborate on. I look back at my notes and find that I wrote vaguely and obscurely, had kept the relationship between the truth and fiction translucent.

I have to admit that, at first, I was reluctant to believe in the worth of her work, and challenged her,

“So, can we trust these paintings? Are they accurately depicting what you were told? Or what you experienced?” “I’m not saying that painting records. I never have.”

“Okay, well can you tell me more, I am interested in how you see these operating.”

“Painting as a way of expression or communication lies somewhere between spoken and written language. Painting is, in my case, both intuitive and analytical. Often in that order.”

“Painting is a way of expressing or communicating lies?”

“Yes, I think the painting is not of the moment while being inextricably inter-weaved with that moment, that conversation, that conflict; it acts as a catalyst, as an impulse for the act of making.

The possibilities among these marks or words or images are important, things which have no relation to their natural order suddenly pacify in each stain, drip, blob, and smear. They appear to congeal, and thoughts become etched into a moment, or more precisely, a habit. And in turn, through the contemplation of this surface, each idea, word or moment running through my head, has space to intensify, making it conceivable to take control.”

I looked at her blankly, ‘gone out’ as people say in my home town,

“Let me try to explain myself: One could easily consider that the gaze upon a painting and reading a text could be seen as an act that are closely related. I understand that, but I often think of it differently; one doesn’t really read a painting but just take it in. I’m quite sure I don’t even use any words within my internal conversation about this experience. The words only happen if I have to address the experience through conversation with someone else. So, these paintings address the gestalt of the experiences and should be read as such.”

Though I would prod her with question, I was often silent, taking notes whilst she talked. I would move around her studio sometimes, examining things; continually trying to work out which notes pertained to her art and which to her work, or vice versa. On that first visit I picked a notebook from a pile on a table.

“Do you keep a journal? Notebooks make a fool of me continually,” she said, barking with laughter as she spoke.

I saw that the mixture was too dense, her observations were so thoroughly intermingled with thoughts about her paintings that I had to change tact. Whereas before I tried to keep her on track, to divulge what she had been told in the line of our work, I realised the only way to continue was to make her think about it as a painter, I tried to coerce the knowledge out of her by talking about painting;

“Okay yes, I can imagine that this is true; that we look at paintings without words in our heads. So, there is a loss of memory between writing something down and then making a painting of it? And notes are lost as they are painted? and you talk about finding a space / place for them. It made me think that you are painting in these gaps? In these losses of memory, in these spaces. Is this where painting exists? In this lacuna? I mean between the start of the painting and the completed object.”

“Painting is a murky business, a bit of mess, slipping and sliding, it all gets heaved into the pot. And you are working with wet dust, slabbering something rich and lively onto something old and dead. And yes, it’s obviously also a way of thinking. My favourite way of doing so, I guess and my favourite painters think, spit, speak, stutter, slur in their own sort of painterly idiolect.”

Sometimes we’d play back the recordings one of her agents, Justine, had made in the Arts’ Club. We knew it was used as a meeting place for a number of interested analogue parties.

A cluster or cloud, in which case maybe we’d need more…and then a cephalopod, an edgeless, light, nimble thing malleable to its mood... I’m not yet sure if I can make it to Italy, though I’m very into the idea of going… Yes. I have a big mostly black one I really like, but it’s a weirdo too… I’m not sure where I will be in January...warmest wishes from Rome...

She would help me decode these tracks of non-sequiturs, listened to with eyes clamped shut and nodding.

“All these words have potency when they swim near a painting.

I’ve transcribed a couple of things. I do switch languages in the notes and will put the English translation in brackets. But I tend to use English language when I think about work. I’m not sure why that is, but we could try to analyse it. There are languages that I feel comfortable using, but I do not necessarily ‘get them’.”

She wiped her mouth, and looked around before continuing,

“Thinking about it, there are so far two ways of handling writing for me. One is the writing that I do myself as a follow-up to either experiences or something I’ve observed happening; I take very short notes and lists, at times just naming a space, place or event. I use them. Some experiences seem to involve more than observation, and the body becomes the tool and support.”

