In Hackney

Iain Sinclair

London: chaos. The Isle of Harris: rock. Visual and auditory interference on all sides. You hear the radio even when it isn’t playing. The shocked and affronted voices. Our eyes are scratched by bad loops of illegitimate videotape. But the voice of the sculptor Steve Dilworth, who lives out there, between road and sea, might be coming from a chair on the other side of my Hackney room. He wants me to write something about his work. We leave a lot of white space in our conversation; we play safe by confirming narratives of earlier pieces – the strange devices and containers Dilworth makes to honour and assuage a fear of death. We stay in the comfort zone of a shared past.

Steve Dilworth, ‘Stone Container, Guillemot Boatman’

Dilworth’s sculptures don’t have Damien Hirst’s Barnum and Bailey confidence, their forensic nakedness and weird, poetic titles, their cod Victorian ambiguity (somewhere between tent-show and morally improving lecture). Unlike Hirst, Dilworth doesn’t make it his business to charm – as canny rascal, showman, country recluse. Dilworth really is post-metropolitan, self-banished, making a career out of not having a career. He drifted to the Hebrides with a roofing scam, putting up housing units. Which came to include his own. He stayed, and stayed. Years of taking a bucket across to the beach to scavenge for mussels. Like Hirst – and long before Hirst – Dilworth has been putting dead animals in caskets of his own devising. Herons, crows, a walrus, a cat. The complete necrophile taxonomy. But, unlike Hirst’s, his dead things are usually found by the artist, or brought in by neighbours. They lie around, some of them, in a rusty deep-freeze cabinet. For decades. Spare parts waiting for a brass-hinged box, or carved sarcophagus, to hold them. The titles of these pieces are penny plain: Stone Container, Guillemot Boatman (reproduced here), Cuckoo, Rocking Horse Skull, Seal Oil Stone, Hooded Crow. Lists of ingredients are given with each sculpture, lists that read like recipes: ‘guillemot, oak, rope, elm, silver coins’. At the right season, after the guillemot hunt, the house on the Isle of Harris stinks of oil: some of the birds in the pot and others in the studio. Everything that dies, family pet, roadkill, shark on the shore, becomes a technical problem for the sculptor. Discrete energies to be earthed and appeased.

Most of the time, Dilworth has the sense to avoid talking about his art, explaining it away. Which is why he was trying to persuade me to put up a smokescreen of casual verbiage. Artists shouldn’t dress their pitch. They should never give interviews, except as a game. The smart ones learn the tricks, the dodges. They ventriloquise themselves, offer defensive strategies. They develop a brand identity. They franchise small eccentricities. And the solemn quackers, the media scribes, buy it. If there is any prose deader in the mouth than the squirms and squeaks of visual artists trying to talk up a minor gallery manifestation (micro-Polaroid, doodle, sentimental confession), I haven’t come across it. Catalogue-speak employs a form of emotionally costive technobabble, mystification: under-punctuated and increasingly hysterical in its attempt to find a way out of an end-stopped labyrinth.

I know to my cost that Dilworth can’t and won’t gabble on demand. He won’t pretend that he knows what he’s doing. He won’t grunt and growl. A filmed interview, artist sitting (appropriately) in a dentist’s chair, fell apart. My questions got longer, more rambling and all-inclusive, as his answers withered into tight-lipped denials, oxygen-debt gasps. The crew were bored. The director suicidal. We retired to the kitchen table, which becomes a survival raft in the long Hebridean winters. There’s always something on the stove, a wet dog at the door, a whiff of formaldehyde seeping in from the cold studio. Locals start drinking, the ones who aren’t serious about it, with the one o’clock news.

Dilworth contacted me for the first time in May. He described an artwork he wanted to undertake, a ritual for the night before Midsummer’s eve. He was going to climb a mountain on the neighbouring Isle of Lewis and trap a phial of air.

