Sunday, 20 September 2009





It somehow doesn’t seem like a coincidence that I’m writing this brief text only a very few days after the great city of New Orleans was drowned by Hurricane Katrina. The story of the disaster is not just a story about the force and cruelty of nature, and the way in which these can make a mockery of human intentions. It is also a story about human negligence and lack of care for the environment. This lack of care took a number of different forms. Katrina was born over the Atlantic Ocean – whose temperature appears to be rising because of global warming. Recent research indicates that the intensity of hurricanes – both the wind speeds and their duration – seems to have risen by as much as 70 per cent in the course of the past 30 years. As is well-established, this rise in temperature is produced by our reckless use of fossil fuels and the emissions that produce. New Orleans itself, because of its unique geography, placed below sea-level between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchatrain, and its neglect of some of its defences, was widely seen by experts as a catastrophe waiting to happen. – what took place at the end of August 2005 was predicted in some detail in an article by Mark Fiscgetti, published in ‘Scientific American’ in 2001. He was not the only prophet of doom.


At first sight, all of this seems to stand at some distance from the Hydrolibros – art-objects produced by the ecological artist and activist Basia Ireland. However, the separation is far less great than one might suppose at first. Basia’s books are on some occasions ruined books – like the discarded library books she found dumped in a gorge near Taos and which she then preserved with beeswax, wire and cord. There will be many brothers and sisters of these in the mud of New Orleans today. Indeed, the city itself can now be seen, without stretching the metaphor too far, as a human text that has been ruined, at least in part, by the action of water. Basia, however, sees the whole process as being also one of cyclical transformation – trees become paper, paper being turned into books, books dumped outside to return to their origins in the earth.


What the Hydrolibros propose is a different sort of reading, symbolic rather than actual. The texts of her books are often fragments gathered from the environment, bits of turtle shell, for instance. She coats the surface of a particular book [a hand-carved wooden shape resembling a book] with earth and small pieces of detritus taken from a particular site.


Basia’s books resist reading, just as much as they seem to invite it. They remind me of certain items from the remote past that bear inscriptions in dead languages – for instance the Rosetta Stone, with an inscription in three scripts – Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and Greek – or the Cyrus Cylinder, inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia [559-530 b.c.] of his conquest of Babylon and capture of its last king, Nabonidus.


The Rosetta Stone is now revered because it made possible the decipherment of the hitherto impenetrable script of the Ancient Egyptians. The Cyrus Cylinder achieved fame for a different reason. In the text Cyrus describes how he arranged to return to their original homelands peoples who had been held captive in Babylonia by the Babylonian regime that Cyrus overthrew. Among these, though they are not mentioned by name, were the Jews who had been deported from Palestine by Nebuchadnezzar II. This verifying link with events recorded in the Old Testament has been a source of lasting fascination.


Yet another case is supplied by the tablets written in a script called Linear B, which were discovered at Knossos and later, on the Greek mainland, at Pylos. After a number of falso starts these were eventually deciphered as being in a very archaic form of Greek. Though the actual content of the tablets was mundane enough, the discovery revolutionized perceptions of the earliest phases of Greek history.


These examples from the past are cases where what was written had become obscure through the action of time. In each case the symbols found in the documents I have described proved to have absolutely specific meanings. This is clearly not the case with Basia’s books, where her script-like markings do not have meanings that can be related to each sign. That is, her objects are cryptic, but cryptic in an entirely different sense from the archaeological relics I have been describing.


In a sense, her book-objects therefore symbolize the closed quality of the natural environment, just as much as they symbolize the more traditional idea of nature as a book that humanity is invited to read and learn from.


A useful parallel here is the story of the Sibyline Books, offered by the Cumaean Sibyl to Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome. There were nine books, and the Sibyl demanded an exorbitant price for them. When the king declined, she burned three, and offered the remaining six for the same price. She then burned three more and repeated her offer for a second time, still without lowering the price. At which point the king accepted. The three remaining books were preserved in a vault under the Capitoline temple of Jupiter in Rome, until they were destroyed by the barbarian general [and Roman patrician] Flavius Stilicho, who believed them to be contrary to the doctrines of his own Arian version of Christianity.


In the Sibylline story, knowledge of the world is at first precious, fragmentary and resistant to easy interpretation, then at last is high-handedly destroyed. For me at least Basia’s books speak eloquently of this kind of situation, which recurs so often in the history of mankind.






This site was last updated 20-09-2009