“It sounds almost... primal.”

She ignored me, “With the body and the written down words I have a possibility to remember something. At the same time,”

I interrupted her,

“How do we know that you won’t forget this thing and end up making a painting, not a painting of a memory, reaching beyond what you know about the situation?”

“It’s the trouble of experiencing an idea or thought in the shape words take. I find ideas quite disturbing, I don’t know how to paint them, yet they seem necessary to get to paint. I experience, or maybe I think about, the process as a multilayered one, of back and forth translation and the joy of getting lost and present in that space. You kind of get washed over with the things that are surrounding you, they and you are picked up by the tide of circumstance and that is the painting.

Recently I have experienced a direct connection between encounters and images – to the point that, the physically felt event, is pierced with a clear ideation of a painting. I have felt a range of charged, complex responses; unease, disgust, distress, arousal, and these feelings can reverberate over time, changing and even distancing themselves from the actual encounter so I am only left with the pliant memory of the emotion. And though most of them didn’t actually turn into a painting they sure fed into the work.”

“Which work? Your work for us or your artwork?” She ignored me again.

But this is not the end for the cursed rare objects and swinging albatross.. singed and greasy...this leader must be killed...making contact with some new space age material...and you do kill it…. walking back a few steps to see what has happened…. they follow the eel..

Sometimes I lost myself so completely in our conversations that when I read back through my notes that I am not sure which one of us is speaking.

“It’s hard to explain specifically but there are feelings here, undercurrents. I get a sense of things?”

“What kind of things?”

“Things between the written and the spoken,”

“I think I understand what you mean. I like what you say about it being between spoken and written language, like a third form, but one that we can’t talk about using, the same language with which we might compare the spoken or written language, how grammar is different in those two forms.”

“This is exactly what I mean sometimes we think in words, in stories, even in storylines. And I think that the word line might be an important one here: different lines of thought, but filtered and brought together in our heads. Well, mostly I can only speak for myself here. One line for words, another one for these other elements that you speak of, images, sounds, smell and so on... They will run simultaneously, but can be edited individually.”

“Maybe painting is more within life.”

“I do believe that painting is within life, the act of painting, that is. Looking at it too, but that’s actually closer to writing or even reading.” “Hold that thought.”

“It’s complete nonsense, I know.”

“I’ve done nothing quickly to be honest.”

They are an antidote...flying papers...they are leftovers...a simpler sensation...they loop...buttons...invocations...sigils...loaded...the supernatural...the visible

In one session we read the notes of one of her operatives, Angelico, the ciphers our enemies were using and his attempts to decode them:

Sink Friendship


Children’s Section

Around the Lake Exit

Hot Foggy Mess


shout / street / supermarket / bike  

Horns and Claws and Cloak

She looked at me as we came to the end of this list,

“This is one of the beautiful things about reading, and the potential to make paintings about writing– the endless intricacies of language make interpretations intimate and personal and we take a sensation, a sliver and make something from it that is intuitive and one’s own.”

“Do you try and paint the way that books make you feel?”

“I experience the same undulating movement when painting as when I am reading; a muted gradual development of a plot versus the sharp turn of events is like digesting the appearance of a painting while waiting for the paint to dry versus a quick brush stroke that spontaneously formulates a shape on a canvas.

There are slight fundamental differences though; reading is about unfolding and re-living the moment, whereas painting is about creating the moment and responding to it at the same time. A constellation that sort of bleeds into one another enough, with every painting a stepping stone to the next, just far enough away not to repeat but close enough to make the step.

But the hand will always be slower than the mind. When I paint about writing, which is roughly every time I paint, I search for what we could call graphical solutions for words. How can I tell you the way that person felt when they told me what they did?”

Cave dripping

Flat Bread


End of World

Stones / Slope

Docile Zombie Scouts dipping / dunking

hand on chest

Estate Agent Sex Slippers

And, of course, she had made copious notes herself.

“Words belong to something else, I borrow them to write. Words come from the same place as hands come from. They press and hack, like tools, always short, sharp movements. I write in stunted lines, and join them up. Words, writing, fiction, they are built by one another, like verse, chapter, book. I cannot see them in any other way, they all break down to the same value as material.