This was interesting, as news of the what-are-you-up-to-these-days kind, but I wasn’t sure I could do anything with it. When writers are in the middle of a book, everything is there to be exploited. Everything. Every newspaper, every trip to the corner shop. Today (23 September) I see Mo Mowlam on the street, under an eiderdown of newsprint, trotting back down Queensbridge Road (chants of the faithful on the radio). We are the first and only people out and about in Hackney (apart from the car-sleepers and the tremblers in phone kiosks). Where does that fit? In her woolly headwarmer, thorn-proof jacket and trousers, she looks – if you ignore the alert blue eyes – like a bagperson who has got lucky. The clothes are actually clean and shop-bought from a proper place. File it. File the image. File Dilworth’s mountain-climbing episode. Could it be made to challenge the preordained structure of the book I was working on? Yes, I thought. What could be better for an account of a walk around the acoustic footprints of London’s orbital motorway, the M25, than a totally unexpected cutaway: the Midsummer ascent of a Hebridean mountain? I could picture the drama (I was already directing it): the stumbling and sliding in the dark, the struggles with awkward equipment (gas-burners, test-tubes, bottles of whisky). The dawn epiphany, the pay-off that justified this madness. Subtle light informing an alien landscape, where igneous and metamorphic rocks make a nonsense of our metropolitan frivolity (glaciers running out of puff on Finchley Road).

I saw the comedy. The humour of these rocks is savage. Hugh MacDiarmid, in his poems ‘On a Raised Beach’ and ‘Crystals like Blood’, showed the way discriminations of stone define place, define the mental landscape of elective exile. The conceit of MacDiarmid’s poems is to use geology as a source of wit, harsh rhetoric. Man, living here, is absurd. The islands are pre-human. Stanley Kubrick, flying low over the hills behind Dilworth’s house, found the ideal location for 2001: A Space Odyssey. For the surface of Jupiter.

MacDiarmid, in ‘Crystals like Blood’, touches on the experience that is Dilworth’s primary motivation: discovery, surprise, the shock of something found.

I picked up a broken chunk of bed-rock

And turned it this way and that,

It was heavier than one would have expected

From its size. One face was caked

With brown limestone. But the rest

Was a hard greenish-grey, quartz-like stone

Faintly dappled with darker shadows,

And in this quartz ran veins and beads

Of bright magenta.

Harris is wind-scoured. Tough grass scorched by salt. Sheep are mistaken for boulders and boulders for gods. The people who live on these ragged fringes cultivate argument as a way of warming the blood: if you do it, they’re against it. If you don’t, they’ll despise you. And remember the insult for generations without number.

Attempts to make a more public (i.e. sponsored) art have caused Dilworth considerable pain. He applied for millennial funds to cast a whale’s lower jaw in bronze. The villagers where the leviathan had come ashore took against the scheme. The arts administrator had the same name as the official who had denied them a new jetty. They knew perfectly well that there was no connection between the two men. It was of no consequence, names are like runes. Some curse and some are cursed. Far better to let the bone-arch rot to butter.

So Dilworth’s Midsummer party had a skewed aspect; the gravity of these northern stones affects balance. Incomers (a mere twenty years on Lewis) reel like Glaswegian drunks (away from the Clyde). I wasn’t there, of course: I was driving a series of motorway loops, turning a year’s walks into a one-day nightmare. All the elements were in meltdown: Victorian asylums as Legoland estates; the M25 muse, J.G. Ballard, in Shepperton; Dracula’s Purfleet abbey reinvented by Esso as the centre of another kind of distribution (oil for blood). I suspected that Dilworth’s project would bend away from the purity of the original vision. That’s what always happens when you rehearse the future too thoroughly. Narrative shies. Thus, I excused myself. Stayed where I was.

I was right. The June weather wasn’t bad for Harris; walkers didn’t slide backwards as soon as they set foot outside. They didn’t have to hang onto telegraph poles. Atlantic rain wasn’t horizontal. It didn’t cut like shrapnel. Altogether, a nice soft day. Too soft for the trip across the narrow neck of land to Lewis.

