My journey with the angel is a little hard to trace back. Like the road unfolding in front of you, it was a really just a matter of continuing to put one foot in front of the other. I’ve experienced this just a few times; when you have the sensation you’re not so much creating something as uncovering it.
Siegfried Sassoon said it about writing poetry in his poem Limitations, but I’ve always held on to it for things beyond that:
Yes: you can do it, once you get a start;
All that you want is waiting in your head,
For long ago you’ve learnt it off by heart.
I started developing this character of the angel in 2016, just after I’d moved to Berlin. I was training in my second year at collaborative, devised performance school LISPA, itself just moved from London.
I have to admit that I was finding it very hard to settle into Berlin. I was so glad to be free of London. After 30 years living there, I definitely wasn’t riding the wave anymore; I was coughing and spluttering in the foam and undercurrents. I was ready to leave.
But I wasn’t quite ready to land anywhere else.
Struggling to connect with where I was, avoiding contact with people and the city, I was just living in the bubble of the school and the work. When I rather abruptly had the feeling the angel wanted to go outside, to get out of the studio and feel the cobbled stones under her pointy feet. To meet people and see what happened.
So we did.
And it was brilliant.
Somehow I was able to connect with ease with Berlin and its people. I could play. I could dance with people in the street. I could look, I mean really look. Everything resonated, everything was bright and beautiful and exciting. She was a child in a playground, a bee in a field of flowers. It was like seeing for the first time.
Basically I just needed a huge, white angel costume with wings to feel more at home...
Then the research began in earnest.
Adam Zagajewski has been my poetic companion for many years; I’d met his work in 2006 and he’d always popped up at particularly poetic moments. Try to Praise the Mutilated World circled around me a lot that first term of my LISPA second year, as the angel was born.
At one moment I realised that the angel’s way of experiencing the world was through praise.
I started to seek out praise poems, odes, blessings.
In his late forties, Pablo Neruda started writing an ode a week, in the end writing 225.
Oda a la casa abandonada
Oda al viejo poeta
Oda a la manzana
Oda al otoño
Oda al alambre de púa
Oda a las cosas rotas
Oda a una castaña en el suelo
Oda al cactus desplazado
Oda al ojo
Oda a la campana caída
Oda al día feliz
Oda a la esperanza
Oda al picaflor
Oda al limón
Oda a la luna
Oda a los calcetines
Oda al piano
Oda al camino
Oda a la sal
At one point I started to reach out to other artists, to open my hands on the project, to find a wonderful energy from the encounter in between. There was Alix – who was the very first person I met when I moved to Berlin. Hugo, Angharad, Nerea, all of whom I met, somehow, through LISPA.
Coming back from a summer of rehearsing outside Germany, organising the next step of the project, I started to sink into Berlin in a new way. For a period of about three weeks there were incredible rainstorms and thunderstorms nearly every evening. I cycled home in the late afternoon under red skies, patched with glowering black clouds. The building electricity got into my bloodstream. I started to really fall in love with the city.
I walked and cycled a lot. I connected up known places and discovered new ones. I revisited places and found that I could see my own memories and stories in the landscape: ghosts and visions of past encounters.
I got to know the city through others’ eyes, to know their places.
That’s when I really started to fall in love with it. When I realised what it meant to others.
We live in provoking times, when many of our encounters in public happen through a screen: we instinctively capture and post who and what we meet, or else we hide behind our phones and ignore or simply don’t really see the world.
The angel just wants to connect and play…
…and we’ve found it’s quite hard to ignore her. Through our earlier research we discovered she gives people the permission to connect and play. The angel reminds us of another possibility, another way of being, even for a moment: to be open to having a real encounter with another, which might even spill over into the rest of the day…
And we’ve found she also connects people in other ways. Through the project we’ve started to bring together a network of artists – visual artists, performers, poets, in Berlin & internationally – who come together to support the project and each other’s work. A community.
She opens the possibility of another way of seeing, not just ourselves, but also the city. She offers a way of, for a moment, sinking in, to begin, just begin to be of a place. I hand over to the inimitable Martin Shaw...
Well, I offer a retuning of intention, a slightly more sober directive – to be of a place, to labour under a related indebtedness to a stretch of earth that you have not claimed but which has claimed you.
To be of is to hunker down as a servant to the ruminations of the specific valley, little gritty vegetable patch, or swampy acre of abandoned field that has laid its breath on the back of your neck. Maybe it’s a thin crest of swaying weeds between broken-down sheds. As David Abram’s work reminds us, earth is air too; the myriad of wind tongues, the regal pummelling of the clouds – regardless of being in a city, hamlet, or tent on a Norfolk beach. Remember to look up.
To be of means to listen. To commit to being around. It’s participation, not as a conqueror, not in the spirit of devouring, but in the spirit of relatedness. I think this takes a great deal of practice. It doesn’t mean you never take a life, live on apples and peas, or forget that any stretch of earth holds menace and teeth just as it does the rippling buds of April. You learn from the grandeur of its menace as much as from the blessings.
To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. It means that, over the slow recess of time, you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form. That your curvature and dialectical brogue is hewn deep, wrought tough by the diligence of your service to the earthy tangle in which you find yourself.
To be of means talking, not about a place, but with a place – and that’s not a relationship available indiscriminately, wherever you travel, but something that may claim you once or twice in a lifetime. It means staying when you don’t feel like staying. Cracking the ice on the water butt, climbing into your mud-encrusted boots, and walking out into the freezing dark with a bale of hay. It has very little to do with how you feel, because guess what? Feelings change.
- Martin Shaw, Scatterlings