And they must be physical materials which I can dilute into feelings. There are words that belong to me and there are all the other words.”

The smell of a Gold pen...The first one I’d have to ask for, I don’t have it around any more...borrow from other ambivalent relationship to repetition...reach for other systems that are somewhat also endogenous...which is hilarious

Sometimes I would imagine that actually I was painting a portrait of her, chimeric and transcendent. It would give me the opportunity to handle her story with a softer grip, to think about her hallucinations and satirical humour with lightness, nodding toward her without the pressure of embodying her, of transcribing her for my employers.

I imagined her as a Polycephalus, the six heads swooping and circling in front of me, in constant search for equilibrium, like a cloud of starlings flocking in flight, ducking and weaving, like the tendrils of a sea anemone wriggling in the current. Sometimes I’d imagined these heads masked, arguing with one another, about painting, about writing, about spying.

Big Head Little Face..grabbing and snapping, savagely timed and viciously quick....I really like them, I’d like something with their flying never drink from the perimeter…innumerable and elastic..sensation and reflection...pinching the skin of the rabbit for control...attached to the temples of moving information...a huge chunk of head in an appendix

“How aware are you of what you are doing when working?”

“As I work I try to observe and document the steps I take in the work itself and in a notebook, it is an intuitive and simple process. I’m not cutting out the fun and I plan much more than usual, but do it as I go along. I find methods / signs to know what is what that I can read and track back the steps I took, as there are many similarities going on. I feel a little weird about it and besides enjoying it I keep asking why I am doing this.

The letters and letters I posted are part of it and the big fleshy canvas as well. I’m not even sure what that is, but it is a spreading of words and phrases and an attempt to find an appropriate space for them, not a system, but a place of belonging.

I find that in fiction you can change things so quickly, you don’t have to justify as much. It’s written down somewhere.”

“This fictionalising of lives; is this what painting does, is this why we like it?”

“Sorry, I’ve not been listening to you. I’ve been captivated by myself, by not being able to figure out if my paintings tell a story or not.”

“What has happened to your operatives?”

“Your operatives, you mean,”

I didn’t respond to this so she continued, but angrier

“Flatly, they are the ignored, forgotten, blown into the silvery metallic night-time abyss that the grubby studio floor occupies in the day. They slip and wiggle into the shimmering mercury underworld where they wait for you to invoke them. You never renew them, they just keep, unquestioned and unnoticed, predestined to become displaced, tied up, and to mingle with everything else.”

I changed the subject, used her speech to question her about the studio which I had become increasingly fascinated by, saw it as fundamental to our work. I rolled my finger in a circle as I asked,

“What about this space?”

“The studio collects habits, so do paintings. They are steeped in them. Habits for me are what bonds painting and words, and words and painting; it’s a reciprocal thing for sure. And painting is just a part, or sub-section of thinking, a kind of ‘plug-in’, or tributary that runs alongside a larger river.

I hardly ever sit on the edge of beds any more, yet I do sit (and lie) on my studio floor for hours. I’ve exchanged the location but not the activity. This is why the studio is so important to me, it is a place that holds a concern for all those other lives, places, types of violence, sadness, and fulfilment.”

Pacified, she then asked me a question;

“I’d like to read your notes; what you write is very relevant to me, how you are forming the correlation between conversation, fiction & painting will provide really rich ground,”

“Maybe,” I answered, uncertain now in her presence.

But the last time I saw her I asked her if I could have one of her works and we swapped a copy of my notes for a painting she had done of the night water.


Though I am listed as the sole author of The Polycephalus, it would be more accurately described as a collective piece of writing as it came from months of interviews with five other artists; namely Christiane Bergelt, Olarn Chiaravanont, Rasmus Nilausen, Catherine Parsonage and Ross Taylor, on the subject of writing and painting. Some of their responses have been pasted more or less verbatim into this narrative so it is no exaggeration to say that without them this narrative wouldn’t exist, and my role has been as much editor as storyteller.

Michael Lawton