The sculptor led his party on the short stroll, up behind the house to a great, cottage-loaf boulder. One rock confidently balanced on another. A weather-rounded lump of resistant gneiss, a memento from our Palaeozoic yesterday. Photos were taken, videos shot. Dilworth is wearing a museum-quality tweed suit. In black and white its redness would be uninhibited: the suit is a statement of seriousness. Dilworth looks like Max von Sydow, a couple of ghouls short of an exorcism. He lifts his oversize test-tube like a lightning-conducting crucifix. Through the album of snapshots, Hebridean comedy is revived: the poses, the funny hats – a pastiched Alpine excursion from the period when scholarship belonged to demented amateurs. Ladies in long skirts, gents who climbed the Matterhorn in hairy suits (changed for dinner, read Shelley, smoked a cigar).

Beneath and beyond the recorded jape is: process. Customised phials, rounded at both ends (with vestigial vacuum bulb burnt off), are heated by a portable gas canister. Hebridean air is trapped. The maquette that will contain it is made from polystyrene, wood, plaster. A bronze is cast and polished. A smooth helmet-shape with a lovely patina. There are apertures through which the radiant air can be examined. The bronze becomes a visor, a device that is both ancient and early contemporary. View according to choice: Sellafield or Sutton Hoo.

Does the narrative behind the making of this object matter? Is the intention of the artist absolved at the moment the sculpture leaves his studio? Dilworth’s take on this is unfashionable: he works backwards, struggling for solutions that will save him from rage. Methods of wrapping death. Swaddling bands around stiff black raptors.

The piece he calls Heart of the Thief needs the legend that complements it. Dilworth robbed on a holiday in the sun, his response. The point where the shadow of the thief was cast on a Tobago beach yielded a handful of white sand. The occulted mark where a racing heart blocked out sunlight became the kernel of the sculptor’s revenge. He sealed this sand-heart in a tight corset of melted coins (worth far more than those he had lost). The finished work is a free-standing cage, a thicket of nails and thorns (like Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud, his needle figure for Greenwich’s Millennium Dome, cooked in blood). Dilworth has contrived his own voodoo to counter affront.

In another piece, Sacred Heart, the artist’s ‘explanation’ begins with a 13-inch nail. Dilworth was gifted, by one of those Hebridean afternoon callers who stand shyly in the porch, a bottle in each pocket, with a nail from one of the doors of Chartres Cathedral. The sculptor had always been intrigued by the epic solidity of church doors, black oak. He knew that they had been used for pegging out human skin (future books). Fat and grease (and terror) soaked into the grain of the wood.

Dilworth married his deformed nail (and others of similar provenance) with a smooth white limestone egg, found near the château of the Marquis de Sade. A hidden ox heart completed the work. In terms of literary reference, it was already too much: the metaphor tears itself apart. But the thing itself, the exhibited object, achieves a precarious balance.

Balance, standing against wind, perching on rocks: that’s where Dilworth operates. Between purposefully heretical gestures and a transcendent quietism. Between stitched pigskin mummies, eel-weavings, crows squashed between glass, and minimalist interventions, smoothed stones that suggest sails or waves. Metaphor or simile. ‘Respect’ is a word sculptors use; respect for materials, the handling of materials, place. Dilworth has that. The man squatting on the rock, frowning in concentration as he works his burner, capturing air, overrides the absurdity of his situation. With his hatchet-carved cheekbones, gunpowder eyebrows, he looks suitably Viking. You might take him for one of those jobbing Finnish centre-backs, a Premier League mercenary. He won’t let go, let the piece travel, until he’s ready.

Ownership of a Dilworth sculpture, however temporary, brings its problems. Years ago, I was given a whalebone box – on the understanding that it would be returned to the Hebrides. On foot. This thing, with lead casket and storm water inside, weighs as much as a small safe. I’ve brought it back twice, by car. Had it refused. The yellowing object sits near my desk as a permanent challenge, like the Pandora’s box opened at the end of the Robert Aldrich film Kiss Me Deadly. A casket that contains the sound of apocalypse, blinding enlightenment, hurt. Dilworth’s boxes fold death in a tender embrace: we have only his word for the rituals that have been observed. And he’s not telling. There is a pebble in the mouth, coins on the eyes. In these remote places, the only poetry is process. And weather. And stone.