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In the lead up to COP26, we are dedicating our global art and culture platform to a month-long public investigation of the urgent question ‘WHERE DO WE GO FROM NOW?’, featuring key responses from artists, writers, thinkers and various cultural leaders. The project harnesses today’s global moment of unpredictable flux to propose routes toward more inclusive, more creative and fairer societies, placing a focus on the shared “now” of this unique post-crisis moment, rather than the divided “here” of our individual circumstances.

Find out about today's artist response to the question ‘WHERE DO WE GO FROM NOW?’ below.

Rings in Ropes of Snow
By Adam Heardman

I’d like to tell you how I first came across the lines of poetry reproduced below. It was in the departure hall of Basel Mulhouse Freiburg airport, an early-evening which was warm for the time of year, beneath a strange, skeletal sculpture made of pulleys and wires. The temperature had me thinking about the recurrence of the phrase “unseasonably warm” in recent American novels, and also the increasingly common appearance of the word ‘snow’ in contemporary poems, as though writers were substituting their words for the receding floes and disappearing flakes of the real world, an affectation which had begun, the more I noticed it, to seem more like an act of replacement than one of warning or even commemoration. I was drinking another cold beer from a frosted glass, which cooled, sharply, my palm.

The airport sits at the three-way meeting point of the French, German, and Swiss borders, in the once violently-contested Alsace. This confluence of geography and history, added to every airport’s timeless atmosphere of ‘before-ness’, made me feel like I was poised in a moment of slingshot tension, soon to be flung into whatever-comes-next. Logically, I knew, my destination was London Gatwick, then on to Glasgow (the city of my birth) by train, via Edinburgh, and I happily anticipated the coastal beauty of the London North Eastern Railway line as it gleamed past Lindisfarne, Berwick, and those strange, stilled villages clustered around the craggy mouth of the Tweed.

But, being slightly drunk and allowing my mind to actively free-associate, I found the decided geometry of my journey dissolving into the evening, and began to feel the immediate future unravelling itself, becoming a nebulous, unmapped territory.

Where I’d just come from was more certain. I was at the end of a stay in the small town of Ornans, where the painter Courbet was born, and which he immortalised in his vast group portrait, The Burial at Ornans. As I looked out of the departure lounge’s enormous glass front, seeing first the sketchy crenellations of the pre-Alpine horizon, then scanning downwards onto a midground of beetling airport vehicles silently traversing the tarmac, I thought of that painting again.

Courbet painted his largest work in a cramped Ornans studio, unable at any point to step back from the surface (as he complained in a letter to his friend, Champfleury). Critics cite this fact when disparaging the picture’s weirdly flat perspective, but I prefer to imagine the landscape approaching, even embracing, the mourners (whose faces are all modelled on real-life Ornans residents) as they bury one of their own. The scene depicted, most accounts agree, is the funeral of Courbet’s beloved grandfather, Monsieur Oudot.

At the extreme left of the frame, a man who is seemingly about to exit the scene looks back over his shoulder, along the line of the coffin, and into the blank grave. His face bears a haunting resemblance to the 1847 drawing, Portrait of Oudot, the Artist’s Grandfather, which I saw in the Courbet museum at Ornans. We realise, with a shiver, that this figure is a ghostly attendant at his own funeral, saying one more farewell before stepping out of the frame into whatever comes next.

With the evening advancing upon me, and my increasingly drunken reflections turning to our own contemporary moment of crisis, I started to feel a by-now-familiar sensation of being attendant, myself, on something like ‘our’ burial, a sense that we’re living in a distended form of aftermath, amidst unavoidable tragedy. In a mood of slow panic, I reached for my phone to look up Courbet’s painting with the idea of searching M. Oudot’s face for some kind of guidance or solidarity. As I did so, I fumbled the device, and it dropped towards the floor.

During the time it took my phone to fall to the dark tiles of the departure lounge, I suddenly thought of the famous triptych of photographs showing Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn. In my memory of it, Ai looks directly at the viewer, into the lens of the camera, throughout the act, meaning that he didn’t see the priceless vase smash in real-time. Perhaps nobody did. Not only does he destroy a piece of Imperial history, he refuses even to pay respects to its departure. Just as the urn itself is only given value by our collective agreement of its worth, so the eye-contact between Ai and any viewer of the photograph continually redefines the present moment, in which we appreciate the cool philosophy of the iconoclastic act, as forever more valuable than the material object.

It helps us remember that the value of any work of art relies not only on a perceiving consciousness which observes it, but absolutely billions of interconnected consciousnesses, including those departed and those yet to come, within which network its ideas can resonate. The true medium of all art is, therefore, every past, present, and future person, together, as a collective. Us. Without this resonant medium of selves, art has absolutely no meaning. The most finely-crafted sculpture in a vacuum is but a lump of rubble. And, indeed, if certain versions of the universe’s infinitude are to be believed, there already exists, out in space, an exact and meaningless duplicate of Michelangelo’s Pieta, hurtling from inconceivable nothingness into inconceivable nothingness again.

These thoughts passed in a moment, but left an impression which faintly coloured what happened next, which was that I picked my phone up to find a notification of a new email. It was from a dear friend with whom I’ve now lost touch, but at that time was in the habit of sending me things they thought I’d find interesting. In this case, the body of the email included the poem mentioned above. Whether by sheer chance, or because of the skill of the poet, the lines seemed to resonate with particular power in my circumstance, in a limbo of waiting before an uncertain future, musing on endings when poised at a beginning. As I read them, things seemed to brighten. In fact, the sinking sun’s lowering angle with reference to the departure hall’s glass wall actually did allow a more intense light into the room with each passing minute, which began to make the evening feel less like the onset of night and more like a gathering luminescence. To try and capture something of the feeling of the moment, I screenshotted the email immediately.

My friend assured me they’d copy-and-pasted the lines from another source, but never mentioned the poet’s name before the vicissitudes of life came between us, probably forever. I’ve never yet been able to discover their provenance, but certain stylistic flourishes led me to suspect that it was actually my friend who’d written them. I reproduce the lines below, years later, without permission, in the hope they communicate something of the feeling I experienced that day in the airport – a sense of an individual’s importance even within vast collectives, and of a light beginning to gather before the dark. If any readers know them, please get in touch. You can find me online. If I’m correct in suspecting that the lines are, in fact, the work of my long-lost friend’s hand, and I’m therefore violating their right to authorial accreditation, let me be the first to encourage them, please, to reach out.

Adam Heardman is a writer and poet from Newcastle upon Tyne. He does reviews and features on art and all that for Art Monthly and have written for Frieze, Tribune, The Independent, and more. His poems have been featured in PN Review, Belleville Park Pages, eyot and elsewhere, and have been included in gallery shows at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Berwick Visual Arts.